Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety:

From the Archaeal origins of life
to the pinnacle of evolution – a PhD

Some remarks made upon the award of the title Dr. to Dr. David Fournier

Considering the evolution of life on Earth, and the evolution of David Fournier in particular, aren’t you just smacked in the head by Haeckel’s famous principle, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”? Since that first twinkle in his father’s eye, well, actually since about four minutes after that first twinkle, David has passed through all the stages. He has made the transition from one-celled organism to undifferentiated clump of cells, worm, fish, tadpole, and rat, sometimes in the space of a single weekend. On another weekend David passed through the phases of Civil War reenactor, clownfish, and a member of the French Olympic curling team, but that’s another story. At every stage of his life, David has been curious. He was a curious tadpole. Among PhD students, he has a uniquely philosophical attitude; you can stop him on the street and discuss theories of the universe that turn out to be completely false, but are so elegantly constructed that it takes you a long time to figure that out. If you call David at three a.m. he will quote from the works of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, with footnotes.

Anyway, if evolution were a ladder, which it is not, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but if it were, David now stands at the summit. Along with other members of homo molecularbiologicus, and the even more highly developed member of its clade, homo bioinformaticus. The relationship between these species almost perfectly reflects that of Neandertals and modern humans. You may interpret that however you like.

After he passed through a pupal stage in school, David was squeezed by the French university system into a Wurst-like form, a saucisson, a sort of cocoon, sucking him in like a black hole in a box, although it is difficult to see how wormholes might fit into this analogy, unless it is a box of donuts. In any case, after many sleepless nights, David experienced some sort of cerebral event that made him run for ridiculously long distances, and if you stopped and offered him a ride, he’d say, “No, thank you very much.” Where I come from, you see a man running like that, he’s running away from something, but I didn’t see anybody behind him. Did David believe invisible people were chasing him? It’s not the kind of thing you can just come out and ask.

At some point David discovered the secret to success known to all graduate students: If you drink enough coffee, interspersed with a Red Bull every once in a while just for variety, the affinity between your conscious mind and body becomes very weak; they dissociate, and your mind drifts away. Your body becomes this robot that goes to work while your mind is sitting on a beach somewhere, sipping a margherita. Every once in a while a thought sort of floats into your consciousness. You say it out loud, and far away the robot body types it down and eventually you’ve collected enough strange and unrelated facts to make up a whole dissertation. You send the robot body to your thesis defense and it stands in front of your committee receiving signals from your mind, which is located on some remote planet. Every once in a while there’s a small interruption in the transmission and the robot suffers a blackout. You think aliens might be disrupting the signal. Or it might not be aliens. It could be other things, for example, coconut crabs. Somehow.

You remain in this dissociative state for three or four years before taking the next step of development and becoming a fully mature scientist with a PhD. Providing you don’t have any dangerous genetic defects, particularly monogenic traits like a cleft chin. If you do, you’ll develop along an alternative route. You may become an ice fisherman, or a garbage collector in Naples, or a person who carves butter into the shape of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.

But if everything goes normally, there you are, cruising down the hill in your doctoral cannister, becoming increasingly specialized, like a ball rolling down the Waddington model, except there’s nothing downhill at all about a PhD, it’s more like climbing up Mount Waddington, and free-climbing at that, without oxygen cannisters. Anyway, at some point a receptor on the surface of the container senses a molecule, probably a pheromone, and this triggers a massive epigenetic … well, let’s call it a process, I’m not a scientist, I don’t know the technical term for it. And I can’t say a lot more about it here, because it’s part of a massive secret international project called Systems Biology. This is so secret that even scientists don’t know what it really is. No one has the complete picture. It’s been split it up into little parts and each person is given just a little piece to work on. You feel like you’re some little part of a big network, and you’re not even a very interesting part, like a diode, or a RAM, or beta-catenin. We suspect it is a huge conspiracy. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.

This epigentic event comes right at the conclusion of your PhD and it’s like setting off some sort of developmental IED, a roadside bomb filled with shrapnel. The shrapnel are microRNAs. They fly around everywhere and derepress a pathway involving canonical Wnt signaling, or non-canonical Wnt signaling, or some other type of Wnt signaling, simultaneously or in various combinations, and as a result we have 393, 217, or 655 potential new targets for cancer research, respectively.

microRNAs are so dangerous that any cell that sets them off would have to be an idiot, because that cell is always the first to get blown to pieces. Of course, your average cell is not generally noted for its intelligence, even though its DNA might encode a complete play by William Shakespeare. You can also inscribe Shakespeare onto a grain of rice, but that doesn’t make the rice smart, despite its massive genome, which is many times larger than that of humans. No, the true sign of intelligence is to learn from your mistakes, but if you mess around with microRNAs you won’t learn anything at all, because you’ll undergo apoptosis. Letting microRNAs loose is like putting a bunch of cats and raccoons together in a cage. You might do it once, but you certainly wouldn’t climb in with them. It’s not a pretty sight.

Now for several paragraphs this piece has been headed for a point, but then it got sidetracked during a long metaphor, like meeting a woman in a bar, and then walking her home, and I won’t go into detail about what comes next, we’ll just take a little pause at this moment so that each of you can individually complete that scenario using your own imagination.

The real point is that with the award of his PhD, David Fournier has reached scientific maturity. It’s like puberty, it’s like a butterfly, two concepts which can never be combined in one sentence without sounding creepy. Yes, even if we’re talking about reaching puberty in a metaphorical, scientific type of way, some people will automatically think of sex. Especially mentally disturbed people. If you’re thinking about sex now, you should stop, and perhaps consult a psychiatrist. And last but not least (not really, but it just felt like time to throw in a common but meaningless transition device), if you started reading this piece thinking that it would contain a discussion of David’s sexual phenotype, you can think again. This is not that type of magazine.

* * * *

So here David Fournier stands at the summit of human evolution, and at the peak of his maturity, both scientific and sexual, and he’s wearing a funny hat. For just a brief moment, he feels immortal. And then he is struck by a vision, that moment of clarity that comes to everyone upon reaching the top of a ladder: the realization that there’s only one way to go from here. At some point on the way down he’ll discover Viagra, which is a mixed blessing. It improves your potency but tends to have the opposite effect on a scientific career.

Sure, you hear these rumors about guys going on to become professors, but where’s the evidence? Professors are supposed to be in their lab, or a classroom, or in their office, but when you go looking for them, they’re never there. That calls to mind something David read while doing research for his dissertation. He found a quote from the great Ernst Haeckel, who had some not-very-nice things to say about professors before becoming one himself:

Es ist eigentümlich, daß sich gerade diejenigen Professoren am meisten gegen die Abstammung vom Affen sträuben, die sich bezüglich ihrer Gehirnentwicklung am wenigsten von demselben entfernt haben.

Now David’s knowledge of German is somewhat limited, restricted exclusively to the works of Hegel, who was really French (on his mother’s side; they pronounce the name Hégelle), so I have thoughtfully provided a rather loose translation into English:

It is appropriate that those professors are the sharpest critics of the idea of the descent of man whose brains have evolved least since the apes.

David actually put this quote into his dissertation, deep in the discussion, sort of a test to make sure the committee actually read the thing, like putting a jalapeno in a piece of pie. In English the quote comes out sounding a little mean, a little superficial, completely lacking the gravitas and resonance of the German original. When my own writing suffers from these problems, often right after lunch, I run it through Google translate and see if it doesn’t sound better in some other language. Here’s the quote in Basque:

Bitxia da, hain zuzen, tximinoak jaitsiera aurka gehienek badakite irakasleek, gutxiago ikusten duten hori kendu garunaren bera garapenean.

That automatically adds some intellectual depth, because you have to be a genius to learn Basque. I can’t provide a literal translation, but when you hear it out loud it sounds terribly dark and mournful. You automatically sense that it’s talking about death: either that of the professor, or the ape, and whichever one is left is throwing a wake for the one that died. Indisputably, the best wakes are thrown by the Irish, so here’s the Gaelic version, in the form of a toast delivered in a pub:

Tá fiosracht, i gcoinne pheaca, mar shiombail de na múinteoirí, ina choinne aon.

The first time David ever heard this, he thought it was French, and I won’t tell you what he thought he heard, because in French this sounds incredibly obscene. I thought the person was speaking English, perhaps with an Italian accent, and I heard this:

Gee I feels wrecked. I’m gonna puke marshmellows in a minute onna your chinna, hon.

But that’s just ridiculous. In Irish it’s a lot better; after a literal translation back into English you get this:

Curiosity is against sin, as a symbol of the teachers, against any.

This statement has an aura of mystery, like a Zen koan, or a Communist slogan, or the kind of thing a cabdriver would say to you. Probably a foreign cabdriver, for instance someone from Belgium.

* * * *

Successfully completing his doctorate required that David learn the Secret Formula for Success in a PhD, which can be purchased on-line, providing no one has hacked your PayPal account. The program guarantees success if you buy it, rather than downloading the bootleg copy, as David did, and then religiously follow all 12 steps. It’s true that 12-step programs have become popular in many scientific fields, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and astrology, but any similarities between their lists and this one is just one of those bizarre coincidences that sometimes happen when you live in a random, chaotic universe.

1. We admitted we were powerless over science—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves (our group leader) could restore us to sanity, despite having no good reason for believing this.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God (our group leader) as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, our lab benches, and the bottom drawer where He keeps the emergency bottle.
5. Admitted to God (our group leader), to ourselves, and to another human being, for example, a postdoc, or our psychiatrist, or just some random person in the street, the exact nature of the mistakes we made in our experiments.
6. Were entirely ready to have God (our group leader) remove all these defects of character, using only a pipette and many cover slips.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings, by docking our pay, or making us clean out the mouse cages.
8. Made a list of all persons whose experiments we had ruined, and offered to repeat them all, on weekends, in exchange for authorship somewhere deep in the middle of the list.
9. Made direct amends to our competitors wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others, unless we would get more impact points by sticking it to them.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it, preferably before the paper had been submitted, in which case we snuck it in during the review process.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation and incredible amounts of caffeine and late-night phone calls to improve our conscious contact with God (our group leader) as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us, hopefully sent by email, and the power to carry that out if we have high-throughput technology platforms and if we feel like it.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to the next generation of predocs, by making their lives just as miserable as our had been, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The twelfth step is hardest, especially if you have a minor genetic defect like a conscience, or a soul, and only a few truly master it. Which way will David’s ball roll? At what point will he reach his finally differentiated form? Will fundamental discoveries in stem cell research permit him to de-differentiate if he decides, at the age of 70, to start a new career playing the pan-pipe with a band of South American street musicians? Will he ascend to the Académie Française, and then be buried alongside Voltaire in the Panthéon in Paris, after they remove his heart and brain, as they did with Voltaire? Or will he end up under a parking garage in England, like Richard III? Only the future will tell. Further research is necessary. Although we do have some promising lead compounds.

– Russ Hodge

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

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