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Bruce Lipton’s ‘The Biology of Belief’ – annotated with facts: Part 1 (The Central Dogma)

August 25, 2017

I have often written about the work of biologist Bruce Lipton here, often with harsh criticism, and always with much to say about the errors in his thinking. His verbal expression is extremely chaotic and his statements veer between the illogical and the incoherent. But I spend the time because he claims to have a cure for cancer. As commenters here who suffer from cancer have attested, friends and therapists have recommended Lipton’s books to them.

His fans inform me that his writings are more coherent than his talks, so here I will be looking closely at his extremely popular book, The Biology of Belief. Maybe I have been unfair to focus on his ideas as they are presented in his lectures and interviews….

I am not a biologist, but I am university educated and can read. This is — and should be — more than enough to be able to go some way towards critically evaluating a science book written for a popular audience. Moreover, Lipton has indeed been largely ignored by qualified biologists, even those of a skeptical bent. It seems they find so much to criticize that they don’t know where to start, so they don’t.

This series of blogposts is for people who have read the book and are wondering about its veracity. The book occupies that odd space between spirituality and science where one is torn between drawing personal metaphorical meanings from an idea, and accepting the exalted status of “scientific fact”. I am also doing this for those who are (like me) interested in the way spiritual claims about the physical world can be fairly approached and evaluated. I will be looking not only at how he presents biological concepts, but also at how he builds his case.

Before starting, however, I already know we need to briefly clear up an odd confusion about genetics that, apparently, many biologists — including well qualified ones, and including Lipton — often make.

It concerns what in the 1950s was playfully (or foolishly) termed the “Central Dogma” of genetics.

As biochemist Larry Moran (author of a major biochemistry textbook), points out, there are in fact two different versions of this Central Dogma. One is right, and the other wrong. Unfortunately, it is the wrong one that still gets into most of the textbooks, where it is learned by many biologists. It is only a minor error, and remains insignificant, unless someone has an iconoclastic bent and is a little incautious in their critical thinking and fact checking.

Luckily it is relatively simple and can be followed for our purposes simply by noting the two diagrams.

So, here is the wrong version of this Central Dogma, (proposed by James Watson), which usually gets reproduced in the textbooks:

The wrong version of the Central Dogma

The diagram refers to the process by which a piece of DNA (a gene) being copied (transcribed) as a short piece of RNA, which then migrates from the nucleus of the cell to the cell body, where it seeks out the chemical components to construct (translate into) a protein. (Many proteins make an enzyme. Many enzymes construct larger organic structures.)

This version holds that genetic “information” flows in a simple one way street from DNA to protein.

And here is the second version, (by Francis Crick), which is the correct one:

The correct version of the Central Dogma

This shows a flow of information as a two-way street between DNA and RNA, as well as two one way streets to the protein.

What has changed, is that this model allows for complex interactions between DNA and RNA. What has not changed is that there is still no two-way street leading back from a protein to either DNA or RNA.

Moran explains that the simple one way street (wrong) version:

is clearly untrue, as the discovery of reverse transcriptase demonstrated only a few years after his book was published. Furthermore, there are now dozens of examples of information flow pathways that are more complex than the simple scheme shown in Watson’s 1965 book. (Not to mention the fact that many information flow pathways terminate with functional RNA’s and never produce protein.

Again, it is this version — the wrong one — which gets into most of the text books!

As Moran points out, it has:

become the favorite whipping boy of any scientist who lays claim to a revolutionary discovery, even though a tiny bit of research would uncover the real meaning of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology.

It’s not just because it’s called a “Dogma” that some see it as a challenge, but also because of another reason, which will become clearer as we go along. (It has to do with evolution. In other words, the environment does not alter DNA. Thus, acquired characteristics, like big muscles or rotting teeth, are not passed on genetically to offspring. Heritable variability only enters a gene pool through the chance mutations that routinely occur during DNA replication in reproductive cells in the testes or ovaries.)

As mentioned, Lipton adds himself to the list of biologists who should have noticed this discrepancy that has crept into the textbooks.

Let us begin our journey through this book.

The Biology of Belief

By Dr. Bruce H. Lipton

Acknowledgements

Lipton, after acknowledging a debt to both Lamarck and Einstein, tells the story of why he left academic biology.

My life-changing moment occurred while I was reviewing research on the mechanisms by which cells control their physiology and behavior. Suddenly I realized that a cell’s life is controlled by the physical and energetic environment and not by its genes.

This is our first whiff of Lipton’s challenge to the Central Dogma. As we will see, he has unfortunately not merely chosen the wrong version of it, he has also misinterpreted it.

Genes are simply molecular blueprints used in the construction of cells, tissues and organs. The environment serves as a “contractor” who reads and engages those genetic blueprints…

So far so good, though a bit vague. Genes are indeed switched on an off in part according the chemicals present in a cell. Each cell, of course, has a copy complete genome — a copy of the entire “blueprint” — recorded in DNA in its nucleus. (Except red blood cells which don’t have a nucleus.) But the only genes that are switched on, are the ones needed to do the job of that particular type of cell. A liver cell has a different task to a brian cell, and will switch different genes on and off accordingly.

and is ultimately responsible for the character of a cell’s life….

Odd statement. The “environment”, whatever he means by that, is not responsible for whether or not a cell is a liver or a brain cell. That’s already been decided during embryological development. The genetic switches are also in the DNA, and are activated by environmental triggers at the correct moment, as part of a cascade of events. I don’t know what he is referring to with “the environment is ultimately responsible for the character of a cell’s life.”

He continues:

….It is a single cell’s “awareness” of the environment, not its genes, that sets into motion the mechanisms of life.

What? Now it’s suddenly not the environment, but the cell’s “awareness” of the environment. And what does he mean with the “mechanisms of life”? Is he referring to genes being switched on, as in the previous sentence, or the activities of whole cells or the functioning of organs, or the movements of animals?

And what is the cell’s “”awareness”? It’s clearly a metaphor for something — hence the inverted commas. I can only assume he is using a needlessly complicated metaphor for the relatively simple mechanism of the receptors on the cell membrane.

I was acutely aware that every human being is made up of approximately fifty trillion single cells.

Well it’s more like 37.2 trillion, but who’s counting.

I knew that if single cells are controlled by their awareness of the environment…

Stop!!!

…..We need to get clear. Are cells controlled by their environment, or by their “awareness” of their environment?

And why has the cell’s “awareness” suddenly lost its metaphorical inverted commas and evolved into a key biological fact that determines cell functioning?

There is a lot of leap-frogging going on here, (And why is he even talking about this all this in the Acknowledgements section?) He has a lot of bridges to build here.

Just like a single cell, the character of our lives is determined not by our genes but by our responses to the environmental signals that propel life.

The sentence may look simple, but there is a lot of leap-frogging from analogy to fact. We will have to get used to following these jumps.

We have an analogy: Just like a single cell, the character of our lives — this likens a human being’s life to the life of a cell.

And an assertion: the character of our lives is determined not by our genes

And another assertion: but by our responses to the environmental signals.

In short, he asserts that cells are somehow not determined by their genes, and neither are humans.

On the one hand my new understanding of the nature of life was a jolt.

He still has not said what his new understanding of life is. No geneticist says that genes “determine life”.

For close to two decades I had been programming biology’s Central Dogma— the belief that life is controlled by genes— into the minds of medical students.

Hmmm, maybe we were wasting time with all that explaining about the Central Dogma. Not even the wrong version of it says that “life is controlled by genes.” All it says is that genes build proteins, and that they are switched on and off by various triggers from elsewhere.

On the other hand, on an intuitive level my new understanding was not a complete surprise. I had always had niggling doubts about genetic determinism.

Genetic determinism is not — I repeat NOT — the Central Dogma.

Genetic determinism was popular among some in the early part of the 20th Century and was associated with eugenics. It was not only morally objectionable (to put it mildly) but also scientifically invalid.

(Um… Why was Lipton teaching it to medical students?)

….Though it took a sojourn outside of traditional academia for me to fully realize it, my research offers incontrovertible proof that biology’s most cherished tenets regarding genetic determinism are fundamentally flawed.

Lipton has leapfrogged out of the pond and his happily hopping over the hill, and we are not even out of the Acknowledgements yet. I am starting to wonder if this is such a good idea.

Part 2 is here.

Posted by Yakaru

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2 comments

  1. I also wonder why he isn’t criticised more among skeptics and antiquark pasties. **quackbusters


  2. I think it might be because there is just so much to he gets wrong. They just don’t know where to start. Even the rather intemperate PZ Myers, who is not one to avoid a fight, simply backed away slowly from slowly, describing an interview with Lipton as being “a place where reason goes to die”.

    David Gorski (aka Orac) writes about him occasionally but almost no one else and nothing thorough or accessible to Lipton’s readers.

    (Thanks for reading and commenting!)



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