Bruce Lipton’s ‘Biology of Belief’ — Annotated with Facts: Part 2 (How genes “determine life”)

August 31, 2017

Welcome to Part 2 of our look at the bestseller written by Dr Bruce Lipton, who claims to have a cure for cancer, among other things. We examine how he constructs his argument, and whether or not he has got his facts straight.

Lipton repeatedly tells his readers that biologists think genes “determine life”. They don’t. And as we saw in Part 1, Lipton thinks the (so called) “Central Dogma” of genetics is genetic determinism. It isn’t.

But before diving back into Lipton’s book, let’s clear something else up. When Lipton vaguely says that geneticists believe that “genes control life”, what does he mean? Is he saying biologists think genes control specific forms of behavior? Growth? Illnesses? All of the above?

He is not specific, so let’s take a look at it in the broadest sense.

Genes do control embryological development — albeit in combination with triggers from the environment. (‘Environment’ here can mean anything external to the DNA itself — within the cell, within the fetus, or within the mother.) The spectacular cascade of events that is involved in growth is well known and well researched.

What genes don’t “control”, however, is death. (I am speaking in the most general terms here, not of genetics-related illnesses.) The mechanisms of conception, birth, growth, etc, have all been finely tuned by 3.4 billion years of evolution. This is so spectacular that it can easily appear as if it must have been designed. How such a degree of complexity could arise without some kind of intelligence designing it can seem incomprehensible, even to those with expert knowledge.

But look at death, however — on a purely physiological level — and we notice the appearance of design disappears. The exquisitely “designed” mayfly, for example, emerges from a water-borne egg, crawls onto land and matures to adult form, whereupon it seeks to mate. After copulation, a female lays eggs in the water and then collapses in exhaustion,  floating about on the surface of the water until a fish eats her. The male goes back onto land and stays there. It gets no further instinctive instructions from its genes, so it just hangs around until its organs cease to function.

Mayfly hanging around until its organs cease to function

That’s it, basically, for the mayfly…… and for everyone else on this planet too.

So, we can grant that genes do “determine life” in this broad sense. But they don’t give any guidance, or have any spectacular developmental program for a graceful or humane death. They don’t have any reason to. They only “want” to reproduce, and beyond that it’s up to the individual bodies in which they reside to make the best they can of a difficult situation — to make something meaningful of their lives.

I note all this, partly to indicate an important hole in the ‘argument from design’ that Lipton will no doubt soon be using; and also to broadly indicate the ways in which genes, according to modern biology, might indeed be said to “determine life” — to use Lipton’s vague terminology.

….So let us dive again into Dr Lipton’s prose…. We pick up where we left off in the Acknowledgements section, which he has, for some reason, decided is the appropriate venue to tell us his life story and outline the case he intends to make in the book.

….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.

Factual error. As we have seen, genetic determinism is not cherished nor even accepted in modern biology. It just isn’t.

My new understanding of the nature of life not only corroborated my research, but also, I realized, contradicted another belief of mainstream science that I had been propounding to my students — the belief that allopathic medicine is the only kind of medicine that merits consideration in medical school.

Factual error. “Allopathic medicine” is not a biological or medical term, rather it’s a smear invented by homeopaths to misrepresent mainstream medicine.

By finally giving the energy-based environment its due, it provided the foundation for the science and philosophy of complementary medicine and the spiritual wisdom of ancient and modern faiths as well as for allopathic medicine.

I suppose we will find out what the “energy-based environment” is…. There follows some insignificant biographical details which we can leave out. Suddenly the “Introduction” appears out of nowhere, cutting across his bio. Ok, whatever. We now find him aged 7 and looking at a cell in a microscope.

In the innocence of my child mind, I saw this organism not as a cell, but as a microscopic person, a thinking, sentient being. Rather than aimlessly moving around, this microscopic, single-celled organism appeared to me to be on a mission, though what kind of mission I didn’t know.

This is a good sentence! A child could well assume a cell is behaving like an animal, with its own intentions and inner life. A child.

Later in life he looks through an electron microscope and says that it:

gave me an awareness of cells as sentient creatures

Whoa there!

A moment ago, it was an “innocent child’s mind” that thought cells were sentient. Now suddenly this childish fantasy has been elevated to the status of fact. Sentience is the result of coordinated activity of many billions if not trillions of brain cells. To argue that a single cell can also do that requires more evidence than just asserting it is so.

By correlating the cell’s microscopic anatomy with its behavior, I was sure to gain insight into the nature of Nature.

Note the word “correlating”. He is going to look at a cell’s behavior and then look for anatomical structures that he can “correlate” with it.

I had never lost my seven-year-old conviction that the lives of the cells I studied had purpose.

Correction. Correlate it with his interpretation of the cell’s behavior.

Note that Lipton has already decided that his idea as a 7 year old was correct and that all current and previous biologists are wrong. And he is setting out to demonstrate this, rather than check it.

I was after all a traditional biologist for whom God’s existence is an unnecessary question: life is the consequence of blind chance, the flip of a friendly card or, to be more precise, the random shake of genetic dice.

Factual error. While genetic mutation is, within parameters, random, natural selection is not.

The motto of our profession since the time of Charles Darwin, has been, “God? We don’t need no steenking God!……It’s not that Darwin denied the existence of God. He simply implied that chance, not Divine intervention, was responsible for the character of life on Earth.”

Factual error repeated. Natural selection is the central point of Darwinian evolution, and it is not a random process. (Note the second word in the term — selection!)

In his 1859 book, The Origin of Species,

True fact! 1859 is indeed the correct publication date!

Darwin said that individual traits are passed from parents to their children. He suggested that “hereditary factors” passed from parent to child control the characteristics of an individual’s life.

Factual error. Darwin did not say that. Rather he argued that habitat is often decisive in determining which variant of a characteristic is more likely to survive. Also, Lipton imputes his wrong version of the Central Dogma to Darwin.

The search came to a remarkable end 50 years ago when James Watson and Francis Crick described the structure and function of the DNA double helix, the material of which genes are made. Scientists finally figured out the nature of the “hereditary factors” that Darwin had written about in the 19th century.

Misleading. This discovery was closely tied to genetics — not to evolutionary biology. Also, Darwin never used the term “hereditary factors”.

The tabloids heralded the brave new world of genetic engineering with its promise of designer babies and magic bullet medical treatments. I vividly remember the large block print headlines that filled the front page on that memorable day in 1953: “Secret of Life Discovered”.

Fair statement, more or less. Such claims were clearly premature.

Like the tabloids, biologists jumped on the gene bandwagon.

Biologists are as susceptible to hubris and error as anyone. Lipton’s excoriation of them for jumping too swiftly conclusions and over-estimating the significance of their findings is duly noted. This is indeed something to be wary of. Isn’t it, Dr Lipton….

The mechanism by which DNA controls biological life became the Central Dogma of molecular biology, painstakingly spelled out in textbooks.

Factual error, as previously noted. And he still hasn’t said what exactly he means by “controls life”.

In the long-running debate over nature v. nurture, the pendulum swung decidedly to nature. At first DNA was thought to be responsible only for our physical characteristics, but then we started believing that our genes control our emotions and behaviors as well.

Factual error. Scientists did not “start believing” anything. They base their work on evidence and carefully sign-posted reasoning, or they get their butt kicked.

And, a misleading statement. This talk of “genes controlling our emotions” too vague. The autonomic nervous system is of course built up by genes, with some influence from environmental factors. Differences between gene variants (alleles) that code, say, for a protein that’s part of an adrenaline receptor, may lead to adrenaline being processed differently from the way another allele does — more or less adrenaline might be dumped into a neuron. But whether or not this makes a person more aggressive than someone with a different variant will depend on a billion other factors, including how the person decides to deal personally with aggression.

So if you are born with a defective happiness gene, you can expect to have an unhappy life.

Factual error. There is no “happiness gene”. And Lipton is operating on the wrong level here. Happiness is way too vast and nebulous a thing to be tied to a single gene.

Unfortunately, I thought I was one of those people victimized by a missing or mutant happiness gene.

Factual error repeated. This is the start of a long sob story to set up the inevitable “conversion story” that spiritual teachers always need to include. (This one is particularly lame. It involves having a window in his office broken. In deepest despair, he goes on holiday in the Caribbean.)

However, once I was immersed in the Caribbean’s rich ecosystem, I began to appreciate biology as a living, breathing integrated system rather than a collection of individual species sharing a piece of the earth’s turf.

Well, this is starting to sound a bit more Darwinian… Darwin too loved the tropics, having been turned on to the idea of traveling the world by Alexander von Humboldt. He trained himself to see the wholeness and harmony of nature as if through Humboldt’s visionary eye….

Detail from Humboldt’s tableau of the Andes with vegetation matched to altitude, geography, climate etc, for his newly developed field of bio-regional geography – a truly ‘holistic’ approach to nature. His approach of studying nature with input from all possible sources, including artistic/creative sensibilities, deeply influenced Darwin.

It was life’s harmony — not life’s struggle — that sang out to me as I sat in the Caribbean Garden of Eden. I became convinced that contemporary biology pays too little attention to the important role of cooperation, because its Darwinian roots emphasize life’s competitive nature.

Factual error. Darwin wrote extensively about cooperation as a driver of evolution. It is routinely studied in modern evolutionary biology. Lipton should know this.

To the chagrin of my U.S. faculty colleagues, I returned to Wisconsin a screaming radical bent on challenging the sacred foundational beliefs of biology. I even began to openly criticize Charles Darwin and the wisdom of his theory of evolution.

Factual error. Modern biology does not concern itself with “Darwin’s theory of evolution”. The modern synthesis is certainly a development of many of Darwin’s initial insights, but only because 160 years of research has in fact borne them out. Darwin’s errors have been rejected, and population genetics added in.

And another factual error — Lipton is using the wrong sense of “theory” here. Evolutionary theory is like aerodynamic theory. Evolution is as much a fact as is flight. The theory part involves figuring out how specific aspects of it occur.

In the eyes of most other biologists, my behavior was tantamount to a priest bursting into the Vatican and claiming the Pope was a fraud.

Lipton’s crime here is clearly professional ignorance rather than heresy.

I had come to question not only Darwin’s dog-eat-dog version of evolution…

Factual error repeated. (As noted, Darwin wrote of cooperation, as well as competition. But above all, he noted the effect of the habitat on survival chances. Lipton doesn’t mention this at all.)

but also biology’s Central Dogma, the premise that genes control life.

Factual error repeated.

That scientific premise has one major flaw— genes cannot turn themselves on or off.

Factual error. Genetics has in fact discovered the activity of genetic switches and studies them routinely. DUH.

In more scientific terms, genes are not “self-emergent.”

Factual error. Self-emergent is not a scientific term.

Something in the environment has to trigger gene activity.

But that is basic genetics. Lipton is not telling his readers this, and is instead claiming it as a ground breaking discovery for himself.

Though that fact had already been established by frontier science…

Huh? And now Lipton is confirming that it is basic genetics.

…conventional scientists blinded by genetic dogma had simply ignored it.

Factual error. They have not simply ignored it. It is Lipton who ignored it. In fact, this is entirely in accord with the real Central Dogma (not Lipton’s fake version).

My outspoken challenge of the Central Dogma turned me into even more of a scientific heretic.

Factual error. Lipton was not challenging the Central Dogma with this.

Not only was I a candidate for excommunication, I was now suitable for burning at the stake! In a lecture during my interview at Stanford, I found myself accusing the gathered faculty, many of them internationally recognized geneticists, of being no better than religious fundamentalists for adhering to the Central Dogma despite evidence to the contrary.

Factual error. Note that Lipton’s “contrary evidence” was in fact a part of the Central Dogma. He only thought it wasn’t because he thinks the Central Dogma is genetic determinism.

Part 3 is here.

Posted by Yakaru



  1. This is good, family fun!

  2. Yep, no foul language here folks!

    I am indeed trying to get through this whole series without becoming intemperate. So far so good….

  3. Yes, I’m enjoying this considered approach, too (just caught up with parts 1 and 2). Well done for tackling it. As you suggest, the usual critics we expect to do this often don’t bother, leaving an echo chamber in which the pseudo-scientist’s unchallenged voice can reverberate.

    It is staggeringly naive. If I had returned to the philosophy I intuited as a seven-year-old and wanted to be taken seriously writing a book about it, I’d just not mention that incident at all! This is a massive hint that he may have decided to be persuaded by feelings and childish hopes instead of reason, and he then reinforces that idea with the confession that he thought he might have a “missing or mutant happiness gene” until he found a way back to his happy fantasy. It’s almost as though the whole sorry car-crash is just to rationalize his personal rebellion against his genetic misfortune: I WON’T be controlled! After that, Lipton’s reasoning = mayflies after mating, just hanging around waiting to die. I loved that Myers quote.

  4. I hadn’t thought of making that connection — between Lipton’s reasoning and the mayfly life cycle!

    I think scientists ignore him because they don’t know how to approach his compacted layers of error and misunderstanding. It’s one thing to explain that he got the wrong version of the Central Dogma, but then to explain how massively he misunderstood it, before hopping away into pseudo-quantum physics is really quite another skill set entirely.

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