Thursday, October 18, 2018

Trails of Knowledge

Our previous post entitled “Trail Hiking Science” did not offer a complete account of the potential for knowledge acquisition beyond instructive experiences on the trail. We all enjoy the wonderful sights and sounds of nature and the physical benefits we experience on trail venues. Discovery of deeper, more profound truths concerning the beauty and origin of the living plants and animals we discover, how they function, how they adapt to their surroundings, and the workings of the matter and energy systems in which they exist—these discoveries await us. Trail hikes are merely the prelude to a grand symphony.

In the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents, genetic knowledge was but a small fraction of what bioscientists have discovered since 1950. Secrets of structure of the DNA molecule, the carrier of genetic information, and the related RNA molecule were a mystery, although the existence of these molecules had been known. Generally, the functions of DNA and RNA were perceived to be related to genetic heritage. During the 1950s the structure of DNA was revealed and In the 1960s the workings of the protein producing code intrinsic to the DNA molecule were revealed. This became known as the genetic code by which the correct proteins that compose all living things are synthesized. In a living human we are talking about 100,000 or more different proteins.

After Francis Crick, molecular biologist, made his ground-breaking discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s, he articulated the principle route of information transfer in biology. He called it the “Central Dogma” of biology. We may remember using code games when we were children: simple or complex information is communicated from one entity to another. In the case of reproduction and maintenance of life, it is imperative that a coherent system of information transfer is effective. The Central Dogma information transfer proceeds in this way: DNA —>RNA—>Proteins. DNA “codes” for thousands of specific proteins.

The Central Dogma of molecular biology has been refined since Crick first proposed it. Basically the fundamentally true “dogma” is still in effect, but important supplements have been discovered such as knowledge of gene expression, epigenetics, and prions. The axiom ”For every rule there is an exception” may hold in this instance.

Many senior citizens have observed a sea change in the study of biology in their lifetimes. The study has transitioned from an emphasis on organ systems and taxonomy to molecular biology and science process. Personal recollections of high school and college biology offerings affirm this statement. We were immersed in a movement to enhance science offerings in order to close the perceived gap of Soviet science superiority following the launch of Sputnik in 1957. High School biology and other science courses reflected this change in emphasis. Our schools have been engaged in curriculum revisions and government sponsored catch-up programs in the interest of enhancing science literacy ever since. At present there are other nations perceived to be superior in their science education.

One outcome of the Sputnik phenomenon was to energetically infuse evolutionary concepts into school curricula. We believe evolutionary hypotheses and theory should be taught along with tenets of divine intelligent design and creationism in order that each belief could be compared and tested. In nearly 70 years since the discovery of DNA structure and its inherent genetic code, our public schools, supported by court decisions, have turned more strongly toward the paradigm that science deals only in natural phenomena. Theological concepts and discussions are not permitted in public science classrooms.

Enlarging on the desirability of outdoor activities such as trail hiking, we propose that the value of hiking is increased by knowledge of startling discoveries in topics of genetics and environment in general since the mid-1950s. In like manner, the value of classroom-based education would be enhanced by a more active outdoor experience. To their credit, many schools provide formal opportunities for curriculum related field experiences. Our lament relates to the apparent truth that author Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” volume of a decade ago (see our previous post) expresses an unhappy fact: Many young people are deficient in outdoor experiences, foregoing opportunities for spiritual growth and enrichment.