The devil is in the headline

Cooperation needs to be celebrated more

Richard Dawkins once admitted that his book The Selfish Gene, arguably the most influential science book after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, should better have had the title The Immortal Gene. He argued that genes carry the same information in copies for millions of years and hence are immortal. Another title that he thought would have worked equally well is The Cooperative Gene. Yet what we are stuck with is The Selfish Gene. Such is the power of title that some, particularly among those who haven’t read the book, might think that it is about selfishness. By Dawkins’ own admission the book is more about altruism. A headline works much the same way. It creates a firm impression in more minds than does the substance of an article.

With information now striking our senses at an alarming rate, headlines have become more influential than ever. Take the news of this year’s chemistry Nobel Prize for instance. Besides the recipients’ names, words that stand out in headlines are ‘women’, ‘genetic scissors’, ‘CRISPR’, ‘discovery’ and ‘gene editing’. The official declaration on the Nobel Prize website carries the headline “Genetic scissors: a tool for rewriting the code of life”. The brief on the page says that Charpentier and Doudna “have discovered one of the gene technology’s sharpest tools: CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors”. This can easily be construed as ‘they have discovered CRISPR/Cas9’. That’s a big statement.

If one goes by ‘who saw/said it first’, the Japanese team of Ishino and fellow scientists, who found the CRISPR sequence in E. coli in late 1980s, could stake a claim at discovery. If reviews in high profile journals Cell (1) and Journal of Bacteriology (2) are to be given due credibility, one name that stands out in the entire gamut of CRISPR/Cas9 studies is that of the Spaniard Francisco Mojica. It was Mojica who first associated the function of immune system with CRISPR sequence in a paper that went through rejections and review/revision delays to come out eventually in 2005 (3). Thereafter, significant contributions came from the likes of Bolotin, Horvath, Koonin, van der Oost, Marrafini, Sontheimer, Charpentier, Vogel, Zhang and Siksnys. By that time it became known that two RNAs – crRNA and tracrRNA – were essential for the CRISPR/Cas9 system to cut the DNA. Charpentier and Doudna later showed that the two RNAs can be fused into one single-guide RNA experimentally and that this could be modified to programmatically target a specific DNA, a concept that opened the doors for programmable genome editing. A significant work indeed. But discovery of CRISPR/Cas9? Hardly. Thankfully the Nobel Prize website backs up the declaration with a more sensible article titled ‘Scientific Background on the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020’. Nobel Prize or not, credit for a specific discovery/invention should go to those who really deserve it.

Like headlines, takeaway buzz-phrases also make people act on some concepts without understanding them properly. I have a feeling that somewhere in our subconscious minds, ‘survival of the fittest’, combined with ‘the selfish gene’, has been misused to justify our selfish acts. Many rating hungry television shows glorify acts of backstabbing and sabotage as ‘part of the game’ and we happily consume them. Imagine what will happen when a body organ begins competing with other organs and tries to corner all the nutrients and oxygen available. When cells do that we reach a stage when the organism as a whole becomes unsuitable for living. We call it cancer. Our very existence is because of cooperation among trillions of cells as well as symbiotic relationship with trillions of bacterial cells. Zoom out and it is impossible to think of any significant advancement in technology without a group of people coming together. Cooperative behaviour is what has made us humans grow so fast. Where would we be without collective wealth of knowledge and wisdom, sharing of resources and organised efforts at accomplishing large scale projects? Yet we seem to regularly engage in selfish competition and justify it as ‘natural’.

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Writer, scientist, filmmaker, executive… basically a creative explorer; contact abhijit AT abhijitdeonath DOT com

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