Opinion: A Diverse Perspective

Progress in science is dependent on the diversity of its workforce.

By | July 29, 2013

Ernest Everett JustWIKIMEDIARecent reports indicate that African American biomedical scientists have a disproportionately tougher time when applying for federal research grants than do their white peers. Although steps have been taken to ameliorate the problem through minority-targeted initiatives, the discrepancy persists. Yet black scientists—and researchers of all ethnicities, for that matter—can often make unique contributions by virtue of their particular social and cultural perspective. In this essay, I describe the life and work of an early 20th century African American biologist, Ernest Everett Just, who experienced almost insurmountable challenges but who nonetheless triumphed and, in the end, made an indelible mark on the history of biology. I use the example of Just to emphasize that diversity is critical for science, and that as a community we must do all we can to remove the disparities that exist.

E. E. Just was a world-renowned embryologist who studied fertilization and early development in marine invertebrates. A professor at Howard University from 1907 until his death in 1941, he worked first at the Marine Biological Station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and later at laboratories in Italy, Germany, and France. Just has been credited with discovering what is known as the fast block to polyspermy—a mechanism that prevents the egg from being aberrantly fertilized by more than one sperm—and he was the first to show that the adhesiveness of the cells of the cleavage embryo is dependent on the particular stage of development that they are in. He emphasized the important role of the cell surface and the layer just below it, the ectoplasm, in biological development. His work was published in reputable journals and was widely cited, especially in Europe.

After his first trip abroad in 1929, to a marine station at Naples, Just became much bolder in the presentation of his scientific ideas. He began to challenge prominent biologists whom he felt were too reductionistic. One of these was Thomas Hunt Morgan, the future Nobel laureate and formulator of what is known as the gene theory, which proposed that genes are arranged in linear arrays on chromosomes. Morgan was a leading spokesman for a newly emerging cadre of geneticists who believed, as many scientists do today, that genes in the nucleus were dominant over cytoplasmic factors: they were the units of inheritance; they directed the developmental process; and they controlled all of the events of the cell. In contrast, Just thought that there was more of an equal relationship between cytoplasm and nucleus.

At a national meeting in 1935, Just publicly challenged Morgan. He presented his own explanation, which he called his “theory of genetic restriction,” for how genes and cytoplasmic factors interact during differentiation. As he described in his 1939 book The Biology of the Cell Surface, Just believed that the role of the nucleus was to sequester this or that set of cytoplasmic factors, thereby freeing the remaining factors to steer differentiation in one direction or another. In Just’s view, the nucleus was more like a holding pen than the seat of power that the geneticists imagined. Of course, we now know that Just was incorrect in denying a central role for genes. But in recent years it has become clear that genes are not really like miniature dictators barking orders from the nucleus. Rather, they work hand in hand with factors in the cytoplasm.

Indeed, thanks to insights gained through the ENCODE project, we now know that the genome is a virtual hot bed of activity entirely dependent on extranuclear determinants. Fully 80 percent of the human genome is “functional” in the sense of being either bound by a transcription factor (or other regulatory protein) or actively transcribed into RNA. Even the definition of the gene is being challenged, and the old model of the cell for which there was a one-way flow of information from DNA to messenger RNA to protein—the central dogma—appears to be no longer tenable.

We see, then, that although Just’s theory was wrong in some respects, it was nonetheless right in terms of stressing the importance of nuclear-cytoplasmic interaction. In other words, Just had an egalitarian view of the cell that is being appreciated more today. But how was he able to hold this view, when it clashed so strongly with those of prominent biologists of his day? Certainly the results of his own experiments on the changes that occur in the egg during fertilization and cleavage must have convinced him that he was right. But I believe that cultural factors may have been at play as well.

As a professor at Howard University, Just was familiar with the landscape of black intellectual thought. He knew about the writings of scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. Du Bois, for example, believed that race was not biologically determined, but was derived from the history and shared experience of a group. On the other hand, Locke believed that the free exchange of cultural ideas between ethnic groups was vital to the success of a nation, and he advocated for cultural reciprocity. Did these ideas influence Just’s view of the cell? We cannot know for sure without historical evidence, but the thought is intriguing.

What is clear is that E. E. Just, a black man living in the first half of the 20th century, made significant contributions to biology. His contributions and perspective were unique; they arose out of his unique life experiences. Indeed, I believe that, both then and now, diversity is critical for the scientific enterprise. Diversity is the creative engine of science, and it must be promoted and encouraged at every turn. We in the scientific community should be concerned about disparities in research funding and opportunity, for they rob us of diversity. We should do everything in our power to correct them.

W. Malcolm Byrnes is an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC.

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Avatar of: John Edser

John Edser

Posts: 24

July 29, 2013

The still missing Neo Darwinian concept: heritable epistasis. Genes within organisms were and remain fitness dependent not fitness independent even if genes can independently separate at meiosis. Dawkins' "selfish genes" are only a figment of W.D. Hamilton's mathematical imagination. The removal of Physiological Epistasis via a misuse of Fisher's statistical model which rendered epistasis inherited but not heritable and therefore not selectable over a century ago gave Hamilton's genes the "free go" that that they do not have in nature. C.H. Waddington's amendment to Haldane's basic population genetics equations introducing two new variable types: developed in population x/y and selected in population x/y, which would have introduced a modicum of heritable epistasis into Neo Darwinism in the 1960's, remains ignored. There is no independent gene level os selection only Darwin's single adult organism level providing a single fitness maximand per adult per population. 

John Edser

moderated discussion: sci.bio.evolution

Avatar of: Mong H Tan, PhD

Mong H Tan, PhD

Posts: 9

September 1, 2013

RE: Reductionism vs. Holism in Modern Biology and History: Neo-Darwinism vs. Genetics and Physiology(+)!?

1] I thought the American cell biologist, embryologist EE Just’s (1883-1941) correct view on the “nuclear-cytoplasm” interactive physiology, might have had come from his holistic view and perception (or his scientifically-trained view and conception) of “cells and organelles” theories, theories that soon began to empirically define and refine our Modern Biology in the early 20th century (see the “modern cell theory” in Comment 2 below); and not originated from his culturally-unique life experiences per se, as an African American intellectual, that has had been broadly characterized in the nice but brief article above!? -- As socio-intellectually, when having the opportunity of revisiting or reviewing any (active, retired, or deceased) scientist’s works and ideas, we (readers-reviewers including practical scientists, historians, philosophers, and critics alike) must do science(+) a justice: by objectively scrutinizing and focusing on the merits, datasets, facts, methods, concepts, novelty, and practicality (but not coaxed controversies or sensationalism that may be subliminally or hubristically infused with certain undisclosed personal ideologies, egotism, and/or scientism) of the scientific works under review: reviewing strictly within each work’s scientific and historical context and process, despite the scientist’s cultural background, such as, the ethnicity, subjective ideology, or gender issues; issues that have had been too often and invariably infused and abused by the many culturally-biased ideologues, pseudoscience sensationalists, positivists, and sophists alike, in the past and present; just as in the ongoing case of “Neo-Darwinism vs. Genetics and Physiology” issues(+) that are being reviewed, scrutinized, and commented herein under:

2] Specifically and philoscientifically, in 1837, there were 2 contrasting but equally defining biological theories (ie, biomorphism vs. cell physiology) that had had been independently hatched out in Europe: one the “evolutionary transformism” theory of organisms -- or the naturalism of “geo-biomorphism” theory that would be labored from a global, monumental, and phenomenal naturalist works or the macro view and gross descriptions, explanations, and extrapolations in the 19th-century naturalism, anamorphism, and of the philoscientific positivist reductionism in animal and plant biomorphism, paleontology, geology, geography, taxonomy of plants and animals by their observed appearance and assumed transformism in fossils and in life specimens; and by observations of their domestication and husbandry propagation and their observed characteristics and traits selection-model systems of the time -- especially by the young, keen British, inquisitive, aspiring geologist, naturalist (not a specialist in cells, organelles, anatomy, physiology, or embryology of the time) Charles Darwin (1809-82): the only Darwin who would later publish his naturalist global view of organisms or his macro “geogenic” transformative (not “genetic” developmental; see Comments 4 & 5 below) per gross “natural phenomenology” or his naturalist speculations and articulations of the “geo-bio” origins, propagations, trait-selections, trait-mutations, reproductions, survival adaptations, and transformations of organisms on Earth: in a grand masterpiece treatise that he would entitle “On the Origin of Species” in 1859; laying out thereof his naturalist and selectionist foundation (modeled on domestication and husbandry breeding propagation-selection processes) for the modern interpretations and reinterpretations of “evolution” of the organisms on Earth; and subsequently for the evermore competing hermeneutics of “evolutionism vs creationism” debates of our life-origins and species-creations (including the natural philoscientific, positivist, evolutionist, sophist, reductionist, religionist, intelligent design-creationist, etc) ever since (see my 2011 comments therein under and more below)!?

And: two the “developmental cell” theory -- the thesis that was derived from the increasingly-detailed observations and physiology of both animal and plant cells (including their organelles) as the basic and functional units of organisms of the time or the inquired holism in both the developmental and growth cell biology and physiology -- by the 2 students of Johannes Peter Muller (1801-58) at Berlin’s Humboldt University; and, the duo modern cell theorists (not evolutionists nor reductionists) were identified as the botanist Matthias Schleiden (1804-81) and the animal physiologist Theodor Schwann (1810-82) as recently reported by Kate Yandell in “The Scientist” therein (August 1, 2013)!? -- (Wherein under I shall continue post my Comments 3 & 4!?)

Avatar of: Mong H Tan, PhD

Mong H Tan, PhD

Posts: 9

September 1, 2013

My Browser RAM couldn't upload all my 5-point comments at this time, so I shall upload the rest 3 points some time this month -- as indicated and linked above or elsewhere therein -- when I visit a local library. Thank you for your kind attention and cooperation in this matter. Best wishes, Mong 9/1/13usct3:55p

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