Saturday, November 03, 2007

The unmysterious mystery

It was an unusually personal story to be featured on the cover of Nature: A father's desparate search through his daughter's DNA.

Four years ago, Hugh Rienhoff's third child, a daughter, was born with a rare and as yet undiagnosed genetic disease. Most serious among the symptoms is an inability to develop muscle mass and tone. Rienhoff was been trained as a clinical geneticist, although he had pretty much left that career behind him. Now he has set out on a quest to discover just where among his daughter's tens of thousands of genes is the new mutation or inherited quirk that prevents her normal development. He even bought gene amplification equipment for his own home. If he can figure out what the problem is, he reasons, an effective treatment might be found.


I won't tell the story, which is both poignant and brave. But this quote from Rienhoff struck me: "I think the most important thing that people take away from this is that the process is not mysterious."

Well, it depends, I suppose, on what you mean by "mysterious." If we live in a causal universe, where nothing happens by chance or by divine intervention, where the laws of nature are orderly and potentially discoverable, where those adorable, searching eyes of Rienhoff's daughter are as much a product of a four-letter chemical code as are the other symptoms of her disease, then, no, the symptoms of the girl's disease are not mysterious -- and that is what drives Rienhoff in his quest for answers.

But in fact we do appear to live in a causal universe, where nothing happens by chance or by divine intervention, where the laws of causal efficacy are orderly and potentially discoverable, where those adorable, searching eyes of Rienhoff's daughter are as much a product of a four-letter chemical code as are the other symptoms of her disease, and where love can be the most powerful driving force of all, and that, friends, yes, that is deeply mysterious -- and an authentic source of religious feeling.