Genome wager between Lewis Wolpert and Rupert Sheldrake

I received the following press release on June 3 (forwarded to me by Douglas Rushkoff). I honored the embargo date of July 9.

In the spirit of famous scientific wagers by notable scientists, such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman, two leading biologists, Professor Lewis Wolpert and Dr Rupert Sheldrake, have set up a wager on the predictive value of the genome.

The wager will be decided on May 1, 2029, and if the outcome is not obvious, the Royal Society, the world's most venerable scientific organization, will be asked to adjudicate. The winner will receive a case of fine port, Quinta do Vesuvio, 2005, which should have reached perfect maturity by 2029 and is being stored in the cellars of The Wine Society.

Prof Wolpert bets that the following will happen. Dr Sheldrake bets it will not:
By May 1, 2029, given the genome of a fertilized egg of an animal or plant, we will be able to predict in at least one case all the details of the organism that develops from it, including any abnormalities.

Prof Wolpert and Dr Sheldrake agree that at present, given the genome of an egg, no one can predict the way an embryo will develop. The wager arose from a debate on the nature of life between Wolpert and Sheldrake at the 2009 Cambridge University Science Festival.

Prof Wolpert believes that all biological phenomena can in principle be explained in terms of DNA, proteins and other molecules, together with their interactions. He is convinced that it is only a matter of time before all the details of an organism can be predicted on the basis of the genome.

Dr Sheldrake believes that the predictive value of genes is grossly over-rated. Genes enable organisms make proteins, but they do not contain programs or blueprints. Instead, he thinks that the development of organisms depends on organizing fields called morphogenetic fields, which are not inherited through the genes.

Famous scientific wagers in the past include Richard Feynman's bet of$1000 that no-one could construct a motor no bigger than 1/64 of an inch on a side. He lost. Stephen Hawking bet fellow cosmologist Kip Thorne that Cygnus X-1 would turn out not to be a black hole (Hawking lost). And in 1980 biologist Paul Erlich bet economist Julian Simon that the price of five mineral commodities would rise over the next ten years. In fact they fell.

The wager will be reported in full in The New Scientist on 9 July where there will also be articles stating their cases by both Prof Wolpert and Dr Sheldrake.
Lewis Wolpert's book How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells is published by Faber and Faber and the new edition of Rupert Sheldrake's A New Science of Life is published by Icon Books.