Thanks to "X-Men," "Heroes," and other sci-fi works that have worked their way into popular culture, the potential of genetic variation is practically a mainstream idea. I acknowledge this, and also that this e-mail is going out to a group of intelligent individuals. Having said that, please bear with me as I describe the concept briefly to set the backdrop for this e-mail.
DNA, the "blueprint of life," is a little unstable. Because instructions for biological structure are recorded at the molecular level, even very small particles can do serious damage. The most popular example of this is radiation. A stray α-particle may hit a molecule of DNA and permanently alter the instruction set. The misconception is that such a change would be beneficial. It is overwhelmingly likely that said alteration would either strike inactive parts of the DNA and thus have no effect, or would flat out kill the cell. Polonium-210, an alpha-emitting, radioactive substance, can be (and has been) used as a poison. Madame Curie, who died of Leukemia at 66, probably got cancer from the radioactive substances she worked with.
Stick with me. I swear, this is going somewhere.
Let's ask a Darwin-ish question: why is DNA unstable? There is no physical law forcing genetic material to be vulnerable to corruption. There is no reason that evolution couldn't produce a more stable molecule. But in order for organisms to change and evolve, DNA has to keep getting corrupted, because the one-in-a-million beneficial mutation is exactly allows a species the flexibility to handle environmental changes. Thanks to said mutation, that organism gains an advantage and is hence better able to reproduce, propagating its genetic material. It's a beautiful system!
I'm a Christian, and sometimes I wonder why God didn't make a being that didn't make mistakes. Why make humans? Why make a creature so... unstable?
Saccharin, the artificial sweetener in a lot of sugar-free products, was "invented" when a chemist spilled a coal-tar derivative and accidentally tasted it. It was sweet. Now we put it in our coffee. Chocolate-chip cookies were "invented" when a baker tried to make a chocolate cookie and failed miserably. Now it's the popular cookie on the block. Potato chips were made by a cook, frustrated by a customer that kept asking for his potatoes to be sliced thinner. It was a joke. Now it's a 17 billion dollar industry.
Usually mistakes don't end up that way. The saccharine chemist could have died. The cookie baker could have tossed the batch and lost hours of time. The cook could have gotten fired for insubordination. But every so often, a mistake ends up being the best possible decision--so perfect, in fact, that no rational human being ever would have considered it.
I have two points. The first is that it's important to try even when it's likely to result in failure. Successes are what allow humans to live ordinary, self-sustaining lives. Mistakes are what allow humans to grow beyond themselves. And, every so often, a mistake-turned-success changed a life for the better. Nobody is really capable of creating an extraordinary life for themselves just by pure force of will--but the secret is simply: getting in situations that yield extraordinary results.
So I guess that's my New Years resolution. To get out there a little more.