‘To live at all is miracle enough.’ Mervyn Peake, The Glassblower, 1950

‘If your parents kept on having children, they’d have to visit the maternity hospital another million billion times to stand a chance of producing another child with your genes…This is your moment, your own personal “big bang” moment when you were conceived, a sperm and egg met for the first time. Each of them was carrying a special delivery. Half of the instruction manual for how to build a human. Magic happened, the two sets of instructions came together and the rest is history.’ Gene Stories, BBC Science

‘A million million spermatozoa,/ All of them alive:/ Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah/ Dare hope to survive.//And among that billion minus one/ Might have chanced to be/ Shakespear, another Newton, a new Donne - / But the One was Me.’ Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963, Fifth Philosopher’s Song

‘Theoretically…an ‘identical twin’ of Isaac Newton could be born tomorrow. But the number of people that would have to be born in order to make this event at all likely would be larger than the number of atoms in the universe.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘The spirit is too blunt an instrument/ to have made this baby./ Nothing so unskilful as human passion / could have managed the intricate/ exacting particulars: the tiny/ bind bones….the invisible neural filaments/ through which the completed body already answers to the brain.’ The Spirit is Too Blunt an Instrument, Anne Stevenson

‘This instinct and intuition of the poetical faculty is still more observable in the plastic and pictorial arts: a great statue or picture grows under the power of the artist as a child in the mother's womb, and the very mind which directs the hands in formation is incapable of accounting to itself for the origin, the gradations, or the media of the process.’ Defence of Poetry: Part First, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1821

Among all the startling dreams of men

Among all the startling dreams of men,

not even one, is half so fantastic as life.

Harvested from stars

I have come out of the darkness,

and the light created; from water

and earth – my molecules were

harvested from stars, explosive

events. I was in potentia - patient

somewhere in the whole universe,

where dreams and coded biology,

imagination and thought, are one.

Triggered with such delicate tremble

from this mysterious place of colour,

transcripted among black; also home

of the tiger skin, butterfly wing, leaf.

All of us elaborations - staggering poems

read, performed aloud once; word perfect.

‘In short, the DNA in the early embryo effectively does what it’s told…there is no growth in the early embryo…DNA replication takes place without cell growth. The successive generations of cells just become smaller and smaller and smaller, until they are down to the size that it typical of the species in question…Sooner or later, however, the DNA of the young embryo does become active. Transcription begins. The genes are ‘switched on’. Then they do assume the driving seat. This crucial phase in the life of the early embryo has been called ‘the maternal to zygote transition’; but since it does not generally take place in the zxygote (the one-cell embryo) it is perhaps better known simply as ‘genomic activation’.’ Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell, Colin Tudge, The Second Creation, Headline 2001

‘Th’elastic spirits, which remain at rest/ In the strait lodgings of the brain comprest,/ While by the ambient womb’s enlivening heat/ Cheer’d and awaken’d, first themselves dilate;/ Then quicken’d and expanded every way/ the genial labourers all their force display;/ They now begin to work the wondrous frame,/ To shape the parts, and raise the vital flame;/ For when th’extended fibres of the brain/ Their active guests no longer can restrain,/ They backward spring, which due effort compels/ The labouring spirits to forsake their cells;/ The spirits, thus exploded from their seat,/ Swift from the head to the next parts retreat,/ Force their admission, and their passage beat;/ Their tours around th’unopen’d mass they take,/ And by a thousand ways their inroads make,/ Till there resisted they their race inflect,/ And backward to their source their way direct,/ Thus with a stead and alternate toil/ They issue from, and to the head recoil;/ By which their plastic function they discharge,/ Extend their channels, and their tracks enlarge;/ For, by the swift excursions which they make,/ Still sallying from the brain, and leaping back,/ They pierce the nervous fibre, bore the vein,/ And stretch th’arterial channels, which contain/ The various streams of life, that to and fro/ Through dark meanders undirected flow;/ The’inspected egg this gradual change betrays,/ To which the brooding hen expanding heat conveys.’ Sir Richard Blackmore, 1650?-1729, The Creation

‘Almost every cell in our bodies has a complete set of genes within it, and this chemical programme directs how each cell metabolizes, grows, and itneracts with its neighbours. Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

‘The first part of these remarks has related to poetry in its elements and principles; and it has been shewn, as well as the narrow limits assigned them would permit, that what is called poetry in a restricted sense has a common source with all other forms of order and of beauty according to which the materials of human life are susceptible of being arranged; and which is Poetry in an universal sense.’ Defence of Poetry: Part First, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1821

‘There is an anaesthetic of familiarity, a sedative of ordinariness, which dulls the senses and hides the wonder of existence.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998


The acorn dreams the oak, earth already knows the tree -

chimeric wings fly in sealed eggs, snowdrop and bluebell

bulbs breathe white and blue ideas among frost and wood.

Coded, invisible, wordless thought - a silent pattern - pure

instruction, intention of materiality; speaking the language

of chemicals and creating the very materials, hauling form

from the scripted darkness of everything that comes to live.

Centuries, men searching, hunting the plan, shining design -

homunculus, blueprint, sketch; explaining an eye or hand

from clustered cells - such fabulous detail, encyclopaedic

function; who could have guessed each wee cell holds

the total plan - three billion letters long, inside its own

bright heart - reading itself, as minds can read themselves,

while still being themselves; genes strung along the script,

knowing their place, role, talent, job description, transcribed

in simplest words – homeotoic genes turning on other genes,

switching on and on - lighting us up in sparkling chains

like Christmas trees; with no high generals in command,

as leaves seem touching slow fire when each burns alone.

We are automatic, self-build; asymetry, polarity, spooling

from the Genome, pulling our existence out of nothing,

figuring air, conjuring hearts spun from miles of DNA.

Our own recipe, uniquely written - new chapter in a book

four billion years long, fresh ink on Nature’s master copy

inherited by everything that lives; new paragraphs added

by our parents’ stories just before - and parents’ parents’,

right to wing, fin, worm; and before that organic memory

preserved, to the blurred life of water - light, singing stars.

The watch and the watchmaker are one

The watch and the watchmaker are one.

Each cell knows the whole - commands

its own creation - shares that energy

driving potential into chemicals; life.

I played with strings of DNA

I played with strings of DNA -

like cat’s cradles; mistily silver,

strung with white sparkling beads

like a Christmassy Milky Way -

under my fingers, shifting patterns;

not just cats - but birds and insects,

giraffes, honey bees - loosening,

retying complex knots; admiring

my creations - but not one molecule

of hair, fur, whisker, scale, appeared

among the black, not one mew, howl,

squeak, baa, cry, for there was no life.

‘Aristotle was the first - and arguably one of the best - biologists in history. He and his students witnessed the stage-by-stage embryological growth of hundreds of different animals. They didn't have the instruments to see the fine detail, but by concentrating on the large eggs of fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, they saw that animals started without a preconceived form and then development followed a familiar sequence that repeated itself reliably throughout the animal kingdom. This was an enormous conceptual break from the prevailing theories of preformation, which posited that animals are fully formed at conception and merely grow in size, not complexity. Importantly, he and his students understood the tantalizing connection between embryological development and regeneration. They understood that growth was not the same as development, and that developmental processes held the key to rejuvenating tissue. They also noted that when development stopped, it seemed impossible to start it up again. They were right at the cusp of the stem-cell quandary…. By the end of the twentieth century, mankind finally discovered the mysterious stem cells that Aristotle mused about.’ Scott C Anderson, Aristotle’s Chickens, Science for People, 2003

Life passes her wand across the dark

Life passes her wand across the dark -

the sleeping lights come on, like a sky

of co-ordinated stars flashing messages

we understand. In just these conditions,

she will call her chemicals, orchestrate

cells - loose her patterns into the world,

in variant shapes of flesh and blood;

fulfill written promises in the script.

Life would not be thought possible

If people, animals, flowers,

did not exist, here and now,

they would not be thought

anything plausible, possible.

The Grid of my Body

The grid of my body

held co-ordinates -

sparking like stars

in a black space -

dreaming of light

and my children.

‘A cell is not just a bag of juice. It is packed with solid structures, mazes of intricately folded membranes. There are about 100 million million cells in a human body, and the total area of membraneous structure inside one of us works out at more than 200 acres. That’s a respectable farm.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘For instance, Raphael, though descended from eight uninterrupted generations of painters, had to learn to paint apparently as if no Sanzio had ever handled a brush before. But he also had to learn to breathe, and digest, and circulate his blood. Although his father and mother were fully grown adults when he was conceived, he was not conceived or even born fully grown: he had to go back and begin as a speck of protoplasm, and to struggle through an embryonic lifetime, during part of which he was indistinguishable from an embryonic dog, and had beither a skull nor backbone. When he at last acquired these articles, he was for some time doubtful whether he was a bird or a fish. He had to compress untold centuries of development into nine months before he was human enough to break loose as an independent being…They must recapitulate the history of making in their own persons, however briefly they may condense it…. The time may come when the same force that compressed the deveopment of millions of years into nine months may pack many more millions into even a shorter space; so that Raphaels may be born painters as they are now born breathers and blood circulators. But they will still begin as specks of protoplasm, and acquire the faculty of painting in their mother’s womb at quite a late stage of their development.’ George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah, 1921

Where did I come from, mummy?

From my tummy, love -

which came from the dust

of stars before the world.

From love, darling,

which breathed upon the dust,

swam among new waters -

until life stirred;

cell by cell,

molecules gluing

dinosaurs and leaves -

flowers, birds, fish and animals;

ever more fantastic creatures,

until after green aeons -

time immeasureable by mind,

daddy and I were made -

against unthinkable improbability

met, filled our bodily cup of love,

sparking a brilliant, living splinter

of that original love -

kindling you in darkness

with the green wood of ourselves;

our symphonic matter -

spinning your skin,

eyes, to arcane patterns,

by a self-propelling means

still a mystery of mysteries -

though even to your fingers,

toes, see these ghosts

of creatures and plants we were

so long past – bats and eagles,

salmon, sunflower, oak;

even the bleeding rowan,

honey bee, blade of grass.

All these millennia, sweetheart,

life rehearsing, learning -

just so it could make you;

unique in all time, forever,

here, right now -

precious to the Universe,

and us, beyond measure;

sum of life’s art,

coming out of your pool,

blood still red with the fire

of that pilot love; opening your eyes,

to reveal that light of stars still shining.

Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Story
    Romantic Science
    Some Special Genes
        Homeotic Genes
        Embryo Story
        The Amazing Tale of
        Cell Division
        The ‘Selfish’ Gene
    X & Y

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