Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Story
        Mendel’s Peas
        The Human Genome Project
        Some history of the
        Human Genome Project
    Romantic Science
    Some Special Genes
    X & Y

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Gene Story

‘Science moves rapidly, but big questions take a long time to answer…it all remains simply wonderful – and will seem even more wonderful when answers have been provided. Science does not diminish the awe that human beings feel for nature as its critics have sometimes suggested…Because science seems to progress so rapidly, people tend to assume that every idea that is worth taking seriously must be hot from the presses and that last year’s notions must be dead meat. In truth, the great ideas of science take decades, even millennia, to develop. Scientists in all fields constantly revisit discussions that took place in the 19th century, or the 18th – or even in classical times. Science in truth is a deeply historical, inescapably collective pursuit that has unfolded throughout human history.’ Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell, Colin Tudge, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

I genuinely believe we are living through the greatest intellectual moment in history.Matt Ridley, Author, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000, on the mapping of the Human Genome

Science is a Great Story

Science is a great story, full of mysteries

and endings - new chapters and poetry -

from solidity, came atoms; indivisibility

into chimera - neutron, proton, electron;

causality, determination into quark, chaos.

The whole man was broken magnificently

with imagination, steel, glass and thought;

beyond bone, eye, and shadow under skin,

to the cell that dragged from first seas -

salt still in its veins, heart-root, writing;

and without acknowledging the poetry

making blood from water, no scientist

will progress to the heart of things -

other fundamentals of understanding;

where wonder is necessary, integral

part of some overall ragged equation.


Genes are so far-fetched, only God

could have thought, dreamt of them,

He having something of a special line

in miracles - the Genome so unlikely,

beautiful, strange, seemingly impossible,

poetic, only God could have pulled it off.

Whatever principles, work of nature

we represent, God is as good a name

as any for the impetus, creative spark;

driving force that makes the eye from

water, earth and light - plus the mind

contemplating this; and, indeed, itself.


Wonder - not precision then,

at the shining root of science;

there must be heart and imagination

in understanding the history of man,

his miraculous evolution from earth, water,

among the whole Universe that is his home.

Comprehension of sunset is a complex thing,

not limited by rays, spectral burning, specific

planetary movements - but spread through

warm blood reddening skin - light as ether,

pleasing to the slowing heart; in mirthless

smiling turning up the lips in reflex peace.

Inward and outward, the eyes of science

Inward and outward, the telescopic, microscopic

eyes of science - further, further in any direction,

including the place where fact, theory and mystery,

collide and interact; merge in some shining or black

place we imagine or calculate is prickled with stars,

or pure white pulsing energy; beautiful or terrifying.

Everything is connected - division artificial;

any close focus on one aspect gives illusion

of separateness, myopic visions of solitary

units operating alone, independently - but

in this universe, impossible - understanding

stars and atoms part of the same scholarship.

‘With the microscope biologists could see directly the underlying mechanisms of life, or at least began to think that this was possible. Two of the greatest of the early microscopists came close to discovering that the bodies of living creatures are compounded from a huge assemblage of cells, though neither quite did so. In Italy Marcello Malphigi (1628-94) showed, among other things, the existence of the capillaries… At about the same time a Dutch linen-draper called Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) made his own microscopes… and discovered a host of creatures too small to see with the unaided eye which he called ‘little animalcules’. Nowadays we call such animalcules ‘microbes’ and know that they include very various creatures: ‘bacteria’, and ‘protozoa’ or ‘protists’. Each of them - we would say in modern parlance - consists of a single cell. Peter the Great was among the many celebrities who flocked to Delft to see the little animalcules for themselves. Microscopes caught the imagination…Yet it was not until the 19th century that microscopists perceived that the bodies of all large creatures are built from cells, just as the mightiest cathedrals are compounded from stones.’ Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell, Colin Tudge, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

‘Among these there were, besides, very many little animalcules…on these last I saw two little legs bear the head, and two little fins at the hindmost end of the body…’twas wonderful to see…’ Antony van Leeuwenhoek, 1632-1723


Lo, in the clear heart of water,

verily, my little animalcules -

as I have named them aptly,

and for my pleasure, vanity,

at seeing them first emerging;

unlikely, exotic as the winged

beasts with faces of men

in unexplored far seas -

at swim under transparent film,

such a host!, Kingdom; jostling

like a teeming street of people -

far from fair these new creatures,

not hummingbirds or peacocks -

yet miraculous in presence, form;

secretive so long within invisibility.

I thought my peering eyes deceived;

a world within our world -

terra incognita is inhabited;

and if my polished glass eye could look

yet further, what within the animalcules?

Might the Universe keep expanding

beyond furthest star, heavens above,

and divide yet, past these creatures

on my slide; into what dark or light?

“omnis cellula e cellula”

‘In 1838 the German botanist Matthias Schleiden (1804-81) proposed that every kind of plant, however big it may be, is put together from a myriad cells, or materials produced by cells; and the following year the German physiologist Theodor Schwann (1810-82) suggested in Mirkroskopische Untersuchungen that ‘cellular formatiom’ might be ‘a universal principle for the formation of organic substances’. Schwann proposed that the individual cell simply condenses out of ‘nutrient liquid’, like crystals of salt precipitating out of a rock pool, but this misconception was soon put to rights. In 1841 the Polish-German anatomist Robert Remak (1815-65) described how cells divide and in 1855 Rudolf Carl Virchow (1821-1902), a German pathologist, proposed the dogma omnis cellula e cellula - ‘all cells come from cells’. In other words, the vast battalions of cells of which a mouse or a sheep or a human being is composed (or an oak tree or a moss or a mushroom) each derive from a single, initial cell, dividing and redividing. (Note in passing how prominent was the German role in this phase of life science: Schleiden, Shwann, Remak, Virchow.) thus began cell biology, also known as cytology, which forms one of the intellectual threads that has led to Dolly and beyond…’ Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell, Colin Tudge, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

“omnis cellula e cellula”

“Omnis cellula e cellula”;

All cells come from cells.

From the one, many -

dividing like a dance;

pattern choreographed

to a divine, single tune.

Notes sounding in the darkness,

splitting possibility’s dark belly,

like a bell ending silence;

rattling bright molecules,

each cell autographed

in its dreaming heart -

bequeathing essence, giving

all as it reads tailored script;

building melodies of wing

and eye, independent cell

children until the mother is lost

in the loud exuberance of life -

from one cell, China,

and all her people.

An Exceptionally Brief Sketch on the History of Genetics

‘The rollfold shows a timeline of landmark accomplishments in genetics and genomics, beginning with Gregor Mendel's discovery of the laws of heredity and their rediscovery in the early days of the twentieth century. Recognition of DNA as the hereditary material, determination of its structure, elucidation of the genetic code, development of recombinant DNA technologies, and establishment of increasingly automatable methods for DNA sequencing set the stage for the Human Genome Project (HGP) to  begin in 1990. Thanks to the vision of the original planners, and the creativity and determination of a legion of talented scientists who decided to make this project their overarching focus, all of the initial objectives of the HGP have now been achieved at least two years ahead of expectation, and a revolution in biological research has begun’. US National Human Genome Research Institute, 2003

From dissolution of illusory solidity,

genetics’ ancient writing, her shining

scroll unfolds, trailing seals and ribbons;

the sepia script turning slowly into print,

typed letters, screens, print-outs -

recognising chemical filaments

as amazing Erasmus Darwin foretold,

imagining two hundred years before -

binding all organic life, extant principle

of heredity displayed in all her creatures;

chemical messengers - improbable

as ostriches, owl eyes on butterflies;

leaping Mendel’s hiccup, recreating

his experiments proved with peas -

finding reality among the improbable

and glorious, humble showing divine;

then such discovered artistry -

mechanical and chemical art,

dance; the Double Helix spiraling

in the mind and cell - replicating,

combining in the very visible dance

of life-in-progress - self referential,

skilful, rehearsed over four billion years -

now read, syllable by syllable; each word

by word, letter by letter to the whole -

shattered and rebuilt; reading creatures

beneath the skin and wing, fur and fin,

to the written heart of communal cells.

Until ourselves - revealed, transcripted,

seen under the ancient light of creation,

to be as them - of them, from them –

all therefore, as one; Earth’s children.  

‘…James A Secord has convincingly demonstrated that the anonymous publication of Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Edinburgh, 1845) had a galvanising effct on public discussion of evolutionist claims, from its first appearance in 1844 through its fourteen editions.’ Gillian Beer, Introduction to Charles Darwin Origin of Species, 1859, Oxford University Press, 1998

‘In natural history, too, Darwin was not alone. Robert Chambers, a publisher from Edinburgh, had caused ripples with his anonymous work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. "Every element of his theory and much of the evidence he draws upon for his theory could be found in the surrounding science and social life of the time," points out Professor Browne. "It's not all that unreasonable that somebody like Wallace would come up with the same idea. But even before that there was Robert Chambers, whose theory is not at all like Darwin's but he's still proposing an evolutionary scheme, as did someone who hardly ever gets mentioned, Herbert Spencer.’ Knowing Darwin, Ian Jones, Wellcome Trust, 2003

‘The bird which is drawn to the water by its need of finding there the prey on which it lives, separates the digits of its feet in trying to strike the water and move about on the surface…thus in the course of time there are formed large webs which unite the digits of ducks, geese, etc., as we actually find them. In the same way efforts to swim, that is to push against the water so as to move about in it, have stretched the membranes between the digits of frogs, sea-toroises, the otter, beaver, etc.’ Jean Baptiste Lamarck, 1744-1829

‘Appointed Professor of ‘insects and worms’ at the Museum of Natural history, [Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829)] reformed the study of invertebrates. His Zoological Philosophy (1809) propounded a theory of evolution half a century before Darwin’s Origin of Species. It argues that animals, birds and fishes exercise willpower to adapt themselves to their living conditions. They strengethen some organs by use, and weaken others by underuse, and pass on these acquired characteristics to the offspring…Lamarck really held as his fundamental proposition that living organisms changed because they wanted to. As he stated it, the great factor in Evolution is use and disuse. If you have no eyes, and want to see, you will finally get eyes…this seems absurd to inconsiderate people at the first blush; but… it is just by this process that a child tumbling about the floor becomes a boy walking erect…[Lamarckism] appealed, too, to George Bernard Shaw. Brainpower and energy, such as his own, could, he believed, bring about a New Jerusalem through ’Creative Evolution.’ Peter Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science

‘The Greeks were wrong who said our eyes have rays;/ Not from these sockets or these sparkling poles/ Comes the illumination of our days./ It was the sn that bored these two blue holes.// It was the song of doves begot the ear/ And not the ear that first conceived of sound…// The yielding water, the repugnant stone,/ The poisoned berry and the flaring rose/ Attired in sense the tactless finger-bone/ And set the taste-buds and inspired the nose.//… Newtonian numbers set to cosmic lyres/ Whelmed us in the whirling worlds we could not know,/ And by the imagined floods of our desires/ the voice of Sirens gave us vertigo.’ The environment creates the organ; Lamarck Elaborated, Richard Wilbur

‘After Lamarck came Darwin, who attributed evolution not to the inheritance of acquired characteristics, but to ‘Natural Selection’, i.e. random genetic mutation plus the survival on those mutations that were better fitted to their environment than others.’ Peter Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science

‘The fittest would survive.’ Alfred Russel Wallace, My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions (1905)

‘The great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was co-founder, with Darwin of the theory of evolution and inaugurated the modern study of biogeography.’ Faber Book of Science

Examining the production and not the means -

evidence, empirical observation, by necessity;

blind to active skeletal script, shrouded by life,

yet illuminated; principle and illustration one -

zebra stripe, winter hare camouflage, peacock,

dodo; surviving dragon, lion - so many stories

written in the world, making creatures from earth,

water - self-perpetuating, driven by reproduction -

sexual selection; too brute principles for such beauty

as is seen, motivation under skin; how can it be so -

speculation from available perception, augmentation

by imagination - when discovered and undiscovered

was still a manageable country - yet seemed a foreign

land, almost impossible to reach; and such exotic facts.

‘Charles Darwin (1909-82) was terrified by his own ideas. He was already convinced, by the late 1830s that mankind and the other animal species had not been separately created by God, but had evolved from a common ancestor – probably, Darwin speculated, a bisexual mollusc with a vertebra but no head. But the blow to Christianity and the dignity of man inherent in such a theory would, he feared, encourage atheistic agitators and social revolutionaries. Wedded to respectability and social order, he refrained from publishing his epoch-making work On the Origin of species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Only when he discovered that a younger biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), had reached similar conclusions independently did he steel himself and go public.’ John Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science

Imagine - clot, coagulation of a theory that would blow

the collective mind of that whole age and society - how

men thought of their own existence – how night

looked the same, bright stars impassive, but half

expecting the Moon to crack and crumble - stars

condense, explode, burn out; come hurling down

in flames through shattered sky, at such an idea.

That turning in the mind - fossilising the pebble

of thought - become shining pearl of truth, beauty,

light, surrounding the hurt to the scheme of things

as was, its seductive comforts, good certainties;

his mind an apprehensive oyster closing hinges

to communication, until prised, urgently shuked

open by another forming the same conclusion –

the Evolutionary genie would out its history box,

whatever his disquiet, kind reluctance - a theory

to recast our vision of the world. Imagine Darwin

labouring at his notes, half expecting the lightning

bolt from a God he thought he had proved away,

tumbled from His throne – in these study nights,

to see a white figure which had walked the world

since the Beginning, dissolving - angels, cherubs,

demons and devils, all spiralling down, screaming

like water to a plughole, descending into nothing -

afraid of what might come to fill such absences -

drawn to the void, chaos of civilization, humility.

A bisexual mollusc with a vertebra but no head

If ever you feel overwhelmed - socially inferior, shy -

remember that person too was once a bisexual mollusc

with a vertebra but no head - and, on close inspection -

seems to have evolved so scarcely in the brain; indeed,

appearance. And if that fails, remember they were also

a worm; a small shrew-like mammal cowering at night.

And whenever you feel you’re not doing very well,

a flop, a failure, fucked up has been; just remember

it ain’t so bad at all, when you think you have evolved

here from a little bisexual mollusk with a vertebra but

no head - just eating pizza,

watching TV, is a miracle.