‘The Human Genome will be the foundation of biology for decades, centuries or millennia to come.’ Sir John Sulston, Leader, UK Human Genome Project

‘Today we celebrate the revelation of the first draft of the human book of life… it is humbling for me and awe inspiring to realise that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.’                         Dr Francis Collins, Leader, US Human Genome Project

‘Being able to read the Genome will tell us more about our origins, evolution, nature and our minds that all the efforts of science to date - it is  the greatest intellectual monument in history… The three letter words of the genetic code are the same in every creature – CGA mean arginine and GCG means alanine in bats, beetles, beech trees, bacteria…whatever animal, plant, bug, you look at, if it is alive it will use the same dictionary and know the same code. All life is one…The unity of life is an empirical fact.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘In the beginning was the Word.’ John 1, 1, The Bible

‘…we find poetry, as it were, substantiated and realized in nature: yea, nature itself disclosed to us... as at once the poet and the poem!’                                                 Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘All life is chemistry.’ Jan Baptista van Helmont, 1648

‘The Human Genome Project, the reading of the book of mankind, does have the potential to impact on the lives of every person on this planet.’                                     Dr Michael Dexter, Director, The Wellcome Trust, UK

‘If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present: he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist or Mineralogist will be as proper subjects of the poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed.’                                                                                                                             Wordsworth, Preface, Second Edition, Lyrical Ballads, 1800

The mapping of the Human Genome – the entire genetic code of three billion letters required to create a human being – has been hailed as the greatest intellectual achievement of mankind. More significant than splitting the atom or landing on the Moon. Previously described as the ‘Holy Grail’ of biology, the deciphering of the human genetic code is considered by many to be the greatest scientific breakthrough of all time. One commentator, calling it the ‘greatest intellectual monument in history’, tells us that that not only will it revolutionise biology, but ‘anthropology, psychology, medicine, palaeontology and virtually ever other science as well’.

But along with these ‘scientific’ pronouncements, comes language and concepts of another, more unexpected sort. The Human Genome being described - by scientists - as ‘the handwriting of God’, ‘the human instruction book previously known only to God’; even as the elucidation of ‘the language in which God created life’. It was announced to the media and the public in the most poetic of language; in exulted tones, full of breathless metaphor and simile-ridden statements. Everywhere, words such as ‘wonder’, ‘awe’, ‘miracle’ and ‘magic’, could be heard. Talk of morality and ethics; about ‘good and evil’. Scientists expressing huge admiration for the ‘beauty’ of the Human Genome. And it was this use of ‘poetic’, high flown, sometimes even biblical language in an unfamiliar context - not just the enormity of the science - that first drew me to the subject. And not just the scientists, but journalists, headline-writers, presidents and prime ministers; all grappling for suitable similes, metaphors, superlatives. Words with enough resonance and gravitas, enough power, to convey to non-scientists – i.e. the public – this vast achievement. Its seemingly limitless implications and possibilities for everyone on the planet. ‘Glory’, ‘God’, ‘magic’, ‘soul’ – here were scientists bandying about the kind of words that most modern poets, never mind anyone else, would hardly dare use. And certainly not what you expect to hear emanating from the research laboratory. These words and images reaching out across the divide, groping around outwith normal scientific language – now virtually incomprehensible anyway to most non-specialists - for ways to express to the rest of us what the work actually means. And, what could not be ignored; this idea of the Human Genome’s ‘beauty’. Indeed, the Human Genome’s beauty was obvious, and captured me from the start. As an aesthetic motif, a symbol, as well as a stunning scientific and technical achievement - a true synthesis of art and science - it seems unrivalled in its power and possibilities.

Developed over four billion years of Evolution, the Human Genome is, however, freshly expressed in each new life; still busily assimilating, conserving, adapting, preserving - printing itself over and over from the first cell… Even, ultimately connected to the stuff of sea and earth; water, light and stardust. Linked with amoebae, bacteria, sea creatures, fish, worms… Sharing common ancestors with leaf and flower, with stumbling mammals, soaring birds... Yet, it is a living work of biological art, still evolving.

A major focus of this project is ‘Comparative Genomics’ - the study of comparisons of the human code with the deciphered genetic codes of other creatures. This is now discovering the truly phenomenal, mind-blowing similarities between ourselves and all other living organisms on Earth. For instance, recent research shows, almost unbelievably, that human beings and mice share 99% genetic similarity - we even have the genes to make a tail! And creatures such as Puffer Fish, worms, rats and Fruit Flies are also being used as research models for human beings - to elucidate human disease and potential cures - due to our amazingly conserved similarities. Even the humble California Purple Sea Urchin shares 7077 of its 23,300 genes with human beings! Fruit Fly genes can be swapped with human genes and still operate due to our common ancestors millions of years ago… Birds and men share very similar genes affecting limb buds – perhaps explaining something of our fascination with flying and angels. Not to mention our preserved genetics with flowering plants and leaves – 75% of our genetic make-up is the same as a pumpkin…This increasingly revealed unity among all living creatures, spanning four billion years of Evolution and still preserved, incredibly, within the ‘writing’ of the Human Genome, is a central theme of my project; along with our profound genetic connection with the threatened environment – the very soil and seas - of planet Earth itself.

Within the Human Genome, we are seeing genes that have been preserved and adapted through the vast marches of time; or lie dormant in the Genome, gently mouldering or sunk, but still telling their achingly long stories. The fabulous, fantastic, almost-impossible-to-believe, history of how our particular species came to be. After four billion years of Evolution, we now have the opportunity and means, at the start of the 21st Century, to see right to the amazing heart of the process; and vitally, to recognise our profound kinship with the other creatures with whom we share planet Earth. Indeed, to see clearly our absolute connection to our environment, literally the earth of our home planet from which we evolved. An environment which, of course, is in dire need, despite this obvious tale of dependency and interconnectedness the Genome now tells.

To see these fabulous scientific truths printed before us in the language of genes means that it is, indeed, time to dust off the word ‘miraculous’. It is not difficult to see why, very quickly, the implications of the deciphering of the Human Genome start spinning off fruitfully around the spheres of religion, chemistry, biology, philosophy, ecology, man’s perspective on his position in the world, and so on… And even this very ‘language’ of genetics is directly appealing to a writer. The stuff of genetics - DNA, genomes, proteins, etc. - is expressed metaphorically in linguistic terms, as a chemical ‘language’; described in terms of ‘letters’, ‘sentences’, ‘paragraphs’. The processes involved in the cell’s chemical factories are called ‘Translation’ and ‘Transcription’… In fact, the Human Genome itself is commonly known as ‘The Book of Life’. Though, I will argue, it seems more akin in nature to a poem.

To me, the elucidation of the Human Genome and the astounding revelations of Comparative Genomics offer a real, powerful, productive area of contact; a place where the person who is not a scientist or specialist, can grasp, wonder, learn and enjoy simultaneously. This science cannot be fully expressed in the highly specialised technical language understood only by the few. Indeed, it is scientists themselves who already recognise and understand this and - aware of the acute need to communicate the huge importance of this work and its implications - who therefore reach out with this other kind of metaphorical, colourful, and ‘poetic’ language. What better person than a poet, then, to whom this language is their ‘first’ language, to throw themselves unapologetically into the mix! To add their own perspective; approaching from a different angle – offering an aesthetic vision to make the picture of these remarkable scientific developments more complete. Not to become a second-rate, cobbled-together, amateur ‘pseudo-artscientist’, but bringing artistic vision to bear on the science and thus revealing different, wider – and valid - ways of seeing. Of contending, understanding, and communicating. Wordsworth believed such synthesised vision was possible – and desirable. He foresaw such conditions even then, in 1800:  ‘If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present,’ he wrote in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. ‘He will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist or Mineralogist will be as proper subjects of the poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed.’ What more ‘proper’ subject, then, could there be than the spectacular field of genetics; the huge implications of the Human Genome and Comparative Genomics? 

And who might not be afraid of straying into such ‘foreign’ territory. The specialisation of science has been increasing rapidly since the Victorian era; with vast developments in every field since the amateur ‘gentleman’ naturalist or chemist could keep abreast of scientific endeavour and knowledge - and contribute his own findings meaningfully. These days are utterly past; never to return. But here lies danger. We have therefore given up even trying to contend – just the title of most scientific papers these days is incomprehensible to most inhabitants of the planet. And not just the wilfully ignorant; but the well educated, the interested - the intelligent citizen. The announcements about the mapping of the Human Genome were headlines around the world, with the trumpet fanfares of these moving, poetic, bold, and almost Biblical pronouncements and declarations, yet it was quickly off the front page and by many already forgotten, despite its vast ramifications for us all. And do you know anyone who is aware they are very closely related, genetically, to a Puffer fish; a cousin to a pumpkin - almost identical to a mouse?

But such division between science, scientists, and ‘the rest of us’ cannot continue – the implications of the Human Genome and Comparative Genomics are genuinely ‘awesome’; the impact of the new genetics will be on us all. The ethics of such scientific achievement, and how it should be practically applied, is a matter for everyone, and we must contend. If we cannot contend directly, therefore - because the technical knowledge required is now utterly beyond most of us, and always will be - what we need are ways to see, understand, discuss, contribute. The role of the popular science writer as a ‘filter’ is obviously vital; but along with this, I believe there is no better ‘way in’ than the arts; and no better language than poetry to help this process. Poetry is the ‘right’ kind of language; it can be used to express grand concepts, but will not abandon feeling, reaction, emotional responses as invalid or ‘wrong’ because these things are ‘non-factual’; or rather, cannot be expressed as equations, computations or chemistry. Poetry’s ‘special’ language is able to incorporate, bridge, and explore these parts of understanding as first nature; as an expansion of vision and perspective, thus contributing to greater understanding. The prevalent view of science as being somehow an absolute dictator whose stark ‘facts’ must be accepted unquestioningly as the entire ‘truth’ - contrasting with the intuitive notion of the ‘messier’, more blurred, interconnecting, seeping understanding of life that being alive instead presents to us - is no longer adequate. And even the most detailed blow-by-blow minute breakdown of the anatomy and processes of a flower, down to the very last chemistry and molecule, misses out something vital in the nature of that flower if this description conveys nothing of the flower’s beauty and aesthetic impact on the human senses. The purely ‘factual’ picture lacks adequate range of vision to present the whole meaning of the flower. In addition, we are simply ‘missing out’ on some of the most fabulous and mind-expanding findings ever made by mankind; life revealed at its most marvellous, creative, and spellbinding.

It seems also that we must have a duty to contend with this science; to make efforts to understand. I have presented the battle between the private and public sectors during the mapping of the Human Genome - this genuinely thrilling tale - as an ‘epic’, because it truly is of this magnitude. To keep the Human Genome, the very book of mankind, out of private hands, was a true battle of ethics; a vital moral as well as scientific battleground. And one that went on largely unseen by the public, despite the enormous scale of what was at stake. Our very identity; the fruit of Evolution, of Nature, could have been claimed as private property! But it isn’t over - even as we speak, individuals and companies are lodging ‘patents’ for thousands of human genes and gene sequences; claiming them, therefore as private property. The very stuff of life - Natures ancient tools developed over four billion years! Nature’s spectacular inventions. What a nerve! What an outrage! How can this be allowed to continue unchallenged by the great army of the public – if only they knew about it. That is why this degree of total specialisation; this state of total division to which we have arrived, where most people know absolutely nothing – zero, zilch - about science, cannot continue. These ethical questions are important. What people, society at large, think, really matters. Imagination matters. Our brains are expansive enough to think on these matters adequately without a PhD in Genetics. We are creative thinkers; and this chemistry of genetics is creative. The Human Genome is a work of biological art. So art is the ideal entry. It is a gateway to allow the non-scientist to enter and contend. You don’t even need a GCSE in Chemistry. Or Biology. I have none. I am without any doubt the ‘arty’ sort – poet, arts education, Philosophy degree specialising in Aesthetics and Metaphysics, etc…Also journalist, columnist, artist… It’s all in the mix; and it is a mixture - whatever I have learned so far, in any field, is employed here in my poetic exploration of the Genome. And so strong, so dazzling was the aesthetic dimension of the Genome, that the challenge of genetics, of this most fascinating of sciences, was pleasurable – especially after finding ‘go-betweens’ who were good at explaining the technical aspects…

Quite early on – and obviously to my arty delight – I realised that the very  project I was writing was coming to imitate the Genome in its nature. This was not a conceit but a natural ‘evolution’! As I researched – (don’t get me wrong, I did actually get bravely stuck in there before stumbling about artily in the science) - and assembled extracts from academic papers and journals; from guides, interviews, websites, popular science books - newspaper reports, scientific writings, historical documents, poetry past and contemporary, philosophy, etc… I began to feel that these excellent notes and extracts themselves should not be excised. Many of them were beautiful and profound in their own right; or snappy, wonderfully concise explanations. Or highly technical. They could, literally, speak for themselves; and the poems needn’t therefore be forced to ‘explain’ the science directly, (unless they wanted to), but could elucidate, react, discuss, and hopefully illuminate. And given that this work was being done on a computer – the first time I had ‘woven’ poetry around texts like this - this new way of working was therefore now both possible, practical, and natural. The extracts could be explored, assimilated, adapted… gathered, moved, updated, added into, reacted to in situ… embedded in the actual manuscript of the book - informing, interwoven, inspiring... I also liked the idea of a ‘compendium’, or the spirit of the Victorian ‘miscellany’; and of extracts drawn from diverse sources, but all connected in some way to the idea of the whole project. And, in the spirit of genetics, revealing some of the ‘workings’ behind a manuscript, which are normally expunged in the final ‘end product’.

I really enjoyed - probably using my journalistic experience - cherry-picking pleasing or particularly informative, illuminating or beautiful nuggets. Winnowing book extracts, speeches, academic papers, thoughts and reflections; snipping bits of text, poems, interviews, news stories... In the general course of four years of working on the manuscript, this ‘genomic’ manuscript even accumulated ‘mutations’ due to transferring material from the internet, or from hand-written notes, or from different sources and formats - not to mention several computer problems encountered over the time of the composition of the project. Some developing sections required updating or altering, even as they were being created – the painting-the Forth-Rail-Bridge problem of exploring genetics. In that trying to keep hold of being ‘up to date’ in this rapidly expanding field is like trying to keep hold of a particularly large, slimy, slippery, muscular, struggling salmon intent on reaching its spawning ground upstream... Or sometimes a connection would suddenly send up an unexpected tendril – or spark a new direction altogether… The work developed. Appropriately, it evolved. The script was constantly added to and built upon, incorporating new research as the vibrant, rolling science constantly unfolded; or leading me onward and further into different areas affected by the Genome – from stardust to stem cells - in and out and back again! Always embroidering new material into the whole. Fittingly, in fact, the project’s ‘genome’ was never static…

Some of the work was written in the wildest, most unspoiled reaches of the Scottish West Highlands, during the most intense contact with nature; other work done at the core of the city centre. In the most exulted of spirits; and most excruciatingly low. Some sources came to me via other people ‘backwards’ – i.e. after I had already written about certain subjects, and were added in gratefully; or even gleefully at such excellent, qualified, ‘expert’ support for my own modest thoughts… The poetry also spins out where it will – sometimes moving from poetic sequences tightly meshed with scientific facts or extracts, all the way out to memory switches simply tripped by the subject. Or into wider reflection, using this science as a springboard. The power of the Human Genome as a grand, central, unifying motif means that the willing explorer is drawn into a host of territories. Everything from the genetics of sex - the ongoing ‘sex wars’ of the X and Y chromosomes - and hence to the historical tension between science and the ‘feminine’, especially as personified by ‘Mother Nature’ and how this might relate to current attitudes to the environment - to the abandonment of science by poets…The estrangement of the public and science; and the ethics of the Human Genome Project. It explores such subjects as gene therapy, stem cells, and cloning; and some of the new possibilities in medicine. It contemplates how religion and science came to be ‘at war’ - and how they might now become reconciled in the scheme of the Genome, in consideration of the metaphor of ‘The Word’, and the genetic connection between man and earth. The aesthetic qualities of science are also admired and considered, thinking about the interface of dreams and visions – such as Kekule’s visions of carbon atoms - and religious thoughts with the creative aspects of science; and how science has not always been ‘boxed off’, sterilised from other aspects of the mind.

Not everything is a fully-formed ‘poem’, but perhaps a ‘poetic reaction’ - a sequence, note, comment, or consideration. A poetic wandering or reflection. And I wandered freely - and allowed myself to be led. I explored, drawn here and there; entranced. Certain important themes are built upon incrementally – just in case you thought I was repeating myself – and hopefully echo throughout the manuscript; often leading to a particular focus at some point, but binding the whole, wide-ranging manuscript together. Certain creatures are frequently used as ‘model organisms’; in both the scientific sense in that they are being studied in Comparative Genomics for their genetic similarities to humans – (see the ‘Gene Zoo’) in particular - but also the sense of being symbolic, particularly vivid to us; and therefore used to build up meaning about our shared origins and so on. The seeds for later or expanded themes are often laid in earlier sections – such as the public/private sector moral battle surrounding the Genome - to be examined more thoroughly in the course of the project. So the whole, at the end of this process, is interconnected by many running and embroidered threads - ‘DNA-ish’ threads; if that’s not pushing the metaphor too far…

The gorgeous concept of Serendipity was also frequently in evidence, with one book – very kindly sent to me by a doctor who had attended a reading on an entirely different subject - proving invaluable. A fantastic Highland librarian here - a radio or TV programme or bookshop find there; an amiable, highly communicative or particularly illuminating scientist just at the right time…The threads and lights just kept leading me on - and around and about - tying it all together. Some projects just have a good star over them. However, as in the ‘junk’ DNA of the Genome, the text also shows the marks of technical difficulties with computers - deletions, viruses, the odd lost reference or textual error… Eagle-eyed readers may even spot some peculiar omissions - perhaps regarding illustrations of what had been a more exactly researched chronological examination of the relationship between poetry and science, for instance. This endeavour was ruined by mice shredding many notes, particularly those regarding both the most ancient and most modern and contemporary poetry. As I was adding hand-written notes to the top of my box in the Highlands, the home-making mice were shredding them invisibly upwards from the bottom of my box - in what I can now (just about) view in a comical manner. I pieced together what remains, and continue to do so, but have not the heart, or time, to begin again – any help gratefully received… Of course, given that the notes contained poetry – and, indeed, references to themselves, what effect eating the notes might have had on the mice, given our entirely similar genetic make-up, is examined... Though enough survives to show the astounding prescience shown by several poets about scientific matters, using purely the power of the mind – along the way I fell much in love with oft-ridiculed Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, who describes DNA almost exactly, without so much as a glimpse at a Double Helix. All hail reflection and imagination. 

Practically, I begin with a ‘Primer’, to explain the very basic scientific terms required, such as the nature of DNA and genomic sequencing; and what the Human Genome and Comparative Genomics actually are… But after that, as mentioned, I do not force the poetry to ‘explain’ or ‘illustrate’ the science directly. This is absolutely NOT an academic textbook - or a comprehensive exposition of the new genetics - but a poetic exploration; hopefully an illumination. Though I hope energetic and committed in loosely charting from the announcement of the mapping of the draft Human Genome, neither is it a ‘history’ - though there are such elements, among many others, in the book’s ‘genome’. My gateway to the Genome is art and poetry; and naturally, I was drawn more to certain scientists and subjects because of their aesthetic potential and appeal; or simply their ability to explain clearly. Or if they had a funny name… Certain aspects of genomics obviously have greater aesthetic impact and yield than others; the idea that all living organisms, including us, are bound together, written in the same genetic language - using just four letters – is truly marvellous! The idea that we should have 99% genetic similarity with a mouse I still find so astounding and wonderful it keeps me off my sleep. As one newspaper report exclaimed – ‘Men are mere mice without tails’. Retaining the genes that could make a tail if ‘switched on’ – how about that! Despite every appearance to the contrary, we are the close cousin of a Zebrafish! In sharing these similar limb bud genes with birds, we once had wings! Were pterodactyls! Crawled from the swamp! It is fabulous! It is now clear that there is no work of fiction half as fantastic as life itself. And whereas the scientist might have to stop at genetic sequences showing this incredible conserved similarity of limb bud genes, the poet – me! - can wander into the territory of angels and dreams of flight from the springboard of the science. This, I have not hesitated to do…

And, please note also; anyone who does or doesn’t - who might, or a bit…or sometimes/anytime…or in some way/slightly/in a way they can’t define…really wants to/absolutely can’t… believe in God, I use my own lexicon of belief and meaning regarding my thought and feelings about God. About what the concept of God means to me. I use the word ‘holy’ frequently; because I believe these intimate, evolved processes, this chemistry of genetics, is holy. God is a Chemist. I see no contention or conflict between this fabulous science and religion; indeed, in my project I argue the very opposite. Some of this shared religious, grand language - the means used to express the findings about genetics - is a clue. These words are ‘big’ enough to accommodate more ideas, more expansive notions; the imposed ‘definitions’ being far too narrow in my opinion. It’s time God was given a ‘makeover’ from some of the more constricting and old-fashioned images that have been imposed upon Him. Though, curiously, a fundamental identification with life and Nature seems part of this; representing a return to aspects of God that have perhaps been mislaid - with dire consequences - in the modern world. The symbol of the Human Genome seems to me to offer a ‘marriage’ of science and religion in the 21st Century. The potency of the idea of ‘The Word’ is the stunning centrepiece of both. The Genome is a code of three billion letters; life begins there. Being and before-being are bridged. Life is, literally, the Word. God is a Writer. Science and religion are agreed! Hurrah! Won’t Darwin be delighted - everybody can be happy!

I abhor this limiting segregation that has come to divide life and visions of existence. And how important it is to many people to keep things divided. If you believe this, then you can’t believe that; the needless impoverishment of such pressure. For instance, some would exclude you from Christianity unless you believe Genesis absolutely literally; that everything was made in seven (modern 24-hour) days; there was a geographical garden somewhere, and so on. These artificial man-made strictures that will not allow imagination; the power of illustrative narrative, explanatory myth, beautiful symbolism… Will not accept any consequences of the infiltration of the hand of man; of time, interpretation, translation, emphasis… Such strictures are unnecessary. The idea of Genesis alone is far too BIG, symbolic and wonderful for such limitation. The ‘all or nothing’ approach to both science and religion is weak-minded; not big or generous enough thinking to contend with the intellectual and emotional power of man, surely as God-given as anything. And thus, tragically, the modern majority are ‘turned off’, or forced to ‘choose’, and therefore needlessly shut out from the pleasure, guidance, meaning, encouragement and comfort of Christianity – i.e. the good bits. And from greater knowledge of a more expansive concept of God. Nobody should, or can, claim God exclusively for themselves and their own narrowed interpretations. Particularly when the central concept of love for one’s fellow man - genetically-twinned to the point of 99.99% - often seems to drop out; (and doesn’t it always seem those very least likely to be granted Holy Broadband, ‘Dial-a-Deity’ powers, who claim a hotline to God?). But you can’t blame God for some of his ‘followers’, as one of the poems in my project says. And likewise, there are those who would shut you out of Science if you have religious thoughts or beliefs; believing science to have ‘proved’ God out of existence. Even a few who increasingly seem, in fact, to be unaccountably hostile to any notion of God; even, bizarrely, a God of love. Really, ‘fundamentalist atheists’. This, also, is far too clean-cut and limiting; their criticisms based on a man-made description of God and their own definition of what belief means; the wrongful identification of religious thought with ignorance and narrow-mindedness, rather than expansive explorations, compassion and connections. Just read the great James Clerk Maxwell’s thoughts about God and the Universe - how could anyone then say, digesting the shining thoughts of a fabulous scientist of his stature, that ideas of God only spring from ignorance, or a genetic virus…

To me, God is a far bigger concept than we have been allowed to have for a long time; truly a God of the living natural world as well as what we define as spirit. The stunning truth is that genetics and religion seem agreed we come from earth and water; even if in the science narrative we take a bit longer... like four billion years. The gorgeous, beautiful symbolism of coming from water and clay, from the garden – as we do indeed come from earth and light, water, flora and fauna - the power and practical import of this metaphor, should not be underestimated or dismissed. I find support and synthesis for many religious ideas in this science of genetics. And that’s the point - everything has become far too divided and specialised. Not just the ordinary man and science, but religion and the ordinary man - science and religion; art and science. Yet this simply does not reflect the ‘smudgier’, ‘messier’, more blurred experience of being alive. This is wrong; it is not a comfortable or natural development in being a human being. Therefore, I have not hesitated to use words like mystery, grace, holiness, magic; indeed, I explore why I have felt the need hitherto - and have been so advised, as a poet - to hold back from such words as being somehow ‘unfashionable’, or old fashioned, when here are scientists, in the context of the Genome, bandying about ‘magic’ and ‘wonder’ and ‘God’ quite freely! While poets often sit in the background introspectively writing about such burning matters as their sex lives (or lack of it); subjects only of interest to one person on the planet… (possibly two).

For just as the scientist has become segregated due to the ‘knowledge gap’, the poet has also become shut out – where once he was important in expounding explanations to society, to the people. And poetry, despite its immense power, has largely stagnated in the backwater of the poet’s completely personal and limited perspective. Science - and the public - have largely left him behind, crying into his (solipsistic) soup. Yet what a loss, when it is to the special language of poetry that people turn in times of great emotion or importance – searching for something that only poetry can say. Philosophers also, when there has never been more need in the world for careful reflection before action, have also been sucked largely into an academic vacuum, whereby their glittering thoughts are often only exchanged with each other; and, although the ‘experts’, they are not consulted when ethical matters of public concern are under scrutiny. These total divisions, whereby specialists in one field hardly dare dip a toe in another – and are also totally alien to the general public on their sofas - are limiting and harmful to society and the world in general. All types of labelling, division and specialisation, do not adequately reflect this general ‘smudginess’ of life; the seeping boundaries of thought, with no sharp edges - and the need for a more complete picture involving many visions and illustrative stories. Different kinds of meaning to help build a better, more colourful, pleasing, meaningful - and, indeed, accurate, picture.

Even science itself does not have the ‘objectivity’ that many attribute to it - the personal influence of the scientist enters the field for a start, no matter his protestations of complete objectivity. Sadly, money also influences what is done. Nor is it the only mode of thought valuable, the ‘One’ answer, but part of it; as is imagination and art - even everyday experience. Language and interpretation; application, moral stance – as evidenced nowhere more clearly than the moral battle for the soul of the Human Genome – really matter in science too. The scientist must record, examine, communicate his findings; what they mean. Particularly to the non-scientist. Semantics matter. Words, illustrative phrases, can have huge, and sometimes unforeseen - and inaccurate - ramifications. They can distort the truth. Metaphor is not just a linguistic tool but a very powerful tool, which can have real, practical impact on the world. Just look at the remarkable power - and depressing excuse for miserable behaviour - of the metaphor of the ‘Selfish Gene’; when it should more properly have been called ‘The Co-operative Gene’. Of course, this doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Just as Charles Darwin himself didn’t actually mean the survival of the ‘fittest’ in the sense of strongest, most bullying, domineering and savagely competitive, but the ‘aptest’; he changed the word in an attempt to clarify his meaning, but thus unwittingly unleashed a zillion wrong-headed interpretations of his work, with some dreadful practical consequences. All from misinterpretation of the intended meaning of one word! How powerful are metaphors. How explosive are words. And scientists are reliant on both to communicate their work.

The significance of the new genetics comes at the most appropriate and needful time. More and more wedges are being driven between people – war and religious strife; argument and tension on a global scale – yet, ironically, genetics is now telling us, proves with utter determination, that we are all brothers. This is not sappy liberal-speak, but a magnificent truth now backed up by science, by genomics - we share 99.9% of our genetic identity; that tiny genetic difference being all that separates any human being on the planet - from peasant to king, black, brown or white. Racism is shown to be utterly illogical; in fact, impossible. We are so closely related, it is like hating yourself. What has been deciphered is OUR Human Genome; the whole of humanity. What divides us is nothing compared to the four billion years that unites us.

So hold on to your seat – science is saying what might have been dismissed previously as feel-good, hippy gobbledygook. Hurrah! We are, indeed, all ‘one’. Science, the new genetics, tells us. We are all connected. Not just with every fellow human being around the world - from kings and presidents to every starving child at the furthest geographical location - but with that flower on your desk…your dog, that fruit fly, every fish in the sea…every mitochondrial cell back to the sea, to the first molecule…This makes a difference. The current environmental catastrophe is felt by everyone; not for many, yet, as a practical reality, but as a mental, spiritual reality. These feelings make much more sense now, in the light of this new science. These feelings cannot be dismissed as some residual, superstitious airy-fairy paganish stuff; no wonder we feel the decimation of species - the pollution of the sea, of earth, the poisoning of food, the mass extinction taking place as we speak - so deeply; we are, quite literally, all these organic entities. This is not tree-hugging, wishy-washy stuff, but the messages from the most rigorous and cutting-edge science of the 21st Century. We share much of their identity. We, human beings, are an elaboration on a theme. We are complex organic workings on an ancient shared script. The script of all life.  No wonder it truly ‘hurts’ to hear the magnificent snow leopard and tiger are exiting existence; the spectacular and much-needed Poles are melting, taking the white bears with them. The terrible, wanton damage we have caused means sunlight is interfering with the genetic make-up of cells, giving us cancer…That GM crops are ‘escaping’…That just as we discover our astounding similarity to fish, we are destroying the fabulous oceans and all their creatures…As we ravage the rainforests, we interfere with the very production of oxygen; and annihilate flora and fauna that could perhaps easily provide all the ‘clean’ medicines and fuel we could ever desire. We are all co-dependent, interconnected organisms. May this new science help to achieve what most of us want: gorgeous, incredible, amazing, planet Earth - our home with which we are intimately connected, which is part of us, as we are part of it - treated with respect and saved from its current fate. In a hurry. How wonderful, and timely, to have the words of science behind this struggle, when emotional response is dismissed or ignored as too nebulous in an argument compared to ‘fact’.

The current work being done on ‘model’ organisms like mouse and Zebrafish – where conserved or similar gene sequences are easier to see than in the ‘messier’ Human Genome - will have immense implications for the study of disease and medicine. Some commentators say that Comparative Genomics is actually more important than the sequencing of the Human Genome itself. Likewise, the truly magical ability of stem cells to turn into, well, anything, offers staggering possibilities… The ethical considerations, the clear moral dilemmas that genetic engineering is already creating, are deep and far-reaching. Possibilities run from long dreamt-of cures for hideous diseases and prevention of terrible illnesses, to ‘designer’ children and manipulation of genes for trivial ends for the wealthy. Work is underway on ‘artificial’ organisms…The nature of how such knowledge is employed is the responsibility of every one of us. All us products of the fantastic Genome!

The whole point is that we are being shown that having, or being, ‘specialists’ in just one thing is not enough – we now need to connect, join up somehow. Society has become utterly divided, to its detriment. Science journalists and writers, too, play a vital and increasingly important role in ‘bridging’ the knowledge gap, in a different way to the artist or philosopher, and were an invaluable ‘filtering’ resource for my project. Also crucial were freely accessible, expert and detailed sources of information, such as the Wellcome Trust; and intelligent but clearly explained, wide-ranging, non-biased websites such as the BBC’s. The Human Genome Project itself was a joint effort of vast proportions - the UK was the largest contributor to the project, with one third of the Genome sequenced at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute - but it involved hundreds of scientists in the UK, China, Germany, Japan and the US. It took Nature four billion years to create the Human Genome, hidden from our eyes until this ‘Genomic’ era; and when the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium finally completed the mapping of the Human Genome in 2003 – after 13 years of international effort – and published its description of the finished sequence in 2004, following the earlier ‘Draft’, it was the product of a 13-year collaborative effort to read the ‘Book of Life’. Researchers continue now with detailed analyses of chromosomes and specific sequences; to attempt to convert the description into practical applications for research and medicine. In some ways, the end of the reading of the Human Genome is just the beginning of its meaning. More and more stunning revelations - and breathtaking comparisons with other organisms - are being discovered every day.

No doubt during my extensive and awe-struck wanderings about this fascinating field, remarkable in its unending and illuminating richness, its generous yielding of powerful metaphors and motifs; in my contention with religion, science and Nature; Evolution, medicine, and poetry - in exploring the Human Genome’s very intense beauty - I shall have missed some wonderful things. And I hope very much that people will tell me about them; suggest ideas, offer their thoughts, as invited on this website. I imagine, in the very spirit of the Human Genome, adding to this book in the future, incorporating more – indeed, it is hard to leave it now, even after four years, as fascinating developments continue to unfold. It is being presented online very much as a ‘living’ work. This project, like the Human Genome itself, will never be finished...

At the Sanger Institute too, the principle of getting the human genetic information onto the internet free of charge, available to all, was enshrined - and enthusiastically supported by the US public effort and elsewhere. The necessary public versus private battle fought on our behalf truly matters; and continues in the world of Genomics and gene patenting. I make no apologies here for being on the side of the ‘Genome Goodies’! The Human Genome has been protected; revealed and enshrined, for us. You don’t need any money to look at it; to learn from it, in whatever country you live. But the code itself is, in essence, ‘just’ a string of letters - quite marvellous and beautiful in itself, the very poem of life - but essentially gorgeous ‘raw data’; and it matters now what is happening to it, what is being done with its vast treasures. And by whom. The Human Genome and the interrelated genomes of all other creatures who inhabit Earth - every animal, fish, bird, insect, tree and flower – every green space and ocean; drop of water or sunlight from which we evolved - are the responsibility of every one of us. In this duty we must not fail. I hope that this project - my poems - might help to explain why.





Note from the author
exploring the project


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