Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The natural history of remembrance

Pippa Goldschmidt is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

W. G. Sebald was one of a small number of writers who gazed at the literal and metaphorical wreckage of the Second World War and attempted to describe as truthfully as possible what they saw. Born in 1944, he was clearly deeply marked by the simultaneity of his seemingly happy childhood in Germany with appalling events such as the deportation of Greek Jews from Corfu. According to Will Self in his lecture on Sebald, this clash of events in his psyche led him to see history as a sort of synoptic vision where everything happens at once, and can only be conveyed through a painstaking accumulation of fact and details. His books weave backwards and forwards through the past and present to build up layers of meaning. They have an apparent artlessness and immediacy to them, they are ‘easy to read’ but the lives of his characters weigh heavily on the reader.

Monday, 29 August 2011


On Friday 26th, I was at an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where the topic under debate was the Kindness of Strangers. How do we understand "the good" in an evolutionary framework? Taking part were Oren Harmon, author of the George Price biography I've been recommending (The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness), along with Dominic Johnson, Reader in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, and Ruth Chadwick, director of Cesagen at the University of Cardiff, with our own Steve Sturdy in the Chair. Oren signed my book which was nice, because I'd been scribbling my own gibberish all over it...realizing I was doomed to write a poem made of their thoughts rather than a proper report of my own.

So forgive me everyone. But here goes.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

‘Who are your people?'*

Pippa Goldschmidt is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

Yesterday Alistair Moffat talked about the genetic identity of the Scottish people and the emerging science of tracing our ancestors using DNA. This essentially uses mistakes in DNA (mutations that occur by chance) which are then propagated. If we share these mistakes with other people, we must share a common ancestor, and by looking at where these mistakes are the most common, we can find out where that ancestor originated. So, for example, a fifth of Irish men are related to a single man, Niall Noigiallach, who lived about 1500 years ago.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Found in Translation

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

After enjoying the 'Nothing but the Poem' event on Sorley MacLean, I couldn't miss Wednesday's major session on his work at the Book Festival, marking the centenary of his birth. Again the event was packed and all the tickets sold out; again the proportion of Gaelic speakers in the audience was low, and again the audience was mainly of an older rather than a younger generation. Aptly enough, a great deal of the discussion concerned the 'doube-edged sword' of translation and the parlous situation of the Gaelic language.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

8.7 million and not counting

While Ken and Pippa are assiduously covering the book festival, I'm still in my garret dealing with basic texts.

I've just finished a first draft for my Traverse Event on September 30th..."Of Monkeys and Men"...which is a re-examination of the famous Scopes Monkey trial in Tennessee in 1925...that got dramatised with great success as Inherit the Wind by Lawrence and Lee.

Fiction shines a light on the Universe

Pippa Goldschmidt is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

Tomorrow Stuart Clark is talking about his novel ‘The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth’, the first in a trilogy about the birth of modern astronomy. This is Stuart’s first novel but he’s an experienced science communicator and has written many non-fiction books. I caught up with him before his talk to find out more:

'How do the cells know about the jungle?'

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

Joan Bakewell is a speaker who needs no introduction, and in this capacity she's been introducing and interviewing speakers on key ideas for the 21st Century. Yesterday's topic was numbers, and the speaker was Ian Stewart. She introduced him by saying that of all the topics in her series, she found mathematics the hardest to understand, but that Ian Stewart was the best person to explain it.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Just My Type

Toni Freitas is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

Do you know what your font choice says about you? Have you ever really thought what people might feel when they read a letter or email that you have typed without considering the font? Do you just use the default setting? Or have you carefully chosen your font?

Total Recall

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

The problem of personal identity - of what makes you, you - has for a long time been investigated through thought experiments. John Locke asked us to imagine what it would mean to say that your immortal soul had in a past life been that of a warrior who fell at, say, the seige of Troy - given that you have no actual memories of being that warrior, and only the most coincidental resemblances in personality, outlook, knowledge, and beliefs. Leibniz asked us if we'd agree to 'become' the Emperor of China, on the sole condition that we took with us no memories of our present actual life. In this way, they tried to bring into focus our intuition that what matters in personal identity is continuity of memory and personality, and that our belief or lack of it in any immortal spark is strictly irrelevant.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Treatise of Humean Nature

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

When the hero of Alastair Gray's Lanark was a typically tormented teenager, he happened to open a book. The book began:
All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS.
As he read on, he found that the text soothed his mind by lifting him right out of his problems, and giving him something else to think about. This is one way that philosophy can be applied to everyday life. Another, of course, is by mining the great philosophers for nuggets of practical wisdom. Not many of us have time to do that, or have any idea where to begin prospecting, but thanks to the division of labour (you'll find that in Adam Smith) someone else can do the mining for us, and package the result in a book you can read on the bus.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Reading in one language and hearing in another

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

I'm a native non-speaker of Gaelic: my parents spoke the language to others and to each other, but not to us. Many parents must have done the same, stopping the transmission of the language dead in its tracks. No doubt they had the best of intentions. As I once wrote about the background to all this, the story is peculiar and contorted. That story leaves me with very mixed feelings about attempts to revive the language by such expedients as road-signs. But I love hearing it spoken.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Gold-Farmers, 3-D Printers, and Bad Actors

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

Cory Doctorow, at the Book Festival on Sunday to talk about his novel Makers, is well-known not only as a science-fiction writer but as a social critic and activist in the hot fields of copyright, online security, and emerging media. Boing Boing, the blog he co-edits, is itself a social media phenomenon: when he posted about The Human Genre Project - one of the Genomics Forum's literary initiatives - our site's Google results went through the roof as it suddenly became world famous for the proverbial fifteen minutes.

What's unnatural?

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

On Tuesday evening I went to the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum's second debate, Natural v Unnatural: The Strange Business of Making People. Held in the Speigeltent beneath roaring downpours and above a rising miasma from the mud under the floorboards, the event was packed out. Chaired by Sarah Parry, the panel featured the Forum's Director Steve Yearley, science writer Philip Ball, and designer, writer and artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. (Last year, Daisy and her colleague James King took a week-long Visiting Fellowship at the Forum, amazing us all with their imaginative designs for future applications of synthetic biology.)

Art and artifice.

Pippa Goldschmidt is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

Further to Peter’s blog below, I went to Philip Ball’s talk based on his book ‘Unnatural’, about the fears and myths provoked by the processes of creating life through assisted conception, such as IVF.

Ball listed eight myths of what he called ‘anthropoeia’, the art of making people, and showed how those myths are frequently based on anxieties about the nature of human identity itself. If we have dismissed the idea of a soul as a physical entity, then how do we define our so-called uniqueness? Where does humanity enter the scientific process?

Unnatural in the Rain

Yesterday to the Ediburgh Book Festival, there to meet and talk to author, (The Music Instinct, Bright Earth, Critical Mass), former editor of Nature...and theatre maker...Phillip Ball.
He has a new book out called Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People. This is his excellent and surprising website: http://www.phillipball.co.uk/.

He was also polite enough to give me fifteen minutes of his time...without really knowing what for...and I demonstrated why playwright is a total job description for me by entirely failing to properly activate the recording device to properly capture his graceful and pithy answers to my questions...which were more like setting up the cue ball for Hurricane Higgins than in any way interogative.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Revolution Will be Followed by a Signing Session in the Adjacent Tent

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

This year's theme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival was decided last year. With what was described at the launch party as uncanny prescience, the theme was 'revolution'. There was a definite echo of that in the voice of the first author I heard on Saturday: Alan Warner, Edinburgh University's newly appointed Writer in Residence. Catchily if clunkily billed as 'Sopranos author does trainspotting', the event, chaired by Zoë Strachan, centred on Warner's reading from the MS of his forthcoming novel The Dead Man's Pedal. It's about a lad who by mistake becomes a trainee engine-driver on a West Highland railway line in 1973-74: a moment when Britain seemed to edge closer to a pre-revolutionary situation than at any time before or since - though not quite as close as some of Simon's more radical work-mates think, as they trade banter in the station hotel bar. Warner first came to prominence with Morvern Callar, which like his later The Sopranos and his current The Stars in the Bright Sky was hailed for its brilliant evocation of young female voices. In the section he read, the man from Oban showed a similar - and on the face of it less surprising - fluency with a range of male voices, from political badinage over a pint to pained recollection of war's absurd horror between swigs of the hard stuff. But catching the cadence of the industrial work-place, and indeed of working-class socialism, isn't as easy as it seems or as easy as it used to be - not that many have tried.

Silence goes faster backwards.

Pippa Goldschmidt is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.
It seemed appropriate to go and listen to Tom McCarthy talk about Orpheus, the first poet, on the opening day of the festival. Actually, this was more of an audio-visual event than a straightforward talk. The author of the Booker prize short-listed ‘C’ and founder of the semi-fictional International Necronautical Society showed clips from Cocteau’s film Orphée, as well as a video of Kraftwerk performing their song ‘Antenna’.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Blazing Light in August | Online Only | Granta Magazine

The Blazing Light in August | Online Only | Granta Magazine

For a less pretentious take on the riots, and my last post, this from my good friend Gabriel Gbadamosi in Granta.

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011 - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.

Friday, 12 August 2011

I Want a Riot of My Own

Riots, like nature, get interpreted according to pre-conceptions and their accompanying metaphors. So while we read "the message the kids are trying to send us" as an expression somewhere along a moral spectrum between good and evil, we can also, if we like, use political and commercial metaphors. From Primitive Accumulation to Conspicuous Consumption.

From the point of view of the latest stuff I'm trying to cram into my weary head, it's all about inherited behaviours, specifically group behaviours as opposed to individual choices. Our judgement of group behaviour being itself a group behaviour.

Deep breath. Start again.

It goes something like this: just as Hamilton and Maynard Smith came up with the idea that population and individual traits are actually explicable if we think of natural selection operating at the level of genes - an idea developed and popularised by Dawkins - so when we think about good and bad things to get up to, we have inherited instincts for group behaviour that actually determine our conduct far more any system of morality can comfortably cope with.

According to this group behaviour way of looking at things, we jointly and severally belong to families, gangs, groups of mates, football colours, nations, interest groups...but we belong to each one of them slightly differently at different times.

What makes an association real to us is that the association is FELT. And you feel differently depending on your context...your perspective is contingent on who you FEEL yourself to be with. The problems are experienced at the points where the interests of these associations are contradictory. Where we have a war. Or a riot. Groups are made not born.

The observations that the rioters have no stake in society or no proper fathers are observations of this kind. Each implies and reinforces the group to which "they" do not belong.

This shifting of identity is analagous to our biological status as, on the one hand, witless carriers of selfish genes...but, on the other, as social primates with all our complex accumulations of genetic material and associated behaviours, most of which is shared with most of our near nieghbours on the tree of life. And then there's culture...history... It's a question of levels, and all levels are "true". One level does not invalidate the others. We are subject to natural selection from our quanta on up. Same with group behaviour.

What is asked of us by moral and political codes is that we make a hierarchy of these personal identities and affiliations and stick to it. That we permanently scale their importance according to a moral and social prescription. Sometimes national identity on top, sometimes Celtic supporting, sometimes family...Never forget, my head teacher used to say, that you are representing the school when you pan in the window at WH Smiths.

David Cameron is placing family affiliation (because he's a Tory) at the apex of this hierarchy...his analysis being that it is a breakage of family self-identification that allows the gang collective identity to overwhelm social restraints agreed upon by "society" - which itself, in Tory-world, is a voluntary association of families who have agreed that only certain forms of robbery are legal. He is conflating social and legal definitions of selfhood with "family".

He also thinks that this hierarchy can in some way be jointly policed by all of the above. He wants us all to agree on that. To redefine our association. He is responding to group behaviour, then, by forming a "better" group...

The truth is, probably, that you can redefine a hierarchy, but you can't make it stick.

From the genomic view of group and social behaviours, humans and most other animals share very widespread (and hence very ancient) hormones expressed all along their genetic material that has been found to work on a large range of group/social/moral behaviours, all the way from monogamy (or not) to kicking the crap out of sexual competitors (or not)...through herd animals to multi-organism "collective" beings like ants.

Which means group behaviour as such is something we're all stuck with...and credit and blame are all part of the package. They too are evolved behaviours for managing the group. And not something we can take the credit or blame for.

We have evolved in a way that means we have no option but to have ideas about why things happen...but our feelings about why things happen (which are more ancient than our ideas) are rooted in the very ancient dynamics of making groups of us work.

Groups of altruists survive better than groups of self servers...but a self server can do rather well inside a group of altruists. Our outrage and humilation about being conned or attacked without provocation...that FEELING...is probably as old as the hills. We evolved to feel hurt and angry. Our metaphors of good and evil and society and all that...probably came later.

We hate it when our sense of ourselves is undermined or threatened...whether we're being stopped and searched or sweeping up broken glass in our shop. The feelings are the same, and they are undeniably powerful and part of us.

When I'm writing a play, the characters' feelings...how they experience themselves, is obviously central. But to write those feelings, I have to be morally neutral about them.

Everybody in a play thinks that they are A) the good guy and B) the most important person on stage. They're all right about that and they're all wrong. Bad guys must talk and think of themselves just like good guys do. (Unless you're writing crap)

Exactly the same values of love and solidarity and courage are required to join a criminal gang and keep faith with it, as to keep a family together or invent a better society. Those feelings are experienced the same way by the just and the unjust. It's a pious fraud to pretend otherwise.

What we have inherited genetically, it seems, is not a destiny...or a set of instructions. To tell us that family will always come first... or the master race or the working class...

What we have inherited is a tension within a hierarchy of loyalties and identities that never has and never will resolve. So the best we can do is come to temporary agreements with each other on what works. For the moment, anyway. For the individual, the family, the gang, the country, the human race...

So no problems there then.


The government's instructions to magistrates to ignore fripperies like sentencing guidelines and rules of evidence somewhat prove my point I think.

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011 - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

God on the Bus

I was at a seminar on Thursday with John Evans from the University of California in San Diego. He's a forum regular, with a background in religious studies, and was talking about a linguistic conundrum which in some ways is quite specifc to current US Culture Wars...which meant it was up my apples and pears. I love the way Americans actually TALK about this stuff.

As Alistair Campbell once put it, in Britain we don't do God.

What John was talking about was, roughly, "When is talking about God not talking about God?" When and how do religious critics of (say) stem-cell research translate their objections from a language of faith to one of "the public good". There was some intense discussion about the Rawlsian Orthodoxy that governs public discourse...(I didn't know there even WAS one, Martha!)

...where, as one participant put it, (based on his experience of trying to get EU nations with a rainbow of religious and secular traditions to agree on notions like "Human Rights") ..the only way to get anything good done in the world is not to tell anyone what you're doing.

Hey...the last contribution of the day came from the Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police...there's serious chat in the ACPO going on about a working definition of the "good". I suspect because they ain't gonna trust politicians to tell them what it is anymore.

Anyway, a fine time was had by all.

Then, after a jar in the Tolbooth, I was on the bus home...and it was one of those central belt sunsets...with high white cloud, low black cloud, cobalt sky...the golden hour, and an invisible sun pouring golden curtains between the cloud cover like the searchlight in Close Encounters...but much better.

And I thought...what is the language for THAT? Is God involved? Does it make it any less staggering and humbling to live on this planet if it's all a series of imagination numbing coincidences that brought me onto one of Brian Soutar's buses on the M8 to be in the time and place to see THAT?

Do God or the public good have anything to do with it...what would they have to say about it if they did?

Maybe I'd better get back to specifics next time.

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011 - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

From Malick to Melville by way of Bacteria

The Tree of Life...not necessary to drive a car through it...but from the Norsemen to Eden, and on to Darwin and Terence Malick, the tree as an image of/metaphor for "life" has been pretty pervasive.

Is the Tree of Life the same one as the Tree of Knowledge...I forget...

I saw Malick's movie yesterday, and other than bitter reflections that Hollywood only has room for one artist at a time to be both fully funded and fully autonomous (Kubrick was the last one) - I had a pretty good time with it.

"There is the way of nature, and there is the Way of Grace"

I liked that. As an expression of all our inherited tensions, seemed okay to me. Some people got hacked off with the "creation" segment...from planetary accretion through the invasion of one single cell by another to make a complex cell etc, etc, etc but I rather enjoyed all that...The Book of Job plus dinosaurs...worked for me.

...and seeing glimpses of old favourites like the Grand Prismatic Lake...which looks like it came out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but is actually in Yellowstone Park (see below) and is rich in the anaerobic (ie non oxygen breathing) extremophiles from which it seems all life came...

(Had to...there WASN'T a breathable amount of oxygen for the likes of you and me for simply yonks - till the bacteria manufactured cells from sunlight and carbon dioxide and EXCRETED it -we are all breathing bacteria poo...you heard it here first!)

All very Stephen Fry...

But my point, I think, is that Malick's audio/visual PRAYER...which is what that movie is...has the same preoccupations as I'm finding myself contemplating with this residency...that is, how do you relate one human life...a life cut short at a young age, in his case...to a grand vision of how everything works and where it all came from...

The cautionary thing for me was that whatever its joys, and it held joys aplenty, "The Tree of Life" wasn't a story. If I'd been in a bad mood, or even had had a head cold, I'd have dismissed it, as some reviewers have, as vacuous...

A bit like the Price equation in my last blog, if something is about everything, in some sense it is then also about nothing at all. The grander and more inclusive your metaphor, the less of a story you've got.

Stories are about the holes in the story that you leave for the reader or viewer to occupy...as well as the stuff you do show and tell...

The thing about the genomics eye view of life is that it's nuanced, holistic, much more so than the more driven, purer agency of the gene eye view...
It's more Ishmael than Ahab, and all the better for it...But still there is the Whiteness of the Whale...the blankness that comes from contemplating the sheer scale and depth of it all.

Wonder Ye then at the Fiery Hunt?

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011  - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Addicted to Pretty Things

Talk to a biologist about goodness, and they'll talk about "Levels of Selection".

At least, that's what happened at our last meeting on Thursday, when I'd brought along various materials that had caught my eye on the history of "The Goodness Problem" in evolutionary thought. JF Derry, who's been a regular attender, insisted that we talk about selfish genes, selfish organisms, selfish kin, selfish groups, selfish species...because that hierarchy of self-interested behaviour is the governing paradigm within which science currently talks about the stuff we used to talk about in Church.

Natural selection is the cornerstone of This View of Life...therefore all behaviours MUST make sense within its parameters.

"The Selfish Gene", of course, is Richard Dawkins Ur-text, and was itself in some ways an expansion upon the work of Bill Hamilton, whose altruism equation I quoted a couple of blogs back.

To me, however, what matters most, I think, about "The Selfish Gene" is that it's an an extraordinarily powerful metaphor...as is "Evolution" itself.

I'm still processing what we talked about, and what I'm reading...but (and forgive me if this is obscure) I think it is the persuasive and political power of metaphor around which my thoughts, such as they are, are coalescing.

Let's face it, for most of us, metaphor is what science is. It is the prettiest of ideas...like Einstein's mass energy equivalence...that we latch onto...our scientific judgement is aesthetic.

(And Darwin was on about the heritability/adaptation of beauty back in 1871....)

Or Jeff Goldblum as James Watson in the fantastic BBC dramatisation of the modelling of DNA "Life Story" years back, saying "It's got to be pretty".

George Price's covariance equation, now widely used in the study of animal behaviour, neatly and prettily conjoins evolutionary notions of fitness and inheritance with pseudo-moral ideas of benevolence to make a case that "goodness", "self-lessness", "altruism"...or whatever is your metaphor of choice...MUST be itself heritable...that there must be a benefit attached to selfless behaviour, which means that selflessness, paradoxically, is naturally selected.

At the level of genes, cells, organisms, kin groups, species...maybe even life itself.

His equation has been described, however, as a tautology...Its critics argue that if something so neatly describes all possible behaviours, it is ipso facto meaningless, unfalsifiable, unscientific...

But addictive. Like Price himself, addicted to his own ideas of goodness that led him into some very dangerous acts of altruism among the homeless of London...finding miracles in his own mind. All this as detailed in Owen Harmon's splendid biography, which is being featured as a Genomics Forum Event at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival.

Like I say, I have no conclusions yet, but I do have the growing conviction that the play I end up writing is going to have the power, beauty and seduction of metaphor at its heart.

For an overview of the "levels of selection" problem, see Samir Okasha in Human Nature Review Vol 3, 2003. http://human-nature.com/nibbs/03/okasha