from The Washington Post Outlook, Sunday, October 22, 2000 p.B5
The Trouble We Have Seeing What's Out There
By Robin Marantz Henig
The children in the paintings seem somehow related, but you can't quite figure out why. Lean closer toward the portraits, hanging in a second-floor gallery in downtown Manhattan, and you see that all the girls and boys have the same endearing gaze, looking out of anonymous school-photo poses with big brown puppy dog eyes. Are they siblings? Do brown eyes run in the family? Suddenly you realize that these not only look like puppy dog eyes; they are puppy dog eyes--copied from photographs of dogs.
If at about this point you remember the term "transgenic"--as in transgenic corn containing a bacterial gene for pest resistance, or transgenic mice harboring the human gene for cancer--you realize with a start that this is what the word really means: the blending of different species.
It's exhilarating when art has this kind of effect on you: surprising, unsettling, insight-provoking. And it's just this kind of insight we need to develop about modern science--perhaps with the help of science writers like me, or visual artists like those who contributed to "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution," showing through Oct. 28 at New York's Exit Art gallery.
As the genetic revolution blasts apart our assumptions about the natural order of things, we cannot afford to be scientifically illiterate. The more our genetic destiny comes under our potential control, the more we non-scientists will need to understand which aspects of this control are desirable and which are certifiably scary. We have to internalize enough knowledge about our brave new world to be able to monitor it, use it and, if necessary, restrict it.
"Well, I don't need to know how an internal combustion engine works to drive my car," you might protest. "I don't need to know how to program a computer to use one."
But the genome is different. The comparison should not be that you can drive a car without knowing what makes it go. It should be, rather, that you have to understand how big, fast and deadly a car can be in order to design highways and write traffic laws--or, for that matter, to drive safely. Right now, babies can be conceived, genetically screened and selectively implanted so their parents can use their cells to save older siblings' lives. Transgenic salmon can be bioengineered to grow bigger fillets at lower prices--at the risk, some scientists fear, of unwittingly wiping out wild fish species. And almost none of us has the innate understanding to know just how, or whether, to put the brakes on such developments.
No matter what our backgrounds, no matter whether we personally avail ourselves of these genomic shenanigans or not, our lives will be altered by the way we as a society respond to the ethical, medical and fiscal decisions that the genome will force upon us. These matters, which get to the heart of how we define what it means to be "human" or "normal," are too important to be left to the experts--or the entrepreneurs--alone.
As science becomes more and more complex, however, those who try to popularize it must rely increasingly on metaphors and analogies. Sadly, the metaphors usually obfuscate the truth rather than clarify it. Readers or viewers are left in the absurd position of completely understanding the analogy, and yet having no clue whatsoever about how the thing actually works in the real world.
Take the popular imagery used to explain DNA: In structure, we have been told, it is "like" a spiral staircase. Its chemicals are "like" letters, strung together into genes that are "like" words, arrayed along chromosomes that are "like" sentences, and all wrapped up into a genome that is "like" a Book of Life, a book 3 billion- plus letters long which, if printed out in ordinary newspaper typeface, would fill more than 1,000 Sunday editions of The Washington Post.
But there's no staircase inside you, no letters, no huge piles of newspapers. And the analogy brings you no closer than you were before to really understanding what goes on in your cells, why some cells produce insulin and others serotonin, why you may or may not be at risk for Alzheimer's disease, or how mutations work.
I know; I've imposed my fair share of well-intentioned metaphors on readers. Metaphors seem at first blush such a clever way to be both accurate and clear. But they're not--and recognizing their limits may be the first step toward promoting true scientific literacy.
Do visual metaphors work better than written ones? Only sometimes. In the "Paradise Now" exhibit, unfortunately, most of them are along the lines we have already come to expect. But there are a few exceptions--such as those kids with the puppy dog eyes, by Bradley Rubenstein--and they do something wonderful. They provide a new vocabulary for thinking about, feeling about and, ultimately, understanding a little piece of the way things work.
Consider the installation called "Genesis." To create it, the artist Eduardo Kac began with a line from the Bible, "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." He translated these prophetic words into Morse code, and, using his own complicated system of transcription, rewrote it in genetic code--those strings of A's, C's, T's and G's that tell a cell how to do its work.
With this new string of letters, Kac used a computer to search for similarities between his sequence and the sequences of known genes. He took this information to a molecular biologist; the biologist created those genes in the lab, attached them to a light-sensitive "marker" and mixed them into a culture dish of bacteria, which took up the new genes and began producing new proteins. What you see in the gallery is a petri dish of microbes, glowing under a black light in a pattern that depends entirely on what new proteins are
In this way, Kac creates a metaphor for a metaphor, and then turns it, ironically, into the thing itself. It is this sort of twisting of reality,
questioning of boundaries, playing with definitions, that makes Kac's contribution a work of art and not a science fair project.
The gulf between image and reality has created problems not only for artists trying to interpret science, but for scientists themselves. When you look at a thing in the laboratory, you are not seeing the thing as it exists in nature, but as you have altered it for the very purpose of seeing it. Chromosomes, for example, are infinitesimally thin, unbelievably long and completely colorless. But their name is derived from the Greek word chroma, meaning "color," and comes from the observation that when cells are stained for viewing under a microscope, it is the translucent little chromosomes that take on the color of the stain. Their name, in other words, comes not from what they are but from what we do to them.
Laboratory artifacts often get in the way of a direct experience of biology. For a long time, the superb resolution of the scanning electron microscope, which allowed cytologists to see detail within a living cell they had never dreamed possible, carried its own irony: To use it, the cell had to be killed and "fixed" on a special slide. All the scientist could see, in this refined study of life, was its shadow.
Strangely, sophisticated laboratory machinery has also created its own kind of art. PET scans and MRI scans and electrophoresis gels tend to resemble abstract paintings. Like art, of course, they are representations only; they look nothing like the way a brain or a spine or a strand of DNA really looks. Does it help us or confuse us to incorporate these images into our popular understanding of science?
These are not theoretical questions. The need for a scientifically savvy citizenry has never been more urgent. For a while back there, when reports about the human genome dominated the news, the population at large was right alongside the scientists, peering into their labs and trying hard to understand what was being discovered. Banner headlines announcing the near-completion of the human genome project last summer, and long ecstatic reports on the evening news, made it clear that non-scientists were paying really, really close attention.
But then, as with so many other subjects that become part of a media frenzy--AIDS, West Nile, the Ebola virus--articles about the genome seemed to disappear. This time we cannot let that happen. As the science proceeds, with or without intense public scrutiny, we need to be building up a strong base of understanding from which our citizenry can make informed decisions about the complicated matters that are bound to arise--and sooner than we expect. Discoveries about the genome are being made, today and tomorrow and the day after that, that will change everything about the way we think about who we are and what we can become. This means it is time to find a new form of explication, a form that gets beyond the complexities of metaphor.
Robin Marantz Henig is a science writer and the author, most recently, of "The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel" (Houghton Mifflin).
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