Genetics and the use of the ‘Holy Grail’ metaphor: Virtue or Sin?

 

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Have we chosen wisely?

 

By Michelle McGachie

The culmination of 50 years of work into genetics by researchers in multiple fields resulted in the discovery of the double helix structure and the constitution of genes in 1953. The discovery was considered the ‘holy grail’ of biological thought.

At the turn of the 21st century, sequencing of the human genome itself was again described as the new ‘grail’ of molecular genetics. Like the grail itself, it was elusive, ‘invisible’. As popularised by Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ and other theorists, for some, the grail embodied inheritance itself.

The comparison between the quest for greater genetic knowledge and the quest for the Holy Grail has been impressed into the public psyche for the past 20 years. Anderson explored this phenomenon in 2002 in his paper entitled ‘In search of the Holy Grail: Media discourse and the new human genetics’. He notes ‘frequently geneticists are portrayed as on a quest for the ‘Holy Grail’, giving the scientific process an air of mystique and authority’.

It is true that the developments in the last half-century have deeply impacted and changed the landscape of human biology and health. Serefini points out the importance of this discovery as being ‘the first time science had an explanation of how Mendel’s laws of heredity operated at the deepest level of the biological organism’. It was both the end of classical genetics and the beginning of molecular genetics. DNA studies would go on to dominate biological research for the rest of the century; ‘the story of life’ was said to be unfolding and DNA was the book.

However, has this mystique surrounding genetics allowed it to become something beyond mere mortal understanding? Does the elevation of such discoveries to divine heights aid researchers in making genomics a publicly accessible subject? Surely comparing ‘pure’ scientific discovery to popular myth seems contradictory to scientific aims. It could be argued that the ‘Holy Grail’ as a turn of phrase has lost its religious sentiment – yet it’s shadow still suggests something fantastical.

Or, on the other hand, should we continue to use this metaphor to impress the life-changing implications of genetic knowledge on the public? A reminder that this knowledge allows scientists to change the very chemistry of life. One virtue of the Holy Grail metaphor is its ability to suggest an otherworldly power considered beyond humanity’s grasp. Does this metaphor actually support an ethical viewing of genetic knowledge?

Thoughts?

Michelle McGachie

John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London at the Victoria and Albert Museum

For some current collections reading, with thoughts on collecting crafts here’s Lydia‘s review of John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Definitely one to see!

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My blog posts have been sporadic across the two years I’ve been the sole writer viewreviewrepeat.wordpress.com. My output has been anything between one a day, one a week, one a month, one a quarter even. Sometimes I have a real itch to write about a recent public history experience, at other times I just want to write. My post today sits somewhere in between these motivators. On the one hand, the John Lockwood Kipling exhibition at the V&A was a visual triumph and totally relevant to my PhD research, and, on the other, I’ve had five days off in London and I really want to commit something productive to the screen.

Now then, to something more important than my incentives for writing today after a lengthy absence, the exhibition itself. I went to see Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London mainly because my PhD research centres on Indian material…

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Human Constellations: Collecting Collections in the 21st Century

A brief review of our first public event.*

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Collections, from archives, to medical data, to peaks bagged by mountaineers, range widely in form and method of accumulation, and raise infinite possibilities and questions. The Leverhulme Trust-funded Human Constellations project is being undertaken by the Collections Research Group working across the humanities and social sciences. Through collaboration the group seeks to develop interdisciplinary methodologies and produce new insights into theories of collections and collecting.

On 19 October 2016 the group held their first public event at Kelvin Hall. The evening was led by a lecture from Professor Hayden Lorimer on ‘Finders, Keepers’: Possession and the Nature of Collections. This explored the diverse types of collections we can encounter, from pet graveyards to the summits of munros, and the meanings that these collections can have for those who form and research them.

The Leverhulme Scholars who began their PhDs in 2015 also delivered two collaborative presentations. Using gift exchange theory Alicia and Michelle illustrated how theoretical links can be drawn between their vastly different research projects into William Hunter’s collection of anatomical drawings and issues of consent in collection of genetic data.

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Mona and Dominic, who both work extensively with early modern and modern legal sources, presented a paper examining how bodies, particularly injured or sick bodies, constitute collections and how these bodies are treated as individual cases and symptoms of societal problems within legal systems.

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The evening provided a fascinating insight into how the theme of collections can produce new approaches and new areas for collaborative research. The points and questions raised during the evening made it an extremely productive and exciting event, and the group wishes to extend its thanks to all who attended.

* Item first appeared in the University of Glasgow College of Arts Newsletter, February 2017.

Re-collections: The beautiful sadness of a black dog and second-hand books

Mona O’Brien on the life-cycles of personal collections, looking at dispersal and re-collection.

A Network Of Lines

On a recent Sunday I found myself standing in an antique shop in Frankfurt, close to the Römer. There was the usual random assortment of things, old furniture, crockery, photographs… Browsing through the warren of rooms, which extended much further back than the shop’s modest exterior suggested, I caught site of a framed photograph lying on the floor.

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It is a photograph of no particular artistic merit. The shopkeeper certainly hadn’t given it pride of place, but obviously hoped to get a few euros for it. I was struck by it because it reminded me of the countless photographs that I’ve taken of my beloved cat, Shots. My photos are equally unartistic, and they capture a beast devoid grace or nobility. Shots is a cuddly (fat), lazy, cowardly cat. But he’s my cat, and the photo of him that is blue-tacked to my office wall makes me smile when work…

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Honeywood Lodge, Carshalton

The most recent post from our Lydia Murtezaoglu’s excellent blog – a must read for any ‘Culture-Vultures’ out there, covering museums, galleries, cultural goings on, books, fillms and more!

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Honeywood Lodge is my local museum at home in Greater London and, as such, it holds a special place in my heritage heart. That said my first visit wasn’t until 2014 following the shameful trend that the closest things are often the least likely to be visited. To this day I’ve never been to Whitehall in Cheam, despite the fact I went to school there for seven (long) years. Yet I’ve visited museums on the other side of the world, odd really.

I’m aware Carshalton might seem like quite a niche market, but Honeywood Lodge is situated next to the really lovely Carshalton Ponds. The Ponds, regardless of the traffic, are rather charming once you’ve dodged around the over-enthusiastic duck feeders and that one swan with a really mean look in its eye. Perhaps the location is especially appealing because it is so unexpected in Zone 5; a hop, skip…

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Upcoming Event on Collecting Collections

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L0034203 (Detail) Constellation of Draco Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Please join us on 19 October, 6-8pm at Kelvinhall for our first public event Collecting Collections in the 21st Century. The event will include a lecture from Professor Hayden Lorimer (University of Glasgow) on ‘Finders Keepers’: Possession and the Nature of Collections. Followed by Q&A and then refreshments. After the break Alicia, Dominic, Michelle and Mona will present papers mapping the connections between their diverse research topics. We will be drawing connections between problems in modern medical disclosure and 4oo year old syphilis, collections of anatomical drawings and the ethics of consent in collecting genetic data.

Places are limited, so please do book a ticket here.

We look forward to welcoming you to what promises to be an evening of exciting papers and discussion.

 

Intention versus Interpretation: Curating Personal Identities from Silk Gowns to Facebook

Mona O’Brien

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A case displaying seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fabrics from India, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

During our recent Human Constellations group trip to London, I found myself standing in front of the above display of garments in the V&A. On first glance it seems like a nice display, visually interesting but not overwhelming. Yet I walked away from it with a head full of questions and a gnawing sense of existential doubt.

The central dress was sewn from Indian silk embroidered cotton in eighteenth-century England. The red man’s robe (banyan), to the left, is made of fabric dyed and printed in South-East India; it was made up in Europe, in a style influenced by the Japanese kimono. These clothes, passive objects, have multiple identities, based on their materials, styles, and how they are displayed. Are they art objects? Historical objects? Ornaments for a body? Displays of wealth? Are they British, Indian, European, Japanese? They are all of these things to differing degrees, and the weighting is entirely dependent on the individual viewer.

A museum may display these garments with the intention of telling a particular story, or making a specific point, but much the same way as we often kill the author when we read, we come with our own minds, backgrounds, and ideas. Something as mundane as an old kettle, simply intended to show the development of technology, might have a particular emotional resonance for a viewer who identifies it with a similar one that used to live in their grandparents’ kitchen. Thus, a display intended to provoke thoughts about technology might instead prompt musings on family histories.

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Display of kettles and coffee makers, Science Museum, London

The display and interpretation of passive objects is no easy thing. But what about active agents (animals, historical actors, AI, you and I)? Humans have always taken an active role in curating their identities, from how we dress (Anne Boleyn wearing yellow on the death of Catherine of Aragon) to how we perform emotions. The advent of the internet has further expanded our curating horizons, now we can each have our own virtual museums courtesy of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

Collections are never neutral, all archives and museums have a focus such as local history, fashion, etc. Things are always omitted sometimes out of practicality, sometimes because of more sinister motivations. Similarly, our online displays seek to portray a particular image of ourselves, to show that we are happy, fashionable, globetrotters, deep-thinkers, charitable, hard-workers, fraught with philosophical doubt, politically engaged, and good cooks. It’s beyond obvious to state that most of us never give unbridled insights into our lives online (at least where we are identifiable, the realms of anonymity have been seen to bring out horrifying honest opinions). There is always more that could be said, or some ignored underlying tensions, thoughts, or emotions.

A brief analysis of my tweets: lots of medical history, and a fixation with Barry’s Tea.

But who is to say that our Twitter profiles, etc. are interpreted the way we would like them to be? For instance, if I tweet a photo of my current read and a cup of tea, with a caption like ‘The Lonely City: Beautiful, thoughtful book from Olivia Laing. Read it!’, I would intend this to show my appreciation for this book and hopefully prompt others to consider reading it. But someone else, Viewer A, might read the tweet and think that I am being terribly pretentious, and trying to show-off or look erudite. Viewer B might argue my tweet was motivated by the desire to show off an aesthetically pleasing picture I took with an artistically placed cup of tea. Unless Viewer A or B questions me about the tweet they will pass on from this cabinet in my virtual museum, and the next time they see a tweet from my account it may contribute to the overall image they are constructing of me (‘Oh, another pretentious book tweet!’; ‘She likes photographing pretty cups of tea’). I will be curated in their memories, and our images of me may drift farther and farther apart.

What are the consequences of the distance that develops when my intention is not discovered by the viewers’ interpretations? Is my identity my own possession? Do I share it with my viewers (both real and virtual)? Is it an external construct? Or is it a dual thing consisting of separate private/internal and public/external parts? If so, although my intention is significant, is my identity ultimately defined by me or by the external world?

In a museum we cannot have a question and answer session with the objects or the displays beyond what appears on the display boards (unless there is a guide or curator present).  And, to me, the beauty of museums is that they do not (usually) try to tell you what to think. But, based on my questions about personal identity, I am curious to discover if there are tensions between intent and interpretation in collections, particularly in galleries and museums. Is there ever a ‘wrong’ way to understand a collection? What discourses (in the Foucauldian sense) are at play when we interact with collections? What is the relationship between the curator and the viewer, and how is this transmitted through the curated objects? What are the relative positions of intention and interpretation?

This seems like rather a lot of questions for the end of a blog post, but it is my intention to devise answers for them over my time as a member of this project. Interpret that as you will.

 

International Association of Bioethics 2016

Dominic Reed

Attending conferences is still a new experience for me. The thought of gathering in a pointedly large building with hundreds of people (some known only as a name from the spine of some illustrious tome) remains daunting.  I wonder whether there is valuable research to be done in this area? Perhaps a thoughtful analysis of the relationship between anxiety levels suffered by PhD student and the number of letters succeeding the name of the academic engaged in conversation?

 

A thought that often occurs when approaching an eminent attendee (name memorised from a University webpage above a sickening number of publications) is what interest can this person possibly have in speaking to me? With the considered observational talents and openness to self-reflection peculiar to all University of Glasgow students, I have come to realise that I myself go through a three stage process in engaging a figure of particular academic renown. With scant reference to modesty I have decided to term this ‘the Reed method’.

 

Let us begin with the beginning – approach. As words like “eminent”, “trailblazing” and “intellectual-powerhouse” flash before my eyes (snatches from reviews of their most celebrated works), I tend to wonder what interesting new point can I make that they haven’t heard before? What sufficiently clever and incise comment can I usher forth which will lead to an immediate insistence on collaboration, publication and scholarly stardom? This is usually tempered by the second stage – second guess. Nervousness reigns as I picture my comments followed by shaking heads, sneering derision and pointed silences, ears ringing with accusations of “unjustified funding” and “feeble arguments”.  By the turning of besuited shoulders back to exclusive discussions which I, a peon of the academic world cannot be expected to understand. They’ll be dining off tales of my poor research methodology for years! Somehow though, as I materialise in front of them, committed, a manic glint in my eye, the third stage arrives – serene resignation. Mercifully, concerns fade away and as I open my mouth to speak all mental faculties are redirected to simply getting my name right.

 

The International Association of Bioethics (IaB) conference was for me, notably lacking in scary, unapproachable figures. Set across three days, the itinerary was typically built around a mix of keynote speeches interspersed with the chance to visit individual presentations of research, either verbal or in poster form. Regardless, there was a real opportunity to engage with those individuals presenting their research, not just in formal question sessions but also more informally when the presentations were over. The coffee breaks, lunches and ceilidh dinner fostered a relaxed and friendly atmosphere to approach individuals whose work you admired. It was great to find that they had time not only to listen to what you had to say but also to make suggestions, provide encouragement and requests to keep them updated. This respect for junior researchers was also evident in the number of early career researcher events that took place throughout the conference, dealing with topics like presenting, publishing and funding.

 

There was a lot of freedom in choosing what kind of talks you wanted to see. Bioethics is a pretty broad church and there were researchers presenting topics from a range of different perspectives. The keynote speeches themselves were well worth attending. Of particular interest to my own research was the address by Baroness Ilora Finlay, consultant palliative care doctor, former BMA President and member of the House of Lords. Finlay’s speech dealt with maintaining and promoting ethical standards both in practice and through implementing legislation. Giving the example of assisted dying, she made a case for caution in discussions of euthanasia, reminding delegates of the human costs in practise of abstract decisions made by legislators.

 

I was able to find many presentations which faced issues similar to those arising in my own project and there’s far too little space to relate them all here so I’ll just list a couple of favourites. Lisa Schwartz’s work on the difficulty of conducting research in the environment of emergency medicine was very informative. Focussing on the role of substitute decision makers in a paediatric resuscitation study, Schwartz’s presentation highlighted the importance of maintaining appropriate research methods when working in a sensitive environment, giving me ideas for how to approach similar concerns as my own research takes shape. Similarly, the collaborative project on (Neuro)Interventions was fascinating, researchers relating the ethical issues associated with state intervention, by medical means, into the world of criminal justice.

 

Overall, given the huge and varied program, the friendly presenters and attendees and the excellent food, the Iab Conference was fantastic experience, one that would be well worth repeating in two years in New Delhi! A great deal of thanks is owed to Graeme Laurie and everyone else who helped make the event so worthwhile.