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


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?


Michelle McGachie


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