Posts Tagged ‘DNA’

Sex/Dream Metaphors – Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

DNAncientNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

The Cult of CthulhuH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Rauc’ and RoleMortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012)

#BooksThatShouldNotBe — Tip-top Transgressive Texts…

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Neanderthal Man by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

An excellent guide to science in all its aspects, from theory and practice to sociology and politics, describing how scientists think, work, live, love and sometimes cheat. It’s a book about bones, but it made me think about stars. In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte set an absolute limit on the ambitions of astronomy:

On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our knowledge concerning their gaseous envelopes is necessarily limited to their existence, size … and refractive power, we shall not at all be able to determine their chemical composition or even their density… I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us. — Comte quote

Comte seemed completely right, but was in fact completely wrong. Fraunhofer had already discovered his lines by then and one day astronomers would be using “spectroscopic fingerprints” to “determine the mineralogy of asteroids, the composition of stars, the gravity of white dwarfs, the motions of galaxies, the dynamics of accreting black holes, and more – all from the comfort of a telescope control room” (30-Second Astronomy, ed. François Fressin, 2013).

Comte could have easily have said something similar about palaeontology, but perhaps it seemed too obvious. How much would scientists ever discover from ancient bones? They could weigh them, measure them, compare and contrast them, even analyse their chemical composition, but what would bones ever tell us about the flesh that had once sat on them, about the behaviour of vanished bodies? Very little, it once seemed.

A lot, it turned out, because of something called DNA. This book is about one of the most interesting projects in scientific history: the quest to reconstruct the genome of those long-extinct humans called Neanderthals. Except they’re not entirely extinct, as Svante Pääbo discovered: their genes live on in some modern humans, because we interbred with Neanderthals when we left Africa. Some of us also interbred with a group called the Denisovans, as Pääbo describes too. And there are other groups of archaic interbreeders to be uncovered, inside and outside Africa. Groups of human have separated, evolved differences, and then come together again, but not consistently and completely.

This has big implications for human bio-diversity, or HBD: races are different not just because they’ve evolved to be, but because they’ve interbred to be. Pääbo doesn’t discuss those implications, but there’s no propaganda here about “One Race – the Human Race”. The journey he and his team have begun is going to end in storm and lightning, because Neanderthal genes are doing more than stick around for the ride. They must have physiological and psychological effects, separating those who possess them from those who don’t. Ditto for the Denisovans and others.

So the search isn’t over and this book will have sequels. I look forward to reading them, because Pääbo writes well and engagingly in what isn’t his mother-tongue. Born in Sweden, he’s now “director of Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany”. For an evolutionary anthropologist, he’s very famous: “In 2009, Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World”. He describes how he got there, the compromises he had to make and the toes he tried – and sometimes failed – to avoid treading on. But it’s mostly a story of obsession and ingenuity: Pääbo was obsessed with reconstructing a Neanderthal genome and had to be highly ingenious to do so. Luck and hunches were important too:

Most labs discard side fractions as by-products. Fortunately we had saved all of ours from our previous experiments. For years I had insisted on doing so, just in case something came along that would make them useful. This was easily one of my least popular ideas and caused many freezers to be filled with frozen side fractions that no one thought would ever be used. But thankfully in this case the crazy idea of the professor had been adhered to by the group. So now Tomi could simply heat the side fractions from earlier preparations from the Vindija bones and retrieve additional, relatively copious amounts of Neanderthal DNA without having to do any more extractions. (ch. 13, “The Devil in the Details”, pg. 145)

Pääbo is writing a popular account, so there isn’t a lot of technical detail, but there’s more than enough to be impressive. Genetics isn’t stamp-collecting: it requires serious intellect and nowadays serious computer-power and programming too. Pääbo couldn’t do all of that on his own: modern science is a collaborative endeavour. He directs a team and this book describes their ingenuity and idiosyncrasies. But in a way they’re a burial party. Science is now measuring mankind for its coffin. The more we know about ourselves, the more we will be able to surpass ourselves. This book about an obsessive human is also an early obituary for the human race.

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The Devotee of Ennui #1: Hymn to Hermaphrodite, Alan Moore with Kegsey Keegan (Polypogonic Press, 2013)

He has arguably done more than any other living writer to prove to the world that comix are not just for adults. Now Northampton’s non-pareil neo-gnostic normativism-nihilating neuro-naut Alan Moore has a new project and a new passion: boredom. Yes, you read that right: boredom. The thing is, boredom is actually interesting, see? That is the paradox at the heart of Moore’s latest work, the first instalment of which has just been issued through his private publishing company, Polypogonic Press. But be warned: this is not going to be the most immediately accessible exemplar of his œuvre, because it’s based partly on a transcription of DNA from a follicle mite in Moore’s own beard. Nevertheless, my first of what doubtless will be many, many reads of Hymn to Hermaphrodite suggests to me that the completed serial will take its place among Moore’s best work. One day it may even be seen as better than Watchmen or 23-gNosis – yes, it really is that good.

How does it raise such high expectations? Well, thanks, inter alia, to that follicle-mite DNA, things aren’t as clear in the actual text as they might be, but Moore has written a comprehensive introduction in which he explains what he intends to do with the serial and where he intends to go. He begins by discussing a phrase commonly used to describe boring things: “as dull as ditch-water.” He points out that the simile doesn’t actually work:

Ditch-water is positively pullulating with wonder and weirdness, at a microscopic level: protozoa, algae, microbes, viruses, the works. I’m going to try – with no guarantee of success, I freely admit – to teach people to see boredom as they should see ditch-water: as something that is bloody interesting! When you look at it right, boredom is not boring at all. Among a lot else, it’s frightening. Hell as eternal torment is one thing, but what about hell as eternal boredom, boys and girls?

Moore then describes how, as a teenager, he first read about tiny sub-atomic particles called neutrinos, which are so small and so ghostly that they barely interact with ordinary matter. For example, they can breeze unaffected through light-years of lead. That image stayed with him – light-years of lead. He asks us to ignore the physics and imagine, per impossibile, being trapped in a small, cubical cell for all eternity in the middle of light-years of lead. You don’t suffer any pain or physical discomfort, but there’s nothing to do and no way to get out, either. “After a few hours of that,” he concludes, “you’d be begging for the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched!”

He then goes on to posit that an up-to-date Satan would be experimenting with sensory deprivation, because that seriously messes with your head. And he explains how his meditation on these themes led him to devise a new academic discipline: ennuology – the scientific study of boredom. Antonia Baccio, the protagonist of the serial that he has now begun, is a hermaphroditic physicist whose mother was the Canadian ambassador to Belgium and whose father was the Belgian ambassador to Canada. It’s a kind of seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son thing – s/he gains all the ennuo-potence of both parents and both nationalities. S/he’s also a self-proclaimed “Devotee of Ennui”, consciously dedicated to celebrating and exploring the world of boredom. Fans of Weird Fiction will recognize a tip-o’-the-hat to Clark Ashton Smith’s short-story “The Devotee of Evil” (1933) and Smith looks as though he’s going to play a central role in the serial. Anyway, in this first instalment, Antonia, who’s obviously as crazy as a box of frogs, is trying to create a critical mass of ennui with these particles (s/he thinks) s/he’s discovered called “ennuons”, which are responsible for creating boredom and for making people and things boring. Canada and Belgium have an unusually high b.e.c. (background ennuon count) and Antonia begins work on two machines to collect and concentrate these particles and their sinister psycho-activity, one machine based in Brussels, the other in Ottawa.

S/he’s calculated that, if s/he collects enough ennuons, s/he can achieve a critical mass and a giant ennuonic explosion will ensue, bathing the entire earth in hyper-powerful boredom radiation. Moore doesn’t say what effects this will have, but he hints that they’ll be pretty nasty! The full horror of what Antonia’s up to will no doubt be explored in later instalments. In a (possible) tip-o’-the-hat to himself, Moore also (maybe) hints at some kind of alien race lurking in the background, either overseeing Antonia as s/he conducts her experiments or assisting her with them. And he hints that Antonia may even be alien herself, or maybe a new species of human. Readers will be left lots of other conundra to contemplate and puzzles to ponder. One of those puzzles will be Kegsey Keegan, Moore’s new artistic collaborator. He – or she – is a new name both to me and to the internet, which makes me suspicious. Why? Quite simply, because the talent and maturity on display in the art are worthy of a veteran of the comix scene. I suggest, for what it’s worth, that the name may be a disguise for Moore himself, working with graphics software to distort and develop his own drawings.

Whatever turns out to be the truth, Keegan perfectly realizes Moore’s ennuological visions, working with a lot of gray and a lot of detail to capture both the dedication and the lunacy of Antonia Baccio, the Devotee of Ennui who isn’t ennuyeux/se at all. In fact, s/he is one of the most disturbing comix characters I’ve ever come across. I’ve already had nightmares – literally – about being trapped in her/his “Cell-o’-Hell”, where s/he focuses ennuonic rays on unsuspecting experimental subjects and bores them out of their skulls. As all members of his fan-community will recognize, Moore has always been sui generis. Other celebrities issue their own perfumes or aftershaves: he’s issued his own psychedelic drug (now banned in all E.U. countries and large parts of Asia). But I think he’s surpassed himself here. In my opinion, no other comix writer in the world, living or dead, could do what Moore is doing with the most (apparently) unpromising of subjects. And after episode one, I’m both dreading and drooling over what will appear in episode two. It’s about boredom, but it’s interesting, see? So be there AND be square, futility fans.

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