Scientific knowledge has played a key role in shaping our material world, and especially with regard to genetics, our social, political and spiritual lives also.
But how dependant is scientific knowledge on historical accident and chance? Could we have a different, and not necessarily less valid, version of scientific truth if history had played out slightly differently – if certain observations had been made or missed, if individual scientists had been more or less successful, if different accidents had occurred? Or, does the scientific method act to eliminate the effects of historical chance, and our present state of knowledge is somehow necessarily true?
Unlikely Objects explores these questions through a ‘Choose Your Own’ history of genetics, and the presentation of some more, or less, likely objects from imagined alternative histories of genetics.
Supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Choose Your Own… History of Biology
The book accompanying the project takes the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure, allowing YOU the reader to determine the course of biological science. Well that was the idea, but re-writing the history of science proved somewhat more difficult than I first anticipated! More research and writing from the book is available at www.superseded.org.
Illustrated by Nelly Ben Hayoun, with graphic design by Jacob Robinson.
The Darwinian revolution never happened, and the focus of biological research, rather than genetics, has been the hormones that control the development of form.
In a present where no Darwinian revolution took place, the idea that medical science can and should intervene to direct human evolution wasn’t sullied by the horrors of eugenics and genocide.
However, as with all facets of human life, there is some disagreement as to which direction this should be. Certain families have nurtured the belief that the ultimate goal of humanity should be a ‘return to’ an angelic form. Children in these families have their upwards growth arrested to minimise weight, and through judicious injection of hormones that control bone growth, have their arm span greatly increased, and their upper body strength greatly enhanced. The elongated arms provide points for the surgical grafting of attachment points for artificial feathers.
Under the current biological paradigm, known as the Modern Synthesis, the actions you take in your lifetime cannot change the genes you pass on to your offspring. The dogma has been that information flows from the genes to the body, but never from the body to genes.
However, evidence is mounting that about ten percent of people have a highly ‘flexible’ genome, where certain traits they’ve acquired in life are passed to their children, through epigenetic mechanisms. These traits are overwhelmingly to do with personality and sociability, and are highly dependant on the environment in which the parent grows up.
In an alternative present where the dogma of the Modern Synthesis hadn’t caused researchers to ignore epigenetic effects, society embraces the idea that some people have genes that are effected by the environment, and that these altered genes will be passed on to their children.
The state therefore tests the population to determine if someone is of ‘the responsive type’, because the environment in which ‘a responder’ grows up has consequences for society: A nurturing environment and they grow to be highly social individuals, beneficial to society, but a bad environment and they overwhelmingly become criminals. Furthermore, the effects of this environment are passed down to their offspring as well.
Therefore the resources of the state are directed towards the responders, with special, well funded schooling, to maximise the positive impact responders will have later in life. A form of ‘intergenerational responsibility’ is also implemented, with parents of responders held partly responsible, and liable to serve a part of any jail sentence, if their offspring grows up to commit serious crime.
The Responsiveness Tester is employed nationwide to determine at 18 months, if a child is a responder. It gives them a mild fright, and gauges their responsiveness, by taking a sample of their saliva from the dummy, and measuring the levels of the stress hormone cortisol it contains.