Sunday, November 11, 2007

Every place has its holy names

Looking back, I would have to say that the greatest scientific achievement of my lifetime is the discovery of the secret of the DNA and the consequent sequencing of the human genome. You will hear the latter compared to the building of the atomic bomb, or putting a man on the moon. It is more, much more.

It is an end and a beginning.

It is the end of the reign of the gods.

No one knows yet what is beginning.

Anita Diamant's The Red Tent comes to mind, a novelistic retelling of the biblical story of Jacob and his wives and children from the point of view of Jacob's only daughter, Dinah. The novel beautifully evokes the people of 4,000 years ago -- farmers, herdsmen, city builders -- who invented the stories by which we in the Western world -- through the Scriptures and myths -- have pretty much measured our lives ever since.

The gods are everywhere in Diamant's tale. In every tree and stream. In moon, sun, and stars. In menstrual blood and spindle. In the waters that nourish the planted seed and the drought that withers the nanny goat's teats. Dinah learns the stories of the gods in the woman's tent -- the red tent -- as they are told and retold by her mother and aunts.

Jacob and his clan live in constant negotiation with the gods, through prayer and sacrifice. Behind the world of their daily lives is a shadow world of spirits with human faces, or semi-human faces, who act with human willfulness, raising up and striking down, imposing outrageous demands, bestowing blessings.

By Jacob's time the gods were already old. They were born in the minds of our earliest human ancestors, who, finding themselves in an uncertain world, created a measure of order by imagining unseen spirits with human features.

Even today, as a new millennium begins, the ancient gods still haunt our imaginations, investing the world with presumed consciousness and will. Polls show that eighty percent of Americans believe in miracles; nearly three-quarters believe in angels.

And now, in opposition to the gods, we have -- the genome.

A double helix, as long as my arm, tucked into every cell in our bodies. A sequence of 3 billion chemical "letters" (molecules called nucleotides) -- A, G, C, T -- that code three-by-three for amino acids that link together and fold into the proteins that make our bodies (and minds) work. Print out the sequence of As, Gs, Cs, and Ts and it would fill a dozen sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica; it is now available at a mouse click on the Internet. That sequence of just four kinds of molecules causes to happen, in a marvelous and still uncertain way, the "miracle" of the newborn babe: the tiny perfect fingers and toes, the lashes, the wisps of hair, the bawl of life. A vessel waiting to be filled.

All that DNA, packed into those tens of trillions of cells, is not static. Protein-based "motors" crawl along the strands of DNA, transcribing the code into single-strand RNA molecules, which in turn provide the templates for building the proteins that build and maintain our bodies. Other proteins help pack DNA neatly into the nuclei of cells and maintain the tidy chromosome structures. Still other protein-based "motors" are busily at work untying knots that form in DNA as it is unpacked in the nucleus and copied during cell division. Others are in charge of quality control, checking for accuracy and repairing errors.

Working, spinning, ceaselessly weaving, winding, unwinding, patching, repairing -- each cell is like a bustling factory of a thousand workers. Trillions of cells humming with the business of life.

Mind-boggling. Jaw-dropping. A story to shake us to the soles of our feet.

Not gods, but biochemistry.

But make no mistake: The mystery of life is not lessened by the sequencing of the human genome, and the genomes of many other creatures, including our Neanderthal cousins. If anything, it is deepened. What we have discovered is not a shadow world of humanlike spirits, but rather an elusive and enigmatic fire that burns in the very stuff of creation. The fire does not have a human face, but it animates the planet and perhaps the universe.

How do we come to terms with this new knowledge? In Diamant's novel, Jacob decides to return to the land of his ancestors, from which he has lived (and married) in exile. His wives are fearful. Zilpah says to the other women: "All of [our] named gods abide here. This is the place where we are known, where we know how to serve. It will be death to leave. I know it."

And Bilhah answers: "Every place has its holy names, its trees and high places. There will be gods where we go."

We are no less fearful than were Jacob's wives of leaving the familiar. But, as Bilhah says, every place has its sacred meaning. Whatever Mystery we meet in the land of the genomes will not greet us with a human face, but, if we are receptive, it cannot fail to drop us to our knees with awe and reverence, fear and trembling, thanksgiving and praise.

Further Reading

Anita Diamant, The Red Tent, Picador.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.