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Poetry to out live humanity

Posted by Don McLenaghen on June 27, 2010

Today I am going to share with you all a news item I heard on a trip to Winnipeg on the CBC. The spot I heard was about Christian Bok and his new work “the Xenotext Experiment”.

Eveline Kolijn

As our loyal listeners may remember we discussed earlier this year Craig Venter and his development of ‘synthetic life’. This processes involved, if I may use imagery for fact, using a kind of ink jet printer to ‘print’ a DNA nucleus. The Xenotext experiment is parallel to this work but takes it a different direction.

In Christian Bok’s abstract, he mentioned that cybernetic expert Pak Wong et all, has already encoded into the DNA of a bacteria the song lyrics to “It’s a Small World After All”. It is Bok’s plan to encode into extremophile Deinococcus radiodurans, a line of poetry. For those who don’t know what an extremophile is, it is a branch of life that has learned to live in the most extreme environments; these include boiling waters near geysers or thermal vents, in extremely salty water like the Dead sea, in the cooling tanks of nuclear waste…if it’s a place you’re sure life could not possible exist, an extremophile lives there. The idea, from what I have read, is that he is using the DNA as a form of cryptograph or code with three base pairs equalling one English letter; from that he will encode a complete poem. Further, he plans to encode some DNA that will produce proteins that will contain its own encoded poem snippet. The plan with creating protein poetry is that as the organism evolves, this protein will also evolve and in doing so will change the poem. The DNA he is adding or changing is not the important ‘active’ genes but the ‘junk DNA’.

He states that “the genome can now become a “vector” for heretofore unimagined modes of artistic innovation and cultural expression. In the future, genetics might lend a possible, literary dimension to biology, granting every geneticist the power to become a poet in the medium of life.”

I think this is interesting in three ways; first, some people were worried with regards to the ‘synthetic life experiment’ that we would create a monster like Dr. Frankenstein did. I don’t think so but because the purpose of this genetic manipulation is independent of its actual function it is possible. He hopes to avoid these issues by focusing on ‘junk DNA’ but as I head in a resent podcast on NPR, to geneticist there is no such thing as ‘junk’ DNA, only DNA we have yet to understand its function.

Second, one of the technical people on Bok’s project is a Stuart Kauffman, a geneticist, who believes life is complex but predisposed to order; that there is an underlying tendency to self-order. I worry that if this experiment is successful and we have bacteria composing sonnets that the intelligent Design nuts will take this a proof of the hand of ‘god’?

Lastly, and the part I found most exciting, is the potential for the extension of both human culture but also knowledge. If this experiment works well and the encoded poem has an indefinite life; that is the information encoded in the genome is extractable as long as the species exists. Think of what this could mean when we look beyond poetry. As Ethan and other students of history know, throughout our past, humanity has on several occasions taken it into it collective mind to destroy its own reservoirs of knowledge; be it the destruction of the library of Alexandria the sacking of Rome or the book burnings in 1950’s United States. Now we could have the potential to ensure human knowledge is next to impossible to lose. Imagine encoding the complete library of Congress in an extremophile? As long as that life existed knowledge exists. Even if an asteroid hit the planet and reset life as it did with the dinosaurs, whatever intelligence that arose in our place could retrieve that knowledge…extremophile are even believed to be a source of exogenesis…imagine one of encoded extremophiles being hurtled into space as part of some meteor and landing on fertile soil in some distant solar system giving rise to a who new biosphere, and earth 2 if you will…life with knowledge literally in its genes…

But enough of my flights of fancy, what do you think about the “literary genetics”?

One Response to “Poetry to out live humanity”

  1. […] It looks like poetry will outlive Humanity… […]

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