Cafe #4: When Science Meets Culture: Exploring the Genetic Imaginary

While the endeavours of genetics have and continue to change biological, forensic and clinical sciences, the language of genes has profoundly and overwhelmingly reshaped our culture. How do we even begin to unpack the extraordinary place ‘genes’ have in public discourse and the popular imagination? To what degree does the ‘genetic imaginary’ correlate with or exceed the underpinning science? How has the language of genes come to pervade public discourse – as much a trope of personal narrative as of public anxiety? How can we gain critical purchase not only on the conditions and consequences of a particular science, but on its projective seductions, its terms of persuasion.

DNA: from image (Franklin’s x-ray diffraction result) to image (Crick’s pencil sketch)


Focusing on a brief example from a myriad of possible examples, this evening will consider these and other questions as we explore the cultural apotheosis of the gene not only as a pre-eminent locus of scientific and social explanation, but also as a powerful object of spectacle, fantasy and attachment.

The speaker is Deborah Lynn Steinberg, Professor of Gender, Culture and Media Studies at the University of Warwick, who has written widely on the cultural impact of genetics and the intersection of scientific and popular imaginaries. Her recent book Genes and the Bioimaginary: Science, Spectacle, Culture (2015) has been recently published by Ashgate.

The talk will take place at the Cherry Reds Cafe, central Birmingham, on Tuesday 23 February; be there for 6:30 to order your drinks and food and thus ready for a start at 7 pm.

I’ve been there and seen The Evolution of Complexity


Unsure of how far the discussion of evolution could go, I attended with an open mind, excited to see how the night would proceed. The environment was very nurturing for the audience, with the availability of real ale and other exotic beers, good food, and a cosy feel.

The event started with a 30 minute presentation by Dr Pritchard addressing the theme of the evening. The starting point was a reference to the natural instinct of humans to organise chaos and find patterns in apparent disorder as the real reason behind the search for answers to the origins of human life. Using direct readings from Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ (6th edition, we were told, which is the cheapest on the market of “early” copies), Dr Pritchard described evolution as a combination of random and ordered processes: while the genetic mutation is somewhat random, the survival of those individuals having that mutation is not.

The presence of extreme complexity throughout nature was used as the basis for an argument for a ‘design by a creator’. In 18th century Hume gave a strong philosophical rebuttal of the argument but it wasn’t until Darwin’s ideas of “descent with modification” that alternative mechanisms would be available. One of the main arguments of the supporters of Intelligent Design (ID) is the concept of irreducible complexity, and the example of a mouse trap. Dr. Pritchard kindly brought not one but several such contraptions, to illustrate the ID’s party trick: remove any one piece from it and the system becomes functionally useless. Thus, the IDs argue, for all of the parts of the system to work so perfectly in cohesion with each other, they must have existed together from the beginning, thus perfectly designed. However, Dr Pritchard argued, if one uses the example of bacterial flagella (another ID workhorse :-)), which consists of multiple subunits, many of these had different roles in earlier evolutionary stages; some were originally designed as secretory organs and only later became essential functional elements for the locomotion bacteria. Another lesson to take home offered by Dr .Pritchard is to avoid a too simplistic reverse engineering hypothesis: look at a function or a feature and then try to find an evolutionary explanation for why it needed to be that way. The development of alternative functions may lead to the appearance of biological “spandrels” (in architecture or object design this term refers to spaces or areas of no apparent function e.g. the empty corners created when a circular clock face is mounted within a square frame).

After a short break to refill empty glasses and discuss the issues raised with fellow audience members, the second part of the event started, in which Dr Toescu, the chair of the session, lead a question and answer session, inviting members of the audience to pose questions. It was refreshing to see such a wide range of individuals in the audience, from university lecturers, through students to members of the general public. This allowed for a wide range of opinions and some very thought-provoking discussion. Being able to discuss an academic topic with such a broad audience demographic made the evening really enjoyable. It’s times like these that make me realise how great being a student in Birmingham is. Being able to partake in thought provoking discussion with people from across the globe, united by a thirst for knowledge and a desire to share their own perspective. I’d highly recommend an evening at Café Culturel to anyone wanting to learn something new and partake in engaging discussion in a relaxed environment.

[contributed by Joshua Tulley (3rd Year Medical Science Student, University of Birmingham)]