Tag: genome

Czeslaw Milosz predicted CRISPR

Sunday, 28 June, 2015 0 Comments

CRISPR is much in the news these days. It’s a revolutionary technique that makes editing the genes of living beings relatively easy. The implications — both frightening and promising — are such that the scientists who discovered CRISPR have recommended a field-wide moratorium on using the method to edit human embryos. They encourage continued work in editing mature human cells, but draw the line at changing DNA prior to birth. They’re a bit late in bolting the lab door, however, because Chinese scientists have already genetically modified human embryos using CRISPR.

Like artificial intelligence, genome editing is outstripping our ability to understand its ethical implications. But while we wait for Pope Francis or President Obama or Chancellor Merkel to take a position on this issue, let’s read Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. Normalization, as translated by Clare Cavanagh, prepares us for the “onset of universal genetic correctness,” which is even more terrifying than political correctness.


This happened long ago, before the onset
of universal genetic correctness.

Boys and girls would stand naked before mirrors
studying the defects of their structure.

Nose too long, ears like burdocks,
sunken chin just like a mongoloid.

Breasts too small, too large, lopsided shoulders,
penis too short, hips too broad or else too narrow.

And just an inch or two taller!

Such was the house they inhabited for life.

Hiding, feigning, concealing defects.

But somehow they still had to find a partner.

Following incomprehensible tastes—airy creatures
paired with potbellies, skin and bones enamored of salt pork.

They had a saying then: “Even monsters
have their mates.” So perhaps they learned to tolerate their partners’
flaws, trusting that theirs would be forgiven in turn.

Now every genetic error meets with such
disgust that crowds might spit on them and stone them.

As happened in the city of K., where the town council
voted to exile a girl

So thickset and squat
that no stylish dress could ever suit her,

But let’s not yearn for the days of prenormalization.
Just think of the torments, the anxieties, the sweat,
the wiles needed to entice, in spite of all.

Czeslaw Milosz (1911 – 2004)

Big data bull: Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie

Monday, 11 November, 2013 0 Comments

There’s a nice living to be made by conflating Big Data with Big Brother and scaring the life out of ordinary internet users. The likes of Andrew Keen and Evgeny Morozov are typical of the scaring species. “Both end up writing bad books because any interesting arguments they might have in them are overwhelmed by their need to position themselves in the attention economy,” wrote Henry Farrell in The Tech Intellectuals.

Now that that’s been said, let’s turn to Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie, a Holstein bull born in the USA in 2004. After the United States Department of Agriculture examined the 50,000 markers on his genome, it declared him to be the best bull in the land, and his 346 daughters today confirm his excellence. But his superiority was presaged by the data. “When Freddie had no daughter-records our equations predicted from his DNA that he would be the best bull,” Paul VanRaden, a research geneticist with the US Department of Agriculture, told Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic, who wrote “The Perfect Milk Machine: How Big Data Transformed the Dairy Industry.”

“Data-driven predictions are responsible for a massive transformation of America’s dairy cows. While other industries are just catching on to this whole ‘big data’ thing, the animal sciences — and dairy breeding in particular — have been using large amounts of data since long before VanRaden was calculating the outsized genetic impact of the most sought-after bulls with a pencil and paper in the 1980s,” writes Madrigal. Vegans and Big Data cynics inclined to condemn the dairy/data industry and its objectives should hold their fire because, as Madrigal points out, a lot of the statistical techniques and methodology developed by animal breeders connecting phenotype and genotype “could reach outside the medical realm to help us understand human’s evolution as well.” Prediction: Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie will be producing cream long after Evgeny Morozov has been cast into the milk churn of history.

Bull by Picasso