Genetic Fail: Gene Talk

DNA. Evolution. Jurassic Park. Reading—then instantly forgetting what I read—Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. I understand little about genetics. I attended a talk called DNA: Unwinding the Theory of Evolution in an attempt to gain an interest in and better understanding of the subject.

I got off to a rocky start. I arrived at Glasgow’s Albany Centre only to be stopped by an automatic door that refused to automate. I was trapped outside, minutes before the talk was due to begin, dancing back and forth trying to activate the door’s sensor. Inside I could see a frustratingly unmanned reception desk. A shoulder-charge that could be considered breaking and entering finally got me into the building and
I entered the hall minutes late, the petulant child in me wanting to scream “It’s not my fault, okay”. Thankfully the talk organisers were running late too.

The first to speak (a man whose name I never caught, in a shameless display of amateurism) was a member of the Galilean Society, a group trying to bring science to the general public (italicised for foreshadowingy importance). He mentioned that people often think the group’s name relates to the river of Galilee and assume they’re a religious organisation, and that the group’s site is galileosoc.co.uk in case potential visitors can’t spell Galilean. I wanted to counter that, despite an understandable wish to honour the Italian mathematician, maybe they should’ve gone with a different name. I did not offer that unadvice.

Then he introduced the speaker: Dr Billy Sands from the University of Glasgow, a ponytailed middle-aged man. Dressed in wine-coloured trousers and a baby-blue checked shirt, he looked like a less healthy version of another doctor: Dr Christian.

Five minutes into Sands’ presentation I was lost. He hammered through Powerpoint screens at a furious rate, and while none of them seemed massively complex, they were still above my level of understanding. As this talk was a) part of Glasgow Science Week and b) free, I assumed it would be aimed at gene-noobs. Sands seemed to have given no thought to this—we were simply talked to like mid-first-year university students.

To hook the layman you have to get them early. The way to do so, in my unhumble opinion, is with narrative and metaphor. Genes are the blueprint of our evolution from beasts to world-ruiners; our DNA has allowed us to come far enough that we can sequence it. You pull people in with Jurassic Park, point out the flaws in its premises, then drop the truth while their interest is peaked. Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I expected Sands to be Attenborough, but surely he could’ve painted an interesting picture before launching into hard facts and talk of the Helshey-Chas experiment.

Sands did admittedly give out the occasional interesting tidbit (dead bacteria can still infect healthy; whales can’t smell but used to have the ability; there’s relic of a virus in both our and ape DNS, which confirms the link between us). The problem was these nice little fact-bombs were too far apart, divided by diagrams and terms insufficiently explained. A good presentation should leave you both grand concepts to consider and little facts to Wiki. After this talk I only had the latter.

Sands loaded another Powerpoint slide titled Bayesian consensus phylogram of 27 olfactory receptor genes. That page summed up my experience of the presentation: getting some of it (it relates to our ability to smell) but not the majority. I realised he was probably reusing a uni presentation. And why shouldn’t he? Presumably he was gaining nothing from this presentation. But it’s easy to imagine talk in his university department, as within the Galilean society, centering around trying to get the average person interested in science.

I wondered if those around me were enjoying themselves. Maybe I was the only noob. The guy sitting in front of me clearly understood the subject. You can always spot the insiders at talks. They nod and smile before the rest do, laugh too animatedly and too long at in-jokes, often while sat with their arms folded, projecting an air of authority. I wondered, if I went to a presentation about a subject I was knowledgeable about, would I act the same? I wondered if such a subject existed.

The talk seemed better suited to a pop-fiction writer looking for story ideas, needing none of the underlying science. Maybe Michael Crighton was sitting in on a similar talk when he conceived Jurassic Park. I jotted down stupid ideas for stories I would never write, notes I wouldn’t even understand days later (“what if dogs were our real ancestors?”…”DeTective Mutations”).

After 90 minutes the whole shebang was over. Sands was happy to answer questions. Here, I thought, was where the conversation would be forced to diverge from polychromacy and SINES and C-Values into more human terms. But I even found those answers inscrutable. Others got up to leave and I coasted out behind them, hoping their noise would disguise mine and I wouldn’t seem too rude.

I briefly considered calling this post ‘Billy Gene’ you know. I’m sorry for even thinking it.

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