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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Miraculous Mitosis

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I commented a couple of months ago about how Darwinian evolutionary theory is now so firmly entrenched in my mind that I cannot conceive of life working in any radically different way. However, that is not to say that my amazement at the natural world is in any way diminished (and, in large part, my photoblog is a celebration of the environment). Reading geneticist Mark Ridley's Mendel's Demon: Gene Justice and the Complexity of Life, I come across the following description of mitosis:
Eukaryotic cells have a distinct method of cellular reproduction. The genes and other cellular components first double up inside the cell. A special machinery of cables forms inside the cell, and they mechanically pull the two sets of genes into the two opposite halves of the parent cell. A membrane then forms between the two halves and division is complete. Such is the normal process of cell division, called mitosis, for instance in a growing plant or animal.
As a literary critic, I am aware that much of my seduction by this passage is triggered by Ridley's investment of agency in the cells, and his use of humanising metaphors: they "first double up"; "a special machinery forms"; "they mechanically pull." In fact, there is no such thing as "they" in a cell, which is simply a biological component, not a conscious or semi-conscious identity. It is only from the human perspective (and especially that of a popular science book) that it appears remarkable that cells pull sets of genes apart in a game of biotic tug-of-war from. From the gene's eye view of the world, though, there is nothing intentional or teleological about the act; it is an entirely mundane process that gets on with its cellular housekeeping while someone is eating, or opening a window, or just walking dully along (apologies to Auden).

Nevertheless, even when you escape from the framings and manipulations of text, there is something close to miraculous about watching this process - which happens billions of times a day, and has done so for billions of years - effortlessly in the action of creating life.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:52 am


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