The adoration of a map: Reflections on a genome metaphor

Genomics, Society and Policy 5 (3):1-15 (2009)
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On June 26, 2000, President Clinton, together with Francis Collins and Craig Venter, solemnly announced, from the East Room of the White House, that the grand effort to sequence the human genome, the Human Genome Project (HGP), was rapidly nearing its completion. Symbolism abounded. The event was framed as a crucial marker in the history of both humanity and knowledge by explicitly connecting the completion of the HGP with a number of already acknowledged and established scientific highlights. Tensions abounded as well, however, notably between competing metaphors. In the course of the HGP, metaphors had become crucially important in framing and conveying what the HGP was really about. They had proved themselves to be of key importance when it came to defining and explaining the project’s significance for both science and society. Powerful images and metaphors had been deployed in order to secure unprecedented amounts of funding, on the one hand by comparing the HGP to other big technoscientific projects such as space travel, high energy physics, the atomic bomb and a territorial mapping exercise, and on the other hand through the suggestion that, once we have our “blueprint”, “code of codes”, “parts list”, etc. available, cancer genes will no longer have a place to hide. This article sets out to analyze this clash of metaphors, firmly embedded within the HGP but culminating at the press conference, arguing that the June 2000 event is even reminiscent of a somewhat similar event, depicted by a famous altarpiece, ‘The adoration of the Lamb’, on display in Ghent Cathedral and finished more than five centuries before.

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Hub Zwart
Erasmus University Rotterdam


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