One of the first things that struck me about Montréal when I first moved here were the spiral staircases. Winding, weaving, twisting upon themselves, these iron or wood stairways are treacherous in winter and yet add an element of elegance and fantasy to the city’s streets, while allowing for a greater density of residential occupation. In her bilingual book, Québec, I love you/Je t’aime, illustrator Miyuki Tanobe recounts her delight at seeing a wedding party with a young bride and groom joyfully ascending the graceful curve of a staircase.
This local architectural creature is superimposed on another spiral formation — that of DNA, often called the “blueprint for life;” in reality, it is the only fundamental ‘species’ that exists. More over, DNA’s incredible ability to store information has recently been noted by science (700 terabytes in a single gram at last count).
In this piece, the city’s celebrated spiral staircases are re-imagined as strands of transforming, intertwined DNA, marching into some evolutionary event horizon, accentuated by the intelligent gaze of the eyes lining the railing, floating like a jellyfish manifold churning in the vast ocean of time.
Countering the belief that most non-coding DNA is “junk,” anthropologist Jeremy Narby points to the pitfalls of “cowboy science” where we shoot first and ask questions later. For Narby, using the analogy of the “cosmic serpent,” DNA is not what we think it is and is more intelligent than we know:
[The] genetic code … is the same for all living beings and … bears striking similarities to human coding systems, or languages. To transmit information, the genetic code uses elements (A, G, C, and T) that are meaningless individually, but that form units of significance when combined, in the same way that letters make up words. The genetic code contains 64 three-letter “words”, all of which have meaning, including two punctuation marks.
As linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out, such coding systems were considered up until the discovery of the genetic code as “exclusively human phenomena” – that is, phenomena that require the presence of intelligence to exist.
Not only might DNA be a kind of intelligent language, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna theorizes in The Invisible Landscape that DNA may also be holographic in nature, in that the DNA from one cell theoretically has all the information — the “whole message” — needed to regenerate the entire organism. Tantalizingly, McKenna also speculates on the possible holographic nature of consciousness:
The unformed archetypes of the collective unconscious may be the holographic substrate of the species’ mind. Each individual mind-brain is then like a fragment of the total hologram; but, in accordance with holographic principles, each fragment contains the whole. It will be remembered that each part of a hologram can reconstruct an entire image, but that the details of the image will deteriorate in proportion to its fragmentation, while the overstructure will remain. Out of this feature of holography arises the quality of individual point of view and, in fact, individuality itself. If each mind is a holographic medium, then each is contiguous with every other, because of the ubiquitous distribution of information in a hologram. Each individual mind would thus be a representation of the essence of reality, but the details could not be resolved until the fragments of the collective hologram were joined.
If this is true, then there are some far-reaching implications that arise when this is combined with the notion that ideas are another kind of long-term legacy. Tying genes with memes, Alana Newman writes:
There are two types of immortality: genetic and memetic. Genetic immortality includes the preservation as well as the reproduction of genes. [..] Genghis Khan and his now 16 million living descendants are an example of genetic immortality through reproduction. Memetic immortality, on the other hand, has little to do with the physical matter of our bodies. It is the theory that mental content and “cultural units”– ideas, beliefs, patterns of behavior, etc., can be reproduced from mind to mind – as individuals influence each other to adopt new ways of thinking, preferences, and so on.
So to what end are we spreading our genes, our memes and our ideas around, if it is not just about the survival of the fittest, but also the survival of the fittest “units of cultural transmission”? What kind of self-sustaining culture can we even pass on as we sleepwalk through life, glued to our television screens, shopping malls and other dead-ends?