Gilgamesh and the Genome

It’s a blast from the past! Here’s a From the Editor page I wrote in March 2000, when I was a newbie on my pharma magazine! Enjoy

Nearly 50 years ago, Francis Watson and James Crick uncovered the double-helical structure of DNA. A little more than a century ago, the fragments of the epic poem of Gilgamesh were discovered in the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia. The tablets on which the poem were written date only a few hundred years after the invention of writing, a discovery that fundamentally changed human culture. The four-letter alphabet of DNA contains the possibilities of life in all its aspects. In both cases, scholars and scientists have spent years trying to decipher these strange languages.

Both of these sources, in a sense, address the same issue, albeit from opposite directions. Through the mapping of the human genome and the discoveries we shall make of the secrets of individual genes, we learn about the myriad individual components that create a gestalt of human life. Through gene therapy and other advances in biotechnology, we are told, man will someday overcome aging and possibly transcend death.

Through translating the story of Gilgamesh, we learn that man has always tried to circumvent death. The greatest king of his time (two-thirds divine, one-third man) travels to the limits of the underworld to learn how to overcome mortality. He learns that nothing is permanent. Upon returning to his kingdom of Uruk, all Gilgamesh can do is praise the strength of the city’s walls. Today, not one person in a million could identify Uruk on a map. Nor do those city walls stand. The first hero in literature faces the same limitations as a garbage man in the year 2000. Time passes and unmakes us all.

Scientists today question whether that process is necessary, and whether it can at least be slowed. The mission of translating the genetic language and making genes into a manipulable objects may accomplish Gilgamesh’s quest, 5000 years later.

One Reply to “Gilgamesh and the Genome”

  1. Very interesting comparison. Nice angle to look at things from this way – and all done in such a short space. Obviously you were ahead of your time!

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