Chair of Vanderbilt English department gets rare NIH grant to study genetics in literature and popular culture

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ñ Two decades of dinner-table conversation between a husband and wife have resulted in a rare grant to an English professor from the National Institutes of Health.

Jay Clayton, chair of the English department at Vanderbilt University, was awarded the $100,000 grant on Sept. 30 by the Bethesda, Md.-based National Human Genome Research Institute of the NIH. In collaboration with Professor Priscilla Wald of Duke University, he will lead a 12-member team to study and catalog the topic of genetics in literature, film and popular culture.

Studying how a scientific development like cloning is represented in serious novels and popular films like Jurassic Park or Multiplicity is important for the public debate, Clayton said.

"Common notions of science out of control are encapsulated and given their greatest power in Frankenstein," he said. "In Europe, they refer to ‘Frankenfood’ when they’re speaking of genetically engineered food."

In the debate about cloning, Clayton says arguments are skewed by false assumptions that spring from pop culture.

"A film like Jurassic Park (1993) completely mangles the entire notion of cloning in very damaging ways, creating fears that are groundless," Clayton said. "There certainly are legitimate concerns about cloning. But the fears that you’ll get a Xerox copy of an animal are utterly groundless. That’s not how cloning works."

In Multiplicity (1996), the character played by Michael Keaton is cloned, and then the clones are cloned. That results in less-and-less intelligent versions of the original.

"That taps into the whole 19th century eugenicists’ notion of degenerate populations–of populations getting worse and worse," Clayton said. "First of all, it misunderstands the science behind cloning. But there’s also a deeper subtext of the production of defective humans–idiots–that ties in with eugenics notions that need to be rigorously guarded against."

The research team will also look into ideas about genetics raised by serious novelists like Richard Powers (Gold Bug Variations) and Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex).

Clayton was a fan of science fiction as a youth. His wife, Ellen Wright Clayton, is a physician and law professor at Vanderbilt who studies the ethical, social and legal implications of genetics advances.

"After 20 years of discussion around the dinner table, I realized that I had learned a lot about the social implications of advances in genetics," he said. "I rejoice that at long last I can put it to use in my own field."

The research project will produce a book of essays designed to set the future course for scholars on the subject, a list of relevant books and films and a website to serve as a central source of information.

"We’re going to get this important topic into the literature classroom," Clayton said. "Every student in high school in America takes English literature courses. This is a chance to raise these issues–the future of science, its consequences in society–in classrooms where it’s never appeared before."

Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

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