by Benjamin Zeller
For something that the vast majority of people have never actually seen, the double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) certainly has broad recognition. We find it on corporate logos, academic organizations, and in popular culture. It is, as art historian Martin Kemp writes in his forthcoming book Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, an icon of our times. As such it is an image of “terrific and enduring fame,” Kemp explained in a recent interview. Here on frequencies.ssrc.org, David Morgan offered another take. “[Icons] are special—they stand like mountaintops in a society, managing the flow of thought and feeling that constitutes the body of a culture.” Icons are symbols of tremendous weight, like the cross, the flag, or the wheel of dharma.
The double helix is certainly an icon, and a particularly apt one for today. It is, first and foremost, an icon of science. Since the eighteenth century, science has increasingly become the dominant means of relating to the world around us. It possesses power, authority, and conveys legitimacy onto everything it touches, as historian Daniel Patrick Thurs has written. We negotiate birth, disease, and death through science. We use science to sell products and decide policy—though we sometimes fight over whose science or which results to accept. While religious and non-scientific approaches to engaging the world exist, all such approaches butt against the pervasive explanatory power of science. The double helix emblazons this mantle of science.
The double helix icon sometimes also functions like another item of religious material culture, the talisman. Like the chamsa (Hand of Fatima), crucifix, or OM, the double helix is a marker of membership within a community: in this case, the community of science. Like any talisman the double helix conveys real power. Place a double helix on a product—perfume, for example—and it captures the legitimacy, authority, and cachet of science. Add the double helix to an article of clothing, and it marks the wearer as a priest—or at least a member of the congregation—in the church of science. The double helix as talisman transforms an object into an emblem of science, and with it all the qualities that we envision science as possessing, including the values of progress, truth, and empiricism.
The double helix, like other icons, inspires conflict as well as desire. This should not surprise us. People want to control, possess, and define the sacred. The double helix is no different. Competing companies use the icon to sell their products and convey the sense of authority that the double helix conveys. Proponents of everything from stem cell research to creationism have latched onto the image of the double helix. Secularist journals and Christian magazines all include illustrations of the double helix.
For nearly two years the Discovery Institute, known for its forceful advocacy for Intelligent Design and theistic alternatives to normative Western science, used a double helix as part of their logo. The Institute initially used as their logo an excerpt from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel—the famous scene of God touching Adam—but from October 1999 to August 2001 they replaced Adam with the double helix. The double helix made a return to the Institute’s logo again in July 2004, but paired with da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Why would an evangelical group like the Discovery Center not known for its endorsement of materialist science use this image? The science of genetics—one would think—offers particular threat to such Christians, since it represents the biological determinism and natural selection that they generally abhor.
The reason lies in the plasticity of the symbol. For the evangelicals who bear the double helix as their emblem, DNA represents an icon of order, and therefore what they consider evidence of intelligent design. No fixed meaning exists for icons like DNA. Unlike fossils or moon rocks, DNA is both omnipresent and cannot be directly observed. It is therefore more plastic as a symbol and can be deployed in nearly any circumstance. The double helix can represent Intelligent Design or evolution, scientific triumphalism or Christian resistance. It is a powerful symbol, but one whose multivalent power is neither stagnant nor fixed.
The double helix, with its multicolored nucleotides linking its two long strands, has taken on a reality beyond the illustrative one for which the symbol was intended. It has become more than merely an image. Since Watson and Crick first introduced it as a model of DNA, it has transformed in most people’s minds from an approximate model to an actual image, an imago biologica of the genetic code at the center of our biological lives. It is impossible to see it unmediated, but even with the aid of powerful microscopes DNA doesn’t look exactly like the double stranded molecule that we so often see in culture. Most people think it does. The signifier has become the signified. Chalk up some of this to scientific ignorance, but also to the fundamental way that icons and other images work. The same has happened with religious symbols as well. Warner Sallman’s famous painting Head of Christ has become for many American Christians the essentially true image of Jesus. (See David Morgan’s work for more on this.)
There is a term in religion for an image that really is what it represents: a murti. In the Hindu tradition a murti is not only an image of the divine, but the divine itself made manifest. Krishna, Shiva, Devi, or any other God manifests in the murti, and through ritual practice the image becomes that which it represents. Something similar has happened with the double helix. As a murti, the double helix of DNA functions as not only a symbol approximately representing our genetic code, but as a manifestation of those genes. When I asked students in my religious studies classes—a fair cross-section of students at the college—what DNA really looked like, they described the familiar multicolored ladder-shaped molecule. Like Sallman’s Head of Christ, Michelangelo’s work at the Sistine Chapel, and a myriad of other icons, the double helix has become a symbol as real as the idea that it represents.