Brothers: Christophe, 30 & Ulric, 29

Ulric Collette takes portraits of two people who are directly related--say, a father and a daughter or pair of twins--and places them in a split-screen combination.

Father/Son: Laval, 56 & Vincent, 29

This basic juxtaposition dramatically visualizes the power that genes--just tiny coiled bits of amino acids--exert over the design of an entire organism.

Cousins: Justine, 29 & Ulric, 29

Something about these split-screen combinations breaks out of the humdrum abstraction of heritability and snaps your awareness toward the, yes, awesomeness (in the cosmic sense, not the Lolcat-GIF sense) of this basic fact of life.

Twins: Alex & Sandrine, 20

The resemblance of fraternal twins Alex & Sandrine isn’t surprising.

Daughter/Mother: Marie-Pier, 18 & N’sira, 49

Some of the resemblances between parents and offspring are so striking that the photos look like they have leaped into the future (or past) of one person’s life.

Daughter/Father: Ariane, 13 & André, 55

But the differences are even more intriguing: It’s like seeing jump cuts in genetic code come to life.

Father/Daughter: Daniel, 60 & Isabelle, 32

See more of Ulric Collette’s work here.

Co.Design

Uncanny Portraits Visualize The Power of Genetics

"Genetics Are Awesome" uses an ingenious split-screen effect to show how heritable traits get passed down.

A prominent technology columnist got science journalists into a tizzy last week when she proclaimed that she was a creationist. She probably didn’t really mean it, but the next time someone expresses doubt over basic, empirically validated facts of how living things evolve, point them toward a portrait collection called "Genetics Are Awesome"-- it could help you show them the light.

Genetics Are Awesome isn’t an educational visualization like the Punnett squares you used to learn about genetic inheritance in high school. Instead, photographer Ulric Collette simply took portraits of two people who are directly related--say, a father and a daughter or pair of twins--and placed them in a split-screen combination. This basic juxtaposition dramatically visualizes the power that genes--just tiny coiled bits of nucleic acids--exert over the design of an entire organism. Sure, it’s no great epiphany that a baby girl has mommy’s eyes and daddy’s chin. But something about these split-screen combinations breaks out of the humdrum abstraction of heritability and snaps your awareness toward the, yes, awesomeness (in the cosmic sense, not the Lolcat-GIF sense) of this basic fact of life.

Some of the resemblances between parents and offspring are so striking that the photos look like they have leaped into the future (or past) of one person’s life. But the differences are even more intriguing: It’s like seeing jump cuts in genetic code come to life. It’s enough to make me hope that Collette might do a more longitudinal follow-up project, perhaps with an interactive element, that could let me slide one half of each portrait forward or backward in "generations" (say, from a teenager all the way to her great grandparent), and literally visualize the genetic variation over more than just one "cut." But even as it stands, Genetics Are Awesome is a great piece of science-communication design--not because it didactically teaches you anything but because it reaches into you and makes you want to learn more.

[See Ulrich Collette’s photos here]

Add New Comment

8 Comments

  • MLJCubed

    This is a very small semi-related note, but the NBA ran a series of commercials a couple of years ago that featured two people side by side (say larry and magic) reading from a playoff promotional script. Those ads were pretty powerful and remind me of this.

  • Joshua Young

    It's an interesting art project, but I wouldn't really call it science. I'm sure that the artist chose relatives that looks like one another. If you were to choose two siblings at random, I'm sure it would be a total failure. Nice photoshop skills though...

  • HSmith3

    Hatsoff to good science, but I think it's a little funny to therefore conclude that the incredible genetic mechanism, which so inspires you, somehow just sort of "happened" by pure chance... :-)

  • Stuart Steel

     Actually, good science's best evidence suggests just that. There are plenty of examples of cruft, redundancy, inefficiency and poor design in our genetic code and molecular mechanisms - suggesting that it hasn't been planned (or at least planned well). This incredible genetic mechanism has been bootstrapped into its present form by many incremental steps of "hey, that's good enough!"

    That's the power of evolution through selection.

  • TheWandererOnline

    Great article; however you've made a common mistake and confused genesa for proteins. 
    \"genes--just tiny coiled bits of amino acids--"A gene is actually a fragment of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that, while an acid, is very much not an AMINO acid. Amino acids have an amino group (notably a nitrogren bound to a carbon), whereas DNA has a nitrogenous base bound to a deoxygenated ribose sugar. Instead, PROTEINS, are made of amino acids; however to call them "tiny" is also quite inaccurate because on a molecular scale proteins are huge. 

  • John Pavlus

    Thanks for this. I just corrected the post by replacing "amino" with "nucleic".