• 07.19.13

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]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.