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Revising the Bible

Evolutionary biology meets Adam and Eve in the archives.
An extract from the Gutenberg Bible discovered in a library by an assistant who was searching the collection for something else. Experts confirmed the discovery by comparing the extract with a photocopy of the Gutenberg Bible, which was written with the same gothic font and printed by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the 15th century.

An extract from the Gutenberg Bible discovered in a library by an assistant who was searching the collection for something else. Experts confirmed the discovery by comparing the extract with a photocopy of the Gutenberg Bible, which was written with the same gothic font and printed by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the 15th century.

An upstairs office at New York's Morgan Library, John McQuillen, assistant curator of printed books, pulled a large, thick tome off a standard gray library cart and laid it in a foam book cradle the way a mother might lay a baby on a bed. The volume was bound in gilt-embossed leather and had metal clasps on the fore-edge. On the foot-edge, the vellum pages were irregularly wavy, betraying their sheepskin roots.

McQuillen spends his days handling extremely rare and valuable books. But even he had a reverent air as he opened the volume, revealing two blocks of right-justified Latin in jet-black Textura font, surrounded by a tracery of elaborate and colorful scrollwork inked in by hand. Across from McQuillen, artist Jenifer Wightman bounced up and down on her toes with glee. This book—the Gutenberg Bible, the first notable book that was mass-produced using moveable type—was the reason Wightman had come to the Morgan. She had a few amendments for it.

There are 48 reasonably intact Gutenberg Bibles known in the world, 20 of which are complete copies that include both volumes, the Old and New Testaments. The original print run—scholars think it was around 180 copies—is usually dated to 1455. Today they are some of the most valuable books in the world. In 2015, eight pages of a Gutenberg sold at Sotheby's for nearly a million dollars. Even incomplete Gutenbergs are kept under lock and key, and, in most cases, you need a very good reason to be allowed to look at one.

The Morgan Library owns three Gutenberg Bibles, more than any other institution on Earth, and McQuillen had brought two of them out for Wightman. It was a thrilling moment. Wightman slid a single sheet of handmade cotton-and-flax paper from a large envelope. It contained four drawings and a single block of type 42 lines long—the same format as the Gutenberg—comprising an addendum to the book of Genesis that reinterprets the story of Adam and Eve using evolutionary and contemporary science. McQuillen held up the broadside next to the open Bible on the desk. Wightman took several photographs. She was one step closer to achieving her mission: adding her addendum to every known Gutenberg Bible in the world.

Wightman has been offering to donate the broadside and hand deliver it to every institution that owns a Gutenberg. The review process that ensues can be lengthy and trying. Many libraries have accepted the addendum, but did not bring out their Bible for her to see. At least one wouldn't even let her inside the building. But with the Morgan acquisition of three broadsides, she had delivered addenda to 39 of the 48 extant Gutenberg Bibles. That's right: For the last two years, while #teachevolution ricocheted harmlessly through the digital echo-chamber, Wightman has been using the master's font to footnote the master text, convincing the most august libraries on the planet, including the Vatican's own Apostolic Library, to add a page of Darwinian science to Christianity's origin of the species. Were it packaged as an app or a Twitter feed, you might call her project disruptive. But because it's print— hand-printed letterpress no less—it is somehow even more subversive.

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Johannes Gutenberg designed and printed a number of books, but his masterpiece is known to book geeks as the B42, for its 42 lines of text per page. B42s are celebrated for their rarity—exactly the opposite of what made them world-shattering. The Gutenberg Bible wasn't the first printed book (though it is often mistaken as such). Nor was Gutenberg the inventor of the printed page. By the 1400s, print had been around for hundreds of years in China, Korea, and Japan. And moveable type had been experimented with by others, but Gutenberg perfected it, making the mass reproduction of books possible. It's generally accepted that this launched a revolution. Print disrupted the entrenched hierarchies of the world. Priests were no longer the keepers of the Word. Monarchs could be held accountable when laws could be cheaply reproduced. Governments were more easily changed in a world where news disseminated quickly. Scholars and scientists could build on previous knowledge, giving rise to modern history, mathematics, philosophy, and the physical sciences.

Print not only helped knowledge grow, but made it more democratic. Literacy became more widespread and learning more accessible. Cases have been made for crediting print, at least in part, with the Protestant Reformation, the emergence of capitalism, the rise of universal suffrage, and the scientific revolution. Once print culture took hold, knowledge spread more easily through a process of dissemination, incorporation, iteration. Charles Darwin very logically proposed that life forms evolve in the same way.

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Jeni Wightman is a wiry woman with a cricket-like intensity and an almost runic conversational style. In addition to being an artist, she works as a research specialist in greenhouse-gas accounting at Cornell University. She came up with the images for her addendum by surveying the entire faculty of Cornell about which graphic representation of a scientific concept they had found most life-changing.

She chose four of those drawings to represent the main symbols in Genesis. The Tree of Life is explained as the phylogenetic branching diagram that shows the evolutionary connectedness of all biological species. The creation of Eve from Adam's rib she declares a metaphor for mitosis, or cell division.

The apple stands for ion channels, the proteins in our cell walls that charge neurons to carry signals, helping to build the biological infrastructure for knowledge. The snake is DNA.

"I took poetic license with the snake," Wightman confessed.

She devised the broadside, officially titled Genesis Addendum: Original Syn Thesis, during a residency at the Center for Book Arts in New York. Drafting the addendum was only the first part of the project. Printing it in a letterpress format that matched that of the B42 was the second part. It was a long and painstaking effort. But the real heart of the project is getting those addenda into libraries—catalogued and archived in association with the book that started it all.

"I'm not addending all Bibles; I'm addending Gutenberg Bibles," Wightman explained at the New York Public Library's main branch, five blocks north of the Morgan. In other words, her project is not only about adding evolution to the creation story; it's about showing how the scientific revolution itself was dependent on the revolution of print.

She was at the NYPL to deliver an addendum to the first Gutenberg to be brought to the United States. The copy had been purchased in 1847 by businessman and philanthropist James Lenox, one of the library's founders. Library lore holds that the workers in the customs house were made to remove their hats to show respect for the book upon seeing it. Yet Lenox's book buyer, Henry Stevens, in his gossipy 1886 memoir, relates that Lenox was initially so appalled at the $3,000 his agent had doled out for the Bible that he refused to clear the book through customs. It was only after "a good deal of correspondence" that Lenox "took home the book, and soon learned to cherish it as a bargain and the chief ornament of his library."

When Wightman visited, Lenox's chief ornament was lounging in an acrylic cube in the NYPL's McGraw Rotunda. (Normally it lives in the Main Reading Room, but that room was undergoing restoration.) She had to wait for a group of Chinese tourists to finish taking selfies with the Bible before snapping a photo of her own. The McGraw Rotunda features a set of four murals collectively called The Story of the Recorded Word: Moses delivering the Ten Commandments; a medieval scribe copying a manuscript; Gutenberg before his press displaying a proof page of his Bible; and a newspaper editor reading pages fresh off a Linotype machine. It feels as if there's something missing in this progression. Larry Page and Sergey Brin writing code in a garage? Ben Kovitz explaining the concept of a wiki to Jimmy Wales? The upload of Grumpy Cat's first video? The next frame in this sequence is surely digital. But in an era of fake news, "fake" real news, and truthiness, it seems crucial to ask: Does each communication revolution necessarily supplant the one that came before?

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Gutenberg's name is nearly always paired with the Bible—and this shapes our feelings about his print revolution, making it seem stolid, even orthodox. But the Bible was not the first thing Gutenberg printed. His first book was a Latin grammar for schoolboys, Ars Minor by Aelius Donatus. Around the time of the B42, Gutenberg was also printing certificates used to sell plenary indulgences, a calendar filled with inflammatory, anti-Muslim doggerel inciting war with the Turks, and a New Age-y mystical poem from the Sibylline Prophecies. In fact, it took a while for the print revolution to move into the sphere of reason; for the first few decades, what churned off the presses was mostly astrology, alchemy, and good old soft porn. The age of Gutenberg, it seems, was a lot like the age of YouTube.

Today, however, the pop culture that print spawned views print as a relic, an outmoded technology that shaped an outdated world. Even the name Gutenberg is used to evoke his own obsolescence, as in Sven Birkerts' gloomy The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Marshall McLuhan launched this trend pre-Internet with 1962's The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. The book argued that moveable type had remade culture for the worse, increasing human alienation by privileging the visual, the rational, and the standardized over the more freewheeling, one-to-one oral culture that preceded it. McLuhan and followers, like his student Walter Ong, claimed that print was quickly succumbing to "secondary orality"—by which they meant radio and television—making culture once again more immediate, participatory, and ecstatic.

That sort of happened, and sort of didn't. The electronic age killed off some things, like popular magazine fiction. People stopped discussing novels around the water cooler and started discussing shows on NBC or HBO around the microwave. Today that discussion has evolved into tweeting about shows on Amazon. But radio and TV did not terminate print, or the book. Nevertheless, the same argument is now made about the Internet. Print's demise at the hands of tech has been bemoaned frequently enough to garner an Onion headline: "Print Dead at 1,803."

People in the tech world reheated and reserved the argument a few years back with the concept of the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Proponents claimed that books "imprisoned" words, and that print culture created the expectation of stable, original, authoritative texts. Print thus gave rise to rigid, category-based thinking: You could blame it for racism, sexism, and class immobility. The oral culture that preceded the parenthesis, and the digital culture now succeeding it, free texts— and humans—from the prison-house of printed language, they say.

Of course, this supposedly parenthetical era of entrapment saw the French and American revolutions, the freeing of Russia's serfs, the end of the slave trade, and the dawn of civil rights and women's rights and LGBTQ rights. That's a lot of freedom and justice being aided and abetted by the allegedly repressive technology of print. But the bigger problem with the parenthesis concept is the idea that texts remain rigid, while oral and digital expressions are malleable and free.

Print standardized texts, but it didn't make them less interactive. It made them more so. Once books were mass-produced, it became a more trivial thing to illustrate, bind, or rebind them. The title letters of the B42 itself were left blank so people could have them rubricated—colored in—themselves. Books were easily written on, torn up, even burned. The Gutenberg revolution, no less than the digital one, encouraged a culture of revision—and also one of sampling, sharing, reworking, and theft.

It's tempting to look wistfully backwards at print as a guarantor of authority, or at least of truth. In the days of hometown newspapers, we all agreed on at least a few tenets of objective reality. But when a Balkan-brewed conspiracy theory or a baseless claim via tweet can circulate the planet and flash in front of millions of eyeballs before being refuted, when there are facts and "alternative facts," reality itself is under siege.

This situation is worthy of consideration—but it has nothing to do with print versus digital. To see printed texts as rigid prison-houses while seeing digital and oral communication as orgies of multivalence is to mistake the forest fire for the trees. In fact, the more authoritative a book is, the more subject it is to endless re-reading and re-interpretation. Case in point: the Bible. All the printing press really did was unleash the disruptive potential of the word. Any technology that enabled quick and easy reproductions of text would have led to the dissemination and popularization of radical ideas like democracy, equality, and individual freedom. Had Gutenberg invented the World Wide Web instead of moveable type, or trained pigeons to tap out books with their beaks, the results would have been much the same: Martin Luther, Galileo, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Steve Jobs. By now, Ray Kurzweil would be assuring us the pigeons were becoming self-aware.

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What print doomsayers tend to miss is the very thing Wightman's project cleverly demonstrates: The revolution is not simply about the medium, or the message. It's also about the matrix. Gutenberg Bibles exist inside a larger apparatus that was also transformed by print: the apparatus of the library. The library is not simply storage for books, but a storehouse for knowledge. A searchable storehouse— a kind of analog Internet. Its custodians are curators, archivists, and librarians, some of whom were suspicious of Wightman's project, especially in the beginning. (Libraries don't just accept and catalog any old thing.) For her first donation, in 2014, at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, Wightman was handed off to three different curators before she convinced one to accept the addendum.

"I think they all thought I was a nut job," she said. She finds the process of cold-calling somewhat stressful. "It wasn't until the eighth or 10th delivery that it started to be fun."

A museum employee shows how a Johannes Gutenberg replica printing press is used at the Book of Books exhibition in the Bible Lands Museum on October 23rd, 2013, in Jerusalem, Israel.

A museum employee shows how a Johannes Gutenberg replica printing press is used at the Book of Books exhibition in the Bible Lands Museum on October 23rd, 2013, in Jerusalem, Israel.

That's because libraries, unlike the Internet, have gatekeepers. Still, almost every library she has approached has accepted the donation. The library's mission, after all, is to accumulate information; its own logic makes addenda its goal. Even the Vatican, where Wightman feared her scientific re-interpretation of biblical texts might be unwelcome, bowed to the prerogative of collection. Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, listened with interest as Wightman explained her text.

"He said, 'So it's just another creation story?' and I said 'Yes!'" she recalled. The Vatican has two Gutenbergs, so she donated two addenda.

Only one library thus far has refused the gift outright: the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which owns two Gutenbergs. Requests for comment from the bibliothèque have thus far received no reply. After Wightman's New York excursions, she had delivered 39 addenda. Thirty-four had been formally accepted, two rejected, and three were still pending review. Libraries that have accepted and catalogued Genesis Addendum include the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany; the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; the Royal Library in Denmark; the National Library of Scotland; the Bodmer Library in Switzerland; and the Russian State Library, whose copy of the B42 was taken as war booty from Germany at the end of World War II. Wightman was allowed to see that Bible, but not to touch it.

The amount of access that librarians accepting her donation have been willing to give her has varied. At Cambridge University Library, she was allowed to photograph the Gutenberg Bible with her Addendum literally addending it. At Lomonosov Moscow State University she never got past the foyer. Some archivists have brought out favorite treasured books for her to see. At the National Library of Scotland, curators showed her the Bassandyne Bible, the first to be printed in Scotland. At the Library of Congress, she was shown the first Bible printed in the U.S., a version translated into phonetic Natick dialect for missionary use. When, in 2011, Tea Party Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-Alabama) asked to be sworn in using the first Bible printed in the nation, he may or may not have been looking to rest his hand on an instrument of colonialist oppression. Or perhaps he intended to signify something else entirely. Books, after all, have many meanings, far more than mere text can contain.

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Gutenberg's revolution was not really about a book. It was not even about books. It was about accessibility. And looked at that way, the digital revolution does not supplant print's project: It completes it. If you Google "Gutenberg," the first result is Project Gutenberg, which offers free downloadable e-books. Columbia University Press and the American Historical Association have created an online repository of enhanced history books called Gutenberg-e. And perhaps the most disruptive—and controversial—tool Google has released to date is Google Books, which allows a nearly comprehensive catalog of books to be text-searched and data-mined, without compensating authors or publishers.

Librarians don't care primarily about ink on paper or images on microform or bytes on disks or digidrops in the cloud. They care about archiving, so that citizens, present and future, can access vast stores of ideas, and they will use whatever tools serve that end. Ironically, one of the most frequent modes of preserving digital documents is to print them out and catalog them. Paper and microform currently have longer shelf lives than rapidly changing digital formats like floppy disks or CD-ROMs or USB drives—and they don't require special playback technologies. As for the cloud, the special vulnerability of that digital archive was potently illustrated by the spectacle of scientists scrambling madly to copy the entire federal repository of climate data before the incoming Trump administration gained the power to delete it.

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On the day Donald Trump took office, Wightman skirted messages chalked in rainbow colors on the sidewalks of Yale University: "Engage with others"; "I have a dream"; "Great again for all." She had an appointment with Ray Clemens, of Yale's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, who had taken its Gutenberg Old Testament from its display case and laid it on a foam cradle in a classroom. Yale's B42 is not as gorgeous as the one at Princeton University's Scheide Library, which Wightman had addended the day before. Princeton's copy boasts its original embossed-calfskin binding; Yale's has a worn, unremarkable binding, and its pages were trimmed at some point, guillotining off the wavy edges and some of its hand-rubrication. But Clemens was still excited to share it, even welcoming some visiting high school students, who took a group selfie with it. Wightman and Clemens paged through the Bible for about an hour. Then Wightman left, having delivered 41 of 49 addenda.

Between them, Yale and Princeton have graduated seven American presidents. Jeni Wightman's project won't guarantee that science is taught objectively in all schools, or that non-alternative facts will triumph over alternative ones. But it does help us understand how ideas replicate, how culture creates structures for the transmission and preservation and evolution of knowledge and truth. How one particular story is never the end of the story. It reminds us that print was not the real revolution. The real revolution was language itself, a virus, or its own kind of DNA, a way of encoding and replicating content separate from the content itself. In the beginning was the word.