Signs of Life: The language and meanings of DNA cover

Signs of Life: The language and meanings of DNA (1994)

9/9/04. Reviewed by Jon Turney

Robert Pollack calls for literary criticism of DNA texts.

The Human Genome Project prompted a huge amount of science writing. There were three distinct waves of books. At the beginning, expositions of the basics were larded with accounts of the funding and organisational politics of getting the whole enterprise going.

At the end, we heard from authors who looked back on the rivalries and collaborations of a successful effort, and forward to application. In the middle came a whole collection of books trying to take stock of genes, genomes and their implications, many of them quickly outdated takes on a fast-moving field.

Robert Pollack's 'Signs of Life' is one of the middle wave which has lasting value. At one level it is (yet) another primer about genes, cells, molecules and information, and our modern notions about how they all fit together. But it stands out for the quality of the writing, and for the thoughtful way he develops the common metaphor of genes as a set of texts.

The ideas of language, codes and translation are central to the science, of course. But Pollack takes them further than other writers, and organises his book around the notion that DNA is a language. If so, then the human genome is "a work of literature, a great historical text", and the author is natural selection, writing a character every few centuries.

The central metaphor leads to some nice explanatory set-pieces, especially the idea of genetic engineering as using a molecular word-processor. We now have enzymatic tricks to cut and edit DNA much as a few computer keystrokes can rearrange the written word. And it turns out that explaining how each function key has a biochemical equivalent is a very clear way of organising an account of the intricacies of artificial recombination of DNA sequences.

On top of that, Pollack uses the other connotations of language to argue for a humanistic as well as a scientific understanding of the DNA text. It needs to be interpreted, not just read, and that interpretation might involve literary scholars as well as genome jockeys.

This is an uncommon suggestion when the author is himself a molecular biologist, but he found his attitude to science altered by a combination of personal and historical events. One was his father's slow death from Alzheimer's disease. The other was his disquiet about the potential risks of the very first gene-splicing experiments in the 1970s. This left him with a new sense of the limits as well as the powers of science, and a view that decisions about where it goes next should not be left entirely in the hands of researchers.

His book offers both a very readable introduction to the details of the science, and a taste of the thought of an unusually reflective scientist, who believes that it is time "for everyone to learn about the language these DNAs share, the dialects they have evolved, and the arguments they articulate". It is a combination still well worth sampling.

Book details

Hardback 212 pages (1994, 1995)
Publishers: Viking, Penguin
ISBN: 0 395644 98 4

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