Lewontin book review

Les Schaffer schaffer at SPAMoptonline.net
Thu Feb 15 18:35:54 MST 2001

In the Beginning Was the Word
A review by R. C. Lewontin*

Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code
Lily E. Kay
Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2000. 470 pp. $60, £45.
ISBN 0-8047-3384-8. Paper, $24.95, £17.95. ISBN 0-8047-3417-8.


It seems impossible to do science without metaphors. Biology since the
17th century has been a working out of Descarte's original metaphor of
the organism as machine. But the use of metaphor carries with it the
consequence that we construct our view of the world, and formulate our
methods for its analysis, as if the metaphor were the thing
itself. The organism has long since ceased to be viewed like a machine
and is said to be a machine. The ways in which the metaphors of
biology have molded the concepts and experiments of the science have
been a preoccupation of the historian of molecular biology Lily
Kay. In Who Wrote the Book of Life? her most recent and unfortunately
final book (she died of cancer in December), Kay asks how the view
that DNA is "information" that is "written" in a "language" whose
"words" are in "code" has driven the research program and claims of
molecular biology.

Kay's analysis of the history of molecular genetics is
poststructuralist. That is, while not denying the objective reality of
genes, proteins, and cellular elements, it is "grounded in the
conviction that once a commitment to a particular representation of
life is made--material, discursive and social--it assumes a kind of
agency that both enables and constrains the thoughts and actions of
biologists." Unfortunately, the outline of this claim in the early
part of the book makes a formulaic use of the special jargon of
poststructuralist theory, a jargon that will be impenetrable to any
biologist not possessed of a considerable education in literary
theory. But the biologist should persist, because the central chapters
on "Genetic Codes in the 1950s" and "Writing Genetic Codes in the
1960s" present a compelling case for the ways in which the purely
theoretical analysis of DNA as a code led to the determinative
experiments that demonstrated the mechanism by which amino acid
sequences are specified and constructed.

Many biologists in the late 1950s (I among them) regarded with a
certain contemptuous hauteur the attempts of renegade physicists to
illumine the relation between gene and protein by engaging in the sort
of cryptanalysis that became so romantic as a result of the wartime
triumphs of Bletchley Park. But Kay shows quite convincingly that,
although these codebreaking techniques could not in themselves provide
the right answer, the view of DNA as code and amino acid sequence as
plaintext was absolutely essential in the very conception of the
critical experiments at the beginning of the 1960s. The brilliant
paper by Crick, Barnett, Brenner, and Watts-Tobin, which demonstrated
so elegantly that the DNA sequence was processed from a fixed starting
point using each successive non-overlapping triplet to determine the
next amino acid in the chain, and Nirenberg and Matthaei's
path-breaking demonstration that poly-U RNA in an in vitro synthetic
system resulted in the construction of a polypeptide consisting solely
of phenylalanine, would have been conceptually impossible without the
metaphor of the code. This, then, raises the problem of the
counter-factual conditional that plagues all attempts to understand
history: What if? What would have happened had the language metaphor
never taken hold in molecular genetics? Would we now be ignorant of
the details of the relation between DNA and protein? Would we have a
different understanding? Would we know more about the world? or less?

complete review at:


More information about the Marxism mailing list