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Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA
by Robert Pollack
Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA by Robert Pollack
From Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1993
Pollack (former dean of Columbia College and colleague of James D. Watson) takes the popular metaphor of DNA as language - and really runs with it. Pollack's thesis is that DNA, like language, is rich in multiple meanings, equipped with homonyms and synonyms. Furthermore, the genetic text should be seen in a historical context - some parts are archaic; others reflect more recent changes, the whole indicating where we came from as well as the diversity of the species today: The current effort to map and sequence the human genome constitutes only one sample of a text that varies from person to person. Pollack begins by explaining how a cell "reads" genetic text, taking us through the process of protein-binding to the regulatory sequences informing the actual gene. These initiate the instruction: "Start here now." What follows is a gene "sentence" that says, "Do this to that." But between the order and the execution come the myriad steps of unzipping the double helix; transcribing the DNA to messenger RNA; moving it to the body of the cell; and using the cell's machinery to translate the message into the production of a protein that executes the order. So much for the straightforward science-writing here: What Pollack also offers is a metatext - a commentary on how important it is for science and society to celebrate the diversity of the species and to avoid the Faustian trap of editing genetic texts in ways that would amount to a new eugenics. He has much to say about health-care reform, genetic testing, in-vitro fertilization, and the patenting of genes. Finally, he proposes a new paradigm: the model of biology as an exact science of atoms and molecules must be replaced by the recognition that we'll never be able to predict how genes combine to produce human behavior - a biological uncertainty principle. Cautionary and sober words that can well and truly inform current social, political, and scientific debates. - Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Displaying a rare gift for metaphor, Pollack draws on his 30 years of research and study to show how DNA provides a complete instruction book for all living things. "The most distinguished book about science I have seen so far this decade." - Horace Freeland Judson, Nature.

Taking a new look at DNA, the author argues that the power to change the human genome brings with it enormous responsibilities and that if we fail to understand the meanings of DNA fully, we risk disaster.

After 30 years of research and study, a prize-winning biologist proposes a fresh way of looking at nature's most wondrous chemical: DNA. The author offers persuasive evidence that if we fail to achieve a fuller understanding of the multiple meanings of DNA, we risk disaster.

Customer Comments

A reader from Great Lakes, USA, June 15, 1999
Indispensible background in era of genetic testing
Readily accessible to literate non-scientists and scientists alike, Robert Pollack's is the only fully responsible presentation of the metaphor of DNA as information. Neither an ideologue nor a polemicist, Pollack deserves the chance to change the way we think about the human genome project and its hi-tech spin and spin-offs.

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