We’ll Never Know
- Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA by Robert Pollack
Viking, 212 pp, £16.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 670 85121 3
Ignorance begat fear and fear begat religion. And it’s been downhill ever since; until the day in 1953 when the dark secrets of human nature became explicable more in terms of Crick and Watson’s Golden Helix than of Frazer’s Golden Bough. Or so they would have us believe, those high priests of the Human Genome Project, the bounty hunters of the Brave New World of genetic manipulation and the ‘selfish gene’. The dispiriting apogee to this curve of ‘hope’ took the form for me of a sad request from an aspiring Indian PhD student to seek the name(s) of god(s) in the sequences of DNA.
So, how did we descend to this vacuous replacing of one level of ignorance by another, and the proclaiming of each in turn as the final solution to the problem of life? The answer is not straightforward but resides more in widely-held false notions of genetic determinism, and ‘universal laws’ that supposedly govern the biological processes of development, behaviour and evolution, than in any overt political agenda. Teasing out the essence of what it means to grow – irrationally, unpredictably and uncertainly – into an approximation of an evolved living organism requires a deeper awareness of modern biology than can be gained from standard descriptions of the New Genetics: a goal not made easier when these are written largely by scientists more accustomed to imploding on their microspecialisations than to lifting their eyes to worlds that may, as J.B.S. Haldane famously said, be queerer than we can ever imagine. Nor was much enlightenment to be drawn from a recent TV documentary on genetic engineering (typical of its genre), inevitably beginning with the Nazi eugenics movement and ending with drunken cameras swinging from one iron door to another in an underground corridor of a Cologne laboratory, to burst finally onto a tray of pathetic gene-manipulated petunia seedlings – all to the accompaniment of eerie Stockhausen-like music. What other branch of learning or culture would allow for its structures and practices to be so crudely misrepresented in print and on screen, ironically as much by arrogant professionals striving to set the research agenda as by ignorant voyeurs?
Against such an opera buffa background of claim and counter-claim, Robert Pollack’s Signs of Life is as inspiring for its original insights as it is unexpected: a real molecular geneticist, with more than his 15 minutes of fame as a respected researcher into viruses and cancer, has composed a convincing and agreeably lyrical text on the hopes and limitations of the new biology. The book has its scientific antecedents, most specifically Richard Lewontin’s The Doctrine of DNA and Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life; yet it stands alone in trying to reach to the very essence of biology, with its ‘knowable pasts and unknowable futures’, in the best tradition of Italy’s two scientific literati, Italo Calvino and Primo Levi. Indeed, the links with Calvino are closer and more meaningful than Pollack probably realises, as I will argue later.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995
In his review of Edward O. Wilson’s Naturalist and Bert Hölldobler and Wilson’s Journey to the Ants (LRB, 20 July), Steven Rose repeats some of his objections to sociobiology. He is entitled to be uncomfortable with ‘reductionism’ but he cannot discredit sociobiological research by reducing it to a straw man; and he cannot dictate what can or cannot be explained in the sciences. He trivialises Wilson’s position by stating that in his ‘reductionist argument’ Wilson fails to see that ‘it is not only religion which cannot be explained exclusively in terms of atoms or genes.’ Neither Wilson nor (probably) any other sociobiologist claims that cultural systems can be explained ‘exclusively’ by biology (or physics). As for Rose’s assertion that ‘even the self-organising properties of a single cell’ cannot be explained ‘merely’ in terms of atoms or genes, that issue is the subject of ongoing research. Rose’s confident pronunciamento cannot close the question. His metaphysical argument that ‘each level of complexity of living systems requires study in its own terms’ carries little weight at this point in the history of science. Those hallowed ‘levels’ – presumably mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology – are shifting historical artefacts, not rigid categories, and what they can or cannot explain are subjects of research. In the 17th century the Church advised Galileo that in science planetary astronomy may be studied in terms of mathematics but not physics. How the planets actually move, it was claimed, had been determined on the ‘level’ of theology.
Gabriel Dover’s review of Robert Pollack’s Signs of Life: The Language and Meaning of DNA (LRB, 3 August) is an ill-tempered attack on evolutionary genetics. He refers to theoretical geneticists as ‘thousands of molecular zombies’ and his review makes the unsubstantiated claim that the fundamental processes of life are not merely unknown, they are unknowable. He quotes approvingly Pollack’s prediction that ‘experimentation on human genes, no matter how imaginative, will never give a single, complete meaning to the human genome’ as well as his belief that ‘genes and proteins … are time-dependent and historically rooted; and we are finding out the hard way, neither is totally knowable or predictable.’ (Pollack’s argument, incidentally, is based on an analogy between the levels of physics – ‘unpredictable atoms’ – and biology.) Many scholars and scientists are understandably concerned that the liberal programme of reforming society may be restricted by the misuse of scientific knowledge to perpetuate social injustice. Rose faults Wilson for failing to ‘comment on the pseudo-scientific use of sociobiological claims by racists on the far right’. Would it not be better to engage political opponents on the ‘level’ of politics rather than by finding philosophical fault with scientific research?
Stevens Institute of Technology
Vol. 17 No. 18 · 21 September 1995
As an evolutionary geneticist reviewing Robert Pollack’s Signs of Life: The Language and Meaning of DNA, I would hardly be in the business of attempting ‘an ill-tempered attack on evolutionary genetics’ as misjudged by Harold Dorn (Letters, 7 September). The ‘molecular zombies’ in my review referred to the thousands of molecular biologists engaged in the sequencing of the vastness of the human genome and not to Dorn’s ‘theoretical geneticists’ (whoever and whatever they are). The central message of my review was that only through an evolutionary comparative approach to genetic organisation and biological functions can some corner of the unknowable nature of biological processes be lifted. In agreement with Pollack and with Steven Rose (LRB, 20 July), I emphasised that the ‘mess’ of biological processes, the inevitable products of a time-dependent, haphazard and contingent process of evolution, is, like history and economics, unknowable. Certainly the workings and evolution of the complex, interactive components that constitute a living organism will never be understood either through a ‘DNA sequence read-out’ or through the vulgar minimalism of the selfish gene.
University of Leicester