We’ll Never Know

Gabriel Dover

  • 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.

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