Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA

Signs of Life
by Robert Pollack

Houghton Mifflin/Viking
Bibliography; Index


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Nowhere are the frontiers of modern science expanding more rapidly than in the field of molecular biology. Some of the new discoveries in the workings of DNA and genome sequencing not only offer the promise of opening new thresholds of understanding but also raise unprecedented questions about the fundamental nature of life and being human. Biologist Pollack argues that DNA can be read almost like a work of great literature. In expounding that view, he uses a uniquely literate and metaphorical style of popular science writing. Robert Shapiro's The Human Blueprint (Library Journal 9/1/91) covers much the same territory and more, but Pollack's very personal and readable prose may have more appeal to general readers.

--Reviewed by Gregg Sapp in Library Journal, "The Literature of Science: Best Sci-Tech Books of 1994," 120/4 (March 1 1995), p.35.

To marvel, to teach, to warn--the one recent book that does all three, and with an individual voice and cool wisdom, is Robert Pollack's Signs of Life. Pollack is a molecular and cell biologist of deserved reputation, and an extraordinary teacher. Many scientists are thoughtful and widely read outside their specialties: Pollack is of the rare kind whose science itself is permeated and in part shaped by a profound historical, literary and critical sensibility. He is also one of biology's great worriers. It was his telephone call from Cold Spring Harbor to Berg at Stanford in the summer of 1971, about the potential dangers in certain experiments in the then-infant field of recombinant DNA, which set in motion the train of events leading to the moratorium on such research in the summer of 1974 and the Asilomar conference in the spring of 1975. In Signs of Life, Pollack's controlling metaphor is that genomes are texts written in DNA, that cells read, edit and select from these texts, and that the grand enterprise of genetics is to read, understand, interpret and perhaps ourselves edit these texts. In his ingenious and supple elucidation of his science, the metaphor works. This is a book that welcomes readers in and, by the end, invites them to consider the limitations of the science, some technical, some prudential, some ethical. Pollack thus rises to the level of Macfarlane Burnet and Peter Medawar: Signs of Life is the most distinguished book about science I have seen so far this decade. It is also a sensuous delight to read.

--Reviewed by Horace Freeland Judson in Nature, 371 (October 27 1994), p.753.