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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 390-392
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French DNA: Trouble in Purgatory
Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code
Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code. By Lily E. Kay. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Pp. xix+441. $60/$24.95.
These books reflect a dual turn of the 1990s: the "genetic turn" in society, and the "cultural turn" in science studies. Both deal with timely topics and contain material of great interest, yet neither delivers the goods one is led to expect on the basis of such promising titles or subtitles. Perhaps because both authors remain enthralled by the once-dazzling Foucauldian paradigm of discursive power, especially its metaphor of "biopower," they cover many heterogeneous themes, yet advance no thesis, ethnographic or historical.
Paul Rabinow's French DNA tells the story of the rise and fall, in 1994, of a projected alliance between France's premier genomics laboratory, the Center for the Study of Human Polymorphism in Paris, and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, a biotech start-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, established by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The purpose of the alliance was to expedite the isolation of "candidate genes" for non-insulin-dependent diabetes. The American partners were supposed to contribute funding and new technology (yet to be developed); the French would contribute their unique collection of genomes from patient families. This deal was eventually blocked by the [End Page 390] French government amid public opposition to trading "French DNA." Drawing on previous work on the "tainted blood" scandal in France in the 1980s, Rabinow comments perceptively on the nationalistic qua universalistic features of the French bioethical discourse. He argues that its overriding concept of "human dignity" prevents the French National Ethics Committee from addressing the ethical and social implications of the new genetic technologies or the role of venture capital in sustaining innovative scientific research in an era of globalization.
Unlike authors who have approached the story of the genetic code as an episode in the rise of molecular biology, in Who Wrote the Book of Life? Lily Kay chose to recount this story at a level of detail that makes it difficult to distinguish the forest from the trees. While the resulting work succeeds in establishing the prevalence of an informational discourse in the 1950s, it does not address unresolved issues in the history of the genetic code. For example, the genetic phase of the decoding process was distinguished by a collective effort of two dozen members of the RNA-tie Club in the 1950s. Kay focuses on two people--the club's convenor, George Gamow, a flamboyant popularizer of physics, and his colleague in military relations, Martinas Ycas--but refrains from establishing the extent to which their episodic involvement in molecular biology, or links to the military, also applied to the other twenty-two members of the club.
Kay also retells the biochemical phase of decoding in the 1960s from the perspective of two participants, Marshall Nirenberg of the National Institutes of Health and Heinrich Mateii, a postdoctoral fellow. She uses their personal records to good effect, highlighting the presence of a genetic stimulus in their work, but omits all other key biochemists, especially Severo Ochoa of New York University--described as being "neck-to-neck" with Nirenberg in the race for biochemical decoding--but also Fritz Lipmann, Charles Yanofsky, and Sol Spiegelman, among others. This approach precludes an explanation of the success of the biochemical perspective over the genetic one in cracking the code. Despite its subtitle, Who Wrote the Book of Life? is not a history of the genetic code, or even a historical treatise per se. Essentially, it extends the "path" to the double helix, introduced by Robert C. Olby in the mid-1970s as an explanation for continuity in the period 1900-53, to...