Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code

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Stanford University Press, 2000 - Science - 441 pages
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This is a detailed history of one of the most important and dramatic episodes in modern science, recounted from the novel vantage point of the dawn of the information age and its impact on representations of nature, heredity, and society. Drawing on archives, published sources, and interviews, the author situates work on the genetic code (1953-70) within the history of life science, the rise of communication technosciences (cybernetics, information theory, and computers), the intersection of molecular biology with cryptanalysis and linguistics, and the social history of postwar Europe and the United States.

Kay draws out the historical specificity in the process by which the central biological problem of DNA-based protein synthesis came to be metaphorically represented as an information code and a writing technology and consequently as a book of life. This molecular writing and reading is part of the cultural production of the Nuclear Age, its power amplified by the centuries-old theistic resonance of the book of life metaphor. Yet, as the author points out, these are just metaphors: analogies, not ontologies. Necessary and productive as they have been, they have their epistemological limitations. Deploying analyses of language, cryptology, and information theory, the author persuasively argues that, technically speaking, the genetic code is not a code, DNA is not a language, and the genome is not an information system (objections voiced by experts as early as the 1950s).

Thus her historical reconstruction and analyses also serve as a critique of the new genomic biopower. Genomic textuality has become a fact of life, a metaphor literalized, she claims, as human genome projects promise new levels of control over life through the meta-level of information: control of the word (the DNA sequences) and its editing and rewriting. But the author shows how the humbling limits of these scriptural metaphors also pose a challenge to the textual and material mastery of the genomic book of life.


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User Review  - mkelly - LibraryThing

This book is a remarkable achievement. Kay has had the insight into the history of science and of ideas to focus on something that really surprised me once I got it: there was a time when the concept ... Read full review

User Review - Flag as inappropriate

I love the fact that aside from scientific claims, it also deals with the understanding of other disciplines rather than dwelling solely on biological concepts of life.


The Discourse of Molecular Biology
Cybernetics Information Life
Genetic Codes in the 1950s
Cybernetique Enzymatique Gene
Francois Jacob Jacques Monod and Andre Lwoff 1965
Genetic transfer in bacterial conjugation
Biochemical genotypes and phenotypes of the galactosidasepermease system
Structure of the Lac segment of the E coli chromosome
Severo Ochoa ca 1960
Amino acid incorporation in E coli system
Triplet code letters for amino acids
Genetic code for fifteen amino acids
Reading frame of nonoverlapping triplet code
Model of frameshift mutations
Multiple Millipore filtration apparatus multiplator
Hypothetical models of alanine transfer RNA

Models of the regulation of protein synthesis
Monods model for the transcription of messenger RNA
Leo Szilard Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob at the 1961
Writing Genetic Codes in the 1960s
Matthaeis experiment 27Q
Heinrich Matthaei and Marshall W Nirenberg ca 1961
In the Beginning Was the World?
Roman Jakobson ca 1960
The final two complementary states in the I Ching code
The I Ching transcribed into the genetic code
Manfred Eigen 1985

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About the author (2000)

The late Lily E. Kay was formerly an Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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