January 19, 1994
The genetic age is upon us, yet most people have only a limited understanding of the wondrous chemical that encodes the formula for all living things. As DNA’s secrets are revealed, they must be rescued from the obscuring language of science, and now Signs of Life does just that. Borrowing from the humanities, Robert Pollack offers an entirely fresh perspective: DNA, he argues, should be seen as a great work of natural literature, a three-billion-year-old, continuously evolving text.
An award-winning scientist and teacher, Pollack displays both a sophisticated understanding of biology and a remarkable gift for metaphor. In elegant prose, he shows precisely how DNA provides the instruction book for life. He takes us deep inside a living cell – a teaming walled city – and explains how the genetic script at its heart governs all its operations. He opens the book containing the human genome and lucidly reveals the process by which biologists and physicians have begun to read its words and sentences.
But the frontier of genetics now extends into troubling territory. Pollack identifies several areas of concern: the ambitious but flawed Human Genome Project, the widespread access to individual genetic data, the temptation to manipulate genetic codes to make them “better.” Given our still-crude ability to interpret these living texts, our eagerness to rewrite them is alarming. The power to change the human genome brings with it enormous responsibilities, and Pollack offers persuasive evidence that if we fail to achieve a fuller understanding of the multiple meanings of DNA, we risk disaster.
Signs of Life is both a brilliant illumination of a biological text and a provocative meditation on our awesome new ability to alter it. With the grace of a born writer and teacher, Robert Pollack has written a book that will change the way people think about science, genetics, and the future of our species.
Robert Pollack worked for several years with James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. For many years a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, he also served as dean of Columbia College through much of the 1980s. A recent winner of a Guggenheim writing fellowship, he now divides his time between New York City and Vermont.