The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project
Mapping the Code: The Human Genome Project and the Choices of Modern Science
Genethics: The Ethics of Engineering Life
Mapping and Sequencing the Human Genome
Genome: The Story of the Most Astonishing Scientific Adventure of Our TimeThe Attempt to Map All the Genes in the Human Body
Exons, Introns, and Talking Genes: The Science Behind the Human Genome Project
DNA Technology in Forensic Science
FETISH…An inanimate object worshipped by savages on account of its supposed inherent magical powers, or as being animated by a spirit. (OED)
Scientists are public figures, and like other public figures with a sense of their own importance, they self-consciously compare themselves and their work to past monuments of culture and history. Modern biology, especially molecular biology, has undergone two such episodes of preening before the glass of history. The first, characteristic of a newly developing field that promises to solve important problems that have long resisted the methods of an older tradition, has used the metaphor of revolution. Tocqueville observed that when the bourgeois monarchy was overthrown on February 24, 1848, the Deputies compared themselves consciously to the “Girondins” and the “Montagnards” of the National Convention of 1793.
The men of the first Revolution were living in every mind, their deeds and words present to every memory. All that I saw that day bore the visible impress of those recollections; it seemed to me throughout as though they were engaged in acting the French Revolution rather than continuing it.
The romance of being a revolutionary had infected scientists long before Thomas Kuhn made Scientific Revolution the shibboleth of progressive knowledge. Many of the founders of molecular biology began as physicists, steeped in the lore of the quantum mechanical revolution of the 1920s. The Rousseau of molecular biology was Erwin Schrödinger, the inventor of the quantum wave equation, whose What is Life? was the ideological manifesto of the new biology. Molecular biology’s Robespierre was Max Delbruck, a student of Schrödinger, who created a political apparatus called the Phage Group, which carried out the experimental program. A history of the Phage Group written by its early participants and rich in the consciousness of a revolutionary tradition was produced twenty-five years ago.
The molecular biological revolution has not had its Thermidor, but on the contrary it has ascended to the state of an unchallenged orthodoxy. The self-image of its practitioners and the source of their metaphors have changed accordingly, to reflect their perception of transcendent truth and unassailable power. Molecular biology is now a religion, and molecular biologists are its prophets. Scientists now speak of the “Central Dogma” of molecular biology, and Walter Gilbert’s contribution to the collection The Code of Codes is entitled “A Vision of the Grail.” In their preface, Daniel Kevles and Leroy Hood take the metaphor with straight faces and no quotation marks:
The search for the biological grail has been going on since the turn of the century, but it has now entered its culminating phase with the recent creation of the human genome project, the ultimate goal of which is the acquisition of all the details of our genome…. It will transform our capacities to predict what we may become….
Unquestionably, the connotations of power and fear associated with the holy grail accompany the genome project, its biological counterpart…. Undoubtedly, it will affect the way much of biology is pursued in the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.