Cover image for Who wrote the book of life? : a history of the genetic code
Who wrote the book of life? : a history of the genetic code
Kay, Lily E.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xix, 441 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
Genetic code: imaginaries and practices -- Spaces of specificity: the discourse of molecular biology before the Age of Information -- Production of discourse: cybernetics, information, life -- Scriptural technologies: ; genetic codes in the 1950s -- Pasteur connection: cybernétique enzymatique, gène informateur, and messenger RNA -- Matter of information: writing genetic codes in the 1960s -- IN the beginning was the wor(l)d?

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Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QH450.2 .K39 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



The history of work on the genetic code (1953-70) is recounted here from the vantage point of the dawn of the information age and its impact on representations of nature, heredity, and society. The book details the historical process whereby 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 theistically resonant book of life . Deploying analyses of language, cryptology, and information theory, the author persuasively argues that in reality the genetic code is not a code, DNA is not a language, and the genome is not an information system, echoing objections voiced from the very beginning. Her historical reconstruction and analyses critique the new genomic biopower where genomic textuality has become a metaphor literalized, as human genome projects promise new levels of control over life through the meta-level of information.

Author Notes

Lily E. Kay, formerly an Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is affiliated with Harvard University.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Modern society continues to be shaped by the twin forces of molecular biology and information theory (represented by computer technology and the Internet). One has only to look at the shared terminology of these fields--message, code, instructions, reading--to understand the extensive borrowing and, indeed, cross-fertilization that has occurred between them over the past 50-plus years. Who Wrote the Book of Life? by Kay (Harvard Univ.), a former associate professor at MIT, is a combination of a history of the genetic code and a philosophical study of the ideas that ultimately gave rise to the discipline of molecular biology. Along the way, the usual suspects show up in the biological part of the story--names such as Watson and Crick, Nirenberg and Khorana, Jacob and Monod--with cross-fertilization provided by such eminent mathematicians and physicists of the day as Schr"odinger, Wiener, von Neumann, and Gamow. The entire book is fascinating and well written, unfolding more as a grand epic of the ways in which scientists work and think, rather than as a standard philosophical or historical treatise. The book is also an invaluable resource due to its exhaustive notes and reference sections. Highly recommended for all interested readers, undergraduates and up. R. K. Harris; William Carey College

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xv
Abbreviationsp. xxi
1. The Genetic Code: Imaginaries and Practicesp. 1
2. Spaces of Specificity: The Discourse of Molecular Biology Before the Age of Informationp. 38
3. Production of Discourse: Cybernetics, Information, Lifep. 73
4. Scriptural Technologies: Genetic Codes in the 1950sp. 128
5. The Pasteur Connection: Cybernetique Enzymatique, Gene Informateur, and Messenger RNAp. 193
6. Matter of Information: Writing Genetic Codes in the 1960sp. 235
7. In the Beginning Was the Wor(l)d?p. 294
Conclusionp. 326
Notesp. 335
Works Citedp. 381
Indexp. 427