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Lily KAY (2000), Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code

Stanford, Stanford University Press
Lisa Uddin
p. 281-283
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Lily KAY (2000), Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code, Stanford, Stanford University Press

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1For those who haven’t noticed (is there anyone who hasn’t ?) genetics makes ample use of communication concepts and imagery : genes are information, DNA is a language, the genome is an encyclopedia, organisms are genetic communication systems. These and many other textual/informational representations are now so pervasive that the human genome project stands as the world’s most significant (and funded) textual analysis, and genetic engineers have assumed the status of editors, producers or — under the theistic Book of Life metaphor — gods. Weighty communications work to be sure !

2Reading Lily Kay’s Who Wrote the Book of Life?, I am reminded once more but with the benefit of history that modern molecular biology deserves some sustained attention from communications students. Her critical study pries open and troubles the current common sense equation between genetics and communication. A rigorous geneaologist, Kay chronicles the multiple players, scientific movements and social climates that constructed the genetic Book of Life and its associate metaphors. Along the way, the seemingly eternal piece of data known as « the code » becomes historically contingent and conceptually problematic.

3For communications students, the relevancy of Kay’s project begins with her theoretical commitments and continues in her historical scope. Drawing on Foucault’s idea of discourse and biopower, and Derrida’s critique of writing, the analytical framework of this study explicitly identifies with poststructuralism. The question, « Who wrote the Book of Life? » is best addressed by understanding the agency of representations ; that is, their power to influence how we think and what we do. Textual and informational metaphors of the genetic code were constituted through many discursive and material forces, including the biological. Once generalized, however, these metaphors shaped future epistemic and experimental mandates for the DNA sequence. This is what Kay calls, « a writing that writes itself », a theme she returns to throughout the book.

4In terms of scope, Kay stretches out beyond the modern laboratory to document — on the textual end — references like the hieroglyphic Rosetta stone and the ancient Chinese « book of changes » known as the I Ching. On the informational end, she traces the impact of rising Cold War communication technosciences like cybernetics and information theory, demonstrating how genetics is more a product of cold war militarism than a descendant of, say, traditional agricultural breeding practices (a common way of framing genetic engineering). The strength of molecular biology lies in its conception through popular information age terminology — messages, codes, instructions — complemented by « age old » ideas of secret texts.

5The weakness, Kay argues, is the conceptual inconsistencies between its principle analogies and the actual material possibilities of the science. Chosen and now self-perpetuating images of genetic science have been full of vagaries and slippages since their first applications. For example, while information theory strictly denies any semantic content to its notion of information (a message in form only), the term « information » is generally used to make biological material meaningful (the genes have something to say to us). The implications for this conceptual confusion — between language as a vessel and language as an object — are significant. For Kay, the Book of Life cannot be « read » or « edited » unambiguously. The promise of an absolute reading is undermined by the polysemic aspects of its writing. Still, the cultural appeal of cybernetic language and the staying power of scriptural imagery have drowned out any lasting critique. These writings have now written themselves — in bold. Importantly, they have also helped to consolidate what Kay calls, the « new genomic biopower » of command and control — a power that is not divine at all (in fact highly secular) but enjoys the same authority.

6As relevant and timely as this history is, reading it takes energy — first, to stay interested in a narrative that is often bored itself, and second to get through the science. It is obvious that Kay knows and cares about her material, but her sober account of all the key experiments, careers, conferences, publishing dates — spanning over 6 decades — confirms the stereotype that science and its documentation is a dull pursuit. There are ways of making historical contingency eventful, and Kay’s text would benefit from them. Her work becomes a « must read », but not a particularly lively or enjoyable one.

7But as a non-science reader, it was the science that really taxed my energy level. Kay offers some dense descriptions of genetic thought and experimentation, which takes discipline not to skim right over (a discipline I didn’t always have). On this scale, the science is often inaccessible and sometimes overwhelming. It made me wonder about the level of interdisciplinarity required to fully understand this story. It also made me appreciate the challenge of writing science history with a communications perspective. Science historians and communications scholars are difficult classmates. Kay makes a decent attempt to keep both attentive, but frequently forgets (particularly in the middle section of the book) her non-scientific readership. The loss is potentially big. Molecular biology risks staying in the domain of science and its historians, instead of being recognized and discussed as the problematic area of communications it has discursively become.

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Lisa Uddin, « Lily KAY (2000), Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code », Communication, vol. 21/2 | 2002, 281-283.

Référence électronique

Lisa Uddin, « Lily KAY (2000), Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code », Communication [En ligne], vol. 21/2 | 2002, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Lisa Uddin

Lisa Uddin, Concordia University.

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