November 22, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

The book of life: Reading, writing and editing

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 11.48.18I have been observing the use of the ‘book of life’ metaphor in genetics and genomics since the year 2000, when it was used to announce that the human genome, our entire DNA, had been roughly sequenced. The Human Genome Project had begun in 1990 and was completed in 2003. Its achievement consisted in finding all genes in our human DNA (as it turned out, there were fewer than expected, only around 25,000 instead of the expected 100,000) and figuring out the order of the 3 billion building blocks of DNA, the nucleotides or bases. DNA, the well-known double helix, is strung together by the bases adenine and thymine, and guanine and cytosine: A-T and G-C. These are what is often called the ‘letters’ in which ‘the book of life’ (the genome) is ‘written’.

This all sounds rather straightforward, but it’s not. It also sounds rather neat, but it’s not. As it turns out, this ‘sequence’ of ‘letters’ (bases), ‘words’ (codons) ‘sentences’ (genes), ‘chapters’ (chromosomes) and so on that seemingly make up the book of life is a real mess. I’ll come back to this issue later – and to what it means for communicating about reading, writing and, most recently, editing ‘the book of life’.

In this post I want to briefly look at how people have used ‘the book of life’ metaphor, from the 1960s to the present and see what, if anything, has changed. It would, of course, take a whole research project to do this properly. Some scholars have laid the foundations for such a research project, in particular Lily Kay in her (rather dense but well researched) volume Who Wrote the Book of life?, a book published the year that a first reading of the human book of life was achieved. And there are other interesting books one can consult, such as Judith Roof ‘s 2007 Poetics of DNA and the older 1997 book by Richard Doyle entitled Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations of the Life Sciences, as well as Robert Pollack’s 1994 book Signs of Life: The language and meaning of DNA. You can find more reading material at the end of this post.


In 1953 James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin figured out the structure of DNA, and in 1962 Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for this discovery. They laid the foundations for modern genetics and genomics and for ‘reading the book of life‘.

It’s difficult to say who used the ‘book of life’ metaphor for the first time (if anybody knows, please leave a comment!). One of the first attestations that I have been able to find is Robert Sinsheimer’s booklet entitled explicitly The Book of Life from 1967, in which he said: “In this book are instructions, in a curious and wonderful code, for making a human being. In one sense – on a subconscious level – every human being is born knowing how to read this book in every cell of his body. But on the level of conscious knowledge it is a major triumph of biology in the past two decades that we have begun to understand the content of these books and the language in which they are written.” (Sinsheimer 1967: 5-6)

As Doyle pointed out, the metaphor of the book of life “transfers the reading practice out of the double helix and into the lab” (1997: 62). (The biological ‘reading’ practice is of course as metaphorical as the scientists’ reading practice…) The metaphor also links this ‘book of life’ to the older ‘book of life’, namely that of the Bible, the book of Revelation, and implies that revelation can be achieved when scientists read our genomic book of life.

A year before, in 1966, Sinsheimer’s colleague, George Beadle, had published, together with his wife Muriel, a book entitled The Language of Life: An introduction to the science of genetics, in which they speculated, for example, that errors could be erased from the gene pool (Kay, 2000: 291), an active intervention into the book of life that goes beyond being able to read or decipher it. It would take a few decades to flesh out this metaphor. (If you can, read this delightful review of this book by Albert Szent-Györgyi).

About two decades later, scientists involved in the Human Genome Project began to sequence the human genome, to decipher the ‘book of life’ and understand, to some extend, the ‘language of life’. And now we come to an interesting bit of this post. In ‘All English Language News’ (as stored on the new database Lexis Nexis) the ‘book of life’ metaphor was first used in 1989 and the article that used it is entitled “Ethical questions plague gene research” (Tim Friend, USA Today, 4 October, 1989). Let’s see what these questions are and whether they have changed over the lifetime of the book of life metaphor from the beginnings of the science of genetics to now, the age of gene or genome editing. I’ll quote the article’s summary of a meeting at length (leaving out paragraphs).

“But project leaders say that without giving our descendents [sic] guidelines for using the ‘book of life,’ its rewards could be overshadowed by conflicts. Among dilemmas raised at the meeting this week on the Human Genome Project:- Which fetuses should be sacrificed because of a defect? – When is it ethical to improve normal genetic traits? – Who is genetically unsuitable for certain jobs and insurance coverage? – When is a person’s genetic profile no longer private? James Watson, head of the National Institutes of Health’s arm of the project, says 3 percent of his annual budget – expected to be more than $ 60 million in 1990 – will be used to fund public education and studies of the issues. Dr. Daniel Koshland, meeting co-chairman, says there are no new moral problems raised by the work, ‘but the increased visibility and the scale of the project will perhaps make the problems larger.’ Koshland says people already face tough choices as a result of prenatal screening and tests for inherited conditions. But the most difficult issue to be resolved, he says, is how to use information that could exclude many from jobs that may be dangerous because of their genetic makeup. […] Says Dr. C. Thomas Caskey, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, ‘The public will benefit by open discussions of the issues. If they don’t take place, people could become extremely suspicious of the project.'”

Guidelines for the use of ‘the book of life’ are still being written today and debates still rage around issue of enhancement, scale, alternatives, privacy and of course the involvement of ‘the public’ in these debates (see for example this project by the Nuffield Foundation on Bioethics).


In 2010, seven years after the full decipherment of the human genome, one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, published a book with the same title as George and Muriel Beadle’s, but with a different subtitle: The Language of life: DNA and the revolution in personalised medicine. In 2003 Collins had said: “Today we celebrate the revelation of the first draft of the human book of life… it is humbling for me and awe inspiring to realise that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God”, establishing a rather close link between the two books, the book of revelation and the book of life and feeding the hype that was swirling round the human genome project at the time, a hype that, until now has not quite been fulfilled, especially in terms of personalised medicine.

2010, the year that Collins published his book, was also the year when excitement about the genome and our increasing ability to ‘read’ the book of life was replaced by excitement about synthetic biology and the prospect of ‘writing’ and rewriting the book of life which means the prospect of writing new, synthetic DNA, rather than just reading DNA written by evolution.

In 2010 Craig Venter, one of the pioneers involved in the Human Genome Project, managed to create a first synthetic cell. In an interview with Wired magazine he said: “As the industrial age is drawing to a close, I think that we’re witnessing the dawn of the era of biological design. DNA, as digitised information, is accumulating in computer databases. Thanks to genetic engineering, and now the field of synthetic biology, we can manipulate DNA to an unprecedented extent, just as we can edit software in a computer.” And more importantly: “All the information needed to make a living, self-replicating cell is locked up within the spirals of DNA’s double helix. As we read and interpret that software of life, we should be able to completely understand how cells work, then change and improve them by writing new cellular software.” The book of life has become the software of life and supercomputers are brought in to decipher it as well as (re)assemble it.


Five years later, we are reaching another crucial stage in the evolution of the ‘book of life’ metaphor. In 2003, when the human genome had been sequenced, I made a diagram for myself in which I tried to keep track of the cloud of meanings swirling around the book of life (see above). At the time, I thought that ‘editing’ the book of life was ‘just’ a metaphor. However, over the last decade or so, this metaphor has moved closer to reality.

In 2015 the book of life is being discussed in the context of ‘genome editing’, which involves a range of new technologies, such as CRISPR, which allow experts to edit genomes with much greater precision than before, i.e. to engage in almost literal cutting and pasting using ‘molecular scissors’. They can insert, replace or remove DNA quite precisely and efficiently – and relatively easily. When baby Leyla recently received cancer treatment that involved gene editing it was announced by some as: “Gene editing: A cut-and-past cure for cancer”.

Lots of people have written about ‘gene/genome editing’ and, as in 1989, have asked for a public debate about the matter. However, a public debate about what should be done or not be done to ‘life’ can only happen if people can distinguish between metaphor and reality, as well as between what’s doable and what’s not doable.

As Anjana Ahuja, wrote in the Financial Times (June 28, 2015), in an article entitled “Geneticists’ quest for crisper prose in the book of life”, “Imagining ourselves as glorified books, penned in the language of genes, is a fitting analogy as we muddle on. At some point, society must decide whether any person deserves to be a perfect piece of prose, or whether we should each remain an unedited thriller with an unpredictable ending.”

“Don’t forget the introns”

There is talk again about the creation of designer babies and this brings me to the ‘mess’ I alluded to at the beginning of this post. In a blog post entitled “Ethics of editing the book of life”, we find this ominous paragraph: “One possible application that has been suggested [for genome editing] is ‘correcting’ the germline: changing the genetics of sperm, eggs and embryos, to eliminate diseases not just in individuals, but in future generations. The designer baby is in production.”

In 2003, when drifting into the social and cultural study of science from linguistics, I was writing about the designer baby debate that raged already at that time. In my usual suck it and see manner, I emailed Lord Winston (then Professor of fertility studies and now Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College) and asked him about things. I still remember, but no longer have, his email in which he said basically: “Don’t forget the introns”. At the time, I had no idea what he meant. In the meantime I have learned a bit more.

I was reminded again of Lord Winston’s advice when reading the following sentences, penned by Jerry Coyne, and provoked by an xkcd cartoon that claims ‘rightly’ (in my view) that biology should be impossible: “Our genes are not perfectly adapted and beautifully designed. They are a horrible, historical mess”. And: “For reasons we don’t understand, many eukaryotic genes (that is, genes in organisms with a nucleus – so all multicellular organisms and some single-celled forms, too) are sometimes split up, interspersed by apparently meaningless sequences, called ‘introns’.” And that’s of course only the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg made of junk and dark matter that litters our cherished book of life – to mix a few metaphors ….. As Steven Pinker recently said: “Genetic editing would be a droplet in the maelstrom of naturally churning genomes.”

Complexity and communication

So, biology is practically impossible, the genome is incredibly complex and although genome editing or editing the book of life is getting more and more precise, its application interferes with radically complex biological and moral systems, and its consequences cannot yet be anticipated or controlled. The question is: How do you talk about all this in an open public debate? To this question I have so far not seen an answer. As Professor Joan Leach, a science communication expert from Queensland University, Australia has pointed out, there are, of course, dangers in telling simple stories (using, for example the simple metaphor of the book of life or the simple story of genome editing), but so far we don’t know what the advantages are of embracing complexity in public communication. This too is an experiment. And like genome editing itself, a public debate about genome editing has to take into account a very complex and, in this case, culturally, linguistically and morally diverse context, where outcomes are difficult to anticipate and control.

As we have seen, the hopes, hypes and concerns surrounding the book of life metaphor have remained almost constant over time, while, at the same time, the metaphor has moved closer to reality. However, we should still be careful to not confuse hype with reality. The book of life will always be complex, complicated and messy, and reading, writing or editing it will never be as straightforward as it might appear to be or to become. Metaphors like ‘the book of life’ or ‘genome editing’ are useful in encapsulating all this complexity, but they can only afford us glimpses of what’s going on. They should not be taken as literal representations.

Some reading material:

Nerlich, B. and Kidd, K. (eds.) (2005) Special issue on The Genome and its publics: Towards a social and cultural understanding of genomics. New Genetics and Society 24(3).

Nerlich, B., Dingwall, R., and Martin, P. (eds.) (2004). Special issue on Genetic and genomic discourses at the dawn of the 21st century. Discourse and Society 15(4).

Nerlich, B., Dingwall, R. and Clarke, D. D. (2002). The Book of Life: How the human genome project was revealed to the public. Health: An interdisciplinary journal for the social study of health, illness and medicine 6(5), 445-469.

Nerlich, B. and Hellsten, I. (2004). Genomics: Shifts in metaphorical landscape. New Genetics and Society 23(3), 255-268.

Nerlich, B. and Hellsten, I. (2009). Beyond the human genome: Microbes, metaphors and what it means to be human in an interconnected post-genomic world. New Genetics and Society 28(1), 19-36.

Hellsten, I. and Nerlich, B. (2011). Synthetic biology: Building the language for a new science brick by metaphorical brick. New Genetics and Society 30(4), 375-397.

Stelmach, A. and Nerlich, B. (2015). Metaphors in search of a target: The curious case of epigenetics. New Genetics and Society 34(2), 196-218.

[This Making Science Public post also contributes to my social science work on the BBSRC/EPSRC funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre. You can find other posts on synthetic biology here]

Posted in genomicsHypeSciencesynthetic biology