The Secret of Life

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE SECRET OF LIFE, the companion book to a series broadcast on PBS, is a discussion of DNA, the chemical structure which provides the “blueprint” for life. The book begins with an explanation of this complex, double spiral molecule, with all its variations, and how it codifies life. It explains how differences in DNA structures are responsible for differences in species and individuals within a species.

Following this summary are discussions of various specific facets of DNA variations. There is a discussion of cancer, which is described as a situation in which the built-in controls in DNA have failed and unbridled growth takes place. Bacterial infections are also discussed. The DNA of bacteria are presented as “at war” with the host body’s DNA, especially that of the immune system.

Probably the most fascinating part of the book is the discussion of the manipulation of DNA, popularly known as biological engineering. This process has been used to increase cows’ milk yield and to produce vegetables more resistant to spoilage.

Directly related to this is the manipulation of human genes, a process that is just beginning to be understood. The positive side of this is the possibility of curing genetic diseases and cancer, and quite possibly diseases such as AIDS. The darker side is also explored: There is always the possibility that genetic engineering could be used to produce “better” human beings, and of course this is a subjective situation, open to the possibility of racism and other biases as to what constitutes an improved species.