Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb - review by Henry Gee

Henry Gee

1953 and All That

Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code


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In A Bedside Nature (1996), a potpourri of clippings from the journal Nature from its founding in 1869, editor Walter Gratzer decided not to continue to the present day but to stop in 1953, the year that saw the publication of the structure of DNA. Hindsight will say that the paper on DNA’s structure by Francis Crick and James D Watson changed everything, sundering the past and the present. Gratzer called 1953 the ‘End of History’, in conscious homage to that affectionate spoof history textbook 1066 and All That by W C Sellar and R J Yeatman, in which that appellation was given to the year 1914.

The year you use to mark the End of History, especially when capitalised, will of course depend on your age and upbringing. Francis Fukuyama marked the End of History with the rise of liberal democracy and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. My mother, on the other hand, refers to any event after the assassination of John F Kennedy as happening ‘the other day’. Yet many biologists agree that if one had to pick any year in which the discipline of biology changed, in its methods, attitudes and consequences, 1953

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