Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology

Paul Rabinow

The University of Chicago Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998
Making PCR is a history of Cetus Corporation during the 1980s, focused on its role in the invention of PCR, the polymerase chain reaction. It is ethnographic in approach, built around a series of interviews with scientists and managers from Cetus, but aimed at the general reader rather than at academics.

There are some interesting insights into the sociology of science in Making PCR: on the nature of "inventions", the behind-the-scenes workings of science, and the interaction between scientific and managerial cultures. Sociology and anthropology students may find this material a bit limited, however. It lacks any kind of theoretical framework and there simply isn't enough space for detailed treatment. And philosophical and epistemological issues are given only brief coverage, in the introduction and the conclusion.

You don't need to know any biology to read Making PCR, but you aren't likely to learn much from it either. Bits of science are scattered throughout, but there isn't even a real explanation of what PCR is — if you don't know what DNA polymerase is or what "recombinant" means, you won't learn it here. (Most of page four is devoted to a list of the first thirty powers of two, which is hardly a useful aid to the reader's understanding.) It is not clear that Rabinow himself — a professor of anthropology — has a solid understanding of the science involved.

But these criticisms perhaps miss the point. Making PCR is neither a work of popular science nor an ethnographic monograph. It a study of an episode in the history of the modern biotechnology industry, written for a popular audience. Replete with personal details of careers and daily life, it may appeal to anyone curious about what it is like to work as a scientist in a small biotechnology startup.

March 1998

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%T Making PCR
%S A Story of Biotechnology
%A Rabinow, Paul
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1996
%O hardcover, bibliography
%G ISBN 0226701468
%P 190pp