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Biologist at the Barricades

Daniel Kevles

Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science. Jon Beckwith. viii + 242 pp. Harvard University Press, 2002. $27.95.

In 1969, a Harvard Medical School group headed by Jon Beckwith accomplished a first in molecular biology—the isolation of a gene. It came from the bacterium Escherichia coli, but the techniques the group had devised could be used to isolate genes from any organism, including human beings. Beckwith and his collaborators were as uneasy about the social import of the accomplishment as they were excited about its scientific and medical significance. When their paper appeared in Nature, they held an extraordinary press conference in which they described their work and warned of the danger that it might lead to the kind of discrimination and control associated with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, including the genetic engineering of human beings.

The press conference received international media coverage, and Beckwith found himself embarked on a double career—a continuing one in research and a new one of social activism in science. His Making Genes, Making Waves is an absorbing account of how these two strands in his life were woven into a durable braid. The prose is straightforward, and Beckwith is refreshingly frank, revealing the divagations and doubts that marked his course in research. Adding to the book's appeal are brief vignettes of his encounters with other scientists and assessments of their influence on his scientific and social thinking.

Beckwith's scientific career began at Harvard, where he did his undergraduate and graduate work in biochemistry. Enchanted by science but discomfited by the staid formality of the faculty, he was relieved to discover Lowell Hager, who liked to play Ping-Pong against his office door and who became Beckwith's Ph.D. supervisor. Beckwith was drawn to molecular biology partly because he saw James Watson tooling around Cambridge in a bright red sports car and heard that he liked to throw parties. Watson "made the idea of being a scientist and having an outside life seem like a real possibility."

Beckwith derived decisive scientific inspiration from papers by François Jacob, Jacques Monod and their coworkers at the Institut Pasteur, especially their research on the lac genes, which produce enzymes that metabolize lactose. He was especially impressed by their demonstration that the gene coding for the enzyme β-galactosidase is turned on or off by a repressor molecule responsive to the amount of lactose in the organism's environment. The papers revealed "a style of doing science new to me—daring leaps of logic, simple experiments that seemed to yield profound insights. . . . I had never imagined science being like this—almost literary, artistic, and scientific at the same time."

Beckwith, who knew French and loved Paris, wanted only to work with his "idols" at the Institut Pasteur, but, since Jacob said there was no space for him, he did postdoctoral stints at Berkeley and Princeton with Arthur Pardee (a coauthor with Jacob and Monod of the classic paper on the lac repressor) and then in London at Hammersmith Hospital. Through his work at Princeton and in London, he discovered that the Pasteurians had been mistaken about the location of certain mutations that shut off the lac genes (the mutations were not in the lac promoter—the site for initiation of RNA transcription—but in the β-galactosidase gene). Beckwith notes that as a result he was suddenly "transformed from a nonperson to a person in the world of biology." He got another postdoctoral fellowship, at the University of Cambridge with Sydney Brenner, which he recalled as "the formative experience of my scientific career." He also was offered a faculty position at Harvard, but first accepted a long-coveted invitation for a stay at the Institut Pasteur.

Back at Harvard, now a passionate devotee of the Pasteurian "belief in simplicity and beauty" in experiments, he began looking for mutations in the lac-repressor region. He hit upon the technique for isolating genes during the course of experiments that involved the introduction of the gene for β-galactosidase into two different viruses. The gene could be isolated because the two viruses had in common only the gene's DNA. When he stripped away the DNA they did not share, the gene remained, alone and pure.

Beckwith traces the parallel development of his concern for the social consequences of science to a variety of influences. He says that they did not include his parents, whom he barely mentions. And if he was influenced in this regard by his wife of many years, a mere shadow on these pages, it is impossible to tell. His social sensibilities were shaped in part by wide reading; during his undergraduate days, he was absorbed with Beat poets such as Gregory Corso, whose work he characterizes as "defiant, profane, sexual, homosexual." He mixed with blacks in Boston jazz clubs; in Paris he learned how African Americans viewed their country. He debated American foreign policy with Communist scientists. He was impressed by the progressive politics of scientists like Monod, who helped wounded students at the barricades in 1968.

At Harvard in the late 1960s, Beckwith threw himself into the movement against American involvement in Vietnam. He also worked to promote the admission of blacks to the medical school and helped block the university from forcing many blacks out of nearby Roxbury to build a hospital. Trends in greater Boston encouraged Beckwith's growing desire to integrate his scientific and political lives. During the year of his press conference, 1969, a number of biologists in the area attacked Arthur Jensen's published claim that blacks as a group were inferior to whites in native intelligence, and students at MIT called for a national strike in protest of American military policies. In 1970, on the occasion of receiving the Eli Lilly Award in Microbiology, Beckwith announced that he would give the $1,000 prize money to the Black Panther Free Health Clinic in Boston and to the defense fund for the Panther 13, who had been indicted for, among other things, conspiracy to murder police officers in New York City. (The charges were later dismissed.)

Beckwith says that many scientists deplored the social warnings he made at the press conference, holding that genetic manipulation of human beings was at least half a century distant and that he was needlessly frightening people. He reports that afterward, instead of being seen as a rising star in science, he was regarded as "a traitor—raising doubts in the public's mind about the unalloyed benefits of the scientific enterprise." His Lilly Award announcement provoked outrage and threats but also some accolades and acclaim, especially from black scientists.

Undeterred, Beckwith joined Science for the People, a radical group opposed to the misuse of science. Initially centered in greater Boston, Science for the People spread to several other academic centers across the country. In succeeding years, the organization contested the claims of some scientists to have found a genetic basis for criminal behavior (notably among males with an extra Y chromosome), and it attacked the sociobiological account of human behavior advanced most prominently by the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. Beckwith provides a useful insider's account of these campaigns, among others. As molecular genetics gained scientific and, with the advent of recombinant DNA, engineering power, Beckwith's activism shifted from proposing to halt socially dangerous research to attempting to forestall its adverse consequences. He was fueled in this endeavor by his increasing knowledge of the history of eugenics and by an eagerness to persuade his fellow biologists to do what their predecessors had not done adequately—oppose the misuse of genetic knowledge.

Beckwith brought to his activism an innate decency, and his radicalism was increasingly tempered by reason and experience. During a stay at a biological research institute in Naples in 1970, he was exposed to Neapolitan culture and found that "some of the hard dogmatic trends in left-wing politics that I had been attracted to began to appear less attractive." When several radical rowdies poured ice water on Wilson's head at a symposium on sociobiology in 1975, charging him with genocide, Beckwith rose to denounce the action.

Beckwith notes self-mockingly that by the late 1980s he had been transformed from scary "bad guy" to thoughtful "good guy." But he adds that if he had changed, so had the political environment. It was now marked by heightened sensitivity to the social dimensions of genetics in response to the rapid advances in human genetics and the imminent establishment of the Human Genome Project. At the beginning of the project, Beckwith was appointed to its watchdog Working Group on Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications. His account of its work is at once informative and disheartening, ranging from its assessment of the social and scientific issues raised for access to medical insurance by genetic testing to the obstacles the group faced in mounting an inquiry into the claims of behavioral genetics. He reports that many scientists regarded it as a waste of time and resources. Its meetings were reduced to one a year, and in the mid-1990s it was replaced by a new committee.

The productivity of Beckwith's laboratory slowed in the mid-1970s, partly because of the social engagements of its members and partly because he was in transition to a new line of research—the problem of how cells export certain of their proteins beyond the membranes that normally present an impassable barrier. His work on this subject led over a period of 10 years through a combination of circumstance and happenstance to something quite different—the discovery of how disulfide bonds are formed in periplasmic proteins. Two scientific journals rejected his attempt to include some of this tortuous history of the project in an article on its outcome. Making Genes, Making Waves is a rare reflection on what, in Beckwith's complaint, conventional scientific papers omit: "the human elements, the wrong turns, the surprises, the flashes of intuition, even the passions that drive us in science."—Daniel J. Kevles, History, Yale University

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