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Double Take on the Double Helix

Jon Beckwith

Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution. Victor K. McElheny, xiv + 363 pp. Perseus Publishing, 2003. $27.50.

DNA: The Secret of Life. James D. Watson with Andrew Berry. xiv + 446 pp. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. $39.95.

In his recent biography of James D. Watson, longtime science writer Victor K. McElheny refers to his subject as "a detonator in biology." This characterization reflects Watson's explosive influence on the direction of biology, from his very first detonation, the 1953 Nature paper that he wrote with Francis Crick describing the structure of DNA, to his directorship of the Human Genome Project in the late 20th century. But Watson's bombshells have not been limited to scientific advances; he has also initiated unprecedented forays of the scientific community into ethical and social realms. His brusque, quirky, contradictory and even cranky behavior has provoked controversy in nearly all of these endeavors, evoking a mixture of admiration and outrage. Now, to gauge the man and his impact, on the 50th anniversary of the Nature paper, we have not only McElheny's biography, Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution, but also DNA: The Secret of Life, Watson's own account, with coauthor Andrew Berry, of his Nobel Prize–winning DNA work and its consequences for biology.

Linus Pauling <em>(right)</em> publishedClick to Enlarge Image

McElheny largely lets Watson speak for himself. Although he has known Watson for decades and worked for him for four years at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, he didn't interview him for the book (a curious omission that is not satisfactorily explained—McElheny just notes that Watson was busy with his own projects); rather, he has culled a series of quotations from Watson's writings, speeches and books and from interviews with his colleagues and students. These excerpts allow readers to frame their own portrait of the man—not a difficult task, since, as McElheny puts it, the "self-editing inculcated in most of us was absent" in Watson.

The persona we encounter in Watson's book is much toned down in comparison. This may be a sign of his coauthor's influence, or he may have decided that a softer presentation would help him reach his intended audience, those "with zero biological knowledge." Nevertheless, controversy and pet convictions pervade the narrative.

When Watson and Crick, with the unwitting help of x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, deduced the structure of DNA in 1953, they won what had been for them a frantic race to beat the chemist Linus Pauling. Their discovery provided a framework that suddenly allowed biologists to speak the same language as they tied research questions (how are genes passed from generation to generation, how do they code for proteins, how do mutations occur) to a "visible" chemical structure.

Watson also had other important successes in biology, as McElheny reminds us. For example, he participated in one of the last major fundamental findings in the formative period of molecular biology: the discovery in 1960 of messenger RNA, the molecule that mediates between genes and the protein products they encode. In the 1970s, he took over the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island and turned it into a world center for cancer research, showing a surprisingly strong talent for fundraising. And, in the 1980s and 1990s, he promoted and ultimately led the Human Genome Project, which revolutionized the practice of biology and the biomedical sciences.

Prairie voles are monogamous,Click to Enlarge Image

Although the central concern of most science biographies is to catalog the important findings of the protagonist, an account of Watson's life must deal with a host of other factors, such as his impact on the environment within science. He was part of, and eventually became the most prominent symbol of, a rebellion of molecular biologists against the more stolid academic traditions and behavioral norms of an older generation of chemists, biologists and biochemists. McElheny notes that geneticist François Jacob described this new American generation of molecular biologists as "without barriers or hierarchies, . . . young students who did not hesitate to challenge the official stars. . . . A sort of horde unleashed on science." Watson eventually codified this rebellious behavior in his controversial 1968 book The Double Helix, which may have spurred the influx of an even larger "horde" of young scientists into molecular biology. These new behavioral norms had both pluses and minuses: On the one hand, young scientists felt free to pursue their own ideas and initiatives, fueling an extraordinarily creative period in biology. On the other hand, the field became extremely competitive, sometimes brutally so.

As McElheny recounts, biologist Peter Medawar observed in a review of The Double Helix that "Many of the things Watson says about the people in his story will offend them, but his own artless candor excuses him, for he betrays in himself faults graver than those he professes to discern in others." Statements by Watson that give a sense of how he raised people's ire are well represented in the quotations McElheny has selected. For example, Watson once interrupted the lecture of a visiting scientist by asking, "When are you going to do anything significant?" And at his 70th birthday party, giving advice on dealing with Harvard administrators, he said, "[They've] got to think that you're more important than the French department or any of these other departments which have great histories, but which, if they vanished, wouldn't make any difference." McElheny also includes some of Watson's acerbic evaluations of himself—for example, "I like women but they don't seem to like me," and "I'm still as flawed as I was at thirteen."

In The Double Helix, Watson portrayed Rosalind Franklin unflatteringly, fueling a long-lasting controversy over his treatment of her. He had seen Franklin's crucial x-ray photograph of DNA without her knowledge and did not fully acknowledge this until 1968. In DNA: The Secret of Life, he attempts to redress those wrongs when he suggests that, had Franklin still been alive when he, Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, the Prize committee would have had to consider whether Franklin should replace Wilkins in the group of three winners; he speculates that perhaps the committee would have resolved this by giving both Wilkins and Franklin the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, Watson may also still be trying, defensively, to put Franklin in a negative light, as when he cites her cutting description of her Ph.D. adviser (future Nobel laureate Ronald Norrish) as "stupid, bigoted, deceitful, ill-mannered and tyrannical." (For a very different perspective, see Brenda Maddox's biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA [HarperCollins, 2002]. [Editor's note: Reviewed in the January-February 2003 issue.])

When James Watson wonClick to Enlarge Image

Watson's forays into the realm of science and social policy are also worthy of being considered detonations. McElheny points out Watson's little-known 1971 congressional testimony, which Watson adapted into an article for The Atlantic; in it he expressed strong concerns about genetic engineering and reproductive technologies, focusing mainly on surrogate motherhood. He was chided by Science editor Philip Abelson for "premature and unrealistic" talk of genetic engineering, which "could lead to harmful restrictions on all scientific research." This petulant response ironically prefigures some of Watson's own reactions to later controversies.

Watson's leading role in establishing a moratorium on certain kinds of recombinant DNA research in the mid-1970s generated a firestorm. He quickly came to regret his participation in this unprecedented move by scientists to restrain themselves while they considered the potential dangers of their work.

Watson surprised the scientific world when, after assuming the directorship of the Human Genome Project in 1988, he announced that he would set aside 3 percent of its budget for research intended to anticipate its potential harmful social consequences. This decision to investigate the social implications of a scientific project at its inception was a first in the history of science. Watson may have been doing this for political cover, but surely he recognized the broader significance of such a step.

Watson is to be applauded for having been one of the few leading scientists to speak out about social concerns related to biological research. But he often denigrated others for doing likewise. McElheny notes that after Watson came to regret initiating the moratorium on recombinant DNA research, he characterized critics of the research as "a bizarre collection of kooks, sad incompetents, and down-right shits." In DNA: The Secret of Life, Watson lucidly describes the horrors of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and refers to the right of prospective mothers to make their own decisions about what kind of child they will have. But from McElheny, we hear of Watson's cruel retort to a woman who said she would proceed with a pregnancy knowing that she would bear a child with a deformity: "I'd hate to be the child you were so eager to bring into the world!"

Moreover, Watson is among the many geneticists who see heredity as the source of most social problems and who believe the solutions are to be found in genetic research. As a result, in his new book he tends to be overly optimistic about the progress and promise of agricultural and behavior genetics, and he downplays potential obstacles. For example, he looks to genetic engineering of crops for the solution to world hunger, ignoring scientific difficulties and complex social, economic, cultural and political factors.

In 1989 Watson was famously quoted in Time magazine as saying: "Now we know, in large measure, our fate is in our genes." In DNA: The Secret of Life, he admits that geneticists have had enormous difficulty in locating genes associated with various behaviors, and he manifests much more sensitivity to the interaction of nature and nurture. Yet he cites behavior geneticist Robert Plomin's preliminary study looking for genes that affect IQ and Thomas Bouchard's findings on intelligence in his studies of identical twins at the University of Minnesota, ignoring the problems that bedevil this area of research. Results of preliminary and controversial reports on the genetics of homosexuality, violence and risk-taking are presented relatively uncritically. It is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, to find one of the most brilliant scientists of his time, one who has been unsparingly critical of the quality of other scientists' work, passing over significant problems in studies of human behavior genetics.

That said, Watson offers a more balanced presentation of the issues than one might have expected, given his past pronouncements. DNA: The Secret of Life is, in fact, an illuminating account of DNA and genetics from the 19th century to the present. The book opens with a brief history of genetics and the events leading up to the Watson-Crick discovery; subsequent chapters describe the dramatic changes in biology and its relationship with the outside world that follow directly from understanding the structure of DNA. I found two chapters particularly engaging and informative: "Out of Africa," which recounts the ongoing contributions of DNA analysis to understanding human evolution and migrations, and "Genetic Fingerprinting," an account of how DNA analysis has entered the legal system. Caveats aside, Watson's latest volume is a rich source both for budding scientists and for the general public interested in science.

These two books are full of details on the original discovery of the structure of DNA, providing peeks into the workings of science. They enrich our understanding of the accomplishment, even though we know much of the story already from previous accounts.

McElheny remarks on the irony that "A beautiful insight could solve a jigsaw puzzle even when the best solid evidence had been ignored." And Watson comments that the chemical structure of DNA was solved by "a biologist [Watson] and a physicist [Crick], neither of whom possessed a detailed command even of undergraduate chemistry." McElheny quotes François Jacob's explanation for the immediate acceptance of the Watson-Crick paper by the scientific community: "This structure was of such simplicity, such perfection, such harmony, such beauty even, and biological advantages flowed from it with such rigor and clarity, that one could not believe it to be untrue." Observations such as these give a richer, broader picture of science than we find in our science textbooks. For all its warts—jealousy, secrecy, nastiness and extreme competitiveness—this story of one of biology's landmark discoveries is an important one, worth reading again and again.

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