In yet one more example of hearing it straight from the scientific horse’s mouth, James Watson (Nobel prize winner as co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953, and later the director of the Human Genome Project) has written this 2007 wide ranging book about all things DNA.
And wide-ranging it is. In a very readable way, we are taken back in time to the first ideas about where the secrets of life were to be found (and what form they might take) before we are brought up through history to the rapidly accumulating genetic discoveries of the last century, a journey summed up in the introduction:
“The intellectual journey that had begun with Copernicus displacing humans from the center of the universe and continued with Darwin’s insistence that humans are merely modified monkeys had finally focused on the very essence of life. And there was nothing special about it. The double helix is an elegant structure, but its message is downright prosaic: life is simply a matter of chemistry.”
But the HOW of how we figured these things out is the tale to be told in the pages that follow. A parade of notables in scientific research are deftly profiled as both researchers and human beings, and the stories build upon each other at a steady clip until science leads us to the conclusion that “…the essence of life is complicated chemistry and nothing more.”
It turns out that (even after mapping the entire human genome) that we still don’t know what most of the genes we carry actually “do”. (As a research geneticist told me, however, what is popularly referred to as our enormous collection of “junk” DNA is really just DNA we haven’t figured out yet!)
Among DNA discoveries:
Fruit flies have levels of genetic variation 10 times that of humans, Adelie Penguins are twice as variable, and even chimps are 3 times, gorillas 2 times and orangutans 3.5 times as variable as humans. “It’s because our common ancestor was so recent; 150,000 years is a blink of an eye by evolutionary standards — insufficient time for substantial variation to arise through mutation.”
And the fact that we humans share so much of our basic DNA with other animals, plants and bacteria: “The basic genetic software governing both mice and men has not changed much over the 75 million years of evolution since our lineages separated.”
At times this book reads like a cheerleading broadside for unrestricted DNA research, and it is peppered with tales of (recent) corporate profiteering and public hysterics that have delayed the progress of research by years. I found myself unready to jump completely on the bandwagon, yet compelled to give weight to the arguments of one of the people so deeply (and historically) involved in the field. Two arguments, in particular, were effective: “…knowledge, however awkwardly acquired, is still preferable to ignorance.” And: “When discussing our genes, we seem ready to commit what philosophers call the “naturalistic fallacy”, assuming that the way nature intended it is best. By centrally heating our homes and taking antibiotics when we have an infection, we carefully steer clear of the fallacy in our daily lives, but mentions of genetic improvement have us rushing to run the “nature knows best” flag up the mast.”
Let me close with a selection of summarizing statements from the later pages of the book:
“Over my career since the discovery of the double helix, my awe at the majesty of what evolution has installed in our every cell has been rivaled only by anguish at the cruel arbitrariness of genetic disadvantage and deficit, particularly as it blights the lives of children. In the past it was the remit of natural selection — a process that is at once marvelously efficient and woefully brutal — to eliminate those deleterious genetic mutations. Today, natural selection still often holds sway…”
“I do not dispute the right of individuals to look to religion for a private moral compass, but I do object to the assumption of too many religious people that atheists live in a moral vacuum. Those of us who feel no need for a moral code written down in an ancient tome have, in my opinion, recourse to an innate moral intuition long ago shaped by natural selection promoting social cohesion in groups of our ancestors.”
“With its direct contradiction of religious accounts of creation, evolution represents science’s most direct incursion into the religious domain and accordingly provokes the acute defensiveness that characterizes creationism. It could be that as genetic knowledge grows in centuries to come, with ever more individuals coming to understand themselves as products of random throws of the genetic dice — chance e mixtures of their parents’ genes and a few equally lucky accidental mutations — a new gnosis in fact much more ancient than today’s religions will come to be sanctified. Our DNA, the instruction book of human creation, may well come to rival religious scripture as the keeper of the truth.”
This book altered my view of life. What more could I ask for?