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Genes, Girls, and Gamow
After the Double Helix
by James D. Watson
Knopf, 304 pp., $26
A DOCTORATE from Indiana University in 1949, the Cavendish laboratories at Cambridge University, the discovery of DNA. Thereafter, immortality. James Watson has plainly come to regard his life as a sign of grace.
And with some reason, I suppose. Watson was twenty-three when in the early 1950s he joined Francis Crick in a scientific partnership. They proposed to discover the secret of life. The odds in their favor were not great. Biologists knew that in perpetuating themselves, living systems must squeeze their identity into what the physicist Erwin Schr dinger had called a code script. Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, was plainly involved. Beyond this, experiments had revealed little and various theories nothing. Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin had for years studied DNA by means of X-ray crystallography, but it was slow, frustrating, and inconclusive work, rather like deducing the score of a symphony from its echoes in a concert hall. But the matter had come to occupy Linus Pauling, and as far as Watson and Crick were concerned, his presence on the scene was ominous. Pauling possessed an intelligence of almost supernatural vigor. He seemed eager to offer a revelation.
And yet there it was. The patient plodding researchers continued to plod patiently, consuming time but not covering distance; Pauling’s infallible intuition failed him as he emerged noisily from the California Institute of Technology in 1951 with a bizarre triple helix in hand. Watson and Crick spotted the truth. DNA was a double helix, its two strands supported by chemical struts, adenine paired with thymine and guanine with cytosine. The molecule’s structure at once revealed its secrets. DNA expressed a cryptogram and so contained a message, its four chemical constituents comprising an elementary alphabet. And it penetrated the future by unwinding itself and then separating, its halves recombining to form two double stranded helices where before there was only one.
This was all very elegant. The double helix electrified the emerging discipline of molecular biology. It electrified the world as well, Watson and Crick winning the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology.
That they had made a discovery of great importance, no one disputed, least of all Watson. But the real story, he believed, had been pointlessly sanitized. And so, in 1968, he published a memoir of rectification under the title, “The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.” The book was a considerable success, the more so since Watson expressed with candor his conviction that scientific research is ruthless, unprincipled, and driven largely by an undignified scramble for fame. Watson’s narrative supported his claim. Having appropriated Rosalind Franklin’s research results because they were crucial, Watson admitted that he and Crick had denied her the appropriate credit because it was easy.
Watson’s book amused the general public and outraged his colleagues, Crick denouncing it as something like “that found in the lower class of women’s magazines.” E.O. Wilson, the environmental biologist and Watson’s colleague at Harvard in the 1960s, was moved to describe Watson as the most unpleasant human being he had ever met–the “Caligula of Science.”
Blood dries quickly, Charles de Gaulle observed, and so does outrage. Watson’s memoir came to be appreciated as an achievement in brashness. Scientists whom Watson had neglected personally to offend quickly reached the conclusion that in disciplines other than their own, scientific research was every bit as nasty as Watson had indicated. The book is now considered a classic.
NOW, in “Genes, Girls, and Gamow,” Watson proposes to take up the story where “The Double Helix” ends. “For better or worse,” he writes, “I and my friends were present at the birth of the DNA paradigm–by any standards one of the great moments in the history of science, if not of the human species. In this way we were unique players in a momentous drama. Thus there will be many readers wanting to know better what actually happened in our lives.”
This is not so. Watson has been misinformed.
Every life is no doubt precious, but few are interesting. The days follow one another. There is the sound of someone snoring. It rains. Watson’s first memoir described a quest, and the quest gave to his narrative its powerful effect of artistic compression. Something was ventured, and something gained. But his second memoir has plainly been compiled from diary notes. It reads as life moves. Watson travels from England to California and back again to England. He is always ill at ease and often maladroit. There are outstanding scientific problems to be solved, but Watson does not solve them. Long walks are taken, often on disagreeable mountain paths. The days accumulate.
Charm is occasionally a substitute for literary skill, but Watson lacks both, and he is inclined to offer candor as a substitute. It is a mistake. “Dick Feynman and I sat next to each other,” he writes, and “although we could not say it to others, we felt we might be Caltech’s most obvious candidates for future Nobel awards.”
A part of Watson’s narrative is devoted to reviving the dead, a familiar if often fruitless pastime. George Gamow was an imaginative Russian physicist and a dabbler in molecular biology. Watson plainly loved the man and is devoted to his memory. Gamow enters variously into his memoir, performing card tricks or otherwise engaged in amiable trifles and then shambles off, a larger figure, one hopes, in real than in remembered life.
The burden of Watson’s memories lies elsewhere. Now that he is old, Watson is eager to convey the extent to which his scientific achievements were a distraction from his search for pretty young women, a search that was never-ending because never successful. The enchanting young women are forever too busy to see Watson or, having seen him, too busy to see him again. Some depart for foreign ports with what seems a rare urgency. Others enter his life like quick sunbursts and then leave Watson dazzled but disappointed when they cover themselves in clouds.
The experiences that Watson recounts must have been painful to relive, which makes them painful to read. After almost half a century he is still suffering in retrospect the sentiments that only a young man can suffer when someone deeply loved tells him, no, honey, things are just not going to work out. In continuing to attend so earnestly to the ones that got away, Watson appears something of a schnook.
For ten years or so following his great triumph, Watson sought fitfully to enlarge its scope. Living systems divide naturally into two molecular classes. DNA involves command, control, and coordination, and is found in the cell’s nucleus. But the proteins comprise the stuff of life, the basic building blocks of every living system. And they are for the most part located in the cell’s cytoplasm, an arena in which countlessly many seething chemical activities take place.
Whatever the message contained in DNA, it must somehow be conveyed to the proteins. The conveyance was in 1953 a mystery. Watson and Crick were thus in the position of an observer who can see that an architect’s plans are being carried out, but cannot determine how his commands are communicated. Crick speculated that a sequence of intermediate molecules must link DNA with various emerging proteins. He was right. It is ribonucleic acid, or RNA, that acts as a second source of information within the cell, and, as the name suggests, RNA is single stranded, containing only one gently floating filament. If DNA is the master, RNA is its messenger, ferrying information from DNA and impressing it on the proteins.
Watson pursued a number of experiments with RNA. He thought diligently, although not obsessively. He exchanged letters with various eminences and visited their laboratories. But lightning did not strike twice. The lightning that missed him struck Crick instead. It struck him so many times, in fact, that he is now widely regarded as a one-man miracle. Watson, on the other hand, became a powerful scientific administrator, first at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and, more recently, as the director of the Human Genome Project.
Still, there remains the great work. It is now fifty years since Watson and Crick initiated “the DNA paradigm,” and Watson is understandably eager to claim that in discovering DNA he and Crick had really discovered the secret of life, just as they had hoped to do.
Once again, he is mistaken. Details have accumulated, but the secret remains a secret. DNA was introduced originally as a code script, and it has enjoyed successive incarnations as a blueprint, design, template, or computer program. The metaphors are helpful, but they are misleading as well. A molecule is sent into the future, and directly thereafter an organism appears, bouncing, energetic, and alive. The incredible discrepancy between the beginning and the end of this process suggests that something remarkable has taken place. A molecule is one thing, a living creature another. Molecular biology has traced the story from DNA to the various proteins. Thereafter a mystery begins as the proteins somehow organize themselves to form an organism. Metaphors all lapse just when they are most needed. A computer program cannot, after all, create a computer.
As so often happens in the sciences, molecular biology has resolved its mysteries by magical thinking. Whatever the process, it is DNA, according to official doctrine, that is still crucial, still in charge, an agency capable of achieving every biological effect. Evolutionary biologists now assign to the human genome full responsibility for altruism, date rape, aggression, eating disorders, and a taste for “Mansfield Park.” The truth is we do not know how the genome of any organism achieves any effect beyond the molecular. Although more powerful by far than astrology, molecular biology is not appreciably different in kind, the various celestial houses having about as much to do with human affairs as the various genes.
This is hardly a criticism of Watson and Crick’s discovery, but it is a fact. Still, if DNA has been assigned magical properties, there is at least one respect in which the designation is merited. Whatever it may be doing in the real world, that elegant molecule bestowed on James Watson a form of immortality.
David Berlinski is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute and the author of A Tour of the Calculus and The Advent of the Algorithm. His most recent book is Newton’s Gift (Free Press).