'Terrorism and Tyranny' by James Bovard

'DNA: The Secret of Life' by James Watson

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

The Globe and Mail, Saturday, May 10, 2003 - Page D3

Not so elementary, my dear Watson

DNA: The Secret of Life
James Watson
Knopf, 336 pages, $59.95

James Watson's new book, DNA: The Secret of Life, should have been a disaster. It's meant to sit on a coffee table and evoke memories of the five-part television series that it's based on. On its last pages, Watson thanks his collaborators, and his list is long enough to invite comparison to a Speilberg. But Watson's singular voice is the voice we hear throughout, bringing this massive project into coherent focus, and proving that the author of Molecular Biology of the Cell (1965), The Double Helix and A Passion for DNA (2000) is still, at 75, at the top of his game.

The Secret of Life is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix. It's also Watson's bid to get posterity's attention. But it's also what's going on now. It brings together in one place a variety of urgent, hard-to-understand issues -- genetically engineered crops, the morphing of medicine and academia into big business, cloning, eugenics and, the central issue, the genetic engineering of evolution. This isn't Star Trek, it's the local drugstore, the narest hospital, and ourselves.

Watson slices the story into 13 self-contained chapters, each a headline: DNA Fingerprinting, the Human Genome Project, et al. Woven into these individual pieces is an ongoing history of the gene, starting with Mendel's experiments with peas and moving on through the many scientific breakthroughs that have revolutionized molecular biology since the discovery of the double helix.

The gunshot that gets us going in the opening chapter, Beginnings of Genetics: From Mendel to Hitler, is Watson's discussion of the early eugenics movement, in England and the United States, at the start of the last century. He argues that the evil that came of it was not inherent in the idea itself. But he fixes in front of our eyes DNA's worst-case scenario, so that we can understand the risk.

From the nightmare, he moves on to the hope, chapter by chapter. Particularly good are his discussions of DNA fingerprinting, genetic engineering in agriculture and the medical breakthroughs promised by the Human Genome Project. His discussion of how academic laboratories turned their discoveries into patent-producing wealth details various abuses in the system, but supports how the influx of money has propelled new discoveries.

DNA: The Secret of Life is as personal as a memoir, and as partisan as a manifesto. Ultimately, Watson wants us to embrace the promise of genetics as he does. Whether he succeeds will vary from reader to reader, but he draws us into the debate and educates us as to the essential issues, scientific and social, and hints at the philosophical. Having achieved all this in print, video and computer formats, can a pharmaceutical format be far off?

Edmund Carlevale works as a technical editor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.


At some point in his life, James Watson's favorite novelist, incredibly enough, was Henry James -- or so Victor McElheny tells us in his twin biography, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Watson's discovery, with Francis Crick, of the double helix of DNA, Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (Perseus, 384 pages, $42.95). It's just a tease, though. We get the tidbit but no details, no explanation of what could have drawn Watson, so famously maladroit in casual conversation, so bereft of social graces that his Harvard colleague, E. O. Wilson, called him "Caligula," to James.

McElheny, a former science writer for The New York Times and author of an admired biography of Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, frequently sparks our attention with an observation or fact, then changes the subject. He tells us he was "inclined to be excited by James Watson, even though he was living out a life so rocky it was considered to be the third rail of biography." One would have thought a rocky life -- better yet, an electrifying life -- would have been a dream come true for a biographer, but McElheny is cautious. "What follows," he writes in the preface, "does not focus on Watson's family, or private life, but rather on his personality as he worked with an unusually confident and bold group of people who were determined to do great things in science."

Fair enough, and probably a relief to many readers. Yet each time McElheny blows his whistle at the end of the working day, another tantalizing aspect of Watson's personality slips into the night. He warns us, again in his preface, that what follows will be a "distillation of the testimony of witnesses." Having toned down Watson's personality, McElheny next subtracts his own. His various witnesses look through their office windows and tell us what they saw Watson doing at different points of his life, but their views are always limited by academia's brisk turnover rate, and are often in conflict with each other. Standing on the sidelines with his long boom mike, McElheny picks up interesting anecdotes, but leaves it to his successors to deal with the danger of the third rail.