The Globe and Mail, Saturday, May 10, 2003 - Page D3
Not so elementary, my dear Watson
DNA: The Secret of Life
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
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.
A THIRD-RAIL LIFE
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.