Democracy and DNA

More a collection of essays than a unified exploration of its purported theme, Gerald Weissmann’s book is nevertheless a thought-provoking, witty, and satisfying read. His ostensible purpose is to trace the roots of contemporary molecular biology in the meliorist tradition of nineteenth century medicine. Through demonstrating the intense cross-fertilization of ideas between the social reformers and the doctors, Weissmann makes his case that social reform and medical progress go hand in hand—as, for example, with the discovery of microbes and the sanitary revolution, which abolished the devastating metropolitan cholera epidemics. He employs a large variety of sources, most of them from the middle years of the nineteenth century: diaries, letters, poems, songs, speeches, scientific writings, and so forth. Weissmann’s success at collating these various sources in stimulating ways makes for much of the charm of his book. The reader receives a healthy dose of the Holmes’s—both of the Oliver Wendells and Sherlock, too—as well as inspiring introductions to such early feminists as Elizabeth Blackwell and Margaret Fuller and a moving eulogy to Lewis Thomas, the great biologist and writer.

Underlying all this good fellowship is a biting defense of reason against the ever-bloating monsters of the imagination, typified for Weissmann by New Age philosophies in general and homeopathy in particular. The funniest passages are dedicated to just this task as Weissmann sharply satirizes the unreasonable beliefs of “the pious, the zealous, the mystic and the inspired,” as well as those contemporary academics who play at the dangerous idea that science is just another mythos.