(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Structures of molecules do not ordinarily make the covers of Time,Newsweek, and other popular magazines, but deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) did. Books about how molecular structures have been determined do not ordinarily become bestsellers, but James Watson’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA(1968) did. In the first half of the twentieth century, the structures of such biological molecules as DNA played little or no role in the thinking of biologists, medical researchers, and ethicists. In the second half of the twentieth century the knowledge of how DNA is structured and functions helped to transform not only biology but also many other fields, from anthropology to zoology. Whether DNA solves most of the mysteries of life, as Watson believes, or whether Watson and other DNA enthusiasts exaggerate its importance, as some critics believe, both critics and enthusiasts agree that DNA research has created an illuminating body of knowledge with which to be reckoned.

James Watson, an older and famous scientist, wrote this book with Andrew Berry, a young and relatively unknown scientist and science writer, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the double helix. This double authorship presents problems to readers and reviewers because the book is written with the personal pronoun “I” rather than “we.” Watson, a very busy man, had Berry research and write various chapters, which Watson then criticized, commented on, and rewrote. The book deals with a number of controversial issues, and Berry’s views did not always coincide with Watson’s, but the authors agreed to represent the book as Watson’s reflections on a half-century of DNA research.

In many ways Watson is an ideal person to supervise such an account, as he played pivotal roles in discovering the double helix, studying the role of ribonucleic acid (RNA) in the transfer of genetic information, elucidating the genetic code, and heading the early phase of the Human Genome Project, which later culminated in the detailed mapping of the genetic instructions that govern the development of every human being. Much of the material in DNA: The Secret Life has been written about before, by Watson and others. Nevertheless, this book has been advertised as “the first full account” of the DNA story, even though very little of the early history of DNA research is discussed. The primary focus is on the period of DNA history in which Watson was directly involved.

In his previous memoirs, The Double Helix and Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix (2001), Watson provoked controversy by frankly expressing his opinions on the quirks, faults, and shoddy work of his fellow scientists (as well as the women in their lives). Some of these candid assessments are sprinkled throughout this unabashedly personal view of the history of DNA, but there are also long sections that describe relevant scientific ideas, experiments, and discoveries in an impartial and evenhanded way.

After a brief survey of the pre-double helix history of genetics, the authors begin their story on February 28, 1953, when the double helical structure of DNA was first found. Ironically, this day was Linus Pauling’s birthday; a few years earlier, this great chemist had determined one of the basic structures of protein, which he called the alpha helix. His method of using chemical principles and model-building served as an inspiration for Watson and Crick, who, in a further irony, had little chemical knowledge between them. The double helix proved to be much more important than the alpha helix, because it revealed how hereditary information is stored and how life-forms are replicated. For Watson, his and Crick’s discovery solved the secret of life itself.

One of the major themes in DNA: The Secret of Life is the relationship between nature (the influence of genes) and nurture (the influence of the environment) in understanding the phenomena of life. Surprisingly for a person who would mature into a gene enthusiast, the young Watson argued for the importance of upbringing, education, and personal effort in creating a human life. He then believed that he could make himself into whatever he wanted to be. Though exposed to religious ideas in his youth, he “escaped” his Catholic upbringing to become an atheist, materialist, and reductionist who believed that science, not religion, was the way to understand the universe. For his critics, DNA is not the only way to understand human beings, but for Watson, human life is nothing but a concatenation of chemical reactions, and the double helix was important because it brought materialistic thinking into the center of life itself—the nucleus of every cell. For him, DNA is what makes humans conscious, creative, destructive, even moral.

The authors realize that such “DNA-philia” generates obstacles in a book intended for general audiences, particularly those readers familiar with the eugenics movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the racist ideology of the Nazis. In 1968, when Watson assumed the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on the North Shore of Long Island, he realized that Charles Davenport, a eugenicist, had been his predecessor. Davenport had advocated negative eugenics, the use of techniques that prevented “genetically inferior” people from having children. His efforts influenced sterilization laws that were passed in several states (and declared constitutional by the Supreme Court) and that led to the sterilization of more than sixty thousand individuals. These laws impressed Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, whose racist ideology resulted in the Holocaust, the...

(The entire section is 2343 words.)