Watson’s Unusual Style of Scientific Reporting and the General Public

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1601

A set standard for science writing has long been held sacred within the scientific community, which compiles the material, writes it, reads it, and, of course, understands it. It is a standard that calls for straightforward, objective accounting with few subjective observations and no emotional outbursts or anecdotal asides. No one would argue that Watson is not a member of this community and, yet, his reporting of the discovery of DNA’s structure breaks every rule in the standard of scientific writing. As predicted, the author fielded much criticism for The Double Helix after its publication, primarily from his own colleagues and others in the field of science. But something else resulted as well. Many people outside the scientific community wanted to read it, too. Here was a book that the ‘average’ reader could enjoy—and one whose topic, after all, could have implications on the health and future of every living being.

Curiosity is only one aspect of human nature, but it is a powerful one. People on the ‘‘outside’’ want to know what’s happening on the ‘‘inside,’’ and scientific research is one of those inside practices that arouses the general public’s eagerness to be clued in. Usually, however, the material is too complicated to be accessible and the presentation is too formal to be interesting. The Double Helix is both accessible and interesting because Watson includes the real stuff of life in his account—quirky personalities, insecurities, a bit of arrogance, and much competitive spirit. Like it or not, the story of one scientist nearly coming to blows with another in the lab holds a general reader’s attention more than a description of one molecule bonding to another.

But Watson also includes the matters of strict science. He recounts a variety of experiments that were tested and their results, and he is very technical in describing why the structure of the DNA molecule has to be double helix in shape. Even these serious, instructional passages, however, at least seem more comprehensible with a backdrop of fine English ales, highbrow parties, and dinners at the ‘‘Green Door,’’ as Crick and his wife’s apartment is fondly known. The question, then, is whether Watson goes too far in his attempt to ‘‘tell it like it was’’—whether his tale is offensive and meanspirited or simply uncharacteristically entertaining, as well as informative.

Look at Watson’s treatment of the people who make up the major cast of characters in this dramatic tale of scientific discovery. First, Crick is his closest partner during the research and also one of the loudest protesters against the book’s publication. Watson portrays Crick in light of other people’s impressions of him, but those impressions are founded on reality. Crick does have a loud voice, he is a boisterous individual, and, no, he has not yet completed his Ph.D. The latter point is a sore spot for the scientist, but in divulging the information, Watson implies that one does not necessarily need a degree on paper in order to be part of one of mankind’s greatest discoveries.

His personal descriptions of Crick do not appear malicious but fun loving and high-spirited. He claims that Crick’s excitement over a new theory— even when it turns out to be wrong—does ‘‘a great deal to liven up the atmosphere of the lab’’ and that ‘‘Almost everyone enjoyed these manic moments.’’ When discussing Crick’s fondness for English pubs and pretty women, Watson also mentions his colleague’s solid marriage to Odile, who ‘‘did not mind this predilection, seeing that it went along with, and probably helped, his emancipation from the dullness of his Northampton upbringing.’’ Yes, one can understand that Crick would not want the intimate details of his life to appear in a book he had no control over, but the severity of his reaction seems overdone compared to Watson’s amicable tone.

Maurice Wilkins is another key member of the DNA group that harshly criticized Watson for The Double Helix. Perhaps Wilkins’ complaints derive from a desire to protect his colleagues because he himself is portrayed very favorably in the book. Watson credits him with being the one who first aroused Watson’s interest in X-ray work on DNA and who calmed the author’s fears about not knowing enough chemistry. He describes Wilkins’ personality in congenial terms and displays a great deal of admiration for his colleague’s work. The information that Wilkins may have most wanted struck from the record was his relationship with his lab partner, Rosalind Franklin. Understandably, he would like to downplay the lack of respect that he and other male scientists showed her, especially since most of them came to regret those feelings after she died at an early age. But here again, Watson does not single out Wilkins as the ‘‘bad guy’’ who thinks a woman has no place in a laboratory. Instead, Watson takes as much blame upon himself for the unfair treatment, and he openly states his regrets in the epilogue.

Franklin, then, is the one who takes the brunt of the book’s truly offensive language and attitude, but, ironically, she is the one who did not live to see its publication. Perhaps if she had, she would have been the one most amused by its content, rather than angered. Her unwarranted predicament is made clear by Watson’s admissions of guilt, leaving Franklin no need to defend herself in the public’s eye.

This leaves Linus Pauling as the final major figure in Watson’s account. One would think that because Pauling is the greatest ‘‘enemy’’ of the Cavendish lab team that Watson would save his most discrediting remarks for the competitor in America. But again, it is not so. Watson does nothing short of praise Pauling as ‘‘Cal Tech’s fabulous chemist,’’ and he admits being humbled before such a highly respected, brilliant scientist who was already well ahead in the race to discover the structure of DNA. It is true that Watson relates the details of what is perhaps Pauling’s worst scientific blunder—Pauling publishes a possible theory for DNA’s structure, forgetting a basic principle of chemistry that makes it impossible. And Watson is not able to resist mentioning how he and other scientists got such a kick out of watching the great one stumble (not fall), but Pauling is not the one who should feel belittled by this story.

Who really looks bad here? It is the storyteller himself and his reveling colleagues who appear in an unfavorable light. Even more callous than laughing at a competitor when he’s down is having the opportunity to prevent a folly and not doing it. Watson and Crick are privy to Pauling’s faulty theory after reading a letter Pauling wrote to his son describing the proposal. Before Pauling goes to print with the proposal, they could have warned him of the problem and spared him the embarrassment, but they make a conscious effort not to do so. The mood is, in fact, one of celebration, and a visit to a favorite pub is in order. As Watson puts it, ‘‘The moment its doors opened for the evening we were there to drink a toast to the Pauling failure.’’ Similar to the Franklin case, Pauling is more a victim than a bully. He has no reason to hide anything from the public, since Watson’s display of his own deceptive moves and juvenile behavior is enough to swing the reader’s support clearly in Pauling’s direction.

Other people mentioned in The Double Helix are as much fair game for Watson’s freewheeling scrutiny as are the main players, and many of them were less than pleased with their descriptions and Watson’s recollection of the way things happened. It is not the intention of this essay to suggest that all the people involved should have laughed off any misrepresentations of themselves that wound up in a best-selling book, nor that they could have reacted in some robotic fashion, showing no concern one way or the other. It is natural to want to avoid public ridicule, and when one person seemingly forces it upon another, the desire for revenge is no surprise. Watson’s detractors would have received satisfaction out of stopping the book’s publication. Perhaps if they could have moved past the feeling of personal attack, they would have seen that the individual under greatest assault in this story is Watson himself. Rarely is there found such honest admission of dubious behavior and such humbling selfexposure in an autobiographical account, especially in the serious, astute world of science writing.

But does a candid confession of one man’s guilt justify his public display of others who share in the ‘‘crimes’’ but are not so willing to admit it? The answer probably depends upon whether the person asked has his or her name in the book. What is not so ambiguous is that more people in the world were able to read, understand, and enjoy an account of a remarkable discovery because the author chose to write in a manner that welcomed the general public into the esoteric world of scientific research. And it is safe to assume that Watson’s book would not be in the hands of so many students—science majors or not—had its material been presented in standard, scientific fashion.

Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on The Double Helix, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Hill is a writer and associate editor for a university communications department.

The Double Helix as Literature

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8462

James Watson first earned his fame in 1953 as the
discoverer, with Francis Crick, of the structure of
the DNA molecule; in 1968, he became generally
notorious as the author of a scandalous memoir
about that discovery; in 1980, he gained an expanded
celebrity as the author of a canonized work
of literature. One might have thought that the last
two events ought to have been more nearly identical,
given that they are based on the publication and
republication of a single book, The Double Helix
except that the memoir, which some reviewers at
the time of its controversial publication dismissed
along with Françoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso, was
brought out in 1980 in a Norton Critical Edition.
The Norton people do this occasionally to works
that would not have seemed likely candidates for
literature courses (they publish a book of Darwin
selections called Darwin, as well as Malthus’s Essay
on the Principle of Population
); but in every
such case, as clearly as I can gather from their
catalogue, it has taken at least a century for
nonliterature to soften into literature. The decision
that The Double Helix, a memoir with too much
science in it to be followed without aids, and printed
in the Norton edition with scientific papers, can now
be welcomed into the literary canon is worth
contemplating.

I want to consider what it means to classify The
Double Helix
as literature—not by a profitless inquiry
into the meaning of the term, but by explicating
what Watson himself seems to mean by his
foray into literary regions. I shall argue that his
sense of literature, defined implicitly in terms of its
relationship to science, is unique and even (conceivably)
systematically worked out. But first I should
mention the generic suggestions of Watson’s early
reviewers. From the beginning, reviewers—even
nonliterary ones, which is what the book first attracted,
since it was not immediately seen to be
canonical—understood that the generic issue was
critical to an evaluation of the work, and what
they thought on the subject turns out to be extremely
fruitful.

The most amusing generic controversy was
over the alleged resemblance of The Double Helix
to Pepys’s Diary. Sir Lawrence Bragg, who wrote
the foreword to Watson’s memoir, raised the issue
innocently enough: Watson writes, Bragg said, ‘‘with
a Pepys-like frankness.’’ Alex Comfort agreed,
with only slightly enhanced specificity: ‘‘The tactlessness
. . . is two-way, as in Pepys.’’ Robert
Merton, though inclined to think the book sui generis
(‘‘I know of nothing quite like it in all the literature
about scientists at work’’), nevertheless recalled
Pepys while reading the section of The Double
Helix
in which Watson hopes to bond with Maurice
Wilkins, who knew at the time more about DNA
than the neophyte Watson, by offering Wilkins his
beautiful sister.

On the other hand, the idea of Watson as Pepys
redivivus has greatly dismayed certain readers of
the book, notably John Lear, the science writer.
Some of Lear’s lucubration on the subject is worth
quoting, not merely for amusement value.

This book is being acclaimed as the Pepys diary of
modern science. I cannot understand why.

Samuel Pepys not only possessed a gift for dry
precision in writing but his daily accounting of his life
between the years 1659 and 1669 was a miniature
etching of the great and small events experienced by
the city of London during that period. Pepys was the
secretary of the British Admiralty and its singlehanded
savior from accusations of scandal in the
House of Commons, to which he later won election.
He participated in the restoration of King Charles II,
endured the visitation of London by the plague, helped
to pull down the buildings to control the ruination of
the city by the Great Fire. He was an amateur musician,
an assiduous gamester, a skilled raconteur, a
loyal friend, and enough of a scientist to belong to the
Royal Society.

What comparable credentials has James D. Watson,
author of The Double Helix?

The controversy is at this emotional point joined
by Watson’s editor, Gunther S. Stent, who answers
in effect that it is too hard on Watson to hold against
him his failure to survive a restoration, a holocaust,
and an outbreak of plague at the Cavendish lab. I
would like to add a further critique of Lear’s statement,
beginning at the end. Either Lear, I believe,
has not in fact read Pepys, or he is disingenuous.
First, the phrase ‘‘enough of a scientist to belong to
the Royal Society’’ means precisely nothing. Pepys
was no scientist at all. He could not follow much of
the science he read or witnessed. He enjoyed a
scientific experiment in much the spirit he liked a
play by Dryden, or a portrait by Lely, or a curiosity
(a bearded woman, for example), or any attractive
female. He wanted to be delighted, amused, astonished;
he wanted to look at something novel, ingenious,
or pretty. There is, as it happens, an interesting
connection between Pepys and Watson as Baconians;
but if Lear’s idea is to show Pepys’s manifold
superiority to Watson, he picks an odd note on
which to conclude.

And the penultimate term, ‘‘a loyal friend,’’ is
clearly meant to be a fatal blow to Watson’s respectability,
since he betrayed very many friends in
The Double Helix. And Pepys was, in his way, loyal.
But I wonder if Lear remembers the Pepys entry, not
untypical, of 20 December 1664.

Up and walked to Deptford, where after doing something
at the yard, I walked, without being observed,
with Bagwell home to his house and there was very
kindly used, and the poor people did get a dinner for
me in their fashion—of which I also eat very well.
After dinner I found occasion of sending him abroad;
and then alone avec elle je tentoy à faire ce que je
voudrais, et contre sa force je le faisoy, bien que pas à
mon contentment. By and by, he coming back again, I
took leave and walked home.

This is presumably what Lear calls ‘‘dry precision,’’
but it is not a passage he would admire if it
appeared in Watson’s work.

Nevertheless, Lear does in fact identify some of
the right questions, even if he gets all the answers
wrong. For if Pepys is willing to take a friend’s wife,
cruelty to the friend is no part of his intention; and
any attempt to place The Double Helix generically
by reference to Pepys must begin with the fact that
Pepys wrote a diary that hurt no one, and Watson a
memoir that hurt everyone. The neatness of that
opposition, it is true, begins to dissolve the second it
is formulated. What Pepys wrote was not entirely a
diary. According to his editors, Robert Latham and
William Matthews, a given entry was occasionally
not written on the day in question, and the manuscript
was, quite certainly, intended for eventual
publication. Inversely, Watson attempts to suggest
artificially a diary’s vigor: ‘‘I have attempted to recreate
my first impressions of the relevant events
and personalities rather than present an assessment
which takes into account the many facts I have
learned since the structure was found.’’ But the
closest we can come to assimilating the two works is
to say that Pepys wrote a diary that aspires to the
timelessness of (a sort of natural) history, and
Watson a personal history that aspires to the immediacy
of a diary. So if Lear is wrong to distinguish
Watson and Pepys absolutely on moral grounds—
the grounds on which everyone else likens them—
still there is at least a relative moral distinction, a
distinction that leads to a generic clue. The question
is what to call a memoir that works with much
artistic success to acquire the vividness of a diary,
and as a corollary assumes the privileges of a diary.

Finally, though Lear’s referring to Pepys as
something of a scientist is wrong and illogical,
nevertheless it gets us somewhere in determining
what The Double Helix is (though, in this case, Lear
inadvertently allows us to see a similarity in Pepys
and Watson). For if Pepys wanted his diary to be
more than a diary, it was probably not so much out
of a desire for literary fame as out of a Baconian
virtuoso’s willingness to put forward the facts of his
life for whatever value they may have to some
future generalization. And if Watson wants his
memoir to simulate a diary, he means he will not let
‘‘the many facts [he has] learned since’’ obscure his
first impressions. He does not classify himself in
1968 as an interpreter with deeper interpretations,
but rather as a fact collector with more facts. If
Pepys’s Diary is literature, it is a literature of facts;
the English novel grew out of the same Baconian,
empirical factuality. By an analogy of beginnings
and ends, can we think of Watson as returning
literature and the novel to the fact—not to realism,
but to the fact? Pepys likes a fact the same way he
likes a pretty woman; Watson’s DNA model was
‘‘too pretty not to be true’’; this is a Baconian
esthetics.

My suggestion that Watson may have had not
merely a literary but some novelistic intention needs
to be justified. It is not justification enough that
several reviewers thought that Watson’s characterizations
are, as Comfort said, ‘‘essentially novelistic,’’
or that his social sensitivity, as Lwoff put it, is
‘‘worthy of a first-class novelist,’’ or that some of
the personal politics is the sort of ‘‘stuff,’’ in
Merton’s words, ‘‘that abounds in fiction but is rare
in the proper histories of scientific ideas.’’ What all
this indicates is that though several reviewers, trying
to invoke a literary work of similar frankness,
seemed drawn to Pepys as something similarly just
beyond the bounds of the novel and fiction, other
reviewers were not so generically orthodox. But
certain reviewers were not the only ones thinking of
novels; Watson himself did, which is why the
original title of his book was Honest Jim, an allusion
to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, published in the
same year as Watson and Crick’s first papers on the
DNA structure.

The title was suggested to Watson by an odd
occurrence which becomes the opening anecdote of
the book. It is 1955, two years after Watson and
Crick’s success; Watson is in the Alps, walking to a
restaurant at the foot of a glacier; going up he meets
a scientist coming down named Willy Seeds, who
had been a tangential figure in the DNA race.
‘‘Willy soon spotted me, slowed down, and momentarily
gave the impression that he might remove
his rucksack and chat for a while. But all he said
was, ‘How’s Honest Jim?’ and quickly increasing
his pace was soon below me on the path.’’ This is
the entire anecdote, and is itself a fine example of
the Baconian esthetics. Watson tells this extremely
wounding story as if it happened to someone else.

But the more important aspect of the opening
anecdote is that it gives Watson’s book, from the
beginning, a relationship to the novel. Several of the
first reviewers of The Double Helix caught the
allusion: Peter Medawar titled his review ‘‘Lucky
Jim,’’ and Jacob Bronowski observed that the book
would have been called Lucky Jim ‘‘if Amis had not
been so inconsiderate as to make this title famous in
advance.’’ What needs to be shown is that Willy
Seeds’s comment is in fact a brilliant bit of literary
taxonomy, and that the connection brings out the
novelistic potential of Watson’s pseudo-diaristic,
scientific memoir.

Perhaps most important, Lucky Jim and The
Double Helix
have the same basic structure: failure-
failure-failure-stunning success. Thus the novel
form that Watson follows in following Amis can
be further classified. Watson is in the picaresque
tradition; The Double Helix is an ‘‘intellectual
knockabout,’’ as Bronowski says. All the reader’s
considerable pleasure, in both Amis and Watson, is
in knowing that every disaster will lead the hero by a
logic of disasters to a fairy-tale triumph over all
enemies.

In both cases, however, the reader’s considerable
pleasure in watching the disasters unfold into a
triumph is balanced against an undeniable retrospective
guilt. Both protagonists are wonderfully
oblivious to normal considerations of British academic
gamesmanship and manners; the problem is
that they both can be brutal and boorish on the right
side. When Watson finds himself ignoring the tutelage
of Herman Kalckar, he worries that Herman
‘‘minded the fact that [he] was only seldom around.’’
But the hope is that since Herman ‘‘appeared very
vague about most things’’ he ‘‘might not yet have
really noticed.’’ Watson seems to get the terms of
many of his portrayals from Amis, and certainly in
this case Kalckar is rather like Welch père in Lucky
Jim
—what Watson remembers hoping is that Kalckar
is Welchian in his vague inability to notice or
remember an affront (‘‘There was a fair chance that
Welch hadn’t noticed what Johns had told him,
since he’d presumably only told him once’’). And
when Watson rather brutally dismisses the old,
distinguished English biologists who give ‘‘fuzzyminded
speculations over the wireless on topics like
the role of the geneticist in this transitional age of
changing values,’’ he may well be congratulating
himself on never having been forced to give the sort
of talk that Jim Dixon gives, and travesties, on the
role of the historian who remembers Merrie England
in our new, valueless, consumer age.

But the two Jims are even more brutal about
women than they are about the senescent and stupid—
women are ‘‘popsies’’ in both books. The most
distressing connection between Jim Dixon and Jim
Watson is their treatment of intellectual women: if
the portrait of Rosalind Franklin by Watson is not
influenced directly by the Amis-Dixon demolition
of Margaret Peel, it is an extraordinary coincidence.
In both cases it is considered wrong, nearly a sexual
sin on the part of the aggressive, often hysterically
neurotic academic woman that she does not take, as
Watson says of ‘‘Rosy,’’ ‘‘even a mild interest in
clothes.’’ (Actually, it is not that Margaret Peel is
uninterested in dress; she is simply always mistaken
about it.) On the other hand, prettiness in women is
very nearly all-in-all.

I use the term pretty advisedly—it is one of the
key words in both books. Jim Dixon spends much of
the novel ‘‘aiming to secure . . . the three prettiest
girls in the class’’ for his own tutorial. And Margaret
says to him, ‘‘Ah, you always were one for a
pretty face, weren’t you? Covers a multitude is what
I always say.’’ Jim, contemplating this, finds it
‘‘profoundly true.’’ In The Double Helix, the adjective
is omnipresent: all the desire in the memoir is
divided between the search for the ‘‘pretty truth’’
about the pretty double helix, and the search for
pretty girls. The two esthetic objects compete for
the attention of both Watson and Crick. The word
‘‘beautiful,’’ or any comparably strong synonym,
almost never appears in either book. It gets attached
to only two people in The Double Helix, one of
whom is a man and one of whom is Watson’s sister.
As a consequence, it would seem, there is surprisingly
little sex or sensuality in either book. In Lucky
Jim
, we generally discover how little sex is in fact
going on: the pretty Christine Callaghan has not
been sleeping with the loathsome Bertrand Welch,
and Margaret had not had an affair with someone
named Catchpole. In The Double Helix, the only sex
explicitly referred to is between bacteria, and all the
prettiness does not result in any erotic feeling
whatever.

All this will have much importance in placing
The Double Helix generically: when all things are
correctly paired, in Watson’s comprehensive vision,
their pairing is ‘‘pretty’’ and specifically asexual,
including the disciplinary pair literature-science.
But for now I only want to make the more limited
point that Watson’s retrospective view of 1953 in
the English academic world is significantly derived
from Amis’s. For Jim Dixon is not only lucky, he is
honest: ‘‘‘That’s good,’ Dixon said, his spirits rising
as opportunity for greater honesty seemed to be
approaching.’’ And Jim Watson is not only honest,
he is lucky. The epigraph of Lucky Jim,

Oh, lucky Jim,
How I envy him.
Oh, lucky Jim,
How I envy him

might just as well have introduced The Double
Helix
. The question of Watson’s luck—is he a good
scientist or was he merely in the right place at the
right time?—is general among the early reviewers.
Medawar has the most authoritative word: ‘‘I do not
think Watson was lucky except in the trite sense in
which we are all lucky or unlucky—that there were
several branching points in his career at which he
might easily have gone off in a direction other than
the one he took.’’ But then Medawar says: ‘‘Lucky
or not, Watson was a highly privileged young man
. . . [B]ecause it was unpremeditated we can count it
to luck that Watson fell in with Francis Crick.’’ In
no other sense, however, is it lucky that Jim Dixon
fell into an enviable bonding with Gore-Urquhart.

It may be stipulated that, finally, despite all
similarities of plot, character, tone, and style, Lucky
Jim
is a novel (about fictional characters) and The
Double Helix
(about real people) is not. Thus the
moral distinction that haunts the comparison of
Watson and Pepys haunts the comparison of Watson
and Amis as well. But academic readers of
Lucky Jim in England perhaps know the original of
all of Amis’s characters. Even if this is not the case,
the possibility can get us to wonder what Watson’s
book would have been considered if he had changed
all the names, moved the setting to Oxford, and
made the subject the search for a cure for cancer.
Indeed, Crick is decoding just such a roman à clef
within The Double Helix. The moral critics of The
Double Helix
(e.g., Lear) would argue, of course,
that that is precisely what Watson did not do. Even
if the book is perverse in every judgment, it cannot
be taken as a novel.

But as it happens, the discreteness of the category
‘‘novel’’ was under assault just at the moment
Watson was writing. Only one of Watson’s reviewers
seems to have noticed this; Bronowski writes: ‘‘I
do not suppose The Double Helix will outsell Truman
Capote’s In Cold Blood, but it is a more
characteristic criticism and chronicle of our age,
and young men will be fired by it when Perry Smith
and Dick Hickock no longer interest even an analyst.’’
We are reminded that the so-called nonfiction
novel was a product of the decade that produced The
Double Helix
.

At first glance, it seems an attractive simplification
merely to classify The Double Helix in this once
fashionable subgenre. Insofar as Watson is a literary
artist, some of his subtest technique has been devoted
to the problem of making a memoir read as
vividly as a diary, and giving a work that is supposed
to have some of the inconsequence of a diary
the suspense of a novel. The art of Norman Mailer’s
nonfiction novels, similarly but not identically, consists
of making a diary read like a history, and
submitting both diarist and history to a novelist’s
indecorous eye. Furthermore, the attraction of two
founders of the nonfiction novel, Mailer and Tom
Wolfe, to the space race may suggest that some of
the impetus behind the nonfiction novel was the
litterateur’s desire to make peace with factuality in
an era of scientific drama. To say so, of course, does
not obviate the moral distinction between Amis and
Watson; it merely shows that the distinction does
not disqualify Watson from the society of novelists,
as the society was defined in the sixties.

Even with the concept of the nonfiction novel,
however, we have not found the proper classification
of Watson’s book. For though The Right Stuff
and Of a Fire on the Moon are quite different—one
about the goofy and human Mercury project, the
other about the perfectionist and diabolic Apollo
moonshot—in both cases there is a built-in antithesis
of verbal, stylish nonfiction novelist and mute,
mechanical NASA. If Mailer is antagonistic to his
subject, it may be argued, Wolfe enjoys his and only
wishes to match the vitality of Mercury with his
own lively style. But even in Wolfe’s case, the style
cannot be considered in any sense borrowed from
the project. In other words, there is something
confrontational or at least competitive in the relationship
of style and fact in the nonfiction novel
from the literary end. There is not, however, anything
confrontational in Watson’s version of the
relationship of science and literature, or of fact and
style. Watson is a novelist in the era of the nonfiction
novel, but his approach to the genre manifests a
belief that science and literature relate to each other
more intimately than any litterateur can conceive.

The first posited title of Watson’s book was
Honest Jim; the second, Bronowski tells us, was
Base Pairs. At first glance, we seem to be shifting
from a literary allusion to a scientific one: the key to
the structure of DNA is the pairing of the chemical
bases adenine with thymine, and guanine with
cytosine, up all the steps of the DNA spiral staircase.
But the title is a pun on the ignobleness of all
human pairings in The Double Helix—which means
that a literary trope gets us from the science of
Watson and Crick’s ‘‘A Structure of Deoxyribose
Nucleic Acid’’ to the novel The Double Helix.

As everyone has noticed, The Double Helix
primarily about four onstage characters, Watson,
Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin, and
one offstage character, Linus Pauling. What needs
explicating is the way in which all the onstage
characters bond into pairs. Watson more than the
others seems to be the template looking for a
complementary scientist to bond with. First, he is
desirous of forming a bond with Maurice Wilkins—
the one contumacious and intuitive, the other cautious
and knowledgeable. He hopes to use his sister
as if she were a hydrogen atom to connect with
Wilkins; at this moment, Jim Watson is morally
somewhere between Jim Dixon—whose love of the
pretty Christine Callaghan only happens to allow
him to bond with Gore-Urquhart—and the loathsome
Bertrand, who wants to manipulate Christine
ruthlessly and lovelessly for the same purpose.

At any rate, that particular pair, Watson and
Wilkins, base enough if judged by Watson’s motivation,
does not work out. Wilkins is instead part of
the least successful pair of all, with Rosalind Franklin.

Not that he was at all in love with Rosy, as we called
her from a distance. Just the opposite—almost the
moment she arrived in Maurice’s lab, they began to
upset each other. Maurice, a beginner in X-ray diffraction
work, wanted some professional help and
hoped that Rosy, a trained crystallographer, could
speed up his research. Rosy, however, did not see the
situation this way. She claimed that she had been
given DNA for her own problem and would not think
of herself as Maurice’s assistant.

Of course, Watson immediately interprets this
situation on behalf of sexist politics. ‘‘I suspect that
in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would
calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she
would not easily bend. By choice she did not
emphasize her feminine qualities.’’

One might have thought that love would be the
model of a successfully complementary pair, and
that, therefore, the answer to the failure of Rosalind
and Maurice would be a happy sexual partnership.
But so far as the book lets us know, the pair Watson-
Crick, as prettily welded as adenine and thymine, is
not sexual at all. Yet the bond for all its lack of
sexual force seems stronger than Crick’s with his
wife (who allows Crick to be interested in pretty
girls for the sake of social amusement), or Watson’s
with anyone else except perhaps his sister.

One can search the three photographs of Watson
and Crick in the Norton edition for clues to the
hidden sexuality of the bond without, I think, finding
any. In one, Crick, at the right and somehow
elevated, points upward with some sort of instrument
towards the DNA model; Watson, lower left,
looks as nearly straight up as he can without tilting
back his head. Between them, their DNA offspring
grows to the ceiling. The temptation is to award
Crick, by virtue of his superior position and raised
instrument, the phallus; between them is the ‘‘secret
of life’’ to which Watson, stimulated by Crick, has
given birth. The DNA molecule is ready to split
apart and begin a new life itself.

On the other hand, five pages later is the reverse
photograph. Now Watson, his neck stretching to his
strangely alien (as sci-fi uses the term) head, is on
the right. He is well above and much bigger than
Crick at lower left, looking up. And the symmetry of
the two photographs is reproduced in the symmetry
of the cover picture. Watson and Crick are standing
on a street; Crick on the left is glancing off, as if
eschewing publicity or lost in his discourse; Watson
on the right smiles for the immortalizing camera.
Between them is a quite noticeable and sharply
defined empty space. All hands are behind backs or
in pockets, as if Watson and Crick are oblivious to
the convention that the proper mode of unifying
such photographs is to drape arms around shoulders.

The fact is that Watson’s model of a perfect
sexual couple seems to include one submissive
member, if his attitude towards Rosalind Franklin is
any indication, as perhaps does Crick’s, if the
permissiveness of his wife is a clue. Which is to say
that Watson and Crick, insofar as they are a successful
scientific team, cannot function on the sexual
model. Crick chides Watson for taking time off;
Watson is disappointed that Crick does not respond
to a brainstorm; both move in and out of the
partnership with apparently equal independence.
However, neither can solve the problem alone.
Watson is quite frank about his need for Crick:
‘‘Several times I carried on alone for a half hour or
so, but without Francis’ reassuring chatter my inability
to think in three dimensions became all too
apparent.’’

The nature of their complementarity can be
summarized as follows: Crick is voluble, Watson
apparently rather inarticulate. Watson seems more
facile with new ideas, Crick faster to see the consequences
of Watson’s ideas and what their shared
discovery implies. Watson’s worldly drives complement
Crick’s more purely intellectual aspirations.
Even intellectually, Watson is more practical,
Crick more theoretical. When Watson makes fun of
muddled biologists who waste time ‘‘on useless
polemics about the origin of life,’’ he is mocking
one of Crick’s future preoccupations. The book’s
intermittent treatment of the complementary pair
America-England is focused by the Watson-Crick
team, though the issue is muted by the fact that
Crick is himself a sort of enfant terrible, in some
ways himself a Lucky Jim. Lucky Jim is the English
hero most apt to appeal to an American reader;
perhaps Crick’s similar appeal explains Watson’s
bonding with him.

I am arguing that the idea of base pairs is, as
Watson says, so ‘‘pretty’’ that it can function as the
basis of not only Watson’s science but of his novel
as well. The prettiness of the scientific discovery is
partly as follows: The strands of the DNA molecule
spiral around each other. Between the spirals are the
four bases, adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine.
Inward from one strand can come any of the four;
but adenine (A) always joins with thymine (T)
coming out of the other strand, thymine with adenine,
guanine (G) with cytosine (C), cytosine with guanine.
The point is that each base locks with only one other
base, by means of hydrogen bonds. One of the
benefits of the symmetry is that it explains the way
the gene can break in half and duplicate itself. The
two strands break apart, but every A attracts a
complementary T, every T an A, every G a C, and
every C a G, until a duplicate double helix is
reformed.

And what is so lovely and moving about the
novel is the way Watson and Crick come together,
split apart, and by means of the novel unite again.
Despite rumors that Crick was planning a lawsuit
over the book, it is not too sentimental to assert that
the book exists to recreate the Watson-Crick bond.
In the section between the preface and chapter 1,
Watson first tells the ‘‘Honest Jim’’ story, then adds
a final introductory paragraph:

Later as I trudged upward [away from Willy Seeds,
toward the restaurant], I thought again about our
earlier meetings in London. Then DNA was still a
mystery, up for grabs, and no one was sure who would
get it and whether he would deserve it if it proved as
exciting as we semisecretly believed. But now the
race was over and, as one of the winners, I knew the
tale was not simple and certainly not as the newspapers
reported. Chiefly it was a matter of five people:
Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, Linus Pauling,
Francis Crick, and me. And as Francis was the dominant
force in shaping my part, I will start the
story with him.

Watson, egotist, phrases it thus: ‘‘Francis was
the dominant force in shaping my part.’’ Watson is,
to give him the benefit of the doubt, conscious that
the genesis of the story is parallel to the genesis of
the DNA molecule: Crick was a template for the
forming of his complement, Watson. Then Watson
begins the story proper with the sentence: ‘‘I have
never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.’’ And
by 1974, Crick, well beyond the sort of anger that
could have caused legal action in 1968, sees the
humor of his relationship with Watson and considers
beginning his own memoir: ‘‘Jim was always
clumsy with his hands. One had only to see him
peel an orange.’’ Watson’s memoir recreates Crick
who created him, and Crick’s hypothesized memoir
recreates Watson: each is destined to go on
remanufacturing the other. Watson, in 1968, knows
half of what he knows about base pairing from
Kingsley Amis, half from the gene.

But it needs to be reiterated that, despite the
genetic model, we are not considering sexual bonding:
the attraction of A for T, and C for G, has
nothing to do with animal magnetism. Following
some of the steps of the discovery, we can see how
oddly the base pairing is suggested by sexual pairing,
and how oddly the suggestion is undermined. While
working on the DNA model, Watson and Crick are
both occasionally working on other things. Watson
becomes interested in the sexuality of bacteria, and
stays with it in the face of his disappointment that
‘‘the discovery that bacteria were divided into male
and female sexes amused but did not arouse [Crick].’’
Crick is in fact unhappy that Watson is distracted
from DNA; nevertheless, the diversion seems to pay
off, for around the same time (though curiously just
after being nearly assaulted by Rosalind Franklin,
an event that creates a new bond with Wilkins),
Watson once and for all decides to give up the
transatlantic pursuit of a three-strand DNA molecule.
‘‘Thus by the time I had cycled back to college
and climbed over the back gate, I had decided to
build two-chain models. Francis would have to
agree. Even though he was a physicist, he knew that
important biological objects come in pairs.’’

The unavoidable inference is that Watson has
the unexpected heterosexuality of bacteria in mind—
even though returning from hopeless Rosy and
Maurice to Francis. At any rate, following a digression
on the subject of Bertrand Fourcade, ‘‘the most
beautiful male, if not person, in Cambridge,’’ Watson
excitedly passes on to Crick his inspiration
about paired biological objects. ‘‘Francis, however,
drew the line against accepting my assertion that the
repeated finding of twoness in biological systems
told us to build two-chain models.’’ This is the
second time that Crick is ‘‘not aroused’’ by an
enthusiasm of Watson’s. But Watson goes on to
build double helices anyway, which are eventually
justified by the base pairing. On the one hand, then,
the sexual metaphor has its role in leading to the
double helix, but on the other hand it is never taken
very seriously. When Watson says that ‘‘important
biological objects come in pairs,’’ he would have to
be thinking less of such pairs as Wilkins-Franklin,
and more of such pairs as Watson-Crick. During
Watson’s digression on the subject of Bertrand
Fourcade’s asexual or transsexual beauty—he is,
with Watson’s sister, about the only thing in the
book more attractive than a DNA molecule—he
mentions ‘‘Bertrand s perfectly’ proportioned face.’’
On Bertrand’s asexual or transsexual face, Watson
implies, are paired biological organs in perfect
asexual symmetry and mutual adjustment.

By two males a child is born—the DNA model,
which contains the ‘‘secret of life’’ and exhibits its
capacity for dividing into what are always called
‘‘daughter’’ DNA molecules. The reader who is
looking for a novelistic taxonomy will inevitably
think of another male chemist who discovers the
‘‘secret,’’ the ‘‘principle of life,’’ by ignoring ‘‘the
tranquillity of his domestic affections’’ and building
a contraption.

Yet what Frankenstein gives us is not an analogue
but a perfect contrast: pretty model, ugly
monster; comic triumph, catastrophe. This is not the
moment for a full explication of Mary Shelley’s
novel, but perhaps Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar
can help us quickly to seize the essential distinction.
What Gilbert and Gubar show in The Madwoman in
the Attic
is that Frankenstein is not, in fact, about the
masculine creation of life: ‘‘Though it has been
disguised, buried, or miniaturized, femaleness—the
gender definition of mothers and daughters, orphans
and beggars, monsters and false creators—is
at the heart of this apparently masculine book.’’
Mothers and daughters, monsters and false creators—
Frankenstein and his monster are both women. Thus
the birth scene (in which Frankenstein first of all
discovers that he is not Adam but Eve) enacts
‘‘Eve’s discovery not that she must fall but that,
having been created female, she is fallen, femaleness
and fallenness being essentially synonymous.’’
Frankenstein is ‘‘a Coleridgean and Miltonic nightmare
of filthy creation’’ and ‘‘filthy femaleness.’’

Conversely, if there is one thing The Double
Helix
does not have, it is any sense of sin. Further,
the lab in which Watson and Crick work is relatively
sanitized—they build up their model as if with
tinker toys—and all they give birth to is an idea of a
pretty molecule that can split into equally pretty
twin daughters. The contrast, then, is as follows:
Frankenstein appears to be about a man giving birth
to a male monster, but is really about a woman
giving birth to a female monster. The Double Helix
seems to be about men giving birth to the gene that
splits into daughters, but really is about the asexual
creation of a model of asexual genes that can split
into more asexual genes. The opposition can be put
more neatly: Frankenstein is a novel by a woman
that appears to be about asexual birth, but sex is
omnipresent and dirty; The Double Helix is by a
sexist man with sex on his mind, but sex is eliminate
from the central plot, and all is cleanliness.

Evelyn Fox Keller has written about scientists
as if they were all Watsons: in her essay. ‘‘Gender
and Science,’’ she explores the popular conception
that scientists are paradoxically both masculine and
asexual, and finds evidence that it is true and
reasons why it might be. (Lwoff’s summary of
Watson—‘‘cold logic, hypersensitivity, lack of
affectivity’’—recalls Keller’s language.) My only
point here is that from the idea that the prettiest
symmetries in the world are masculine and asexual
(quasi-sexual, let us say), from Bertrand Fourcade’s
face to Watson-Crick, Watson found the inspiration
for both his DNA model and his novel. Base pairing
is thus the local connection of science and literature;
but Watson’s use of the concept is so comprehensive
that it can unite science and literature in general,
with the surprising result that a literary triumph
after a scientific one does not represent a feminization.

When Watson’s nonfiction novel was finally
published, it was modestly called The Double Helix;
the metamorphosis we have observed is from literary
title (Honest Jim), to scientific-literary title
(Base Pairs), to scientific title. The decision to give
what turned out to be a literary ‘‘classic’’ a scientific
name may be a sign of insecurities such as
Keller might diagnose—a retreat to entrenched masculinity.
The oddity, however, is that Watson should
have tried something literary in the first place, if
literature is more sexy but less masculine than
science. But the oddity is eliminated if science and
literature can be considered in terms of the same
base-pair model as genes and friendships. (Base
would take on a third meaning in expanding its
territory in this way: from ‘‘base’’ as the opposite of
acid, to ‘‘base’’ as a term of opprobrium, to ‘‘base’’
as the foundation of a structure.) In a Baconian
esthetic, literature can be the basis of a masculine
intellectual conquest as well as science: science and
literature can bond in complementary masculinity.
If this is so, perhaps we can eke a pun out of the
apparently untroping, apparently scientific title to
justify the union of troping and science: the double
he-lix.

Keller argues that science is presumed to be
masculine because it is presumed to be objective;
the desire for objectivity, she thinks, grows from the
destruction of the child’s unity with the mother, on
which all identity depends but, in addition, on which
only the male’s gender identity (culturally defined,
at least in part) depends. But love, Keller tells us,
relies on the trespassing of strict subject-object
divisions. Whatever its origin, the cultural stereotype
of the masculine scientist exists, and is predictably
registered in Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon, in
which WASP science-technology and Mailer compete
for the love of the virgin moon; Mailer wins.

That the stereotype exists not only among the
general public but also among scientists and
litterateurs is not surprising. What is more surprising
is the role sex plays in intellectual history, the
interdisciplinary impulse of which might have been
expected to undermine patterns of domination among
the disciplines. In classical intellectual history, however,
such as Lovejoy’s or Nicolson’s, philosophy
and science, respectively, play the masculine role
and literature always the female role, at least insofar
as literature is fertilized by science/ philosophy, and
never the reverse. Lovejoy says that philosophy is
the ‘‘seed-plot’’ of intellectual history; in Nicolson
or Popper it is science, but I believe the implicit
metaphor is the same. No wonder that Foucault,
in decrying intellectual history of the Lovejoy-
Nicolson variety, in asserting that the boundaries of
disciplines may be ignored when one demarcates
archaeological territories, will write an introduction
to a book by a hermaphrodite, saying the
same things about sexual divisions that he had said
about disciplinary ones. If Lovejoy’s project is
heterosexual and interdisciplinary, then Foucault’s
is antisexual, in the sense that he does not take
the boundary between sexes to be impermeable,
and antidisciplinary.

And Watson’s is quasi-sexual and quasi-disciplinary:
just as The Double Helix seems more erotic
than it is, the boundary between disciplines look
more formidable than it is. Watson’s book itself is a
quasi-disciplinary intellectual history, in which fifties
science bonds with fifties literature; the resultant
nonfiction novel finds a comfortable home in the
1960s, a decade in which disciplinary frontiers were
being crossed in many directions. It is not that
science of the fifties fecundates literature of the
sixties; literature and science are complimentary
and templates for each other.

First of all, it is easy to show that The Double
Helix
, as a work of literature, requires the Watson
and Crick papers that the Norton edition provides as
a context. As Lwoff rightly says, ‘‘the most thrilling
page of [Watson’s] book’’ contains the following
two sentences: ‘‘Suddenly I became aware that an
adenine-thymine pair held together by two hydrogen
bonds was identical in shape to a guaninecytosine
pair held together by at least two hydrogen
bonds. All the hydrogen bonds seemed to form
naturally; no fudging was required to make the
two types of base pairs identical in shape.’’ This
is, however, only thrilling if one has read the
semitechnical introduction by Stent, or the papers at
the end of the book first, or the book once before.
The word ‘‘suddenly,’’ which seems designed to
signal a breakthrough to the nonscientific reader,
had been misleading to the nonscientific reader only
a few pages back: ‘‘Suddenly I realized the potentially
profound implications of a DNA structure in
which the adenine residue formed hydrogen bonds
similar to those found in crystals of pure adenine. If
DNA was like this, each adenine residue would
form two hydrogen bonds to an adenine residue
related to it by a 180-degree rotation.’’ But this is
the beginning of a scheme of like-with-like pairing
(A-A, for example, not A-T), and it is wrong. The
literature is dependent at its very center on the
complementary science.

Less obviously, but just as profoundly, the
DNA scientific papers may be considered as a sort
of template for the manufacture of this novel. They
also have an insufficiency impossible to rectify
within disciplinary bounds, or rather two: they lack
human life, and they lack sufficient style.

As for life: one senses, reading the papers, that
a remarkable claim is being constantly suppressed.
The first paper (25 April 1953) contains the famous
isolated sentence: ‘‘It has not escaped our notice
that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately
suggests a possible copying mechanism for the
genetic material.’’ That intimation in the April
paper generates the paper of 30 May 1953. But the
sequel also has lacunae: ‘‘Our model suggests possible
explanations for a number of other phenomena.
For example, spontaneous mutation may be
due to a base occasionally occurring in one of its
less likely tautomeric forms. Again, the pairing
between homologous chromosomes at meiosis may
depend on pairing between specific bases. We shall
discuss these ideas in detail elsewhere.’’ Inevitably,
a mortise in one paper finds a tenon in the next;
always the scientific claims grow, but extended to
their grandiose conclusion, they surpass the ability
of science to demonstrate them.

In fact, these ultimate claims were being made
before the DNA papers were written, before even
Watson was ready for them: during the interim
between the final theory and the building of the final
model, Watson is ‘‘slightly queasy when at lunch
Francis winged into the Eagle to tell everyone
within hearing distance that we had found the secret
of life.’’ From Frankenstein to Francis. Nevertheless,
despite his temporary nervousness, Watson
had agreed all along that ‘‘to understand what life is,
we must know how genes act.’’ The reader may at
first assume that the scientists must mean something
very limited by ‘‘life.’’ But Watson is not modest: if
genes are composed of DNA—such is the original
premise—then ‘‘DNA would have to provide the
key to enable us to find out how the genes determined,
among other characteristics, the color of our
hair, our eyes, most likely our comparative intelligence,
and maybe even our potential to amuse
others.’’ Our potential to amuse others? Watson’s
DNA investigation pursues the secret of Lucky Jim.
Certainly no paper Watson and Crick wrote on the
DNA molecule comes close to explaining how
DNA made Lucky Jim an amusing book. So the
scientific papers call for, and are a template for the
creation of, The Double Helix, itself a very amusing
book. And much of the amusement is in the baseness
of the base pairing: the novel is necessary to
show how the DNA model does in a fashion give us
the secret of Amis’s wit.

Style is the second desideratum that the literature
fulfills for the science. Watson is painfully
conscious of stylistic questions—in fact, his ambitions
are essentially concerned with such questions.
For in the arsenal of the redoubtable enemy, Linus
Pauling, style is as deadly a weapon as content.

By the time I was back in Copenhagen, the journal
containing Linus’ article had arrived from the States. I
quickly read it and immediately reread it. Most of the
language was above me, and so I could only get a
general impression of his argument. I had no way of
judging whether it made sense. The only thing I was
sure of was that it was written with style. A few days
later the next issue of the journal arrived, this time
containing seven more Pauling articles. Again the
language was full of rhetorical tricks. One article
started with the phrase, ‘‘Collagen is a very interesting
protein.’’ It inspired me to compose opening lines
of the paper I would write about DNA, if I solved its
structure. A sentence like ‘‘Genes are interesting to
geneticists’’ would distinguish my way of thought
from Pauling’s.

When Watson does in fact solve the structure,
he remembers his stylistic intention. The first article
(25 April 1953) begins: ‘‘We wish to suggest a
structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid
(D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which
are of considerable biological interest.’’ The coy
understatement of the Pauling sentence on collagen
is somewhat ineptly imitated—a lack of faith in
understatement is manifested by the too impressive
adjective ‘‘considerable’’—but the attempt is still
evident. Watson’s point, however, had been to
distinguish his style from Pauling’s, not mimic it,
and in this I believe he failed. What is the stylistic
distinction implicit in Watson’s never-used
sentence ‘‘Genes are interesting to geneticists’’?
First of all, the literariness of the statement is
more pronounced than Pauling’s, by virtue of its
symmetry—its complementary doubling. But the
sentence is not merely symmetrical; it is tautological.
And in the tautology, I think, is a real clue to
Watson’s style. If I am right, what the tautology
suggests is this: genes are only interesting to geneticists—
by definition—but DNA is important to
everyone by virtue of its intrinsic explanatory force.
The translation from genes to DNA is from effects
to causes; from the beginning Watson had sided
with those who thought that the behavior of the gene
could not be understood by ‘‘purely genetic tricks,’’
and so had learned as much chemistry as the case
required. What is understated in ‘‘genes are interesting
to geneticists,’’ in the nice symmetry, is not
merely the grandeur of Watson’s anticipated discovery,
but also self-promotion at the expense of
less adaptive scientists.

The novel, then, is required to satisfy the stylistic
demands that Watson had hoped to satisfy in his
scientific papers, but did not. Interestingly enough,
the whole question of the importance of the scientific
style of the DNA science came up immediately
in the aftermath of the publication of The Double
Helix
. Medawar is on the side of its importance:

The great thing about the discovery was its completeness,
its air of finality. If Watson and Crick had been
seen groping toward an answer; if they had published
a partly right solution and had been obliged to follow
it up with corrections and glosses, some of them made
by other people; if the solution had come out piecemeal
instead of in a blaze of understanding; then it
would still have been a great episode in biological
history but something more in the common run of
things; something splendidly well done, but not done
in the grand romantic manner.

To this Crick (not Watson) replies:

There is [an argument] recently proposed by Gunther
Stent and supported by such a sophisticated thinker as
Medawar. This is that if Watson and I had not discovered
the structure, instead of being revealed with a
flourish it would have trickled out and that its impact
would have been far less. For this sort of reason Stent
had argued that a scientific discovery is more akin to a
work of art than is generally admitted. Style, he
argues, is as important as content.

I am not completely convinced by this argument, at
least in this case. Rather than believe that Watson and
Crick made the DNA structure, I would rather stress
that the structure made Watson and Crick . . . [W]hat I
think is overlooked in such arguments is the intrinsic
beauty of the DNA double helix. It is the molecule
which has style, quite as much as the scientists.

But Watson’s style—expressed in the nice,
cruel, complementary doubling of ‘‘genes’’ and
‘‘geneticists’’—demanded expression before the stylish
double helix was discovered. What The Double
Helix
seeks to propose, if I have built the correct
model of its structure, is that base pairing is so
deeply a function of Watson’s mind that the pretty
DNA followed from Watson as much as Watson
from the pretty DNA. If this is the case, the title The
Double Helix
refers not only to the DNA molecule
but also to the style and form of the book. Style, in
Mailer’s and Wolfe’s ‘‘scientific’’ nonfiction novels,
is put up against science. But style, in Watson’s
book, is both cause and effect of the science.

In creating a more truly transgeneric literature
than Mailer’s or Wolfe’s (call The Double Helix a
factual novel rather than a nonfiction novel, since its
basis is not the subtraction of fictionality), Watson
implicitly proposes a quasi-disciplinary model for
intellectual history at least as interesting as Lovejoy’s
interdisciplinary and Foucault’s antidisciplinary histories
of ideas. According to Watson, literature and
science are both incomplete, even if literature is
factual and science is pretty, and are thus templates
for the manufacture of each other. Only in these
terms can The Double Helix be considered literature
at all; though, in these terms it can join the canon.

Source: John Limon, ‘‘The Double Helix as Literature,’’ in
Raritan, Vol. 5, No. 3, Winter 1986, pp. 26–47.

Review of The Double Helix in BJHS

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623

These two books go together very well. There are all
kinds of correspondences between them and some
illuminating differences in style and content. Anyone
seriously interested in the history of molecular
biology will think about acquiring the Monod memoir.
Anyone whose teaching involves reference to or
scrutiny of James Watson’s The Double Helix, of
which Stent has now produced a critical edition,
should consider buying this volume. This does not
exhaust the kinds of readers, who will, I think, be
fascinated by these books.

In the case of the new edition of The Double
Helix
, it is hard to know whether to call the book
Watson’s or Stent’s. James Watson, a Nobel prizewinning
molecular biologist, wrote an account of
his collaboration with Francis Crick on the molecular
structure of DNA, in The Double Helix. This was
first published in March 1968, in the midst of a
developing controversy over the deception, obtuseness,
competition, plagiarism, and desperate ambition
in science that the book describes. But it
was Gunther Stent, a bacterial geneticist at Berkeley,
lately turned to the extra-curricular production
of philosophical books and essays, who suggested
to Watson the idea of a new edition. The
resulting book also contains reviews from the late
1960’s, several contextual and reflective essays,
and a selection of the original papers from 1953 and
1954 which put forward the by-now celebrated and
seemingly well-established double-helical model
of DNA structure. Stent’s was a good idea, and
it has been realised in a sensible, if somewhat
unambitious way. I finished the book with a sense of
missed opportunities and surprise at several striking
omissions.

The book opens with an accomplished but
uninspiring historical essay by Stent. Nothing is
said about the early ethos of molecular biology, the
‘prematurity’ or inappositeness of postulations like
the double helix, or the institutional growth of
molecular biology. References to historical studies
of molecular biology are desultory: At least two
major monographs and a score of secondary articles
are ignored. There then follows the entire text of
The Double Helix, in an unaltered form. Watson had
a chance to write a short piece on how he now sees
his book, thirteen years and a million copies after it
first appeared; the opportunity was not taken up.

Next Stent offers us three views of The Double
Helix
, one by Crick, which is very good and characteristically
incisive, one by Linus Pauling, which is
a hymn to structural studies in biology, and a third
by the crystallographer, Aaron Klug, showing that
the work of his former colleague, Rosalind Franklin,
on DNA is sytematically devalued in The Double
Helix
. This issue has itself been the subject of a
book by Ann Sayre, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, to
which no reference is made even in a footnote, nor is
the literature engendered by Sayre’s book mentioned.
This seems to me irresponsible on scholarly
grounds and possibly malicious.

After these essays come a selection of twelve
reviews of the original edition, prefaced by an
excellent review of reviews by Stent. This section
also includes three letters from Science in 1968,
which contest a claim seemingly made by Watson in
The Double Helix that he and Crick obtained ideas
and data from their competitors by improper means.
Finally, there are the early papers, which will be
opaque to the non-specialist, and which would have
benefitted from a brief technical gloss, making clear
just what they do and do not show. That would have
been interesting given the recent much criticised
proposal of an alternative model of DNA structure;
indeed Stent himself was once a critic of the double
helix. On balance, then, this is a very useful but
under-developed book.

Source: Review of The Double Helix in BJHS, Vol. 16, No.
54, November 1983, pp. 278–79.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Previous

Critical Overview