Has it really been half a century since James D. Watson and Francis Crick announced to the world their discovery of the structure of DNA? Their breakthrough in the spring of 1953 was unquestionably one of the great milestones in the history of science. Crick famously (and forgivably) bragged in a local pub that he and Watson had discovered the "secret of life," but even he would never have dared to predict how far this discovery would lead scientists in only 50 years. Naturally, the event is being commemorated in a variety of ways during 2003.
Watson's new book, DNA: The Secret of Life, written in the first person although co-authored with Andrew Berry, is part of a group of interrelated celebrations of this golden anniversary. There will be a separate five-part PBS series starring Watson, as well as a multimedia companion program. The book provides details on these projects and also includes a strong Further Reading list. Watson's new book is more than just another account of the great discovery. It is a history of the development of genetics and (inevitably) genetic engineering, told by one of the founders of the discipline. It covers the whole topic the Human Genome Project, genetic fingerprinting, genetically modified foods, even evolutionary microbiology's search for human ancestors.
The book begins with a brief but impressively lucid history of ideas about heredity, from Lamarck's notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics to Mendel's brilliant tinkering with peas in an Augustinian monastery. Like the rest of this spirited book, the section on early history is brought to life with telling anecdotes. We observe how Mendel's weight gain curtailed his fieldwork. We learn about the "Hapsburg lip," the distinctive physical trait that resulted from unwise inbreeding among European monarchs. The book is wonderfully unpredictable, and the whole discipline of genetics is presented in human terms, not in biochemical formulae.
Watson has never been accused of undue modesty, and in this book he doesn't pretend to offer an objective account. He dismisses Jeremy Rifkin, one of the primary opponents of genetically modified foods, as a "professional alarmist." He complains about the "knee-jerk, politically craven attitudes and even scientific incompetence" of government regulatory agencies that are opposed to genetically modified foods. Thrilled with the field, its history and its implications, Watson sums up his Dr. Frankenstein hubris by describing his response to the initial discovery of DNA's structure: "We were no longer condemned to watch nature from the sidelines but could actually tinker with the DNA of living organisms, and we could actually read life's basic script."In case this topic seems daunting to you, note that DNA is designed for the nonspecialist. No technical terms are used without being fully explained, and their first mention is boldfaced in the index in case you want to refresh your memory later. You probably won't even need to. The writing here does the work for you, as it ought to do in popular nonfiction. And this book will be popular. The authors sum up the importance of their volume and their topic in a single sentence: "DNA is no longer a matter of interest only to white-coated scientists in obscure university laboratories; it affects us all." Michael Sims' new book Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form will be published by Viking in August.