A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes and Society


Jim Watson is one of the world's most famous scientists. A principal architect and visionary of modern biology, a Nobel Prize winner at 34, and best selling author at 40 (The Double Helix), he has been a fearless commentator on the march of DNA science and its impact on society for over twenty years. This sparkling collection was a bestseller in hardcover, and, for the paperback edition, the author has added three newly written essays containing his reflections on the survival value of pursuing happiness, advice ...

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Jim Watson is one of the world's most famous scientists. A principal architect and visionary of modern biology, a Nobel Prize winner at 34, and best selling author at 40 (The Double Helix), he has been a fearless commentator on the march of DNA science and its impact on society for over twenty years. This sparkling collection was a bestseller in hardcover, and, for the paperback edition, the author has added three newly written essays containing his reflections on the survival value of pursuing happiness, advice for new college graduates, and his thoughts on the completion of a draft of the human genome, a project he initiated over ten years ago.

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
In 1952, Watson and Crick identified the double helix structure of DNA. Here, in 29 essays, Watson discusses the process leading up to that discovery and the implications it has had for science and for society in general. Also included are essays that may seem more removed from the actual topic of genetics, including discussions of his early life in Chicago and general ruminations on how to succeed in science. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
One of the scientists who received the Nobel Prize for discovering the shape of DNA, Watson (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory) gathers 27 articles published in various journals and texts of talks he has given over the past four decades that reveal both his life as a scientist and his ideas about science and its role in society. They cover autobiographical flights, recombinant DNA controversies, the ethos of science, the war on cancer, and societal implications of the Human Genome Project. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Nature Genetics
A thoroughly engaging book, full of fascinating reminiscences and far-reaching projections.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780879696092
  • Publisher: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press
  • Publication date: 8/20/2001
  • Series: Science & Society Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 286
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

James D. Watson was born in 1928 in Chicago. After graduation from the University of Chicago, he worked in genetics at Indiana University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1950. He spent a year at the University of Copenhagen, followed by two years at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University. There he met Francis Crick, and the collaboration resulted in their proposal in 1953 of a structure for DNA. After a two-year period at Cal Tech, he joined the faculty at Harvard where he remained as Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology until 1976. Since 1968, as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, his research has centered on bacterial virus, molecular genetics, and the synthesis of proteins.

In 1962, together with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, Dr. Watson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Prior to The Double Helix, he wrote The Molecular Biology of the Gene, which is now in a third edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Part I: Autobiographical Flights

Emotionally and intellectually I have been more formed by Chicago than by experiences anywhere else. Outsiders often sneer at Chicago, but I know otherwise. There, in 1928, 1 was born into a family with three paramount values. One was the importance of books and the belief that knowledge would liberate mankind from superstition, which for my father, brought up to be an Episcopalian, meant religion. The second value was birds. From his adolescence, my father was addicted to observing birds, and later I happily joined him knowing that it liberated me from the Sunday services of my mother's church. By the time I entered South Shore High School, I also was obsessive about trying to find rare birds in Jackson Park, around Wolf Lake, or out in the Indiana sand dunes at Tremont. It gave romance to my life and more than compensated for being even shorter than my finally 5'2" sister, Betty, two years my junior. Our third family value was the nobility of the Democratic Party, led by my first real hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Then if you had a family car, you could afford to be a Republican, but if you had been knocked down by the Depression, common sense made you a Democrat.

Beginning when I was about 12, my father and I every Friday evening made the mile-long walk to the library on 73rd Street to browse among its stacks and invariably bringing several home to digest during the following week. Our house was also filled with books, the more recent of which came from the Book of the Month Club, but most of which came from the used book shops in the Loop or Hyde Park. Dad worshiped persons of reason and took particular pleasure in readingthe thoughts of the great philosophers. His library also had the occasional book on science, and it was those, not the books on philosophy, which I pored over when the weather was too unpleasant for bird watching. Learning about evolution particularly caught my fancy, with Darwin's theory of natural selection providing a rational way to think about the diverse forms of life that first excited me through trips to the Field Museum.

Even before I entered the University of Chicago in 1943, 1 had begun to daydream about being a scientist, though I had to wonder whether I was bright enough to enter this world filled with geniuses. All too clearly I had not entered the University of Chicago at 15 because of my high IQ. I was far from the child genius that say Wally Gilbert, several years later, grew up to be in Washington. My premature departure from South Shore High School instead reflected the fact that Robert Hutchins, still the almost boy president of the University of Chicago, considered American high schools disasters that never could be reformed. And instead of wasting money failing to improve them, he had the simple solution of getting kids into college two years earlier. That I was one of the first entrants into Hutchins' Four Year College owed much to my Southside-Irish raised mother, who had gone to the nearby University of Chicago. It was she who saw that I filled out the application form for a tuition scholarship which later let me attend college, initially needing only from my family the two three-cent fares for the daily streetcar ride of some 30 minutes.

My first two years at the U of C were superficially not very successful, with my grades (largely B's) continuing to expose to all my non-genius qualities. But they prepared me for the future by instilling upon me three new values. The first was to focus on original sources instead of textbooks - read the great books themselves, not the interpretations of others. The second value was the importance of theory. Of course, you have to know some facts, but much more important is how to put them together in some rational scheme. And thirdly, you had to concentrate on learning how to think as opposed to improving memorization skills. Initially, to my annoyance, the big comprehensive exams that gave us our grades for the entire year often seemed to bear no relation to what you learned in your lectures. With time I realized that I did not have to take notes but instead could concentrate on whether the lecturer's words actually made sense. In retrospect, I now realize I was acquiring the mental habits which later made me acceptable first to Luria and Delbruck and later to Francis Crick.

And Chicago being then the Second City and the University of Chicago not as old as Harvard, I saw no reason to treat authority with much reverence...

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Sources of the Essays xi
Acknowledgements xv
Introduction xvii
Autobiographical Flights
Values from a Chicago Upbringing 3
Growing Up in the Phage Group 7
Minds That Live for Science 17
Early Speculations and Facts about RNA Templates 23
Bragg's Foreword to The Double Helix 33
Biographies: Luria, Hershey, and Pauling 37
Recombinant DNA Controversies
In Further Defense of DNA 49
Standing Up for Recombinant DNA 61
The Nobelist versus the Film Star 71
The DNA Biohazard Canard 75
Ethos of Science
Moving Toward the Clonal Man: Is This What We Want? 83
The Dissemination of Unpublished Information 91
Science and the American Scene 105
The Necessity for Some Academic Aloofness 109
Striving for Excellence 117
Succeeding in Science: Some Rules of Thumb 123
Rules for Graduates 127
War on Cancer
The Academic Community and Cancer Research 133
Maintaining High-Quality Cancer Research in a Zero-Sum Era 143
The Science for Beating Down Cancer 151
Societal Implications of the Human Genome Project
Moving on to Human DNA 167
Ethical Implications of the Human Genome Project 173
Genes and Politics 183
Five Days in Berlin 213
Good Gene, Bad Gene: What Is the Right Way to Fight the Tragedy of Genetic Disease? 227
Viewpoint: All for the Good--Why Genetic Engineering Must Soldier On 231
The Pursuit of Happiness 235
The Human Genome Revealed 239
Afterword: Envoi--DNA, Peace, and Laughter 245
Name Index 253
Subject Index 259
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For some 30 years, first as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and later as its president, I have written introductory essays for its Annual Report to convey the intellectual excitement then gripping our Lab, if not the world of biology. In particular, I have focused on scientific advances that could benefit the general public, as well as the world of biology. The "War on Cancer," the arrival of Recombinant DNA procedures, and the Human Genome Project all were likely to change positively the face of human society. Yet, in each case, they generated much controversy that spread from the scientific community into the columns of prominent newspapers and magazines. Many of these essays remain highly relevant today-witness the violent reactions to genetically modified foods now apparent within the European community. So I am most pleased that the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press is reprinting them, together with companion articles prepared for newspaper, magazine, or book audiences.

To begin this essay collection, I have included several autobiographical fragments about my earlier years that set the stage for the challenges facing me as I moved from a doer of science to my later life roles as a manager of science here at Cold Spring Harbor and occasional governmental advisor or bureaucrat. How I made decisions early in my life strongly influenced how I have tried to move the future of biology toward human betterment.

This book would not be appearing without the encouragement of Dr. John Inglis, Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, who helped in choosing writings from my past which have messages for today. Equally important, Walter Gratzer, whom Ifirst knew when we were both young scientists at Harvard, has much enriched this volume through his introductory and concluding essays.

James D. Watson
24 November 1999

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