Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

“DNA” by James D. Watson

Posted 10 May 2011 / 1

I just finished reading James Watson’s 2003 book “DNA”. Throughout the Spring semester I have been working with Mishele Lesser, a graduate MFA student here at Pratt, on an independent study focused on what produces human phenotypes. We both read the book as part of our collaboration.

As one of the two people credited with unraveling the structure of DNA, Watson has quite a bit of authority to write this book, which focuses predominantly on how our understanding and use of DNA has proliferated since his Nobel-prize-winning discovery.  What I enjoyed most was his perspective on this rich history, told from his front-row seat on the unfolding field of molecular biology. As an undergraduate student in the late 1980’s I had learned about the scientific knowledge produced by most of the discoveries chronicled here, but Watson provides us with an additional window into how these discoveries were actually made. We learn about the people — often offbeat and sometimes not so nice — that pushed molecular biology forward.

The book is well-organized, devoting individual chapters to the core discoveries and milestones in molecular biology. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on biotechnology, where Watson appropriately points out the absurdity of the gene-patenting craze that began in the 1990’s and continues to hamper scientific and medical progress by inappropriately awarding patents for discoveries that have not yet led to any patentable application. Sections on the human genome, the science of genomics, and how we used genetic analysis to discover our own evolutionary history were also quite valuable.

Watson’s perspective is by my reckoning somewhat biased towards the right. He certainly believes that genes play a prominent role in who each person becomes, and he rails repeatedly against anyone who questions too strongly the value of genetic research. Throughout the book he is happy to point out places where we have been too careful about regulating how genetic technologies are used, but he is not as thorough in considering the many misuses that gene manipulation might allow. I think his overall bias is most obvious in his chapter on nature versus nurture, where he arrogantly proclaims that it is only a matter of time before we unravel the genes that makes us who we are; eight years after the publication of this book I am still holding my breath! If you consider Watson’s bias throughout your reading it won’t do you much harm, as it is often pretty glaringly-obvious what he has swept under the rug.

Clearly this book is already out of date, and I do not pay close enough attention to the field to know what new things have been discovered in the intervening eight years. But if you are looking for a primer on molecular biology that does a good job of explaining the basics through engaging historical narrative, this book is worth checking out.

Books, DNA Barcoding, Gene by Environment Interactions, Genetics, Homo species, Human Evolution, Phylogenetics

1 Comment to "“DNA” by James D. Watson"

Peter C. 18th June 2011 at 4:36 pm

Agreed. His bias against keeping foods wholesome keeps flaring up like a rash. It’s obvious that he would have no problem pushing the boundaries of man-made agriculture to its very limits. He makes no mention of how large monoculture farms destroy the ecosystems around them, reducing their resistance to environmental change and pressure from pests and bacterial attack.

However, this is a MUST READ for us all, since his insight into the history and technology of GM foods and biotechnology is key to helping understand what will soon spring from scientists’ test tubes, both for our benefit and our peril.

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