This spring marked the 50th anniversary of the
determination of the double-helix structure of DNA. Timed to
coincide with the occasion were the publication of the "complete"
map of the human genome; of James Watson's new book, DNA:
The Secret of Life; and of an adulatory biography, Watson
and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution.
Media coverage of these events-visible for over
two months-was predictably celebratory. As readers of Genetic
Crossroads are well aware, although celebration may be warranted,
so is caution. Unfortunately, mainstream news reports only infrequently
asked the challenging questions that need careful consideration.
Amidst the fulsome praise that characterized the
overall tone of the coverage, several laudatory tropes were
- Watson and Crick as scientific heroes of the
first rank, although with forgivable human foibles. Watson
even gained a celebrity makeover (explicitly so on the cover
of the science-as-hip Seed magazine).
- A cornucopia of genomic medical advances in
store. Watson, for example, asserts that a cure for cancer
is probably only ten years away (Newsweek, Feb. 24,
- Secular worship of the molecule itself. Many
articles marveled at its grace and simplicity; DNA was frequently
called the "Book of Life." A great deal of coverage
was devoted to the aesthetic attributes of the double helix;
there were numerous reviews of exhibitions of genetics as
To varying degrees, major news sources did present
less glorifying accounts of the discovery and possibilities
of the double helix. At least these four important themes were
- The slighted history of Rosalind Franklin.
The x-ray crystallographer whose work was critical to Watson's
and Crick's deductions did not share their Nobel Prize (she
had died by the 1962 awarding). Some examinations of the historical
record conclude that Watson and Crick likely obtained her
- James Watson's flamboyant style of communication.
For example, Watson has repeatedly noted that he did not find
Rosalind Franklin attractive. "I like pretty girls…
She did not go out of her way to make herself attractive,"
he recently said. When the interviewer asked, "Why mention
that at all?" Watson replied simply, "It's important."
Watson also recently opined that inheritable genetic modification
is an appropriate procedure for eliminating ugliness in girls
(see "Notable Quotes" above). Of course, this is
Watson speaking, not the media. Notably, however, reporters
cast him as a gruff and curmudgeonly - yet lovable - grandfather
figure. An exception is Susan Lindee's remarkable essay in
the April 14 issue of Science (see "Resources"
- The "nature / nurture" debate. Some
commentators reminded readers that researchers are still sorting
through the myriad influences - both genetic and environmental
- on individual traits. Again, see Susan Lindee's recent Science
article for an excellent treatment of this important theme.
- Potentially very dangerous applications of
the new human genetic technologies. The prospects of reproductive
cloning, inheritable genetic modification, and other technologies
that open the door to a dangerous post-human future were commonly
noted but rarely explored, and even less frequently editorialized
upon. A Washington Post editorial warning of these
dangers, as well as of deaths in poorly-monitored gene therapy
trials and the potential misuse of DNA data from forensic
investigations, was a welcome exception.