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Genetic Crossroads
May 9th, 2003

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 common:

  1. 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).
  2. 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, 2003).
  3. 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 art.

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 occasionally explored:

  1. 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 data surreptitiously.
  2. 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" below).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


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