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On Crick and Watson

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Eminent biologist Erwin Chargaff was extremely bitter about not receiving a Nobel for his important work on DNA, which contributed to Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double helix. I’ve been paging through his strange, but occasionally brilliant, memoir Heraclitean Fire: Sketches of a Life before Nature.

On meeting Crick and Watson at the Cavendish lab. Crick, 35, had already had a career in physics interrupted by the war and despaired of making his great contribution to science. Watson was a callow 23, fresh from Indiana.

It was clear to me that I was faced with a novelty: enormous ambition and aggressiveness, coupled with an almost complete ignorance of, and a contempt for, chemistry, that most real of exact sciences – a contempt that was later to have a nefarious influence on the development of “molecular biology.” Thinking of the many sweaty years of making preparations of nucleic acids and of the innumerable hours spent on analyzing them, I could not help being baffled. I am sure that, had I had more contact with, for instance, theoretical physicists, my astonishment would have been less great. In any event, there they were, speculating, pondering, angling for information. …

Thanks for digging around down there — what did you find, again? Great! I’ve got more horsepower, so I’ll just connect the dots for you now… 🙂 From Wikipedia on Crick:

Crick had to adjust from the “elegance and deep simplicity” of physics to the “elaborate chemical mechanisms that natural selection had evolved over billions of years.” He described this transition as, “almost as if one had to be born again.” According to Crick, the experience of learning physics had taught him something important—hubris—and the conviction that since physics was already a success, great advances should also be possible in other sciences such as biology. Crick felt that this attitude encouraged him to be more daring than typical biologists who tended to concern themselves with the daunting problems of biology and not the past successes of physics.

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June 12, 2008 at 2:12 am

Harvard Magazine

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As a consequence of having been a Junior Fellow, I get Harvard Magazine every other month. By comparison, I was a faculty member at Yale, and they don’t send me anything. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining the disparity in endowments? I would certainly give money to Harvard before I would give it to Yale. Harvard Magazine is consistently the best alumni magazine I’ve seen (I fairly regularly look at the Berkeley, Caltech, Stanford and Yale counterparts; the last two are sent to people I know, not to me), although that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an occasional snoozer of an issue.

This month there is a review of James Watson’s book (no mention of his little faux pas in London, or of the interesting conversation with Derek Bok with which he ends the book — but see below :-), an article about autism, and one on the new category of “alpha girls” in American society (Girl Power: what has changed for women and what hasn’t).

Some random observations. The back cover is an ad for NetJets (fractional private jet ownership), a photo of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett relaxing on an overstuffed couch in a luxurious airplane. About 50% of Harvard graduates now go into finance (over 50% of men, and over 40% of women). The best and brightest! 🙂 Harvard is the university that recently decided to offer middle class families of “modest” means (up to $180k in income!) substantial financial aid. Families earning up to $180k will pay no more than 10% of their income to send their kid to Harvard. (Article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, with amusing comments.)

Here are the final paragraphs from Watson’s book, excerpted by 02138, the other Harvard magazine.

Before leaving Bok’s temporary office in Loeb House, mindful of the Summers fiasco, I remarked to Derek that the time was not far off when academia would have no choice but to hand political correctness back to the politicians. Since 1978, when a pail of water had been dumped over E. O. Wilson for saying that genes influence the behavior of humans as well as of other animals, the assault against behavioral science by wishful thinking has remained vigorous. But as science is able to prove its hypotheses ever more indisputably, such irrationality must recede or betray itself as such. In showing that human genes do matter, behavioral biologists will no longer be limited to comparisons of fraternal and identical twins. Soon the cost of sequencing the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs of individual DNA molecules will drop to a thousandth of what it has been, thereby transposing our studies of behavioral differences to the much more revealing molecular level. DNA messages extracted from, say, many hundreds of psychopaths can then be compared to equivalent numbers of DNA messages from individuals prevented by their consciences from habitually lying, stealing, or killing. Specific DNA sequences consistently occurring only in psychopaths will allow us to pinpoint the genes likely malfunctioning to produce psychopathy. The thought that some people might be born to grow up wicked is inherently upsetting. But if we find such behavior to be innate, the integrity of science, no less than that of ethics, demands that we let the truth be known.

The relative extents to which genetic factors determine human intellectual abilities will also soon become much better known. At the etiological heart of much of schizophrenia and autism are learning defects resulting from the failure of key brain cells to link up properly to each other. As we find the human genes whose malfunctioning gives rise to such devastating developmental failures, we may well discover that sequence differences within many of them also lead to much of the observable variation in human IQs. A priori, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our desire to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.

Rather than face up to facts that will likely change the way we look at ourselves, many persons of good will may see only harm in our looking too closely at individual genetic essences. So I was not surprised when Derek, who had spent most of our meeting listening, asked apprehensively how many years would pass before the key genes affecting differences in human intelligence would be found. My back-of-the-envelope answer of “15 years” meant that Summers’ then undetermined successor would not necessarily need to handle this very hot potato.

Upon returning to the Yard, however, I wondered if even 10 years would pass.

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January 5, 2008 at 8:12 pm