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DNA – Good Discovery, Bad Agenda

DNA – Good Discovery, Bad Agenda


The big surprise in April 1953 was not that the structure, and by implication the function, of DNA had been discovered, but rather who had done it. With established scientists like American Linus Pauling of Caltech in Pasadena, and British scientists Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College, University of London, carrying out such research, it was expected that the problem would soon be solved. These scientists all had research funds, experience and appropriate equipment.

On the other hand, British Francis Crick (b. 1916) and American James Watson (b. 1928) were basically nobodies in the scientific community. Crick, for his part, was still a graduate student in 1953 since his education had been interrupted by war service. Crick might be merely a graduate student, but he was nevertheless skilled in the methods of X-ray diffraction, so useful in searching for the structure of large organic molecules. Moreover he had devised a theoretical method for interpreting X-ray derived images of long chain molecules (polymers). This was a highly significant skill.

The lead author of the April 1953 letter to the journal Nature was James Watson. He had already earned his doctorate in bacterial genetics. Then in 1951 at the tender age of 23, he arrived at the Cavendish lab in Cambridge to carry out post doctoral work on myoglobin, an oxygen-storing protein found in muscles. Crick, for his part, had been assigned to carry out X-ray diffraction work on hemoglobin (the all-important oxygen-carrying molecule in red blood cells).

Although they came from different backgrounds, Watson and Crick were alike in many ways. Both of them had, for example, read the 1944 book What is Life? by quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961). In this work, far outside his field of expertise, Schrodinger had speculated that there must be a code of some kind in cells that allows molecules to carry information. Watson and Crick both suspected that DNA was such a molecule. They were fixated on the problem of DNA structure. It mattered little that they had been forbidden to work on this problem. By gentleman’s agreement between laboratories, the DNA problem had been allocated to the people at King’s College in London. Nevertheless nobody could forbid this irrepressible duo from bouncing ideas off each other, could they?

Meanwhile at King’s College, the most capable person carrying out research there in X-ray diffraction was Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958). She was a shy young lady who suspected that her fellow scientists were trying to steal the results of her research. In this suspicion she was entirely correct. Unfortunately as a result of her attitude, she had few people-handling skills and thus she found herself isolated and unprotected. She was one of two people allocated to research DNA structure. The other was the better-known Maurice Wilkins. He hardly ever spoke to his female colleague.

It was Rosalind Franklin who managed to overcome the difficulties of working with DNA. She designed a special X-ray camera for this work and protocols for handling the molecule. Soon she began to produce X-ray images. What they meant however, she refused to speculate until her entire program had been carried out. It was X-ray images which would provide vital clues about DNA structure. One thing she was quite sure about — the images did not suggest a helical structure in DNA.

It is traditional for scientists involved in research to occasionally give lectures to update colleagues on what they are doing. Rosalind Franklin delivered such a seminar in November 1951. Her colleague Maurice Wilkins invited James Watson from Cambridge. Francis Crick did not come because his interest in DNA was too well known. Watson listened carefully, but he did not take notes. That might look too eager. Watson’s recall of what he had heard proved faulty however and progress on the issue was very slow.

Then in January 1953, word came that American Linus Pauling was about to publish a proposed structure. Watson and Crick however were relieved to discover that Pauling had made a simple but significant error in the chemistry. They had a reprieve which might last a few weeks. Two days later Watson visited Franklin. The exchange of views did not go well. Watson taunted her that she was inept at X-ray interpretation and she shouted at him to go away. He next encountered Wilkins who showed Watson the best image Franklin had ever taken. From it Watson was able to see clear indications of helical structure and even measurements of angles. Wilkins also showed Watson a Franklin research proposal which contained further crucial details. Based on these insights, Watson and Crick solved the DNA conundrum within four weeks and the rest is history.

When they published, they failed to acknowledge any contribution of Rosalind Franklin. She died five years later, never having heard of her contribution to this story. In 1962 Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The achievement of Watson and Crick reveals how important theoretical analysis is to the solving of many scientific problems. However they could not have done it without the experimental foundation of Rosalind Franklin. Theory and empirical research go hand in hand.

Now fifty years later, Watson at age 75, and Crick at age 87, are both in the mood for reflection. Both have enjoyed long careers and both are happy to discuss the significance of their achievement. Interestingly, both attribute their success to their atheistic views.

Subsequent to the events of 1953, James Watson went on to a faculty position at Harvard University where he soon proved himself adept at fund raising and administration. Eventually he became director of the Human Genome Project. Francis Crick also has enjoyed a long career. During the early years at Cambridge, he and collaborators went on to describe how the information in DNA becomes translated into specific proteins. Later he turned his attention to the seemingly unrelated issue of human consciousness. In Crick’s mind there was a connection between the human brain and the DNA helix. Because of his distaste for religion, Dr. Crick set out to research two topics often cited as support for religion: namely the gulf between life and nonlife, and the phenomenon of consciousness. Since he believed only in the material universe, it was Crick’s objective to explain both these phenomena in chemical terms. His hope was to dispense with any excuse for attributing natural phenomena to the work of God.

A little reflection on our part however will show that Watson and Crick had in no way explained the gulf between living cells and mere organic compounds. Indeed while they did describe how information is stored in DNA, they did not explain how this molecule developed the capacity to store information in the first place. Nevertheless, under the mistaken assumption that their explanation did away with the need for a Creator of living cells, Dr. Crick turned his attention to the problem of consciousness. He has wrestled with the problem for twenty-five years, but still the solution eludes him. One might imagine that after all this time, he might conclude that his program has no hope of success. He might even grow discouraged with his atheistic agenda. On the contrary however, Dr. Crick remains as firmly committed to his position as ever. In recent months and throughout his career, James Watson too has steadfastly declared his atheism.

It is apparent that from the start, the ultimate objective of these two men was to explain both life itself and consciousness in chemical terms which would completely exclude any supernatural involvement. It is indeed ironic that our understanding of DNA has led to a greater appreciation of the gulf between nonliving chemicals and the living cell. No spontaneous or natural process can ever explain how a code such as DNA came to be, or the astonishingly concentrated storage of its contained information. Thus this objective of atheists Watson and Crick has met with utter failure. Christians, for their part, still celebrate the achievements of April 1953. The motives of Watson and Crick were all wrong, but the nature of their information does not depend on attitude whether good or bad.

Margaret Helder
June 2003

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