DNA (2004) by James Watson is a fine read for anyone interested in a rundown of what DNA is, how genetics is being done and the history of the discovery of DNA and it’s development. It’s really not possible to find someone better than Watson to tell it. As one of the discoverers and someone who has been part of the story for 50 years he is uniquely placed to write a book on the subject.
The book goes over genetics and the history of DNA in a historic manner, first going over the Mendelian genetics and then the discovery of the double Helix. He talks about how he was inspired by What is Life, a book I want to read. It’s interesting to see how Watson writes about Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery. Her role and lack of Nobel Prize is sometimes presented as an example of men treating women badly in science. However, Watson gives her great credit and states that the reason that she did not get a Nobel for the discovery of DNA was that Nobels were split at most three ways and that when the prize was awarded she had already died and that had she lived she would probably have got a Nobel with Maurice Wilkins the following year. She also apparently got on very well with at least Crick and coalesced from a bout of cancer at his house.
The book then goes over the ever increasing understanding of genetics and DNA and the various applications of DNA.
There is a chapter on the use of genetics in agriculture that is very interesting. Watson sees DNA as providing great assistance to agriculture and enabling it to allow for reductions in the amount of pesticide used thus providing a benefit for the environment and humanity. It is interesting to note that Environmentalists often state that ‘the science is settled on climate change’ where as on genetically modified agriculture where the science is in fact more certain ‘the science’ is thrown out the window. There is no genetic scientist of high standing who believes that GMOs are dangerous unlike climatology where there are a number of senior climatologist who disagree with the majority view like Richard Lindzen, Pat Michaels and so on. Of course, this double standard goes both ways to some degree. Nonetheless it is illuminating to read Watson’s views about how GMOs are a valuable technology that can save us from Rachel Carson’s nightmare.
The book goes over the basics of genetics as well as going through the discovery of genetics historically, and this was a bit of a weak point as I still have a very weak handle on the role of DNA, RNA, proteins, genes and whatnot. But perhaps this is like expecting a popular science book to teach you some real physics. On the other hand the superb Code Book by Simon Singh does teach you some cryptology.
The book has a great chapter on what genetics has told us about the spread of humanity and how we are related, showing how we go back to a small population in Africa about 150 000 years ago that spread through the world.
The chapter on Nature vs Nurture backs up what is said in The Blank Slate . It’s clearly written and makes the point that genetics is extremely important for what people will become. Watson’s discussion of twin studies is similar to what is found in the Blank Slate.The chapter on genetic diseases is moving and fascinating and discusses where things are going in this area.
The book was good to read and is certainly great for providing an overview of how genetics has been developed in the past 50 years. It’s a bit weak for layman interested in trying to put together a picture in their head of DNA’s role, but perhaps for that a textbook would be a better idea. Watson is a good writer. He’s also a good speaker and it was great to be able to hear him talk in DC when I was there. He’s a great scientist whose words are very much worth reading.