[Paleopsych] Wired: Bioscientists: Gods or Monsters?

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Bioscientists: Gods or Monsters?

    By [21]Kristen Philipkoski
    02:00 AM May. 27, 2005 PT

    Scientists working with embryonic stem cells or transgenic organisms
    are sometimes perceived as evil: modern-day Frankensteins meddling
    with the building blocks of life.

    In his new book, The Geneticist Who Played Hoops With My DNA ... and
    Other Masterminds From the Frontiers of Biotech, journalist and author
    [23]David Ewing Duncan chats with some of the most prominent and
    powerful life scientists in the United States about the human
    motivations behind their God-like endeavors.

    He finds them to have benevolent intentions -- almost completely
    convincing us that their experiments won't have unintended negative

    Duncan's book profiles seven scientists, including famously
    cantankerous DNA discoverer James Watson, Human Genome Project leader
    and born-again Christian [28]Francis Collins and Harvard geneticist
    [29]Doug Melton, who hopes to advance medical research one day by
    creating monkeys with human brains.

    Duncan weaves lay-friendly science through the profiles, making the
    book fun to read whether you're interested in science, ethics or
    philosophy, or simply curious about exceptional people.

    (Feeling curious yourself? Duncan has agreed to answer your questions
    about biotech research and ethics by e-mail. Send your questions to
    Asktheauthor at wired.com and we'll pass them along to him, and publish
    his answers when he responds.)

    In the book, Duncan plays basketball with Icelandic DNA hero Kari
    Stefansson (an episode that inspired the title), and sits with Nobel
    Prize winner Sydney Brenner in his La Jolla, California, apartment as
    he nurses a cold. He explores how Collins reconciles his fiercely
    competitive nature and faith in science with his faith in God. And
    despite many of the scientists' clear disdain for journalists, Duncan
    holds his own as a non-scientist in his conversations with these

    Their quirky, sometimes cranky, but mostly charitable natures should
    allay the public's fear of scientists tinkering with DNA and stem
    cells. Mistrust of scientists stems at least in part from ignorance,
    not necessarily of the science, but of the people performing the
    experiments. We don't know them as men and women who have families,
    catch the flu and play hoops at lunch.

    It's partly the fault of science reporters, Duncan writes:
    "Journalists tend to write articles trying to explain the intricacies
    of proteomics, genetically modified organisms, ribonucleic acid,
    transgenic animals and therapeutic cloning -- and the ins and outs of
    startups, initial public offerings and rolling markets."

    In The Geneticist Who Played Hoops, Duncan assigns each scientist a
    nickname from mythology. Melton, for example, is Prometheus, the god
    who gave fire to mortals against Zeus' wishes. Melton's passion for
    his studies -- using embryonic stem cells to find a cure for Type 1
    diabetes -- is motivated by his two children who have been diagnosed
    with the disease. Melton talks about creating animals with human cells
    or organs -- specifically monkeys with human brains -- without
    flinching, the thought of which Duncan admits gives him the

    In the Greek myths, Prometheus never explains his forbidden gift of
    fire, but Duncan ventures a guess: "He had mortal children who were
    cold and tired of eating berries and gnawing on raw meat."

    Longevity researcher [30]Cynthia Kenyon is Eve -- not because she's a
    temptress, Duncan writes, but because in the biblical story (Duncan's
    interpretation of it is great), God says humans who eat the fruit of
    the tree of life will become immortal like gods. After eating the
    proverbial apple, Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden before they have
    the chance to experience everlasting life.

    The lone female profiled in Duncan's book, Kenyon comes off as a woman
    deeply in love with her research subjects: worms. She has quadrupled
    the life span of the slimy creatures and become the hero of a cadre of
    ambitious individuals who want to live forever.

    Duncan deserves kudos for devoting significant space to another woman
    in science, [31]Rosalind Franklin, the late King's College
    crystallographer who got little thanks for her role in the discovery
    of the DNA structure, and was treated unfairly by Watson in his 1968
    biography, The Double Helix.

    Incredibly, Watson (Zeus, because he pulls strings controlling both
    legislators and scientists) still doesn't have a kind word for
    Franklin. "I thought she was rather dowdy," is all he can muster when
    Duncan asks him about the woman who produced the crystallographic
    Image 51 that led to his monumental discovery of the structure of DNA.
    Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins [32]won a Nobel for the
    discovery in 1962.

    Duncan's interviews reveal more magnanimity than evil, which is a
    strong word even for a world-class grumpypants like Watson. But with
    all of his knowledge and power, Watson has not performed monstrous
    experiments that threatened anyone's safety, and Duncan's profile
    doesn't lead one to believe he wants to do so.

    The profiles reassure readers that America's top scientists are not
    looking to engender beasts in their beakers. Whether one will emerge
    by accident is less certain.

    I wish Duncan had gotten even more intimate with some of the
    scientists. What does Kenyon do on weekends? Does Watson ever do
    anything for fun? What is Craig Venter's (Faustus, because he's been
    accused of privatizing the human genome) relationship like with his
    ex-wife, [33]Claire Fraser, president of the Institute for Genomic
    Research? With that extra insight, maybe we'd be a little more assured
    of what these scientists will do with their growing knowledge and

    Nathaniel David, a scientist and entrepreneur, tells Duncan in the
    book's epilogue: "There is simply no incentive to be evil. I'm not
    going to defend the large drug companies. I'm talking about
    scientists. I have started two small companies, and I'm not rich. But
    I want to do good things."

    In his response, Duncan doesn't sound completely convinced. "I hope
    there are a few more like you," he says.


   21. http://wired-vig.wired.com/news/feedback/mail/1,2330,0-31-67643,00.html
   23. http://literati.net/Duncan/
   26. http://wired-vig.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,67643,00.html
   27. http://wired-vig.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,67643,00.html
   28. http://www.genome.gov/10000779
   29. http://www.mcb.harvard.edu/melton/
   30. http://www.ucsf.edu/neurosc/faculty/neuro_kenyon.html
   31. http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/franklin.html
   32. http://nobelprize.org/medicine/laureates/1962/index.html
   33. http://www.tigr.org/faculty/Claire_Fraser.shtml

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