[Paleopsych] Wired: Bioscientists: Gods or Monsters?
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Thu Jun 2 15:16:20 UTC 2005
Bioscientists: Gods or Monsters?
By 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
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 Francis Collins and Harvard geneticist
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 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, 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 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, 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.
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