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Posts Tagged ‘The Double Helix’

How science changed — III. DNA: disinterest loses, competition wins

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/10

The Second World War marked a shift of economic and political power from Europe to the United States, with associated changes in the manner and style with which those powers are deployed. Science began to change at about the same time and in somewhat analogous and perhaps associated ways.

The change in the norms of science, from CUDOS to PLACE, that Ziman had described (How science has changed — II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior) began with what happened in the middle of the 20th century. The first of the Mertonian norms to fade away was disinterestedness: Science came to be like other spheres of human activity in that some people chose to pursue it as an avenue for satisfying personal ambition rather than as an opportunity to serve the public good.

My cohort of science students in Australia in the early 1950s had been notably idealistic about science. We could imagine no finer future then the opportunity to earn a living doing science. The relative absence of excessive personal ambition may have stemmed in large part from the fact that Australia was at that time a profoundly egalitarian society; no one should imagine himself to be “better” than anyone else [1].

Our ideals about science included taking honesty for granted, as Merton had.

Our ranking of desirable occupations had doing research in a university setting at the top. Those who were not good enough to do innovative self-directed research would still be able to have a place in science by working in industry. If one were not talented enough even for that, one would have to make do with teaching science. And if one could not even do that, then it would have to be some sort of administrative job. I still recall the minor functionary at the University of Sydney who represented a living lesson for us in the wages of sin: As a graduate student in chemistry, he had faked some of his results, and so he had been condemned to lifelong labor as a paper pusher.

The sea change in science around the middle of the 20th century is illustrated in microcosm by the circumstances of the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson’s description of that discovery in his memoir, The Double Helix (Atheneum, 1968), and the reactions to that book in the scientific community, illustrate the profound changes in scientific activity beginning to take place around that time. Gunther Stent’s annotated edition of The Double Helix [2] provides a ready source for appreciating how the DNA discovery touches on many aspects of how scientific activity changed profoundly, beginning in the middle of the 20th century; the edition includes the original text of the book, commentaries, many of the original book reviews, and pertinent articles.

Watson himself, as portrayed in his own memoir, exemplifies the brash, personally ambitious American ignorant of or simply ignoring the traditional ways of doing things, in personal behavior as well as in doing science [3].

In Watson’s memoir, traditional ways including disinterestedness are exemplified by the Europeans Max Perutz and Erwin Chargaff. Perutz had been working diligently for a decade or so, gradually refining what could be learned about the structure of proteins through the technique of X-ray crystallography. With similar diligence Erwin Chargaff had been analyzing the chemical constitutions of DNA from a variety of different sources. Both those research approaches comported with traditional experience that carefully accumulating sufficient pertinent information would eventually be rewarded by important new understanding. In Britain, since Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were working on DNA structure via X-ray crystallography, no other British lab would trespass onto that research project.

Watson of course had no such scruples, nor was he prepared to wait for the traditional ways to pay off; Watson’s own words make it appear that his prime motivation was to make a name for himself — any advance in human understanding, for the public good, would be a byproduct.

To short-circuit old-fashioned laborious approaches, he and his co-worker Francis Crick looked to what had been pioneered by another American, Linus Pauling, who is often still regarded as the outstanding chemist of the 20th century. Pauling did also use X-ray crystallography, but only as a secondary adjunct. He had laid the foundations for an understanding of chemical bonding and had been interested from the beginning in the three-dimensional structures of molecules; applying his insights to the study of macromolecules, he succeeded in elucidating the configuration of protein molecules in part by constructing feasible molecular models.

Traditional cosmopolitan European culture could be disdainful and snobbish toward the parvenu, nouveau-riche American ways that were taking over the world, including the world of science. Erwin Chargaff provides an apposite, rather sad illustration. He disliked not only Watson’s personality and actions, he led himself to believe that his own diligent traditional work on the chemical composition of DNA should have been rewarded by a share of the Nobel Prize. Chargaff’s review [4] of The Double Helix flaunts his cultured erudition and also reveals his personal disappointment; later he refused Gunther Stent permission to reprint his review, in company with all the others, in Stent’s annotated edition.

The technical point at issue is that Chargaff had been content to allow results to accumulate until insight revealed itself rather than to take a gamble on some premature interpretation: he had merely remarked on an apparently consistent ratio of purines to pyrimidines in the DNA from a variety of sources [5]: “It is . . . noteworthy — whether this is more than accidental cannot yet be said — that in all deoxypentose nucleic acids examined thus far the molar ratios of total purines to total pyrimidines, and also of adenine to thymine and of guanine to cytosine, were not far from 1”.

The important insight, however, is that the numbers are exactly equal; adenine faces thymine, and guanine faces cytosine in the molecular structure of DNA, and that is the central and crucial feature of the double helix. In hindsight, Chargaff wanted his tentative statement of approximate equality to be construed as “the discovery of   the base-pairing regularities” [4].

Erwin Chargaff may have been acerbic and ungenerous in his book review, but he will also have spoken for generations of scientists in his regret for the passing of the more idealistic, disinterested, traditional order and distaste for what was replacing it: “in our time a successful cancer researcher is not one who ‘solves the riddle,’ but rather one who gets a lot of money to do so” [6]; “Watson’s book may contribute to the much-needed demythologization of modern science”; “with very few exceptions, it is not the men that make science; it is science that makes the men” [4].

That disappearing idealistic traditional order might be exemplified in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. Published in 1925 by Harcourt, Brace, according to there have been more than 80 later editions, including a 2008 paperback. Evidently the yearning remains strong for disinterested science for the public good. The book’s protagonist, after some early mis-steps and yieldings to commercial temptations, opts for pure research for the good of humankind. Even a couple of decades ago, an academic of my generation (a biochemist) told me that he still gave his graduate students Arrowsmith to read as a guide to the proper ethos of science.

That occasion for being reminded of Arrowsmith was a series of seminars I was then holding on our campus about ethics in research [7], a topic that was just becoming prominent as instances of dishonesty in scientific work were beginning to be noted with increasing frequency.

More about that in a future blog post.


[1]    A widely shared view was that “tall poppies” should be decapitated. A highly educated Labor-Party leader was careful to adopt a working-class accent in public to hide his normal “educated”, British-BBC-type dialect. I personally saw fisticuffs occasioned by one party feeling that the other had thought themselves better in some way
[2]    Gunther S. Stent (ed.), The Double Helix — Text, Commentary, Reviews, Original Papers, W. W. Norton, 1980
[3]    I had begun to sense the new self-serving ethos in science in the late 1960s, after a career move from Australia to the USA. I encountered ambitious young go-getters who luxuriated in the [then!] largesse of research support, inserting personal pleasures into publicly funded research travel, for example studying aspects of marine environments in ways that made possible scuba-diving and general cavorting in the Caribbean. I participated in the WETS, one of the informal associations of young up-and-comers who used to sample fleshly diversions as part of research-grant-paid trips to professional conferences
[4]    Erwin Chargaff, “A quick climb up Mount Olympus”, Science, 159 (1968) 1448-9
[5]    Erwin Chargaff, “Chemical specificity of nucleic acids and mechanism of their enzymatic degradation”, Experientia, 6 (1950) 201-40
[6]    Erwin Chargaff, Voices in the Labyrinth, Seabury, 1977, p. 89
[7]    For instance, “Ethics in Science” under “Current topics in analytical chemistry: critical analysis of the literature”, 15 & 17 March 1994;
reprinted at pp. 169-182 in Against the Tide, ed. Martín López Corredoira & Carlos Castro Perelman, Universal Publishers, 2008;



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