Review: DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (A)

[Note:  I originally wrote this review in 2005, long before I started blogging, and never had a venue to publish it.  It sat stored in the deep recesses of my computer’s memory until I came across it again while searching for something else.  I decided to publish it in this two part blog.]

DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE By James Watson (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2003)

James Watson along with Francis Crick are credited with revealing the very nature of DNA – the double helix which is for science as the title suggests the secret of life. Crick and Watson received the Nobel Prize for their work to crack the code of proteins which constitutes how life is passed from one cell to the next, and life from one generation to the next. Watson’s book offers insight into how the various discoveries of an array of scientists brought the pieces of the puzzle together to open to our eyes how life works on the level of molecular biology. The book is a fascinating history of modern science in the field of genetics. It also brings a great deal of science to the level of knowledgeable readers. One can gain great insight into the possibilities which the science of genetics is opening to our world. One also realizes clearly that for some what has been opened by molecular biologists and geneticists is a potential economic bonanza, the likes of which the world has not previously known. For others, the unveiling of DNA will bring into reality the worst fears of science fiction. Watson does not avoid the controversies which this science has caused nor the alarms which have been set off among some people about the dangers which it represents. He is in the end confident that this new science will prove its worth and will silence its critics.

But not being a scientist nor an entrepreneur nor a venture capitalist, I can’t really comment on the these aspects of the book DNA. I was however intrigued by some of the theological implications of the book, though Watson would never claim it to be a theological book at all. Watson admits he is purely a secularist and a scientist. But that makes the book interesting for believers. It is a readable book even when the scientific details are beyond my understanding and even when the story complete with names of all those involved is beyond my interest. It is a book which really does assume and advocate a purely secular scientific understanding of life. Watson is quite confident that the potential of this science, though fraught with some risk, ultimately is for the greater good. He dismisses the concerns of religious folk, ethicists, politicians, environmentalists, organic farmers and American lovers of racial and gender equality with equal aplomb. Whatever questions or fears have been raised about genetically altering plants, foods, animals or humans, he dismisses as not founded on good science. He wholly trusts in the goodness of science and scientists because he does believe in the end humans are basically benign if not outright benevolent.  (“Mostly harmless” according to THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY.)

I would encourage Christians to read this book for several reasons, not the least of which is we gain some understanding into the secular scientific mind.  If we are to fulfill our evangelical mission, we have to have some comprehension of those to whom we will proclaim the good news.   Evangelism is about communication and to communicate with others we have to understand their language and concepts so that we can translate the Gospel into a language that speaks to them as well.

1) For those who are interested in the connection between life and physical creation, this book does offer a scientific criticism of the need for any kind of vitalism – some force divine or natural which gives life to inanimate material. By showing the basis of biological life to be in proteins and protein manufacturing and transfer, Watson aims at demonstrating that even without any sense of divine intervention, biological processes toward the continuation of a species does go on at the molecular level. This is taking the Creationism vs. Evolution to a new level – a microbiological level. DNA – basically chemicals and proteins – works to preserve life from one cell to the next and from one generation to the next. At this level it is possible to believe that inanimate proteins are somehow carrying on the work of life itself. It is not so totally impossible to see a physical universe capable at the level of proteins to begin organizing chains of proteins and than copying those chains and passing them along to ever complex forms until cells emerge. They are doing that right now in our bodies, millions of times every day. At this level we also see the mechanism of evolution at work, and can see why scientists believe this does explain the history of life itself. In some sense genetic material is in fact a historical record of life on earth, recorded, copied and passed down through the millennium complete with scribal errors which brought into being new combinations of DNA resulting over time in new species. As Watson describes it, “Life, we now know, is nothing but a vast array of coordinated chemical reactions.” Of course this is a reductionism and assumes that life can be completely understood on the level of proteins. But we know life exists and functions on other levels besides the molecular level. Nevertheless, as Christians, molecular biology, microbiology and genetics do offer to us a new way of seeing the universe, and the plan of God at work. While humans may disobey the will of God, at the molecular level, creation is working according to the will and plan of God. And because we know this level exists, we can hardly pretend otherwise even if it is a challenge to our belief in creation.

2) In the chapter “Who We Are” Watson also points out that the great scientific opposition to evolution and Mendelian genetics was Comrade Trofim Lysenko who inspired Stalin to follow disastrous agricultural methods which while ideologically acceptable to the atheistic communists, totally ignored the discoveries of genetic science. The results were the massive starvation of millions of Soviet citizens while US agriculture following genetic science became the breadbasket of the world. This is a historical truth which creation scientists might not want to forget. In Watson’s own words: “… ideology– of any kind– and science are at best inappropriate bedfellows. Science may indeed uncover unpleasant truths, but the critical thing is that they are truths. Any effort, whether wicked or well-meaning, to conceal truth or impede its disclosure is destructive.” Here Watson would agree with the search which Orthodox Christianity also would claim for religion: truth. For Watson however, there is no transcendent truth, no truth outside the realm of the physical world, no meaning to be bestowed upon us all at the end of the world. For him, when the universe might end by reaching entropy or in another Big Bang, meaning will cease to exist as well. There is no great struggle for the good against evil for him. There is no sense that something greater than this world (or this DNA!) exists beyond or outside of the chemical universe. Human intelligence, emotions or creativity not withstanding, for Watson the world of DNA is awesome and awe inspiring, but mystery is limited only to that which we have yet to discover or that which is beyond our immediate technology. A true sense of mystery – a logic of other beyond human logic or of some plan unfolding in the universe whose purpose or goal is beyond our understanding – these Watson the secularist is not interested in.

Next:  DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (B)

4 thoughts on “Review: DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (A)

  1. Pingback: DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (B) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Genetic Engineering (II) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  3. Pingback: Genetic Engineering (I) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  4. Pingback: DNA: A Written Record of God’s Hand Writing | Fr. Ted's Blog

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