On February 28, 1953, James D. Watson and Frances Crick announced their discovery of DNA's chemical structure. To celebrate the anniversary of this breakthrough, here's an excerpt from Genetic Twists of Fate by Stanley Fields and Mark Johnston. The book explains how tiny variations in our personal DNA can determine how we look, how we behave, how we get sick, and how we get well.
More than half a century ago, on February 28, 1953, James D. Watson and his colleague, Francis Crick, launched an age of genetic discovery with their announcement to the lunchtime patrons of the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, that they had “found the secret of life.” Their discovery of the structure of DNA—the most important molecule of life, which specifies the form and function of every living thing—made clear how traits are passed down through the generations. Watson and Crick’s breakthrough paved the way for an age of discovery that culminated in the announcement on June 25, 2000—not in a pub but at the White House—that the human DNA code had been determined. A few years later, Watson himself became one of the first two people to read his own personal DNA code.
After 1953, Watson went on to a celebrated career, directing a laboratory at Harvard University, then a storied scientific institution at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, and ultimately the Human Genome Project, which deciphered the DNA code. But shortly before his own DNA code was determined, Watson’s professional life ended amid charges of racism. He was quoted in the October 14, 2007 edition of The Sunday Times that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” He also said, “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
As his comments rapidly circled the globe, drawing condemnation from his fellow scientists, the 1962 Nobel Laureate quickly apologized for them. Speaking at a meeting of the Royal Society in London on October 18, 2007, he said, “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly…That is not what I meant. More importantly, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”...
Watson had steered into the always-dangerous shoals of the genetics of race, and he should not have been surprised that his words sank him. In our penultimate chapter we, too, venture into these treacherous waters. We will show you that there are many more genetic differences within racially defined populations such as Africans and Caucasians than between these populations. You can see the close resemblance of the DNA codes of these races if you compare the few available sequences. Or, you can wait a few years and see it when you read your entire DNA code.