Post Mortem October 2004

The Twentieth-Century Darwin

Francis Crick (1916-2004)
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Francis Crick is dead and gone. He has certainly not "passed on"—and if he has, he'll be extremely annoyed about it. As a twelve-year-old English schoolboy, he decided he was an atheist, and for much of the rest of his life he worked hard to disprove the existence of the soul.

In between he "discovered the secret of life," as he crowed to the barmaids and regulars at The Eagle, his Cambridge pub, on a triumphant night in 1953. The opening sentence of his paper, written with his colleague Jim Watson and published in Nature that year, put it more modestly: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid."

That's DNA to you and me. And it's thanks to Crick and Watson that we know the acronym and that it has passed into the language as the contemporary shorthand for our core identity. Your career choice? "She says being a part of academia seemed to be hard-wired into her DNA because her father was a professor at the University of Virginia" (the Chicago Tribune). Socio-economic inequality? "Income distribution appears to be hard-wired into the DNA of a nation" (The Washington Post). New trends in rock video? "Staying cool is hard-wired into the DNA of MTV" (the Los Angeles Times).

Francis Crick was the most important biologist of the twentieth century. Like Darwin, he changed the way we think of ourselves. First, with Watson, he came up with one of the few scientific blueprints known to the public: the double-helix structure of DNA (though he left it to Mrs. Crick, usually a painter of nudes, to create the model). Later, with Sydney Brenner, he unraveled the universal genetic code. Today Crick's legacy includes all the thorniest questions of our time—genetic fingerprinting, stem-cell research, pre-screening for hereditary diseases, the "gay gene," and all the other "genes of the week." In Britain they're arguing about a national DNA database; on the Continent anti-globalists are protesting genetically modified crops; in America it was traces of, um, DNA on Monica's blue dress that obliged Bill Clinton to change his story. If you're really determined, you can still just about ignore DNA—the O.J. jury did. But, increasingly, it's the currency of the age.

"We were lucky with DNA," he said. "Like America, it was just waiting to be discovered." But Crick was an unlikely Columbus. The son of a boot-factory owner, he grew up in the English Midlands, dabbling in the usual scientific experiments of small boys—blowing up bottles, and so forth—but never really progressing beyond. Indeed, as a scientist he wasn't one for conducting experiments. What he did was think, and even then it took him a while to think out what he ought to be thinking about. His studies were interrupted by the war, which he spent developing mines at the British Admiralty's research laboratory. Afterward he decided that his main interests were the "big-picture" questions, the ones arising from his rejection of God, the ones that seemed beyond the power of science. Crick reckoned that the "mystery of life" could be easily understood if you just cleared away all the mysticism we've chosen to surround it with.

That's the difference between Darwin and Crick. Evolution, whatever offense it gives, by definition emphasizes how far man has come from his tree-swinging forebears. DNA, in contrast, seems reductive. Man and chimp share 98.5 percent of their genetic code, which would be no surprise to Darwin. But we also share 75 percent of our genetic makeup with the pumpkin. The pumpkin is just a big, ridged, orange lump lying on the ground all day, like a fat retiree on the beach in Florida. But other than that he has no discernible human characteristics until your kid carves them into him.

Yet the point of DNA is not just to prove that the pumpkin is our kin but to pump him for useful information. According to Monise Durrani, a BBC science correspondent, the genetic blueprint of a humble worm is proving useful in the study of Alzheimer's. As Durrani says, "Although we like to think we are special, our genes bring us down to earth … We all evolved from the same soup of chemicals." It turns out there is a fly in my soup—and a chimp and a worm and a pumpkin.

Having found "the secret of life," what do you do for an encore? Crick disliked celebrity, and had a standard reply card printed to fend off his fellow man: "Dr. Crick thanks you for your letter but regrets that he is unable to accept your kind invitation to …" There then followed a checklist of options with a tick by the relevant item: "send an autograph," "provide a photograph," "appear on your radio or TV show," "cure your disease," and so on. This is a view of man as 75 percent pumpkin but capable of crude, predictable, repetitive patterns of imposition on more advanced forms of life. Dr. Crick also automatically turned down honorary degrees and disdained the feudal honors offered by the British state (though he eventually relented and accepted an invitation from the Queen to join her most elite Order of Merit). Religion he never let up on. The university at which he practiced his science is filled with ancient college chapels, whose presence so irked Crick that when the new Churchill College invited him to become a fellow, he agreed to do so only on condition that no chapel be built on the grounds. In 1963, when a benefactor offered to fund a chapel and Crick's fellow fellows voted to take the money, he refused to accept the argument that many at the college would appreciate a place of worship and that those who didn't were not obliged to enter it. He offered to fund a brothel on the same basis, and when that was rejected, he resigned.

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