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A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society

Subject Area(s):  Biology in SocietyGenomicsGeneticsGeneral Interest TitlesHistory of ScienceHandbooks

By James D. Watson, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
With an Introduction, Afterword, and Annotations by Walter Gratzer, King's College London

© 2001 • 266 pp., index
Paperback • $16 12.80
ISBN  978-087969609-2
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Jim Watson is one of the world's most famous scientists. A principal architect and visionary of modern biology, a Nobel Prize winner at 34, and best selling author at 40 (The Double Helix), he has been a fearless commentator on the march of DNA science and its impact on society for over twenty years. This sparkling collection was a bestseller in hardcover, and, for the paperback edition, the author has added three newly written essays containing his reflections on the survival value of pursuing happiness, advice for new college graduates, and his thoughts on the completion of a draft of the human genome, a project he initiated over ten years ago.

To read the chapter on "Rules for Graduates", click here.


Autobiographical Flights
Values from a Chicago Upbringing
Growing Up in the Phage Group
Minds That Live for Science
Early Speculations and Facts about RNA Templates
Bragg's Foreword to The Double Helix
Biographies: Luria, Hershey, and Pauling

Recombinant DNA Controversies
In Further Defense of DNA
Standing Up for Recombinant DNA
The Nobelist Versus the Film Star
The DNA Biochemical Canard

Ethos of Science
Moving Toward the Clonal Man: Is This What We Want?
The Dissemination of Unpublished Information
Science and the American Scene
The Necessity for Some Academic Aloofness
Striving for Excellence
Succeeding in Science: Some Rules of Thumb
Rules for Graduates

War on Cancer
The Academic Community and Cancer Research
Maintaining High-Quality Cancer Research in a Zero-Sum Era
The Science for Beating Down Cancer

Societal Implications of the Human Genome Project
Moving on to Human DNA
Ethical Implications of the Human Genome Project
Genes and Politics
Five Days in Berlin
Good Gene, Bad Gene: What Is the Right Way to Fight the Tragedy of Genetic Disease?
Viewpoint: All for the Good—Why Genetic Engineering Must Soldier On
The Pursuit of Happiness
The Human Genome Revealed

Afterword: Envoi—DNA, Peace, and Laughter

Name Index
Subject Index


review:  "A Passion for DNA is a thoroughly engaging book, full of fascinating reminiscences and far-reaching projections."
      —Nature Genetics

review:  "In A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society. James Watson once again proves that he is the ‘prose laureate’ of biomedical sciences."
      —The New England Journal of Medicine

review:  "… at the age of 70 the enfant terrible has lost none of his evangelical enthusiasm for science and is still captivated by the richness and promise of what flowed from the discovery he made with Crick all those years ago. A Passion for DNA is a reminder, if any were needed, that we should be equally indebted to Watson for his efforts in what must often have seemed the much more difficult task of overcoming the innumerable controversies and doubts that could have seriously interfered with molecular biology's long-term potential for the benefit of humanity. We owe him a great deal."

review:  "A Passion for DNA is one of the finest books on science that I have ever read. I would highly recommend it to every physician as a scientific primer, history lesson, review of microbiology, study of mentoring, and most fascinating memoir, absorbable in multiple brief essays, fulfilling Dr. Watson's desire to write like a novelist."

review:  "This book is vintage Watson—well-crafted prose, frequently opinionated, passionate, always strong-voiced, and showing occasional impatience with those who are not as smart as he (almost everyone) or who take a position that he finds quite simply to be wrong …. As passionate an advocate of genomics as he is, [Watson] knows that none of us can foretell the future—where this new science will take us, how it will help us, and how it may one day be abused. In agonizing as he does about genetics and its future, he reminds us implicitly that we scientists, having created a technology, are obliged to explain it to the outside world and to immerse ourselves in the societal debates about how it will be used and how we can prevent its misuse."
      —ROBERT A. WEINBERG, Nature Cell Biology


"In this work, told with refreshing honesty, is the human story of how Watson and Francis Crick won a Nobel Prize for what may be the most important advance in the life sciences since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, and the key to understanding the charge of 'eugenics' that has greeted Watson in Germany. . .

Watson asked that his German colleagues not over react, yet 'come to terms' with the legacy of the past, develop ethical safeguards, and move on to applying technologies that can save lives and change the quality of life itself. He is clearly impatient with the pace of the debate and rejects popular positions on ethical issues of genetic research and application current not only in Germany, but in his own country as well. A Nazi would end the debate. He promotes the debate.

The debate needs to be heard in the broader context of the struggle for human rights not only in Germany and the rest of Europe, but in America as well. . . .Given the same challenge and a common history, we must come to terms with the past together. In this dialogue, we need those who have the courage to take unpopular positions on the interface of science and society, standing under a glaring spotlight in the arena of democracy. We need James Watson to say what he says."
      —Genes, Ethics & Environment

review:  "Watson's autobiographical notes, scientific expositions, and public statements provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of this postwar scientific giant. Watson is at his best when reflecting on the social mores of science in the late twentieth–century, and the selections on the recombinant DNA controversy, scientific competition, and the writing of The Double Helix are small gems. This is an enjoyable book that will help us to understand the range of Watson's enormous role in postwar American biology."
      —Journal of the History of Biology