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Fear and DNA

The last of these imagined dangers rather surprised me, for it seemed to me to be on all fours with H.G. Wells’s Eloi/Morlock bad dream referred to earlier. Certainly nothing much more horrible can be envisaged than a procedure which not only fills the mind of man with untruth and misconception but leads to an active resistance to new learning and to anything that might conduce to improvement. Yet here again the technology that puts these grim possibilities within our power has also been known for five thousand years or more: it is known as “education,” and it too has its brighter side, for whatever procedures may persuade us to approve evil can in principle also be used to make us reprobate evil and rejoice in and embrace the good.

Writing of the disquiet of the laity Grobstein makes it clear, though, that “the fear is not so much of any clear and present danger as it is of imagined future hazards.” Grobstein fears that physical containment and the associated safety precautions reveal something of a Maginot Line mentality, for what is needed is research that will evaluate these hazards precisely, so that we know where we stand and shall not find ourselves standing still.

James D. Watson is well known to have a somewhat messianic conception of his role in the great revolution of molecular genetics, and it was hardly to be expected that he would remain silent amid the clamor of discussion on recombinant DNA. He says that the Asilomar Conference made him uneasy, and he now declares:

I did not then, nor do I now, believe that all recombinant DNA research is necessarily totally safe. The future automatically entails risks and uncertainty, and no sane person rushes in directions where he anticipates harm to himself or others. Instead, we try to adjust our actions to the magnitude of risk. When no measurement is possible because we have never faced a particular situation before, we must not assume the worst. If we did, we would do nothing at all.9

I do not think Watson is being unduly sanguine and I specially applaud his choice of the word “sane.”


Having now taken evidence from various quarters we may turn to the three works specifically under review. Nowadays laymen need not be told that “Cry havoc!” attracts more attention than the nightwatchman’s reassuring “All’s well, all’s well.” Happily none of these three books is disfigured by sensationalism; however there is something a little breathy about them all. None of them is definitive or pretends to be: these are interim reports: a definitive treatise could only be written from a height which none of the three authors can command.

Goodfield, though, turns her lack of inside knowledge to advantage by describing how she apprenticed herself to a laboratory in which recombination experiments were taking place. I liked specially her delighted description of the winding out of the exquisitely beautiful DNA fibers on a glass rod after they had been precipitated from solution by the addition of alcohol. It is not an essential part of her narrative, of course, but I sympathize entirely with her wanting to bring it in because when I myself prepared DNA for immunological purposes I can remember cruelly boring my colleagues by calling upon them to witness the very process June Goodfield describes.

Nicholas Wade might say that this episode illustrates his contention that “gene splicing is so simple a technique that for most present purposes it requires only a few dollars worth of special materials, all commercially available, and access to a standard biological laboratory.” I think this is a misjudgment that reminds me of a prominent sociologist’s published contention (I shall not say where) that the manufacture of atomic bombs now lies within the abilities of a high-school student. It could equally well be said that appendectomy is a remarkably simple operation requiring no more facilities than are available in a quite ordinary hospital. But its execution requires a knowledge and know-how—the biological or surgical equivalent of worldly wisdom—which puts it for all practical purposes far beyond the reach of any ordinary villain or casual mischief-maker—a villain who collected appendixes as others collect stamps.

June Goodfield’s account has the merit of making it clear by implication why the conferment of antibiotic resistance is such a favorite exercise with genetical engineers. The reason is that it is not much good doing an experiment or modifying its procedure unless one knows whether the experiments work, or work better than before. When the conferment of antibiotic resistance is the transformation attempted, the organisms in which the transformation has been successful can be isolated very easily from a population that may be as diverse as the population of Times Square on a Saturday night (Goodfield’s image).

Each of these three books is good and since there is general agreement in the nature of the promises and the threats it would be idle to single out any one of them; for each has special merits. They agree, too, on the history of discoveries bearing on DNA, though Rogers goes back as far as Miescher in the 1870s—the man who first extracted the stuff long called nuclein from pus (one good mark, if we were having a competition). This historical excursion will certainly earn him the contempt of those semi-literates who regard any work done earlier than in the past year or two as of merely antiquarian interest.

Writing of safety precautions in laboratories handling potentially dangerous materials such as tumor viruses Wade quotes W. Emmett Barkley, the biological safety expert at the National Cancer Institute, in these terms:

In the majority of labs we visit we see things that ought to be corrected. The greatest offenders are university labs, not industrial labs. Most people working with tumor viruses have been exposed to some extent.”

Barkley’s is the cry of safety officers throughout the world—in factories no less than in laboratories. I offer it gratis to some graduate actuary or sociologist on the lookout for a PhD degree that he should study the life expectancy of safety officers in factories and laboratories. I suspect they die prematurely of diseases of stress.

Incorrigible though their clients seem to be, however, we must keep it firmly in mind that for every steel worker who falls into the blast furnace, and every cider maker who dissolves, boots and all, in raw apple juice (rich in frighteningly powerful enzymes), hundreds and hundreds do not. The parallel is not facetious, because no one is more gravely and immediately at risk of the hazards to which they are believed to be about to expose the public than the people who actually carry out supposedly hazardous experiments. I don’t think the general public need take grave alarm until the inmates of institutions of genetic engineering themselves begin to fall by the way.

A further consideration that will influence the worldly wise is this: genetic engineers would very much like to confer upon microorganisms the ability to manufacture, in copious amounts, human insulin and the anti-viral agent called interferon, now being used in the treatment of some cancers.

When the engineers have demonstrated to everybody’s satisfaction that they can do on purpose what they very much want to do, then will be the time to reappraise very critically the dangers consequent upon their inadvertently doing what they do not want to do anyway.

The large-scale manufacture of either human insulin or interferon would be a very great benefaction to mankind, for the trouble with interferon at the moment—so often judged therapeutically disappointing—is that there isn’t enough to give it in dosages large enough for a clinical trial of adequate scale. Even penicillin did not finally triumph until it became possible to administer it in doses of the order of megaunits.

In Wade I came across for the first time the idea that nitrifying enzymes might conceivably be incorporated into plants that normally lack them, thus making it possible for them to capture from the atmosphere the nitrogen necessary for their growth and making them independent of added fertilizers (which are essentially compounds of nitrogen). The notion is not impossibly far fetched because some plants can be raised into whole organisms from single isolated cells. But here too I do very deeply sympathize with laymen and legislators who are trying to make sense of this whole strange farrago of pipe dreams and nightmares.

For their excess of fearfulness, laymen have only themselves to blame and their nightmares are a judgment upon them for a deep-seated scientific illiteracy which manifests itself in two ways.

In the first place the public deserve nothing but contempt for allowing themselves to be dupes of that form of science fiction which is our modern equivalent of the Gothic romances of Mary Shelley and Mrs. Ann Radcliffe; for being taken in, that is to say, by that trusty serio-comic character, the mad scientist, who to the accompaniment of peals of maniacal laughter cries out with a strong Central European accent, “Soon ze whole vorld vill be in my power.”

The second reason for their excess of fearfulness is this: that because imaginative writing is the only form of creative activity most people know, even educated laymen have no idea of the width of the gap between conception and execution in science. A writer who hits on a good idea—or even a composer who thinks of or, like Sullivan, overhears a good tune—can take up pencil and paper and write it down; he does not have to sue for bench space in a laboratory or send in five copies of an application explaining what his poem is going to be about, how many sheets of paper it will occupy, what imagery it is going to be clothed in, or how mankind will benefit by its completion. But when a scientist has an idea he has merely reached the beginning of a long haul which will certainly involve an appeal for funds which he may easily not get. He cannot simply walk into his laboratory with a purposeful and dedicated look on his face and execute the idea he has in mind.

The existence of this large gap means in effect that the execution of recombinant DNA research depends very largely upon political decisions. I do not use the word “political” in the sense that it would depend upon congressional or parliamentary legislation but simply in the sense that the project and the means of executing it depend on decisions that are not the scientist’s alone: they will depend at least in part upon peer judgment and on the policy decisions of an independent grant-giving body. But, it will be objected, many of those responsible for the decisions are themselves scientists; all right, but if one mad scientist is rare, a committee of scientists, all mad, is very much more improbable still. The existence of this very wide gap between conception and execution is that which allows the interposition of wiser counsels and restraining hands between the scientist’s idea whether bright or foolish and the possibility of its being put into effect.

So much then for the etiology and cultural history of the forebodings that cause so much disquiet among laymen. To the professional scientist these suspicions of his competence and probity are most disquieting. In one of a number of wise discourses on civilization Sir Kenneth Clark remarked that all great advances in civilization are based upon confidence. Although I have tried to explain it, I find it difficult to excuse the lack of confidence that otherwise quite sensible people have in the scientific profession, among whom sanity is much more widely diffused than seems to be generally realized. Scientists want to do good—and very often do. Short of abolishing the profession altogether no legislation can ever effectively be enforced that will seriously impede the scientists’ determination to come to a deeper understanding of the material world.


Worried Scientists April 6, 1978

  1. 9

    In Defense of DNA,” J.D. Watson, The New Republic, June 25, 1977, pp. 11-14.

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