Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Human Side of Science: Watson's The Double Helix

When first published in 1968, James Watson’s The Double Helix received extensive praise and comments. The only contribution that this current essay has to add to the discussion is what a biologist, me, thinks about it 52 years later. It is the autobiographical story of how Watson and his friend Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. Before this discovery, it was possible for biologists to think that DNA was not what genes are made of. After the discovery, it became obvious how DNA could contain, and transmit, genetic information. Francis Crick was not exaggerating very far when he said that they had discovered the secret of life.

When it was published, this book was a best-seller. Today, no editor or agent would touch a book for the popular market that contained the word pyrimidine. At the time, Watson was hailed as a hero, and he, along with Francis Crick and others, received the Nobel Prize for this discovery. He was a young American scientist working in England. Today, the general public has largely forgotten Watson, in retirement at age 92, especially after he made comments that were interpreted to mean that some ethnic groups were genetically superior to others. The truth, not surprisingly, is in between these extremes. He deserved his acclaim, although he was and is a flawed hero.

The main cause of his book’s success was that readers in general were surprised that scientists are regular people who have motivations in their day-to-day lives that are like anyone else’s. They get up and go to work, and some days are better than others. Some days are filled with elation, others gloom, most in between. The way scientists evaluate their colleagues is, as for everyone else, based partly on merit and partly on personal likes and dislikes. For example, Watson said that British scientists looked down on him as an uncultured American with unkempt hair.

Watson also felt antagonism toward one of the few women scientists, Rosalind Franklin (“Rosy”), because she seemed to him temperamental. He and other scientists built their schedules around not having to share a cab ride with Rosy, which took some effort since younger scientists at the time earned so little money they could not afford a car or even a single-person cab fare across town. At one point, in Watson’s recounting of events, a fistfight nearly broke out with Rosy. Shocked by Rosy’s untimely death, Watson re-evaluated his view of her, and concluded in the epilogue that Rosy was honest and generous, and before her death all hostility and bickering between them had been forgotten. I wonder if Rosy thought so. Watson was dismissive of women in general; he thought many of them were pretty (especially French exchange students) but, speaking of Crick’s wife Odile, he said that any idea of putting science into Odile’s head went against her convent upbringing. Even today, women scientists encounter a little bit of perhaps subconscious “Don’t bother your pretty head with this stuff” from male colleagues. Watson had a little, maybe more than a little, of this prejudice, which was common at the time the book was written.

The general public thought, and perhaps still thinks, that we scientists advance our understanding of the world in a step by step and entirely logical fashion. This is partly the fault of us scientists: we present “the scientific method” as something that an unemotional computer could do. This myth of science has been recently exploded by two books: my Scientifically Thinking [] and James Zimring’s What Science Is and How It Really Works. But in reality scientists have lurches forward and backward in our understanding, and a seemingly trivial event can open the door to understanding.

Watson struggled mightily to force the data to fit ideas that turned out to be totally wrong. The first was that DNA was a triple helix, not a double helix. The next was that the strands were held together by magnesium ions. It was Rosy who pointed out his error to him: water would just wash away the magnesium. The next was that the bases met in the middle of a double helix, but they were the same bases: A opposite A, T opposite T, etc. He got very enthusiastic about his ideas which quickly crashed. He told his colleagues all about the triple helix, but was quickly proved to be wrong, a very public humiliation; and as for his same-base pairing, he wrote a letter to the most famous chemist in the world, Linus Pauling, twelve hours after thinking of it, and within 24 more hours he knew it was wrong. The idea for complementary base pairing, rather than same-base pairing (the now famous A opposite T and C opposite G), came to him when he was fiddling around with cardboard models of the bases on what had promised to be yet another ordinary day.

Scientists also confront prevailing political prejudices. Today, climate scientists face the unbridled hostility of political conservatives about global warming, and even medical scientists are told to shut up about insisting on Covid masks. Back in the 1950s, the most famous chemist in the world, Linus Pauling, could not get a passport to England because Sen. Joseph McCarthy considered Pauling a communist, because Pauling called for world peace rather than a nuclear arms race.

Science also has its own internal esthetics. Once Watson and Crick figured out the double helix structure with complementary bases in the middle, it not only explained all the known facts (such as Chargaff’s rule and X-ray diffractions) but he felt that “…a structure this pretty just had to exist.” Apparently even Rosy agreed, which, he implied, she seldom did. As shown in this image, Rosy’s careful work with X-ray diffractions was a major step in understanding the structure of DNA.

Most younger people today, even science majors, may never have heard of Watson. They may not know that there was ever a time when the structure of DNA was not known. The Double Helix gives us a glimpse back into a world that was eager to know the secret of life, and into a life that exemplified the episodic nature of science.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Opus 700: When Botany Was All the Rage


Throughout the nineteenth century in Europe and America, botany was extremely popular. It was not unusual for a popular botany book to sell a quarter million copies. It was not uncommon to see someone taking a botanical hike, carrying a vasculum on a strap around the neck. The vasculum was a metal cylinder with a little door. Inside the cylinder, the collector would place fresh plant specimens, which would stay moist by means of damp cloths. The collector would go home and press the plants in a plant press in order for them to dry and be suitable for mounting on paper for a collection. Doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time? It would have 150 years ago. In this drawing, a wise old botanist is explaining plants to some utterly fascinated young men.

Why was “botanizing” so popular? Elizabeth Keeney, in her 1992 book The Botanizers, gives some reasons. The drawings and quotes posted in this blog come from her book.

First, botanizing was a mentally and physically good form of exercise. Looking at and collecting plants was a good way (and still is) of getting people to think about the world around them. It helped them to notice the tremendous diversity of life that they would otherwise not notice. And this would, in turn, make them more relaxed. We know from scientific studies today, as they knew from experience 150 years ago, that walking in the woods leads to relaxation. People also knew, especially if they had indoor jobs, that they needed exercise. One man even got his exercise by carrying shovelfuls of soil from one side of his basement to the other, then back to the first side. This was just boring, repetitive exercise. But taking a botany hike was also exercise (especially if you climbed a hill) and was interesting. One author wrote, “Many boys and girls go through the world, almost without seeing it. Now he who has eyes and does not use them, in such a beautiful world as this, is very much to be pitied. But the study of Botany will learn [sic] him to keep his eyes open…” especially to keep from blundering into the poison ivy.

Second, it was sometimes a popular way for men and women to meet one another. In one case, a man and a woman met on a botanizing expedition, later got married, and spent their honeymoon collecting plants. It was not unusual for colleges to keep men and women entirely separate—separate gardens, separate sidewalks—except on botanizing expeditions, where males and females could mingle. I wonder how many first dates today would go better if the couples went botanizing rather than to a dinner or a movie. On a similar note, botanizing was considered a safe form of recreation for delicate young women, as in this drawing. One author wrote, that botany was sufficiently refined for female attention. Flowers, with their “fragility, beauty, and perishable nature,” were like “a pure-minded and delicate woman, who shrinks even from the breath of contamination.” Males and females were not supposed to meet in bars, and meeting in a parlour at home was stuffy, so why not meet on a botany trip? Sounds fun to me, especially if the young man and woman have to hide under a bush to get out of a sudden rainstorm.

One author wrote, “In botany all is elegance and delight. No painful, disgusting, unhealthy experiments or inquiries are to be made. Its pleasures spring up under our feet [and] reward us with health and serene satisfaction. [No one could] pollute its lovely scenery with unamiable or unhallowed images…[Botany is] among the most innocent things in the world.” At least, so it would seem, until you realize that flowers are sexual structures with their organs all out in the open.

Finally, to some religiously-minded scientists, botany was an excellent way to see the mighty hand of God in the natural world. Studying plants will incline your mind to holiness. One botanist who championed this approach was Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist who, incidentally, was the major American proponent of the theories of Charles Darwin. Here is the cover page of Asa Gray’s botany book for young people.

The good news is, you can still go botanizing. Just find a like-minded friend for a hike, or take a hike by yourself. Even if you take the same hike over and over, you will see things changing over the seasons. Gotta go now; my wife and I are going to take a botany hike.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

General Biology Education: The Same Old Same Old


There was a time when dozens of general biology textbooks flooded the college market. They were expensive to produce, but the market was huge. Students did not like buying them, since they were expensive, but they did it. Writing a general biology textbook that was widely adopted was a ticket to at least moderate wealth. From 1992 to 2006, I was on that yellow-brick road. But I never got to the Emerald City, as publishers canceled my contracts. (I got to keep the advances, though.)

This is no longer the case. One editor, who had once worked with me on the general biology textbook that never went to press, said the market had imploded. This is because the textbook itself is no longer very important. Is it well written? Are the explanations clear? Nobody really cares anymore. The most important things now are the online resources, such as homework and quizzes. I believed that my textbook, focusing on world issues, was the best-written manuscript, and I continued to believe it until the contract was canceled in 2006. I still believe it. But now nobody seems to care whether the book is well-written, and relevant to world issues, or not.

At the time I started, as today, general biology textbooks were almost all alike. They have an utterly predictable chapter order: The scientific method; cells, genetics and biotech, evolution, an overview of organisms, then ecology. Last, inexplicably, comes human anatomy and physiology.

One problem with this approach was that the instructors sometimes did not get all the way through the book, with the result that the very important ecological concepts, such as overpopulation and global warming, get overlooked. Students think that biology is all about memorizing the steps of mitosis and get no idea that their decisions about how to live, what to buy, etc., all have immense impacts on the ecosystem of the Earth. The most important concepts get left to the end and get lost. Two authors, Joel Levine and Kenneth Miller, disagreed, and published a textbook that began with ecology and ended with cells and molecules. But, at least on the college level, their textbook was not prominent in the marketplace.

My textbook took a very different approach. In my original chapter order, the book both began and ended with ecological concepts. The first chapters were about what happened to energy and atoms: sunlight, photosynthesis, the cycling of nutrients, etc., what is sometimes called autecology. Then came the chapters that worked their way up through the typical chapter order, until reaching ecology again at the end. This time it was about species interactions and ecological communities (often called synecology). I thought it was a brilliant, circular alternative to the typical linear approach, whether the standard cells-to-Earth order or the reverse Levine-Miller order. At first, one major textbook publisher liked it too. But as they did their market analysis, they found that my chapter order would not sell. They got me to change the outline of the book until, just before they canceled it, the chapter order was the same as everyone else’s. This company still does not have a general biology textbook. They figured they could not penetrate the market, especially with a book as unusual as mine.

This approach, imbedding cells-to-heredity into an ecosystem context, had been successfully used decades earlier, in the 1960s, in the “Green version” of High School Biology, prepared by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) committee of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. I am not aware that this book is still in print; it may have last been in print in 1992. This version of the book began with something that many kids had seen—a rabbit hiding under a raspberry bush—and started asking questions about. Learning biology was, therefore, a natural outgrowth of instinctive curiosity. There is a good reason that this book remains one of the most famous in the history of biology education.

I had another original and, I thought, unique feature. I did not separate animal from plant anatomy and physiology. There were no chapters about the digestive system, the nervous system, and plant growth. Instead, I identified four common themes, then used both animal and plant examples of each. These are four problems every organism must solve in order to survive and reproduce:


  • Energy going into and out of the organism
  • Molecules going into and out of the organism
  • Internal integration of processes in the organism
  • Response to external events in the environment

It turns out that the famous evolutionary scientist George Gaylord Simpson had written a textbook (Life: An Introduction to Biology) that put animal and plant anatomy and physiology together: organic maintenance (procurement, use, transportation, excretion), internal organization, and responsiveness, including behavior.

My proposed merging of plant and animal topics was even more radical than my chapter order. Reviewers liked it but found it very inconvenient.

I have before me a textbook written by a prominent scientist, Gordon Orians. It is The Study of Life: An Introduction to Biology. His organization was different from everyone else’s, including the Levine-Miller organization and my own. His three themes were time, energy, and information.

  • Time: Evolution, and an overview of organisms in an evolutionary framework
  • Energy: Where it comes from, e.g., photosynthesis, and how organisms use it (and matter)
  • Information: How organisms are organized, e.g. DNA, how cells develop, how organisms perceive their environments, and social and ecological community organization.

At a conference of the Botanical Society of America in 1995, during a symposium that I helped organize, I heard Orians talk about this book, which was published and of which sample copies were sent to people and committees for their consideration. He said he had no adoptions. “I mean this literally,” he added. I think he should be proud of his book: it showed his integrated understanding of biology and its relation to the physical and human world. Its failure was caused by the market.

I can’t go around blaming biology teachers for getting into a rut of same old same old. They are busy. I certainly am. I barely have time to manage classroom duties, which now includes online interfaces. I certainly don’t have time to rethink biology education anymore. Looking back on it, I was surprised that (out of dozens of reviewers) so many of them were willing to reorganize their entire courses to accommodate my chapter order, had the book been published. I would have had, I estimated, about twenty adoptions. But since it takes a million dollars to bring a textbook to the market, no company could make a profit from this. I am not a failed idealist, but just a busy one, as I teach the same old same old order of topics. We would have to completely revise the lab schedule otherwise. The person who manages the labs does not have time to do this, nor am I willing to volunteer my time to do it.

And to most students it doesn’t matter. If they are willing to learn, and if the instructor is willing to make the concepts interesting and relevant, they will benefit immensely from general biology, no matter what the order it. Is one chapter order more logical than another? The students do not, and probably should not, care.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Creating Our Own Stereotypes


In Oklahoma, we do things that sound like they come out of an SNL routine that was expressly designed to ridicule Okies. That is, we seem to want to create a stereotype of ourselves that fits the widely-held images. The events I am about to describe are all exactly what you would expect from benighted rednecks, and the odds against all of these things happening at once are huge. I can only conclude that rural Okies want to make themselves look stupid. They sound like they come straight out of a book by Billie Letts or out of Tracy Letts’s screenplay. Chance cannot explain this.

All of these news items were posted on May 22, 2020. All of them occurred in Rogers County, three of them in the same town (Inola). Remember that rural Oklahoma is the buckle of the Bible belt, exactly where you would expect people to behave in a religious, even if not sanctimonious, fashion.

  • First, the pastor of the Cowboy Gatherin’ Church in Inola was arrested for raping and molesting three underage girls. That’s really the name of the church. It meets either outside, amidst cattle barriers, or under the tin roof of an auction barn.
  • Second, there was a fatal stabbing at a rodeo.
  • Third, a man sustained burns when he set fire to his estranged wife’s house.
  • Fourth (this is the only one not in Inola; it was in the Oologah-Talala school district), a former special education teacher was arrested for having sex with one of the girls in his class.

These things all fit our stereotype: fundamentalist religion, illegal sex, cowboy culture including cowboy churches and rodeos, stabbings, deadly marital strife, and arson.

If I wrote these things—separately, or together—into a novel, an editor would rightly accuse me of creating stereotypes, and ask me to remove at least two or three of them. But in Oklahoma we feed our stereotypes, and that is why all four of these things appeared in the news on the same day.

One inescapable conclusion is that the prevalence of the Christian religion does not make people behave any better. Creationists like to claim that believing in evolution will make us behave like apes. But does fundamentalism make us behave better? Are evangelicals more moral? Remember they believe they have the Holy Spirit living within them to empower them to act righteously.

There is actually a tragedy in the making here. As René Dubos pointed out in So Human an Animal, humans individually and collectively have an almost unlimited capacity to adjust to circumstances, no matter how dismal. While this has helped us to survive and prosper in any and all circumstances, they create a tragedy today. He said, people are accustomed to being immersed in pollution and in the stress of modern life, and hardly notice that anything is wrong. In Oklahoma, the particular version of this that we have is that sexually corrupt preachers, stabbings, arson, and marital strife seem normal, something to be forgotten as soon as we hear it on the news. They have become as normal a part of Oklahoma culture as cowboys and rodeos. We will not solve these problems, because we hardly recognize them as problems. We are comfortable with keeping these problems with us forever.