Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

Death of a curmudgeon

A brilliant and occasionally amusing one, but still: a curmudgeon.

Francis Crick was the most important biologist of the 20th 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 general 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 OJ jury did – but, increasingly, it’s the currency of the age. Crick called his home in Cambridge the Golden Helix, and it truly was golden – not so much for him personally but for the biotechnology industry, something of a contradiction in terms half-a-century ago but now a 30-bil-a-year bonanza.

“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, etc – 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. Afterwards, already 30 and at a loose end, he mulled over what he wanted to do and decided 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 offence it gives, by definition emphasizes how far man has come from his tree-swinging forebears. DNA, by contrast, seems reductive. Man and chimp share 98.5 per cent of their genetic code, which would be no surprise to Darwin. But we also share 75 per cent of our genetic make-up 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.

It’s Steyn, so naturally he goes from jack o’ lanterns to Cole Porter to Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire to space aliens seeding the galaxy—effortlessly and entertainingly, no less. And naturally, you’ll want to read all of it.

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