Barry Commoner on DNA

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri May 30 11:05:59 MDT 2003

Unraveling the Secret of Life

by Barry Commoner

The title of James Watson’s new book, DNA: The Secret of Life, echoes 
the boast voiced on the day, fifty years ago, when he and Francis Crick 
discovered the structure of this now-famous molecule. The inexplicable 
uniqueness of life has for centuries been mystery enough to elicit 
religious doctrine, let alone scientific research. Therefore it is 
fitting that, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the double helix, 
Time’s February 17, 2003 cover depicts an updated Adam and Eve standing 
before the biblical tree of life, each entwined in the coils of a golden 
helix anatomically placed to symbolize their recent loss of innocence. 
In the story itself, “Solving the Mysteries of DNA”, Time tells us the 
long-sought secret that Watson and Crick’s scientific discovery 
revealed: “The beauty of DNA is that its form is its function. It’s a 
self-reproducing molecule that carries the instructions for making 
living things from one generation to the next.” An accompanying 
molecular diagram explains exactly “How DNA Works” by making “a copy of 


All this is to say that the living cell is not merely a sack of 
chemicals, but a unique network of interacting components, dynamic yet 
sufficiently stable to survive. The living cell is made fit to survive 
by evolution; the marvelously intricate behavior of the nucleoprotein 
site of DNA synthesis is as much a product of natural selection as the 
bee and the buttercup. In moving DNA from one species to another, 
biotechnology has broken into the harmony that evolution produces, 
within and among species, over many millions of years of 
experimentation. Genetic modification is a process of very unnatural 
selection, a way to perversely reinvent the inharmonious arrangements 
that evolution has long ago discarded. The biotechnology industry has 
stood Darwin on his head.

It is a truism that in our society, such a new industry is created not 
for the purpose of enhancing scientific understanding, but inthe hope of 
a competitive financial return. Unfortunately, the science on which 
biotechnology is founded has become, to a large extent, distorted by 
this process as well, and is itself in need of critical revision. If the 
science is to be redirected, and the unpredictable, uncontrolled 
experiment that is biotechnology is to be sent back to the laboratory 
where it rightly belongs, we will need to accept this task as our own 
and set Darwin back on his feet.



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