A “new” account of the double helix? Nah.

Cover of Markel, The Secret of Life

It’s been a minute since someone has recounted at length, in a book, the story of the solving of the double helix structure of DNA. Matthew Cobb’s Life’s Greatest Secret, which focuses on the genetic code, does a fine job. There’s Robert Olby’s Francis Crick: Hunter of Life’s Secrets (2009). Brenda Maddox’s superb Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (2002) gave Rosalind Franklin the full, serious treatment she deserved. Horace Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation (1979, 1996) is a bit dated, but it remains a  masterpiece. In contrast, The Secret of Life, the latest book by Howard Markel, purports to be a dramatically new reading of the history, but ain’t. Its central claim is that Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and almost everyone else involved, however peripherally, in the double helix story, formed a literal conspiracy against Rosalind Franklin.

In my review of it, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I argue that Markel’s flatulent book is, in a perverse way, the opposite of the feminist critique it represents itself as being. It’s disappointing that no other reviews that I’ve seen have picked up on how phony, sloppy, pompous, and self-aggrandizing this book is, in both tone and argument. Do people even read the books they review anymore?Cover of Markel, The Secret of Life

Here’s the first section of my review— head over to LARB for the whole thing:

“WE HAVE FOUND the secret of life!” Francis Crick’s exclamation may be the best-known Eureka! moment in modern science. On February 28, 1953, Crick’s partner James Watson tells us in The Double Helix (1968), “Francis winged into the Eagle,” their Cambridge University lunchtime spot, and announced to all within earshot that they had solved the structure of DNA — the double helix. Crick’s words have become iconic. The Eagle has embedded the line in its very bricks and mortar. It can be found in books of history, science, philosophy, new-age self-help, business self-help, nutritional self-help, religion and spirituality, addiction memoirs, and in books for children. The event is common knowledge.

But if science teaches us anything, it is that common knowledge is neither. Crick went to his grave denying that he said it. And in 2016, at a symposium honoring the centennial of Crick’s birth, Watson admitted that he made it up. (The historian Matthew Cobb was there and wrote about it.) Indeed, it is Watson’s phrase, not Crick’s. Beginning with The Double Helix, Watson spent the rest of his career both promoting and staking claim to DNA. His other books include A Passion for DNA, DNA: The Story of the Genetic Revolution, and DNA: The Secret of Life.

The fact that The Secret of Life, a new accounting of the double helix tale by the historian of medicine Howard Markel, uses Watson’s fictional quotation for a title captures the book’s strangeness, the wobble in its gyroscope. Markel knows the scene is invented, yet he gives the line pride of place. Compiling prior accounts, archival sources, and interviews, Markel seeks to weave into the master narrative the ways that the tweedy, smoke-filled male world of 1950s British science shaped one of the most important discoveries in biology. There is no question that this needs to be done. Social networks certainly played a role in the double helix. Watson, who arrived in Cambridge an eccentric 23-year-old from the Midwest, fell in love with Cantabrigian intellectual life and the British aristocracy. He ingratiated himself into the top levels of the old boys’ network, cannily using it to learn what he thought of as the “secret of the gene.” An even-handed, dispassionate excavation of how the networks operated would be an important contribution to the history of biology.

But Markel makes a more radical argument. Watson, he maintains, was the ringleader in a vast male conspiracy against Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant crystallographer whose data, unbeknownst to her, were crucial to the solving of the structure. Essentially all of the men around her, Markel argues, colluded to short-circuit her career, drive her out of the double helix race, and deny her credit for the discovery. Markel’s argument fails for a peculiar reason: not because he misstates Franklin’s treatment (although at times he does), but because for all his gallantry, Franklin remains overshadowed. The world he creates on the page is just as simplistic and male-dominated as the one he seeks to replace.

Science, Scientism, and Steven Pinker

Illustration for Nature piece

[correction 10/12: In the initial version of this article, Pinker’s given name was spelled “Stephen.”  He spells his name “Steven.” We regret the error.]

I have an essay in Nature this week on how science has shaped human identity, part of their 8-part anniversary series on the history of science over the last 150 years. The response has been overwhelmingly positive — thank you!

There’s always a few cranks, though. What has stuck in some people’s craw is my distinction between science and scientism. Science is a set of practices to investigate nature. Scientism is an ideology that says science is the ONLY way to investigate nature, and the only way to address social problems.

I’m now used to the ritual of Jerry Coyne (@whyevolutionistrue) attempting a takedown of my stuff. To my perverse delight, though, the Harvard psychologist and hair model Steven Pinker took a poke at me. Couldn’t resist that. What follows is the tweet stream I sent out in response, clarifying some points in the article and differentiating further between science and scientism.

So @sapinker is talking trash about me, re: my piece in #Nature150 (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03014-4). <cracks knuckles>
The delicious comic beauty is how well Pinker’s tweet makes the central argument in my @Nature article. Here’s the tweet in question.

I write satire from time to time, and I’d be hard-put to parody Pinker’s language. So let’s break down his own words:
“Unlike past anti-scientism rants in lit/cult/pol mags, this [my piece] is in Nature.”

My piece is not a rant, @sapinker, either in tone or in argument. It’s an analysis and a plea for more good science and less bad science. (You do believe there’s bad science?)
THIS, now, is a rant.

The key term in @sapinker’s 1st sent. is “anti-scientism.” He *thinks* he’s saying I’m anti-science (on which, see below). But in calling my so-called rant “anti-scientism” he shows he can’t distinguish between the two.

It is literally the MAIN POINT of my article to distinguish science from scientism.
Viz.: “[Enlightenment values have] been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime)”;

“I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems”;

“Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it”;
“The problem is not science, but scientism.”
Could I be clearer?

Yes, I am anti-scientism.
Scientism = science + hubris.
Scientism = science + arrogance.
Scientism = science + vanity.
Scientism = science + cruelty.
Scientism = science + ignorance.
Scientism, in other words, is science plus something shitty.

Pinker writes, “Sci eds often outsource commentary on sci & soc to the clique of historians of sci”. Science editors don’t “outsource” commentary, on science & society or anything else. I think you know that. They *commission* articles on various topics from experts in a given field.

.@Nature commissioning me to write this article is exactly like asking a psychologist to comment on psychology, a protein chemist on protein chemistry, a sociologist on sociology. Does @sapinker believe in expertise? Or could a particle physicist do his job better than he?

Begrudging @nature commissioning an article on #histsci from a historian of science can only mean one thing: Pinker thinks that only scientists should write the history of science, because only they have privileged access to the Truth.
That’s scientism, not science.

Then, @sapinker goes on to deride “…historians of sci who historicize everything…”
Damn historians, historicizing stuff! Lock ‘em up! Build the wall! Make Science Great Again!

Also, Pinker writes, we historians “hate sci’s claim to objectivity and realism.” Yeah, and we hate America too, right? Jesus, you do sound like Trump.
But I don’t “hate” science’s claim to objectivity; I take issue with it, and boatloads of evidence supports me.

The fact that science both shapes and is shaped by culture, society, economics, politics has been established and reinforced for nearly a century, from L. Fleck in the ‘30s to Kuhn in the ‘60s…to ± everything serious historians have written about science since then.

The social construction of science is as solid as biological evolution. It’s an utter commonplace. Most scientists I know understand this. To be a prof at @Harvard of all places and not know this shows a struthian (Mencken; look it up) ignorance that is, well, embarrassing.

The question isn’t *whether* science and society interact, it’s *how.* We can have disagreements on the how—I show you my evidence, you show me yours, we hash it out—but not the whether.
I’m not arguing with a flat-Earther.

Historians don’t “hate realism,” for chrissakes. We’re more realistic than scientists like Pinker who live in an ideal world of pure reason, failing to acknowledge the messiness of the real world.

Thinking you have uniquely privileged access to reality is scientism, not science. It is to live in a sterile, blinkered world, populated only by the stately march of the anointed intellects toward the one & only Truth. That’s like the worst kind of superstitious evangelism.

It’s also chauvinistic, narrow, parochial, and bullying. It’s tyrannical, ham-handed, intolerant of dissent. How unscientific! And if Pinker knew his history, he’d know how science can be—has been—marshaled in the name of tyrannies large and small, across continents, down the centuries.

Science can be great! It makes many, many positive contributions to knowledge & to society. It need not be put in the service of oppression, nor is it always. But it’s indisputable that it has been, many times. You can start with Karl Brandt and work your way down.

The thesis of my @nature piece, then, once again, is that insidious applications of science are due not to the science itself, but to the ideology that sometimes accompanies it: Scientism. Capeesh?

One last thing: @sapinker’s arrogant and bullying scientism is both a symptom and a cause of the WEIRD male gaze that’s dominated science for centuries. His tweet is Exhibit A in the case for why we need more diversity in science. Hence the last point in my essay.

Male scientists who aren’t arrogant, scientistic pricks (and I know many): There’s no need to say, “Not all scientists.” If this doesn’t describe you, it’s not about you, and I doff my hat to you, sir.

<smoothes dander> Other historian-realists who love science but hate scientism #FF: @elmilam @DorothyERoberts @ayahnerd @STS_News @PublicsHealth @LeapingRobot @thonychristie @wellerstein @samhaselby @monicaMedHist @Darwinsbulldog @erikadyckhist @KlineWkline @LundyBraun @jaivirdi

Lies, damned lies, and GWAS

[Blueprint cover]

[Edited, lightly, 10/30/18]

Well, I provoked another kerfuffle in the pages of Nature. And it’s a troubling one, because it suggests a widening culture gap between the sciences and humanities—a gap I’ve spent a quarter-century-and-counting trying to bridge.

The piece in question is my review of Robert Plomin’s new book, Blueprint. I want here to give some context and fuller explanation for that piece, without the editorial constraints of a prestigious journal.

Plomin is a distinguished educational psychologist, American-born-and-raised, who works in the UK, at King’s College London. I have nothing for or against Plomin. I and my editors at Nature worked hard to keep ad hominem attacks out of the piece. Plomin’s book, however, is terrible.

  • “DNA isn’t all that matters, but it matters more than everything else put together” (ix).
  • “Nice parents have nice children because they are all nice genetically.” (83)
  • “The most important thing that parents give to their child is their genes.” (83)
  • “The less than 1 per cent of these DNA steps that differ between us is what makes us who we are as individuals” (9)
  • “These findings call for a radical rethink about parenting, education and the events that shape our lives.”(9)

I could go on—it’s teh Interwebs; people do—but you get the idea. However accurately he may represent the statistics, his statistics misrepresent the biology. With apologies to Benjamin Disraeli, there are three kinds of lies in genomics: Lies, damned lies, and GWAS.


Unless you’re some sort of third-rate hack, riding out your tenure on the strength of your rotation in a genetics lab in the mid-sixties, you know better than to say things like this. I presume that you, Gentle Reader, are not such a person. Plomin is not a hack scientifically, but as a writer he is. On the page, he is all exclamation points and pom-pons, thwacking the bass drum with his heel as he dances for DNA. DNA is everything. DNA is the Word. DNA is Love.

That’s a weirdly retrograde view in the postgenomic world. Again, see the above mainstream sciences. Either:

  1. Plomin is such a poor writer that he fails utterly to get across his putatively more nuanced understanding of the genome’s role in biology
  2. Plomin is a cynic, writing things he doesn’t believe in support of a repressive ideology that he does believe; or
  3. He is naive and genuinely doesn’t realize (or care) how this powerful new science is used.

I went with Door #3. As a reviewer of his book I took him at face value as a writer. I take him at his word when he says he is center-left, politically. (No conflict there with eugenic values. There’s a long tradition of leftist eugenics, back to the 19th C.) And I decided it would be unproductive to simply brand him an ideologue. Instead, I took the middle road, presumed innocence but naïveté. I gave him the benefit of the doubt in presuming innocence of intent, although I do think it an odd negligence on his part, given his express interest in using PGS to shape social policy. Seems to me that if you’re engaging with social policy you should be capable of thinking in terms of social policy.

Why is it dangerous? Because it enables and encourages social policy of biological control. That shit scares me. And it should scare you. Plomin is so caught up in his DNA delirium that he says that environmental interventions toward human betterment are futile. Parents, teachers, government officials: Relax, there’s nothing you can do that really makes a difference. DNA will out. Kids will be what they will be, regardless, so don’t waste your money and time. Let’s take that apart.


First, short-changing environmental and GxE (genes-by-environment) effects in human personality is literally the entire point of Plomin’s book. I’m not talking about his published, peer-reviewed studies, I’m talking about his latest book. Nor am I damning all sociogenomics work—not by a long-shot. I am damning the simplistic message of this particular book: “DNA makes you who you are.”

Second, then, hidden agenda or not, Plomin’s argument is socially dangerous. Sure, genes influence and shape complex behavior, but we have almost no idea how. At this point in time (late 2018), it’s the genetic contributions to complex behavior that are mostly random and unsystematic. Polygenic scores may suggest regions of the genome in which one might find causal genes, but we already know that the contribution of any one gene to complex behavior is minute. Thousands of genes are involved in personality traits and intelligence—and many of the same polymorphisms pop up in every polygenic study of complex behavior. Even if the polygenic scores were causal, it remains very much up in the air whether looking at the genes for complex behavior will ever really tell us very much about those behaviors.

In contrast—and contra Plomin—we have very good ideas about how environments shape behaviors. Taking educational attainment as an example (it’s a favorite of the PGS crowd—a proxy for IQ, whose reputation has become pretty tarnished in recent years), we know that kids do better in school when they have eaten breakfast. We know they do better if they aren’t abused. We know they do better when they have enriched environments, at home and in school.

We also know that DNA doesn’t act alone. Plomin neglects all post-transcriptional modification, epigenetics, microbiomics, and systems biology—sciences that show without a doubt that you can’t draw a straight line from genes to behavior. The more complex the trait in question, the more true that sentence becomes. And Plomin is talking about the most complex traits there are: human personality and intelligence.

Plomin’s argument is dangerous because it minimizes those absolutely robust findings. If you follow his advice, you go along with the Republicans and continue slowly strangling public education and vote for that euphemism for separate-but-equal education, “school choice.” You axe Head Start. You eliminate food stamps and school lunch programs. You go along with eliminating affirmative action programs, which are designed to remediate past social neglect; in other words, you vote to restore neglect of the under-privileged. Those kids with genetic gumption will rise out of their circumstances one way or another…like Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson or something, I guess. As for the rest, fuck ’em.

These environmental factors are “unsystematic” in exactly the same way that genetic factors are: They do not act in the same way with every child. A few kids will always fall on the long tails of the bell curve: Some will do well in school no matter what you throw at them; others will fail, no matter what they have for breakfast. But the mean shifts in a positive direction. Same is true for genetics. That is literally the entire point of polygenic scores! Every single one of the many thousands of variables that shape something like educational attainment is probabilistic. Genes or environment, we’re talking population averages and probabilities, not certainties. There is no certainty—Plomin himself makes this point repeatedly (and then promptly jumps back on the DNA wagon). To venerate genetics and derogate environment on grounds of being “unsystematic” is at best faulty reasoning and at worst hypocritical.

Plomin is spreading a simplistic and insidious doctrine that says “environmental intervention is futile.” I don’t care whether Plomin himself, in his heart of hearts, wants to ban public education; he gives ammunition to people who do want to ban it. “Race realists” and “human biodiversity” advocates—modern euphemisms for white supremacy—read this stuff avidly. I watched them swarm around the discussion of my review on Twitter, many of them newly created accounts, favoriting tweets from my critics, saving those messages for later arguments.

“But does that mean that EVERYONE using PGS is a white supremacist?” people ask me, their keyboards dripping with sarcasm. No, dummies: It means it’s a risk. I’m giving you a qualitative risk score, a probability. Can’t you apply your own logic to other situations? Again, whether you critics are being disingenuous or naive, the effect is the same.

“So does that mean we CAN’T DO this science? Are you a fascist, trying to stifle scientific inquiry?!?” others gently query me. Again, no, dummies: I’m saying if you do this stuff, a) get your genetic bias out of the way and look at genes and environment, and b) be candid and explicit about your intentions and the risks of misinterpreting the data.


The last point I want to make is about historical thinking. A lot of critics said and called me things that initially puzzled me. I had no evidence, they said. It wasn’t a review that I wrote, they complained. I didn’t engage with the book but merely promoted my ideology, they protested.

Eventually it dawned on me: These people don’t understand historical reasoning. They fail to see a historical argument as being evidentiary! After all these years, I still find it surprising that people with PhDs should fail to acknowledge an entire branch of knowledge, a fundamental way of explaining the world. But okay, communication, not war, is what I’m after, so let me lay it out, at least as I see it.

By and large, experimental science explains the world in terms of mechanisms, more or less eternal and independent of time and context. Historical reasoning explains the world through the three C’s: context, contingency, and cause-and-effect through time. Context means that science doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It mattered that Nazi Germany arose after Progressive-era Americans had advanced a scientific program of sterilization and institutionalization of the defective. The Germans, sensing the power of rigid social control founded on scientific authority and finding that authority in American eugenics, modeled their infamous sterilization law of 1932 on Harry Laughlin’s “Model Sterilization Law” of 1922. Contingency means that it matters who did what when. Contingency says, “It could have been otherwise: Why did things turn out as they did instead of some other way?” And by continuity and change I mean that when a historian tries to understand the present in terms of the past.

In short, my review used historical evidence to put Plomin’s book in historical and social context, rather than scientific context, and a number of critics cried “Foul!”, failing to even see historical evidence as evidence.

It’s not foul when a reviewer examines the central claims and aims of a book—you all (critics) just aren’t familiar with the way I did it. Especially with a field such as sociogenomics, which defines itself as interdisciplinary and aims to shape society. You may not read Plomin’s book in social context, but it’s a legitimate and—as attested by the many plaudits I’ve also received for the piece—an important one. Learn your damn history.

Historical thinking is not anti-scientific. Darwin was a historical thinker par excellence. Evolutionary biology, cosmology, geology, paleontology—these are historical sciences. To reason historically is by no means to refute the scientific method. In fact, I would wager that no person can get through life without employing historical reasoning). To do so is to refuse to learn from experience.

Because I did not primarily use scientific evidence in my review, some misguided and uncritical critics peg me as a radical relativist. You got the wrong guy, pal. I studied sociobiology and neuroethology as science for years, under some of the greats. Radical relativists do exist in the humanities and social sciences—I argue against them all the time.

Others, like Stuart Ritchie, bash away at me boneheadedly, picking at details of the piece that make no difference to my argument without the slightest effort try to understand what I am in fact saying. Playing “gotcha” is easier than real debate, but it wins you points with your yes-friends, I guess. Sad!

Historical thinking pulls your eye away from the microscope to look at science as an enterprise evolving over time. For really abstruse sciences, doing so may be mostly an intellectual exercise. But the more social salience a branch of science has, the more important it is to take the long view once in a while. And when you’re explicitly advocating using your science to shape society, it’s incumbent on you to do so.

I identify with distinguished, politically alert scientist-critics like Jonathan Beckwith and Richard Lewontin, who have critiqued their science (even their own science!) in order to make it better. I believe that in science as in politics, dissent is the sincerest form of patriotism.


In short, I don’t think sociogenomics is wrong; I think it’s being done wrong, and written about wrong, by people like Plomin. Some people are doing it right. In a forthcoming piece in the MIT Technology Review, I discuss the work of Graham Coop at UC Davis. I won’t go into detail here, but for examples of honest, candid, historically sensitive discussion of PGS research, see this and this. This post is my attempt to do for my critique of PGS what Coop did for his own PGS research (which, for the record, I admire). By and large, I think the biologists have been doing better at avoiding deterministic talk than the social scientists like Plomin—although some social scientists, like the sociologist Dalton Conley at Princeton, do at least have complex positions worth taking seriously.

Plomin does none of this. Instead, he gives us a simplistic and distorted view of the role of heredity in behavior that causes much social mischief. We can watch some of that mischief in real time as the white supremacist trolls swarm around this debate like yellow-jackets around an open soda. Other risks we can infer from careful comparison with historical examples—looking at both the similarities and the differences between Blueprint and previous attempts to use heredity to shape social policy. The argument in Blueprint—that “DNA makes us who we are” and environment “is important but it doesn’t matter”—is an idea grossly wrong on many levels. It’s not supported by the evidence and it’s socially dangerous.

And someone’s got to call bullshit on it.

The Whig interpretation of the gene

I have an essay in the June issue of The Atlantic, out online now and at your favorite magazine dealer or airport in a week or so.

It’s an essay review centered around Siddhartha Mukherjee’s newest book, The Gene. The book is part history of genetics and part discussion of current genetic science and medicine. Scientists don’t seem to like the latter too well. An article, based on the book, that appeared in the New Yorker earlier this spring, is receiving a great deal of criticism from the scientific community. They say that the piece badly misrepresents the mechanisms of epigenetics.

I take him to task on his history. I use the book as the base for a discussion of “Whig history” and why it is so dangerous when writing about science. Whig history, crudely, is writing about the past from the perspective of history’s winners; it is history as a justification of the present.

Good, critical history of science is vital to doing good science on a community scale. Only when we understand that “the” gene is a human concept that describes a bit of biology in a particularly productive way, can we harness the full power of genetic knowledge for good.

Take a look!


Criticism of Lander reaches mainstream media

Sometimes the Whigs get called on the carpet. Carolyn Johnson summarized the kerfluffle over Lander’s history of CRISPR in today’s Washington Post. “The tweetstorm erupted,” she writes,

when the leader of an institution vying for control of the technology published a lengthy historical account of CRISPR in a top scientific journal, an account that one critic (who happens to work at the opposing institution) described as erroneous “propaganda.”

To critics, the big problem is that “Heroes of CRISPR” is a history told by a person with a dog in the fight over who created it. The author, Eric Lander, is head of the Broad Institute, a Harvard- and MIT-affiliated research institution that is now in an all-out patent battle against the University of California, Berkeley, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

To put this in perspective for non-scientists, Lander is a powerful voice in the field — a former leader of the human genome project, a co-chair of the committee that advises President Obama on science and technology matters, and a charismatic communicator who has turned his institution from a start-up to a massive research heavyweight over a decade. In other words, he is influential and people read his work, including this paper.

Whig history is all about who gets to control a historical narrative. For to some extent, it is to the one who controls the history to whom go the spoils—in this case, potentially a winner-take-all patent that could be worth billions, as well as lucrative and glorious prizes, awards, and honors. Nominators for those prizes will write their nominations with a narrative in their minds. Whatever becomes crystallized as “the” history will invariably shape how credit is attributed. I have watched people “campaign” for Nobels and then win them.

I find it impossible to avoid reading Lander’s seemingly generous history of CRISPR as a canny attempt to strip credit from the Broad Institute’s principal competitors, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. It seems inconceivable that the fact that it ran in Cell just days before a judge filed an interference (conflict between two patents) between the Broad’s Feng Zhang and Doudna/Charpentier is mere coincidence.

It would be nice to think that those of us who howled at Lander’s history ran a little interference of our own. Once again, credit is due to Michael Eisen for bringing my attention to the matter, and thanks to everyone else who also cried “Foul!”

A Whig History of CRISPR

“Shitstorm” would be one term of art for the reaction in the genome community to a commentary in Cell by Eric Lander, published on January 14. It presents as a definitive account of the discovery of CRISPR, the “gene editing” technique invented in 2013 and which blasted onto the science pages this year. CRISPR is likely to go down as the most important biotechnological invention since Kary Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

But I prefer another phrase to describe Lander’s account: “Whig history.” The term comes from the Europeanist Herbert Butterfield. In a classic 1931 essay, Butterfield wrote that Whig history was “the tendency in many historians to write [English history] on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”

The term has become historical shorthand for one way to use history as a political tool. It rationalizes the status quo, wins the allegiance of the establishment, justifies the dominance of those in power. One immediate tip-off to a Whiggish historical account is the use of triumphalist or melodramatic terms such as “heroes” in the title.

Lander’s piece is called “The heroes of CRISPR.”

In April 2014, the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT—of which Lander is the director— was awarded the first patent for CRISPR technology. The team of Jennifer Doudna (UC Berkeley) and Emmanuelle Charpentier (Umeå University, Sweden) filed their own application seven months earlier, but Zhang obtained fast-track approval. Much remains at stake over CRISPR: fat scientific prizes, almost certainly including a Nobel, as well as further patents. Who claims them will be decided in part by what version of history becomes accepted as “the truth.”

When Michael Eisen, the UC Berkeley/Howard Hughes Medical Institute biologist and astute commentator on genomics read Lander’s article, he went ballistic. In a tweet-blast of righteous indignation, Eisen howled that Lander’s piece minimizes Doudna’s contributions to CRISPR and thus (I’m paraphrasing here) serves as a propaganda organ on behalf of the Broad’s claim to the patent rights. “The whole thing is about trying to establish Zhang paper as pinnacle of CRISPR work,” tweeted Eisen. He continued, “it’s a deliberate effort to undermine Doudna and Charpentier patent claims and prizeworthiness.” It is, he believes, “science propaganda at its most repellent.” “Eric Lander and @broadinstitute should be ashamed of themselves.”

Others have joined in to express their dismay. At the least, many in the community think, some sort of conflict-of-interest statement should have accompanied Lander’s article. A long thread at PubPeer is devoted to the kerfluffle.

Is Eisen right? I’ll leave analysis of the technical arguments over the relative merits of each group’s contributions to the biologists. What I can do is look at the paper itself. Good writers know how rhetoric can be used to persuade. Does Lander use writing techniques to advance a self-interested version of history?

On first read, Lander’s piece seems eminently fair, even generous. It “aims to fill in [the] backstory” of CRISPR, Lander writes; “the history of ideas and the stories of pioneers—and draw lessons about the remarkable ecosystem underlying scientific discovery.” He traces CRISPR’s origins all the way back to Francisco Mojica, a doctoral student at the University of Alicante, in Spain, in 1989. Mojica discovered a new class of repeating sequence that was present in diverse organisms, suggesting widespread taxonomic importance. These, of course, were the first CRISPR sites—clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats. By 2000, Mojica had found CRISPR loci in 20 different organisms.

By turning his lens on such unsung heroes, laboring away at universities well beyond the anointed labs of Harvard, MIT, UCSF, Johns Hopkins, and the like, Lander creates the impression of inclusiveness, of the sharing of credit among all the “heroes” of CRISPR.

But when he reaches Doudna and Charpentier’s chapter in the story, the generosity becomes curiously muted. Though Lander maintains his warm, avuncular tone, Doudna and Charpentier enter the story as brave soldiers, working shoulder to shoulder with others on the long journey to practical application of CRISPR. Some subtle techniques create a very definite impression.

For example, Lander narrates Charpentier’s story alongside that of the Lithuanian scientist Virginijus Siksnys. But Siksnys receives top billing. His name appears in the first line of two sections of the paper:

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.38.28 AM

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.40.57 AM

Charpentier’s name, on the other hand, appears at the bottom of a paragraph devoted to a component of the CRISPR-cas9 system called tracrRNA.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.38.53 AM

Jennifer Doudna is graciously given the epithet “world-renowned,” which may distract our attention from the fact that her first mention is buried in the middle of a paragraph, in the second half of a long sentence, the direct object rather than the subject of the sentence:

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.45.59 AM

Doudna and Charpentier go neck and neck with Siksnys through the next sections, but Doudna and Charpentier’s contributions are repeatedly diminished. “Sisknys submitted his paper to Cell on April 6, 2012,” begins one paragraph.  It gets rejected without review. He revises and resubmits, to PNAS and appeared online on Sept. 4. The Doudna-Charpentier paper, he writes, “fared better.” He takes care to note that Doudna and Charpentier’s paper was “submitted to Science 2 months after Siksnys’s on June 8.” It “sailed through review,” he writes, and appeared online on June 28. His point: Although Doudna and Charpentier published first, Siksnys submitted his paper weeks before them. Equating the two papers, Lander writes, “both groups clearly recognized the potential for biotechnology.” This clearly undermines Doudna and Charpentier’s claim to invention of the CRISPR-cas9 technology and hence weakens their case for a patent.

Now, enter Feng Zhang and George Church of the Broad Institute. They receive the longest treatment of any actor in the story—a solid page out of nine pages of text. Zhang’s biographical sketch alone receives a long paragraph. Lander is enough of a writer to know that you indicate a character’s importance with the amount of space you devote to them; the longer the bio, the more important the person.

Then Doudna submits a key paper “with assistance from Church.” This and three other “short [ie., minor] papers,” Lander makes sure to note, “were accepted soon after Zhang and Church’s papers were published in early January, 2013.

Lander concludes his saga with words of benevolent wisdom, extolling the “ecology” of science that produces profound discoveries. History provides optimistic lessons about the idealistic world of pure science, carried out purely for the sake of furthering knowledge. One can almost see Lander dabbing away tears of joy as he writes,

The human stories behind scientific advances can teach us a lot about the miraculous ecosystem that drives biomedical progress—about the roles of serendipity and planning, of pure curiosity and practical application, of hypothesis-free and hypothesis-driven science, of individuals and teams, and of fresh perspectives and deep expertise.

So I think Eisen has a point in reading the paper as a crafty effort to establish Zhang and Church as the scientists who brought the relay race to the finish line—and to portray their principal competitors for patents and prizes, Doudna and Charpentier, as merely two in a long string of runners.

I’m glad to see other scientists, such as Mojica, receive credit in a major CRISPR narrative. Too often the early players and the scientists at lesser-known universities become lost to history altogether. But we should also recognize how Lander uses those actors to create a crowd in which to bury Doudna and Charpentier. It would have been possible to mention Mojica, Gilles Vergnaud, and others while still giving Doudna and Charpentier their due.

Why did he do it? The most obvious reason is the patents over the CRISPR technology. The Broad Institute, which Lander directs, is in a heated patent battle with U.C. Berkeley, Doudna’s home. Lander craftily undermines Doudna and Charpentier’s claim to both priority and originality, as well as to the recognition of CRISPR’s commercial potential. Whig history is written by the winners—and sometimes by the competitors.

Update 1/19: Both Doudna and Church have said Lander’s article contains factual errorsI’ll leave it to the experts to debate the technical details of the science. My argument—stimulated and shaped by Eisen’s tweets—is about the tone and style of the piece. Lander is a public-relations master. He’s a compelling speaker and a sophisticated writer. He’s a giant in the field: he has been a leader in the genome community since early days of the human genome project. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

A Nobel can be split at most three ways, and there are four principal actors. How will the prize be partitioned? Doudna, Charpentier, and Zhang? Doudna, Charpentier, and Mojica? Zhang, Church, and Lander? I have witnessed the steady PR campaigns of scientists who went on to win Nobels. The Prize is supposed to be wholly merit-based, but, we being humans, reputation and economics matter.

Update: One should also note the gender dynamics of the story. However conscious or unconscious it may be, efforts such as this underscore the often-subtle ways in which “history by the winners” still tends to end up being “history by the men.” Only way that stops is by saying it out loud. Tip o’ the pin to Anne Fausto-Sterling and Alondra Nelson for nudging me on this.

At its best, science is a model of human interaction: cooperative, open, focused on evidence and reason, unbiased by prejudice of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or disability. But science is no longer done in monasteries. Competition, pride, ego, greed, and politics play all too great a role in determining who gets credit, who wins the prizes, and who gets into the textbooks. As Butterfield recognized, controlling the history is both a perk of coming out on top and, while the battle still rages, a way to cement your team’s role in the crystallizing master narrative.

When a scientific history promises an account of “heroes,” when it is filled with sentimental language “miraculous ecosystem” of “pure curiosity and practical application,” and when that history is written by an individual who has much to gain by the acceptance of his own account, the piece should come with a conflict-of-interest statement—or at least a road-sign reading, “Danger! Whig history ahead.”

PS: See also Dominic Berry’s take on the Lander article, also drawing on the history of science but framing it in terms of intellectual property, here: http://blogs.sps.ed.ac.uk/engineering-life/2016/01/18/crispr-in-the-history-of-science-and-intellectual-property/

[2017-12-06: Minor edits, mainly typos and style]

Poor Richard Dawkins’ Almanack


Fine fall weather may tempt you to harvest your memories in a Booke, but beware an early frost. Avoid fatuous pontification before the Squash blooms wither. One who failed to heed this commonsense warning was “greeted with critical sneering so intense it was almost audible,” If only he’d followed Poor Richard’s advice!

On the 20th, don’t forget to turn your clock back. Into a clock. A Muslim boy may bring you a timepiece that seems like a bomb. We know this sounds like one of our Homely allegories, but seriously. It may indeed prove to be a time bomb—but only if you will it so. Question not the boy’s motives, for once you walk down that road you may not ever walk it back. Even your Guardian cannot protect you then, no matter how much you Huff and Puff. Remember: Tweet not, want not!

The autumnal equinox is on the 23rd, but for you, Fall may already have begun. Early to bed…and maybe just stay there for the winter.

Plant seeds of next book during the full moon: sowing animus and xenophobia can be back-breaking labor. Early to bed and early to rise brings wealth to all men telling fortunes and lies!


Top 10 Things I Learned From Reviewing Richard Dawkins


10) Links between genetic determinism and white supremacy remain strong.

9) The staunchest Dawkins followers got nothin’.

8) Wasps are brainless but extremely aggressive.

7) Opinions on Dawkins split down party lines as neatly as a Congressional vote.

6) Saying, “So, chill” is defensive.

5) When they like you, it’s good writing. When they don’t, it’s “rhetoric.”

4) Fundamentalist atheists HATE being called that. So do it early and often.

3) Incredibly, even an atheist with postgraduate work in ecology and evolution can still be a church-kissing, climate-change-denying reactionary one step to the left of Mike Huckabee.

2) Lay back and let your friends and your enemies duke it out.

1) It is important to log off Twitter with the same number of fucks you logged in with.

Through a candle, darkly

Dull, dull, dull, my God it’s dull! It’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL! —Michael Palin

Nature has posted my review of Brief Candle in the Dark, the bloated second volume of memoir by  Richard Dawkins, everyone’s favorite genetic determinist. Nature is very genteel–and they have very strict lawyers–so my temper is muted.

Still, the gist should come across. It reads, frankly, like he contracted for two books but, incomprehensibly, just got bored with writing about himself.

Perhaps the review may provoke a smile–or a scowl, if you’re of that genotype.





Nobel scientist Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs. English biochemist tells conference women in laboratories ‘fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry’” (The Guardian)

“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls…  I’m really, really sorry I caused any offence, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually.” (Tim Hunt)


Stockholm, 1983. A certain English scientist whose surname rhymes with…let’s go with a small boat that you pole along the river Cam…is 40 years old. He has received an invitation to the Nobel festivities honoring the geneticist Barbara McClintock, “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.” He fancies himself a pick-up artist and thinks this will be an excellent place to meet girls. He starts at the top.

Tim Hunt (Nobelprize.org)

BMC: And so, Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, I wish to thank you and the Swedish people for their many courtesies. I hope I have conveyed some of the joy of the marvelous maize plant and the startling phenomena of the genome that one can discover when one has the time and the solitude to watch and to think. Are there any questions?

TH (aside, to companion): Watch this. Observe the master.

(to McClintock):           Yes, thank you. Before I speak, I’d like to say something: that’s a smashing dress.

BMC:       I hate dresses. They said I had to wear one, so I wore one. My niece found it somewhere near here.

TH:           Ahem, yes, I see. Well, jolly good one on me then!

[You see? She’s falling for me. Works every time.]

What I wanted to say was, all of these elegant trappings notwithstanding, that I find your argument…unconvincing. You haven’t shown any data of any sort that a contemporary biologist would recognize.

BMC:       Are there any questions?

TH:           [Always compliment them, then insult them a little. Never fails. Watch.]

What I mean is, I don’t mean to be indelicate, but what gives you the right to make such claims?

BMC:       What gives me the right, or what basis do I have? Please be clear. Well I can address both. What gives me the right is fifty years of studying genetics and the fact that I’m standing at the Nobel podium. The basis for my claims is my data, which I just reviewed. Weren’t you paying attention? Are there any other questions? Yes, you in the back…

TH:           [Ouuuuch! <grins> God I love older women! They find me irresistible!]


Later, at the Banquet…

TH: (suavely)      Ah! Dr. McClintock!

BMC:       Yes.

TH:           I just wanted to apologize for my remarks at your lecture.

BMC:       Yes.

TH:           I ought not to have been so candid in such a public forum.

BMC:       No.

TH:           I mean, I don’t honestly see what all the fuss is about your work. but I ought not to have said so in front of all of those reporters and, you know, the King and all. I hope I didn’t upset you. I just wanted to be honest.

BMC:       You’re the one who looks foolish. Did I upset you?

TH:           You…me…? I…

BMC:       Your pronouns seem to be functioning normally. But haven’t you any verbs? I would have thought Cambridge would teach you better English.

TH:           Now look here. There’s no call to be insulting.

BMC:       Oh, don’t take me too seriously. Turn sideways. [casts her eyes downward] I’ll give you this: you have a nice tush. [pats it][1]

TH:           WHAT?!? I never!

BMC:       Never? Too bad. Me neither…much. Never had the time. I was just too interested in chromosomes—and the Y is so short and stubby and dull. I do enjoy looking at a good tush, though.

TH:           You never fell in love? Say, with a charming professor, aloof yet alluring, with beguiling nostril hair?

BMC:       [snorts] Good one. Maybe you’re all right, Tom.

TH:           Tim. Timothy.

BMC:       Suit yourself. If I may be frank, I could never feel attracted to someone I thought wasn’t as smart as I am. And, well,…

TH:           [stiffens] Really! Now listen, what I need to tell you is this: Your experiments are just so baroque. You practice this old-fashioned style of genetics, your writing’s impenetrable, and your experiments! They’re so complicated—one has to learn half your maize strains and strange chromosome constructions just to grasp your hypothesis! I can’t honestly imagine how the Nobel committee even followed your work, let alone evaluated it. Why don’t you do some molecular experiments? Things become so much simpler!

BMC:       Yes. As I was saying…

TH:           Are you implying that I’m not…???

BMC:       Must I spell it out for you? If you’re not clever enough to grasp what I’m doing, why are you even here? God I hate these stuffed-shirt evenings!

TH:           Now look here, madam!

BMC:       No. You look here, squirt. And be quiet. I don’t mean you any harm—you’re no dumber than most of the other men I’ve spent my career around. But you’re no smarter either. I’ve been listening to you for ten minutes now, and you haven’t said a single intelligent thing. Don’t you ever grow up? There are more interesting punchbowls in this room. And I’ve had plenty of your Australopithecine views. That’s A-U-S…

[At this, TH’s eyes start to well] T-R-A-L-O-P-I-T-H-E-C-I-N-E. There!

BMC:           Gold star. [rolls eyes] Tom, I’m sure what you do is perfectly interesting to someone. And maybe—although of this I’m less certain—what you say, someone finds charming. But with me, neither happens to be the case. Now, about that punch… [walks off]

[Tears stream down TH’s cheeks. He falls to his knees, one arm extended melodramatically in her direction] Barbara! Dr. McClintock! Don’t go! I—I love you!

BMC: [To another, female, guest] My trouble boys is that all they want to talk about is romance and their own feelings. Always falling in love with you and weeping. How do they ever get any science done?


[1] McClintock was known to compliment people—men and women—on their tushes. In the words of a long-time friend, “She just liked tushes.”

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