March 24, 2021
Walter Isaacson, the respected biographer of Steve Jobs, has turned his talents to Jennifer Doudna, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for coinventing the CRISPR gene editing technique.
In his The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, the scientist emerges as competent and competitive. But this best-seller’s most compelling personality turns out to be her canceled but unrepentant inspiration, James D. Watson, whom Isaacson and Doudna visit in his internal exile in 2019.
Along with her CRISPR co-Laureate, the elegant and very French Emmanuelle Charpentier, Doudna (pronounced DOWD-nuh) exemplifies the huge surge over the last two generations of talented women into the life sciences. As I have been known to joke, there are few women in the premier death science, physics, because no girl ever felt that Robert Oppenheimer’s reaction to his atomic bomb test—“I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”—sounded awesome. (But lots of boys have.)
Instead, women have flocked to the biological sciences, with beneficial effects for humanity during the current health crisis.
In Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Jobs, little Steve forced his parents to move to a better school district after he was subjected to antiwhite bullying. Similarly, Doudna as a schoolgirl was subjected to Hawaii’s antiwhite racism. Isaacson begins his biography:
Had she grown up in any other part of America, Jennifer Doudna might have felt like a regular kid. But in Hilo…the fact that she was blond, blue-eyed, and lanky made her feel, she later said, “like I was a complete freak.” She was teased by the other kids, especially the boys, because unlike them she had hair on her arms. They called her a “haole,” a term that, though not quite as bad as it sounds, was often used as a pejorative for non-natives.
As with Jobs, Doudna was rescued by her family’s White Flight to a nice suburb with a better school where she was happier.
In sixth grade, her father, a literature professor at the U. of Hawaii in Hilo (who later died of melanoma), gave her the book that most influenced her life: Watson’s cheeky memoir The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. (Indeed, The Code Breaker appears intended to serve as a Double Helix 2.0 to document what has changed in biology over the past seventy years.)
After that, she was only mildly inconvenienced by Hilo’s anti-intellectual culture and was soon off to Pomona College, Harvard, and eventually UC Berkeley, where she is today a professor of biochemistry. One of her earliest public lectures was in front of Watson in 1987, after which he came up to congratulate her, boosting her confidence. She continued throughout her career to attend his annual seminars at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory.
Isaacson is a highbrow man who writes mostly about men of genius (his other subjects include Einstein, Franklin, and Leonardo), so he doesn’t dig deep for personal details about Doudna’s brief first marriage or how, as a young professor, she then came to marry one of her grad students. In this lavishly illustrated book, there’s a picture of her at Harvard looking fetching with black hair, but Isaacson isn’t going to ask a distinguished scientist why she decided to go back to blond, even if readers would like to know.
Isaacson has bigger fish to fry. For example, he wants to show how Doudna’s type of basic science pays off in practical applications. As Vannevar Bush reported to Harry Truman in 1945, “Basic research is the pacemaker of technological process.”
On the other hand, Isaacson notes, the contemporary culture of academics getting rich off of their lab discoveries inspires a huge amount of constructive competition. Within a half year of Doudna and Charpentier’s 2012 paper announcing they had figured out how to program CRISPR RNA to edit DNA in a test tube, five labs reported, almost simultaneously, that they could now do this trick in living cells. (In contrast, my main recollection from reading The Double Helix in high school was that back in less competitive 1953 Watson and Crick seemed to have plenty of time on their hands to play tennis while still racing Linus Pauling and Rosalind Franklin to be the first to figure out the structure of DNA.)
But the billions now at stake can divert successful scientific talent into distracting patent battles. The Broad Institute under Joe Biden’s wily science adviser Eric Lander outhustled Doudna’s more naive team to be issued the first U.S. patent for CRISPR, setting off a massive struggle in courts around the world that may still be going on.
Lander is more or the less the antagonist in The Code Breaker, with one friend of Doudna’s calling the Biden Administration official an “evil genius,” and the ever-diplomatic Isaacson deftly declaring himself one of Lander’s “alloyed admirers.”
Even the normally indefatigable Isaacson wearies of the convolutions of the patent brouhaha and winds up reminding the contestants that silicon chip coinventors Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Intel eventually came to an equitable and productive out-of-court settlement:
Noyce and Kilby obeyed an all-important business maxim: Don’t fight over divvying up the proceeds until you finish robbing the stagecoach.
CRISPR is now in clinical trials attempting to treat some hereditary diseases. An African-American woman’s sickle cell anemia apparently has been cured by it. But these “somatic” treatments that try to alter most of the existing genes in bodies are wildly expensive so far.
For most potential purposes, it would seem more economical to use CRISPR to fix genes in embryos and then let natural development proliferate them. But editing the human germline in ways that would be inherited by future generations raises disturbing Gattaca-style questions about Francis Galton’s dream of eugenics.
For example, Isaacson says it would clearly be good to get rid of Huntington’s disease, a hereditary ailment that kills adults, often soon after they have passed their deadly defect on to their orphans. Huntington’s is caused by a bad mutation in a single gene, so it could well be proofread by CRISPR.
What about germline treatment of schizophrenia, which, for instance, besets Watson’s son Rufus? Watson says that of course we should abolish schizophrenia if we can, it’s horrible. Still, Isaacson wonders if schizophrenia might be related to genes that code for artistic creativity. If we get rid of schizophrenia, might we also diminish its aesthetic cousins?
And what about germline enhancements, especially the big one: IQ? Do we want a world in which celebrities don’t have to engage in comic “Varsity Blues” conspiracies to slip their dim children into fancy colleges but can simply pay to have them genetically engineered to be actually smarter than the masses?
Everybody is interested in (or horrified by) the potential of genetic engineering in large part because it might eventually raise IQs, which in turn could lead to more discoveries to further raise IQs, driving humanity into a genetically engineered brave new world that no one can quite foresee. Are we ready to decide if that’s what we want, Isaacson repeatedly asks?
While Lander has called for a moratorium on human germline editing experiments, Doudna wants to “proceed prudently.”
Personally, I’m unenthusiastic about eugenics. So I was surprised that Isaacson, after giving both sides of the argument, decides on the next-to-last page:
I now see the promise of CRISPR more clearly than the peril.
I suspect, though, that CRISPR will be less likely to soon be used for enhancements of major features such as IQ than we would have assumed back in 2000 because our understanding of the complexity of IQ genetics has grown. In the 2000s, scientists focused on finding single genes of large effect. But in the 2010s it was determined that most of the big traits such as height or intelligence appear to be influenced by hundreds or even thousands of genes of small effect.
Will it ever be safe or economical to use CRISPR to tinker with huge numbers of genes? Preimplantation genetic screening seems more practical than gene editing if you aren’t willing to make your baby the old-fashioned way.
But all this raises a question of current interest that Isaacson dances close to but tries to avoid. Isaacson’s assumption that genetics plays a role in IQ treads perilously close to the crimethink about the world’s most intractable IQ reality, the gap on average between sub-Saharan Africans versus East Asians and Caucasians that got James D. Watson, America’s most distinguished man of science, canceled in 2007. Watson told The Times of London:
He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”
The cadre of high-caliber intellects who are profiled in The Code Breakers know a lot more about the realities of IQ, race, and genetics than do the midwits who canceled Watson. So for the great man’s 90th birthday a benefit celebration was organized at which Lander made a gracious toast to Watson. But when the usual Twitter dopes went nuts with hate, Lander cravenly condemned Watson for his realism and even implied that Watson was anti-Semitic.
Isaacson, who frequently interviews Watson, reports:
Watson was infuriated by Lander’s assertion that it was wrong to be “recognizing him in any way” and the insinuations that he was anti-Semitic. “Lander is regarded as a joke,” Watson exploded. “My life has been dominated by, first, my father’s love for Jews, and all my good friends in America have been Jewish.” He went on to emphasize to me, in a way that would not have mollified his critics, his view that Ashkenazi Jews, who lived for centuries in Northern Europe, were genetically more intelligent than other ethnic groups, a point he supported by rattling off those who had won Nobel Prizes.
When PBS made an American Masters documentary about Watson in 2018, they gave him the chance to renounce his observations about race and IQ. Heroically, he told the truth as he sees it:
“I would like for them to have changed, that there be new knowledge that says that your nurture is much more important than nature,” he said as the cameras rolled. “But I haven’t seen any knowledge. And there’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites on I.Q. tests. I would say the difference is, it’s genetic…. It should be no surprise that someone who won the race to find the double helix should think that genes are important.”
My view is that intelligence, race, and genetics make a very complex subject, and that it has yet to be proven that the sizable average IQ gap between, say, sub-Saharans and Ashkenazis is driven in part by a genetic component. But at present, that seems to be the way to bet.
In any case, we will know for sure soon enough.
I don’t know why stupid people are so intent at the moment on doubling down on their hateful behavior toward smart people like Watson, when the odds are they will be proven very wrong in the not-too-distant future…
Other than that they are stupid and hate-filled.
Speaking of such, The New York Times’ lowbrow science denialist Amy Harmon then had Watson put on Double Secret Cancellation. Amusingly, the snitch later revealed that she is peeved that every time she does another touchdown dance on Twitter over having the nonagenarian great man canceled, nobodies tweet back at her what Galileo is thought to have stubbornly muttered after his conviction for asserting that Earth goes around the sun: “And yet, it moves.”
One question raised by the [Watson] conundrum relates, at least metaphorically, to gene editing. Cutting out a gene for an unwanted trait (sickle cell anemia or HIV receptivity) might change some existing desirable trait (resistance to malaria or the West Nile virus).
Likewise, is Watson’s inability to mislead for political reasons related to his scientific accomplishments?
Watson thinks so.
In 2019, Watson was banned from setting foot in the seminar series he’d founded at Cold Harbor, so Isaacson and Doudna went to see him. Although he’d recently been hospitalized after a car crash, his mind was sharp. When asked about his legendary rival Linus Pauling:
“What matters now are his perfections, not his past imperfections.” Perhaps people may say that of Watson someday, but in 2019 he was an outcast.
Watson went on about himself:
“I think my blunt and contrary nature helps my science, because I don’t simply accept things just because other people believe it,” he says. “My strength is not that I’m smarter, it’s that I’m more willing to offend the crowd.”…
Was that the case I ask, with his comments on race and intelligence?…
“I couldn’t deny what I believed,” he tells me…. “I always follow my father’s advice of saying the truth,” he replies. “Somebody has to say the truth.”
They’re not making them like they used to.