Chronicle of the Future The Gene Genie
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Francis Crick
Francis Crick

Crick and partner, James Watson, startled the academic world in 1953 when they deciphered the structure of the DNA molecule

Science is allowing us to become increasingly godlike. One day, we may be able to design our own children. But human consciousness may remain an eternal mystery. By Brian Appleyard.

In March 1953, Francis Crick rushed into the Eagle pub in Cambridge and told the startled lunchtime drinkers that he and his partner, James Watson, had found the secret of life.

There have been, in the history of science, a few other such moments: when Galileo first looked through a telescope at the moon; when an apple supposedly fell on Isaac Newton's head; when Charles Darwin joined the crew of the Beagle; when, in Berlin, Max Planck took a walk in the woods and discovered quantum theory; or when Albert Einstein first tried to imagine what it would be like to ride on a beam of light.

These were all moments when a frontier was crossed, when human knowledge advanced deeper into the territory of the natural world. But none is of more significance to us now than that moment in Cambridge. For the frontier that Crick and Watson had crossed was the frontier of life itself. All they had done was decipher the structure of the molecule of DNA. But this long and apparently boringly simple molecule was present in almost every living cell. Its structure revealed that DNA could do two things: it could carry information and it could replicate itself. It was at the very heart of the processes of life.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of this discovery. Ever since Galileo had established the power of observation and experiment, science had been making ever deeper inroads into a natural world that had previously seemed like a mysterious black box, far beyond human understanding. But life evaded the assault of science. Until the middle of the 19th century scientists could do almost nothing with life except catalogue its variety. As a result, vitalism - the idea that there was something different, probably God-given, about life - survived intact. Many felt that life would for ever lie beyond the competence of science. The stuff that made plants, animals and people was different from the stuff that made rocks, mountains and stars.

But Darwin provided an account of life which implied that it could arise simply from the raw chemistry of Earth. And as biochemistry advanced, it became clear that more and more living processes could be understood in terms of conventional chemistry. But until 1953, so many fundamental uncertainties remained that vitalism endured as a possibility within the scientific imagination. After DNA, however, only faith could keep vitalism alive. Here was the information-bearing, replicating machine at the heart of life, and it was a chemical like any other.

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