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Life, DNA and the model

  • ROBERT BUD (a1)

This paper argues that the 1953 double-helix solution to the problem of DNA structure was understood, at the time, as a blow within a fiercely fought dispute over the material nature of life. The paper examines the debates, between those for whom life was a purely material phenomenon and religious people for whom it had a spiritual significance, that were waged from the aftermath of the First World War to the 1960s. It looks at the developing arguments of early promoters of molecular biology, including J.D. Bernal, his pupil Max Perutz and his pupil Francis Crick, on the one side, and of the so-called ‘Inkling’ cluster of writers including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, on the other. This debate was conducted through polemical works, journalism, and science fiction and through the Festival of Britain and can be followed through the commentary of Jacob Bronowski. The paper concludes with the model of the double helix now at the Science Museum, which can be considered an archaeological relic of a battle in a war which is still being fought.

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1 The prime source for this anecdote is Watson, James, The Double Helix, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1968, p. 197. However, Crick also referred to having found the ‘basic copying mechanism by which life comes from life’ in a letter to his son. See Francis Crick to Michael Crick, 19 March 1953, Box 2, Folder 24, Francis Crick Personal papers, MSS660, Mandeville Library, UCSD. Quoted by permission.

2 Turner, Frank M., ‘The Victorian conflict between science and religion: a professional dimension’, Isis (1978) 69, pp. 356376; Bowler, Peter, Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

3 On the complex growth of spiritualism see Hazelgrove, Jennifer, Spiritualism and British Society between the Wars, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. This book provides insight into the complex democratizing factors behind widespread interest in spiritualism and the sense of life being irreducible to material reality.

4 Of course there is a century-old concern. See Richards, Robert J., The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002. As early as 1838, Mill had distinguished between the ‘conservative’ views of Coleridge and the ‘progressive’ views of Jeremy Bentham. All Englishmen, he contended, could be associated with the philosophy of one or the other. See Mill, John Stuart, ‘Bentham’, London and Westminster Review (August 1839) 29, pp. 467506; and idem, Coleridge’, London and Westminster Review (March 1840) 33, pp. 257302. Mill's categories were echoed and analysed by Karl Mannheim, who explored the disenchantment of the world in his 1927 essay ‘Das conservative Denken’ (which appropriately appeared in English in 1953, ‘Conservative Thought’, in P. Kecskemeti (ed.), Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology: By Karl Mannheim, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953, pp. 74–164) and in his very well-known 1929 Ideologie und Utopie, which had been translated in 1936. Mannheim, Karl, Ideology and Utopia, London: Routledge, 1936. Mannheim contrasted the attitudes of two generations and mindsets. He contrasted the rationalists, looking forward ideologically to a bright future, with conservatives who harked back to a utopian past. On spiritualism before the First World War and the reaction against the disenchantment of the world see Owen, Alex, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. For the interwar period see Hazelgrove, op. cit. (3).

5 Balfour, Arthur James, Theism and Thought: A Study in Familiar Beliefs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923, pp. 34.

6 ‘Science and life. Ancient mystery unresolved. Professor Evans on research’, The Times, 11 September 1928.

7 ‘England stirred by theories on life’, New York Times, 13 September 1928.

8 ‘The nature of life. Scientists’ discussion at The Cape’, The Times, 26 July 1929.

9 Smith, Roger, ‘Biology and values in interwar Britain: C.S. Sherrington, Julian Huxley and the vision of progress’, Past and Present (2003) 178, pp. 210242; Olby, Robert, ‘Schrödinger's problem: What is life?’, Journal of the History of Biology (1971) 4, pp. 119148. Olby argues that in fact Crick and Watson were not influenced by Schrödinger's philosophical approach. Kenneth Schaffner has argued that even their findings are not necessarily reductionist. Schaffner, Kenneth, ‘The Watson–Crick model and reductionism’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (1969) 20, pp. 325348. See also Hein, Hilde, ‘The endurance of the mechanism–vitalism controversy’, Journal of the History of Biology (1972) 5, pp. 159188; Beatty, John, ‘Evolutionary anti-reductionism: historical reflections’, Biology and Philosophy (1990) 5, pp. 199210.

10 The debate in the Oxford Union in 1933, which carried the motion that ‘this house would in no circumstances fight for King and country’, is a well-known example. On the meaning of this debate see Creadel, Martin, ‘The “King and country” debate, 1933: student politics, pacifism and the dictators’, Historical Journal (1979) 22, pp. 397422. The historian Taylor, A.J.P.cited the debate as an indicator of national mood in his classic English History 1914–1945, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965, p. 362.

11 Giršavičius, J.O., ‘Biochemistry’, Experiment (November 1928) 1, pp. 3437.

12 Harding, Jason, ‘Experiment in Cambridge: a manifesto of young England’, Cambridge Quarterly (1998) 27, pp. 287309. Also see Price, Kate, ‘Finite but unbounded: Experiment magazine Cambridge, England, 1928–33’, Jacket (December 2002) 20, available at, consulted 1 December 2008.

13 See The Union Society’, Cambridge Review (2 November 1928) 50(1223), pp. 9495. For Venture, see the account of Bell's life in Stansky, Peter and Abrahams, William, Journey to the Frontier, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966.

14 Mark Hillegas, ‘Introduction’, in idem (ed.), Shadows of Imagination: The Fantasies of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979, pp. xii–xix, xvii.

15 ‘British Association. Bishop of Ripon's address. Science and religion’, The Times, 5 September 1927. See Pursell, Carroll, ‘“A savage struck by lightning”: the idea of a research moratorium, 1927–37’, Lex et Scientia (1974) 10, pp. 146158.

16 Bowler, op. cit. (2).

17 On this group see Werskey, Gary, The Visible College, London: Allen Lane, 1978. It is striking that while Werskey cites the scepticism over reductionism of two members of his group, Needham and Hogben, both move away from experimental biology and neither comes to be involved in molecular biology.

18 J.B.S. Haldane, ‘Daedalus, or science and the future, a paper read to the Heretics, Cambridge, on February 4th, 1923’. The lecture was published as Daedalus, London: Kegan Paul, 1924.

19 Needham, Joseph, ‘Notes on the way’, Time and Tide (10 September 1932) 12, pp. 970972.

20 Toulmin, Stephen, ‘Progressive man’, New York Review of Books (March 1966) 6, p. 20.

21 There is an extensive correspondence between Julian Bell and Eileen Bernal in the Archives Centre, King's College, Cambridge, see PP/JHB/2. See, for instance, Eileen Bernal to Julian Bell, 7 July 1936. Cited with permission.

22 On Bernal's artistic friends, particularly Barbara Hepworth, see Brown, Andrew, J.D. Bernal: The Sage of Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 153154. A mural sketched by Picasso on Bernal's wall now hangs over the entrance of the Wellcome Collection.

23 Perutz, Max, ‘Co-chairman's remarks: before the double helix’, Gene (1993) 135, pp. 913, 9; see Ferry, Georgina, Max Perutz and the Secret of Life, London: Chatto and Windus, 2007, pp. 2639.

24 Bernal, J.D.Dialectical materialism and modern science’, Science and Society (1937) 2, pp. 5866.

25 Bernal, J.D., The Physical Basis of Life, London: Routledge, 1951; Cyril Darlington, The Facts of Life, London: Allen & Unwin, 1953; Conrad Waddington, The Nature of Life, London: Allen & Unwin, 1961. On the difference between the American and British schools see the comments of Kendrew, John, ‘How molecular biology got started’, Scientific American (1967) 216, pp. 141143.

26 Fuerst, John A., ‘The role of reductionism in the development of molecular biology: peripheral or central?’, Social Studies of Science (1982) 12, pp. 241278. See also the references in note 9.

27 On Russell see Ironside, Philip, The Social and Political Thought of Bertrand Russell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Ironside (on p. 44) points out how in the philosophy of Russell, ‘Desire and emancipation take on the function of sin and salvation’.

28 On the Christian humanists see Oser, Lee, The Return of Christian Humanism: Chesterton, Eliot, Tolkien, and the Romance of History, New York: University of Missouri, 2007. For a critical review of this book which explores Oser's concept of religious humanism see Kenny, Anthony, ‘Too good to last’, Essays in Criticism (2009) 59, pp. 9198. Interestingly, while Oser does not deal with C.S. Lewis in detail, Kenny suggests that he might have been a more appropriate case study than Tolkien. For the relation of Coleridge to religion see Barth, J. Robert, Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

29 Garth, John, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth, London: HarperCollins, 2003.

30 Amazon reports that sales of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien have exceeded 150 million copies worldwide, and the films based on the book are among the most expensive and most successful ever made. The seven Narnia books of C.S. Lewis have sold 85 million copies, according to the BBC.

31 On Lewis see Edwards, Bruce L. (ed.), C.S. Lewis: Lifework and Legacy, 4 vols., Westport: Praeger, 2007. On Tolkien see Curry, Patrick, Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.

32 On Lewis's attitude to Wells see David Downing, ‘Rehabilitating H.G. Wells: C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet’, in Edwards, op. cit. (31), vol. 2, pp. 13–34.

33 Green, Roger Lancelyn and Hooper, Walter, C.S. Lewis: A Biography, London: Collins, 1974, p. 179.

34 Gee, Henry, The Science of Middle Earth, London: Souvenir, 2005.

35 On the status of the Inklings as a group see David Bratman, ‘Gifted amateurs: C.S. Lewis and the Inklings’, in Edwards, op. cit. (31), vol. 4, pp. 279–320. For the opposition between the Inklings and the biological materialists see Mark B. Adams, ‘The quest for immortality: visions and presentiments in science and literature’, in Stephen Garrard Post and Robert H. Binstock (eds), The Fountain of Youth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 38–71. See also idem, Last judgement: the visionary biology of J.B.S. Haldane’, Journal of the History of Biology (2000) 33, pp. 457491.

36 Lewis, C.S., The Abolition of Man, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943, pp. 54–55.

37 Ward, Michael, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

38 On the possible inspirations for Lewis's image of N.I.C.E. and indeed of the nearby town of Belbury see Pearce, Joseph, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003, p. 93.

39 Bowler, op. cit. (2), p. 403.

40 Haldane, J.B.S., ‘“Auld Hornie”, F.R.S.’, Modern Quarterly (1946) NS 1, pp. 3240.

41 Conekin, Becky, The Autobiography of a Nation: The 1951 Festival of Britain, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. On the designs see Jackson, Leslie, From Atoms to Patterns: Crystal Structure Designs from the Festival of Britain, Shepton Beauchamp: Richard Dennis, 2008. Perhaps the very last gathering representing this community was the centenary memorial meeting for J.B.S. Haldane, held at the Science Museum 10–11 April 1992. Attendees included Professor Patricia Clarke and Haldane's sister Naomi Mitchison.

42 Conekin, op. cit. (41), p. 227; and see Sir Gibbs, Phillip, The New Elizabethans, London: Hutchinson, 1953. Also see Hewison, Robert, Culture and Consensus, London: Methuen, 1995, pp. 6667.

43 See ‘Peter Ibbetson’, published to accompany an exhibition held at Little Gallery, London, 4–30 April 1949. Blake was, of course, also a hero for Bronowski, who had written a biography, William Blake: A Man without a Mask, London: Secker & Warburg, 1944.

44 Max Perutz, ‘Molecular aspects of living processes’, WORK 25/23, National Archives UK.

45 Haldane appeared at the Socratic Society and Lewis at the British Interplanetary Society. C.S. Lewis also engaged in debate with Arthur C. Clarke in an Oxford pub in 1944, an encounter described by Spufford, Francis, The Backroom Boys, London: Faber, 2003, p. 9. See also Miller, Ryder W. (ed.), From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Letters between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis, New York: I Books, 2005.

46 See the Sunday Times (London), 27 May 1956, 3 June 1956, 10 June 1956. Famously the last of these articles emphasizing the continuing potential of new chemical sources of happiness and the potential replacement of alcohol prompted the board of the Distillers company to look seriously at the potential of Thalidomide.

47 See, for instance, the essays included in Watson, J.D. and Gratzer, Walter, A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

48 For Francis Crick the standard reference is Olby, Robert, Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets, Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2009. Olby emphasizes Crick's dislike of the institutional strength of the Church.

49 Crick, Francis, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, New York: Basic Books, 1990, p. 17.

50 Abir-Am, Pnina, ‘The discourse of physical power and biological knowledge in the 1930s: a reappraisal of the Rockefeller Foundation's “policy” in molecular biology’, Social Studies of Science (1982) 12, pp. 341382. See ‘Chemists unravel protein's secrets’, New York Times, 5 September 1951.

51 Olby, op. cit. (48), p. 194.

52 Crick, Living Matter, broadcast on the BBC World Service, 15 November 1960, PP/CR1/H2/39 Special Collection, Wellcome Library. I am grateful to the Wellcome Library for permission to quote this passage.

53 Crick, Francis, Of Molecules and Men, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2004; first published 1966. For the correspondence with Waddington see Crick to Waddington, PP/CR1/I2/6/5, see online

54 Crick, Of Molecules and Men, op. cit. (53), p. 93.

55 Ortolano, Guy, The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

56 Snow, C.P., The Two Cultures, 2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993; first published 1964, p. 11.

57 Snow, op. cit. (56), p. 74.

58 The manuscript copy is to be found in the Crick papers at the Wellcome Foundation, PP/CR1/9/20.

59 This was broadcast on 16 November 1962 and published in The Nation two years later. See Bronowski, Jacob, ‘The abacus and the rose, a dialogue after Galileo’, The Nation, 4 January 1964. This essay is treated in a piece published on the Web by Timothy Sandefur, at, consulted July 2009. There Sandefur suggests that the character of the host was based on C.P. Snow and that of Harping on F.R. Leavis. His piece agrees with my own assessment that Potts is clearly based on Crick.

60 Snow to Bronowski, 10 December 1962, folder 15, box 70, MS coll 173, Bronowski papers, University of Toronto Library.

61 Compare Crick's formulation in his Living Matter broadcast in 1960 quoted above almost in the same terms.

62 I am grateful to Jon Agar for this insight.

63 I am grateful to Professor Deborah Cameron for the possible association of Harping with some aspects of D.H. Lawrence's philosophy. It may also be mentioned that Lawrence was also a favourite writer of Leavis himself.

64 See Hare, William (Lord Ennismore), ‘Beauty: a problem and an attitude to life’, Experiment (November 1928) 1, pp. 510; (February 1929) 2, pp. 2–6. In Hare's description of his ‘aesthetic’ approach to beauty as empirical and psychological, and in contrast to the ‘practical-sensuous, the moral, the religious, and the scientific attitudes’, one may look fruitfully for roots of Bronowski's own attitudes.

65 Ernst Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, tr. John Maccabe, New York: Harper, 1905, p. 338. For an insight into Haeckel's aesthetics I am grateful for the opportunity to have heard a paper by Bernhard Kleeberg, ‘Evolutionary monism and aesthetics’, presented at the The Monist Century: 1845–1945 colloquium at Queens University Belfast, 2–3 October 2009. I am grateful to Professor Kleeberg for permission to cite his article. Also see Kleeberg, Bernhard, ‘God-Nature progressing: natural theology in German monism’, Science in Context (2007) 20, pp. 537569. On the influence of Haeckel on art nouveau see Greenhalgh, Paul (ed.), Art Nouveau, London: V&A, 2000.

66 Haeckel, op. cit. (65), p. 343. We may reflect on why the immigrant Polish Jew still with a foreign accent but with a very wide and cosmopolitan knowledge may have decided not to cite Haeckel's German work in a broadcast less than fifteen years after the end of the Second World War.

67 In his book The Double Helix, op. cit. (1), Watson described Maurice Wilkins's encounter with the model. The encounter of Rosalind Franklin memorably portrayed in the BBC dramatization does not seem to have happened. Watson recounts how Wilkins told her about the proposed structure which she then checked against her data.

68 See the account by Anthony Barrington-Brown himself, ‘How I came to take their photograph’, at, accessed 19 October 2008. See also de Chadarevian, Soraya, ‘The making of an icon’, Science (11 April 2003) 300(3617), pp. 255257.

69 The most detailed and authoritative account of the building and rebuilding of the model has been provided by de Chadarevian, Soraya, ‘Relics, replicas and commemorations’, Endeavour (2003) 27, pp. 7579.

70 The model was, for instance, included in the museum's list of ten seminal objects, released for the 2009 centenary.

71 For the comparison with the Mona Lisa and a reconstructed Greek pot see Kemp, Martin, ‘The Mona Lisa of modern science’, Nature (January 2003) 421, pp. 416420. The process of reconstruction is recounted by its progenitor Farooq Hussain on his website,, consulted 1 December 2008.

72 Chadarevian, op. cit. (69), p. 78.

73 Kemp, op. cit. (71), p. 416.

74 Bud, Robert, ‘Science, meaning and myth in the museum’, Public Understanding of Science (1995) 4, pp. 116.

75 See Kay, Lily, The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. It was even after the horrors of the Holocaust that Pauling suggested that anybody found to have the inherited sickle cell anaemia trait should be tattooed. Also see Abir-Am, Pnina, ‘Molecular biology in the context of British, French and American cultures’, International Social Science Journal (2001) 53, pp. 187–99. Abir-Am's portrait of post-war France provides a parallel with the geographically claustrophobic but politically polarized nature of British intellectual life in which the double helix was formulated. However, the politics of existentialism created a rather different set of concerns. See also Strasser, Bruno, ‘Institutionalizing molecular biology in post-war Europe: a comparative study’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological Sciences (2002) 33, pp. 515546.

76 See Igor Polianski, ‘Between Hegel and Haeckel: monism and dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union and East Germany’, presented at The Monist Century, 1845–1945. Cited with permission.

77 See Deichmann, Ute, Flüchten, Mitmachen, Vergessen: Chemiker und Biochemiker in der NS-Zeit, Weinheim: Wiley, 2001.

78 Fangerau, Hainer, ‘From Mephistopheles to Isaiah: Jacques Loeb, technical biology and war’, Social Studies of Science (2009) 29, pp. 229256, see particularly 235–236. I am grateful to Professor Fangerau for bringing this article to my attention. On the influence of Loeb's ideas in the United States see Pauly, Philip J., Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to discuss the issues in this article with Professor Pauly at the 2007 meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology shortly before his untimely death. It is to him I owe the realization of the difference between the US and British expressions of tension between science and religion.

79 Miller, S.L., ‘A production of amino acids under possible primitive earth conditions’, Science (15 May 1953) 117(3046), pp. 528529. It is interesting to note that one of the three references in this article was to work by Bernal.

80 Fry, Iris, ‘The origins of research into the origins of life’, Endeavour (2006) 30, pp. 2428; and idem, The Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

81 Of the 7,853 papers published in Science between 1945 and 1954, Miller's paper was the fifth most highly cited up to October 2009 as measured by ISI's ‘World of Knowledge’. The links between the work of Muller, Oparin and Haldane and Watson and Crick are ably described by Lazeano, Antonio, ‘What is life? A brief historical overview’, Chemistry and Biodiversity (2008) 5, pp. 115.

82 Evans, John H., Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

83 Rosenfeld, Albert, The Second Genesis: The Coming Control of Life, Englewood Cliffs: Vintage Books, 1969.

84 See Paul, Diane, ‘Genetic engineering and eugenics: the uses of history’, Pittsburgh Workshop in the History and Philosophy of Biology, Pittsburgh, PA; 217 March 2002, published at, accessed 27 January 2009; Peters, Ted, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom, London: Routledge, 1996.

85 On the links between the 1950s and the 1980s see Veldman, Meredith, Fantasy, the Bomb, and the Greening of Britain: Romantic Protest, 1945–1980, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. On the two-cultures debate see Burnett, D. Graham, ‘A view from the bridge: the two cultures debate, its legacy, and the history’, Daedalus (1999) 128, pp. 193218.

86 See Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, London: Bantam Press, 2006. See also Bunting, Madeleine, ‘Why the intelligent design lobby thanks God for Richard Dawkins’, The Guardian, 27 March 2006.

87 de Chadarevian, Soraya, ‘Of worms and programmes: Caenorhabditis elegans and the study of development’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (1998) 29, pp. 81105.

88 Andrew Balmer and Paul Martin, ‘Synthetic biology: social and ethical challenges’, an independent review commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), May 2008.

89 Is this a clump of cells or a living being with a soul?’, The Independent, 26 March 2008.

I should like to acknowledge the benefit of criticism of earlier versions of this paper presented at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London; the Institute of Contemporary British History; the London Consortium; the international colloquium on The Monist Century at Queens University Belfast; and the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology and particularly the trenchant remarks of Soraya de Chadarevian. I am grateful too for the comments of Robert Olby on a draft of this article drawing upon his deep understanding of the life of Francis Crick. I also owe a debt to the inspiration of Mark B. Adams, who long ago pointed out to me the contrast between the visions of J.D. Bernal and C.S. Lewis. Finally I should like to thank this journal's editor and referees for their advice.

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