I graduated from college with a degree in biology four years before DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) was discovered in 1953. James Watson (age 25) assembled the molecular model on February 28, and on April 25 he and his 37-year-old collaborator Francis Crick published their results in a one-page article in the journal Nature. Their suggestion that “this (DNA) structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest” would come to rank among the great scientific understatements of all time. Modern genetics was born. Although two young graduate students had finally succeeded in putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together, many other distinguished scientists (such as Linus Pauling and Rosalind Franklin) had made key discoveries that led to the DNA model—and Maurice Wilkins’ contributions were such that he was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick.
The process of discovering DNA had begun about 100 years earlier when Charles Darwin proposed an evolutionary explanation for biological differentiation. His proposal disturbed those who preferred some sort of intelligent design, such as the Bible’s Creation description. Darwin’s theories initially left many key questions unanswered, and so the relationship between biology and theology unfortunately became a contentious and competitive rather than a congenial and collaborative search for the truth about biological differentiation, and about how such knowledge could enhance the lives of humans and other organisms.
Biologists continued their search for the systems that regulate biological differentiation and gradually solved the problems that critics had raised—such as the seeming implausibility that such complex structures as eyes and ears could have evolved. Unfortunately, much of their work was hidden from K-12 students because of the cultural hostility Darwin’s theories had engendered. At the middle of the 20th century, we were thus a society with a much more limited understanding of the biological systems that regulate life than we should have been.
Further, physics had taken center stage at the beginning of the 20th century via Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. Although we as a society were equally ignorant of what E=MC2 means, we were fascinated by the atomic and electronic revolutions that were emerging out of the work of Einstein and other physicists. Post World War II was a period of rebuilding our country’s infrastructure—and so the technologically augmented movement of humans and their thoughts on roads and wires seemed culturally more important than to understand the movement of genetic information from parents to child, and the biological movement and communication systems a child masters.
Despite the lack of public understanding and acclaim, biologists continued to connect Darwin’s theories with the exciting explosion of genetic information fueled by dramatic developments in research technology. The last quarter of the 20th century saw the beginning of an unprecedented flowering of genetics as the regulatory basis of biology, and of medicine as an important practical outcome. Since a brain is perhaps the most important and interesting biological entity, the neurosciences and genetics emerged in parallel. The 20th century ended with the fireworks of cloning and stem cells, biological theories of consciousness and optimism about the solution of many body/mind maladies.
After the Birthday
Our cultural comprehension of genetics continues to lag far behind scientific knowledge. Our society is confronting a stunning array of moral, ethical, religious, legal, political, financial, and cultural issues that are emerging out of genetics and the neurosciences—and additional issues that we can’t currently imagine will certainly emerge. It’s one thing to discover that we can manipulate genetic and brain systems, and it’s quite another thing to know whether or not to do it.
Think where biology was ten years ago in its understanding of genetics and our brain—and then think about where it is now and might escalate to in ten years. Realize that today’s third graders will be voters in ten years, expected to participate intelligently and responsibly in the resolution of complex social issues that are emerging out of biological research and the current threat of biological terrorism. What should such students learn about biology during their 21st century K-12 schooling?
The worst scenario is for voters and their governmental representatives to make decisions on such complex issues as cloning, stem cells, and mental illness without a basic understanding of genetics/neuroscience and ethics/morality. And yet, what percentage of current voters would be able to provide reasonably accurate explanations of what DNA and RNA are, or of how a brain functions? The educational challenge of adapting current beliefs about ethics and morality to 21st century science and technology is another minefield we’ll have to traverse.
To further confound the issue, many people who are excited about and thankful for all the medical advances that have emerged out of genetics research reject the very theory that led to the research that led to the medical advances they appreciate.
It’s important to realize that Watson and Crick were relatively young when they made their tremendous discovery, and that they didn’t initially understand some of the science that was quite basic to their discovery. But they were passionate in their desire to make the discovery, and they learned what they had to learn when they needed the information.
We could thus begin to create a 21st century science curriculum by focusing more on the almost innate desire of a developing brain to learn what we already know and to discover what we don’t. A curriculum focused on mere mastery of the factual information that assessment programs test won’t develop the 21st century Watsons and Cricks we’ll need. It needs to become more exploratory, more oriented to process than to product, a curriculum that encompasses the entire K-12 years.
Schools can’t do it alone. Biological literacy must begin early and at home. Children who observe that their parents read and engage in artistic activities tend gravitate to such activities—and children who observe parental interest in new biological discoveries will similarly tend to become interested.
Mass media will focus on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA during the next several months. The excellent 17 page cover story of the February 17th Time Magazine is a good initial example of a non-technical narrative of the event and its current significance. Other non-technical print and TV examples will certainly follow. Educate yourself about genetics, and tell the marvelous story to your children. Engage in family discussions about the 21st century issues that they will have to confront.
Regularly check magazine tables of contents and TV schedules during the next several months. The non-technical resources below will also provide you with useful background materials to begin or expand your own education. If you don’t begin now, when do you plan to begin—and what will you do as a responsible citizen and voter in the meantime as scientific discovery enters even further into the political arena?