The Double Helix: A (Very) Personal Account

James Dewey Watson’s autobiography addresses the key people, places, and events behind the discovery of the structure of D.N.A.  As a good autobiographer should, Watson provides a descriptive account of the past.  In this respect, readers gain valuable knowledge of the history and the science of this landmark achievement.  However, Watson’s inspired account imparts far more than a dry chronology upon the reader.

Watson goes beyond providing a mere historical account of events.  As he states in his preface, he tries to “catch the atmosphere.”  In doing so, he paints a lively but fairly contentious picture.  One could argue that Watson is an irresponsible autobiographer, that his duty is to provide an accurate account of the past, and that his account is overly personal and thus unreliable.  If he’s going to write an autobiography, Watson should stick to the facts.

The Double Helix: a similarly unreliable source?

Well, not that fact is unimportant, but I would completely disagree.  I enjoyed this work immensely.  I also learned a lot, even with a decent prior knowledge of the story.  So I have to ask myself: would I get this same result from a straightforward list of facts–from an accurate but essentially lifeless account of the same story?  I don’t think I would.  I appreciate the quirky qualities of Watson’s animated retelling.  They give the story a compelling human dimension. Critics of his portrayal may want to contemplate the worth of a personal view.  Watson wrote an autobiography, not a textbook.

Watson - unabashed autobiographer

What really earned my respect is Watson’s acknowledgement of his bias.  He freely admits the fallibility of his singular perspective.  I love the statement he gives in defense of his highly opinionated style: “this account represents the way I saw things then, in 1951-1953: the ideas, the people, and myself.”  I’m reminded that this isn’t a timeline in my hands; it’s a man’s life, as seen through his eyes.  In providing a very personal account of the past, Watson seeks to enlighten, not deceive.  I applaud his noble effort.


~ by vanderbiltblog on March 19, 2012.

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