What Mad Pursuit – Francis Crick 1916-2004

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But to convey my own feelings, I cannot do better than quote…the painter John Minton in which he said of his own artistic creations, “The important thing is to be there when the picture is painted.”
                                                                    Francis Crick, on his discovery of DNA structure

On this day eight years ago, the most creative biologist of the twentieth century died in San Diego, California. He was one of the greatest scientists of of all time, along with Einstein, Darwin and Galileo, who transformed fundamentally our view of humanity’s place in the universe.

Not only did Crick, with Watson, discover (or rather untangle) the structure of the DNA molecule – making possible today our genome project and treatments for many genetic and metabolic disorders, he also made bold, and prescient speculations about human consciousness – the essential processes of higher life. 

And, like all truly accomplished people, he did not take personal credit for the discovery: if he had not discovered it some other people would have – he and Watson just happened to be there when it happened. Even more remarkably, he did not stop there. He did not stop to defend and enjoy his new status for the rest of his career but more often than not, went out on a limb to explore new territories, risking ridicule even, to learn the truth about our being.

By 1966, he had already discovered “the secret of life” as he had long hoped by successfully leading a world-wide group of brilliant molecular biologists to crack the genetic code – the task of figuring out how the genetic information in the DNA molecule orchestrate the synthesis of protein, the main constituent of all life. It was a long and tedious process that took thirteen years after the structure of the DNA molecule itself became known in 1953.

However, he would not be satisfied until he also knew how the brain worked:

It is essential to understand our brains in some detail if we are to assess correctly our place in this vast and complicated universe we see all around us.

His chosen method of approach was to study human consciousness by way of the visual system. This he soon began after he arrived at the Salk Institute in San Diego in 1976. 

It was late. He was already sixty years of age. Worse, consciousness in those days was considered the ‘C’ word – no solution was in sight and any respectable biologist should stay away. He endured the ridicule with good humor, saying, ‘Indeed an interest in the topic was usually taken as a sign of approaching senility.’ * 

But never mind, Crick was not to be deflected. His general hypothesis, eventually proven correct, on consciousness had already occurred to him back in 1966, when he said, in response to a British geneticist who chided him for his position that consciousness could be explained by chemistry and physics:

I think that consciousness or awareness will cease to be mysterious when we can describe the patterns of nervous impulse, in particular parts of our brain, and can show in a detailed way that certain patterns are associated with certain thoughts. ** 

We still don’t know what consciousness is (a new definition just came out, see also my blog here), but researchers today are mainly following his approach and getting promising results – the visual system being the arena for the most productive experiments. More importantly, tangible connections are being made regarding the place of art in our visual pathways. *** 

Now the question: What made Crick so special? So creative? So great?  And was he without flaws?

First, his flaws: he was loquacious, loud, unrelenting in popping the balloon of an inadequate argument. He had no patience for religion, or philosophy because the arguments were not based on observable facts.

Furthermore, he had the audacity to defy Winston Churchill, deflate Wittgenstein, decline a knighthood from the Queen, even openly irritated the man who was to pass his PhD thesis in Cambridge University. 

His virtues, and plausibly the causes of his flaws: his deep honesty and naivety.

He admired Darwin’s serious consideration of a logical criticism of the evolution theory from a Scottish engineer, based on an erroneous understanding  of genetics at the time:

Darwin, a deeply honest man and always faced up to intellectual difficulties…was consequently very disturbed by the criticisms…that inheritance (which, without realizing it, Darwin assumed was blending) would not allow natural selection to work effectively. As particulate inheritance had not yet been thought of, this was a very damning criticism. ****  

I believe Crick greatly admired Darwin, and saw himself as a scientific heir when he wrote in his memoir, What Mad Pursuit, aware that Darwin was a gentleman scientist, whose research and the trip on the HMS Eagle to the Galápagos Islands (1831-1836) having been self-funded:

I think at the back of my mind was the idea that science was an occupation for gentlemen (even if somewhat impoverished gentlemen). Incredibly as it may seem, I had not realized that for many it was a highly competitive career.

Furthermore, he (naively) thought that after Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species which opened the window to the ‘Secret of Life’, all he had to do was to provide the genetic and molecular evidence and the case would be closed. It was (and still is) not to be.

He good-naturedly recounted, that even among those who were aware of the firm evidence for evolution, ‘many feel (along with Ronald Reagan) that there must be a catch in it somewhere.’

And back to his virtues. Like a seeker of truth, he was not afraid to change his mind and retract his decisions. He did end up accepting an Order of Merit from the Queen and was happy to visit Buckingham Palace, and he re-joined  Churchill College even though a chapel was erected there. Two things he never seemed to change his mind on was his dislike for religion and philosophy – that is part of his deep honesty as a natural scientist.

And – his loquacity – it is not exactly a flaw. But for him that was his technique, his precious tool of inquiry. According to Matt Ridley, his biographer:

Crick’s intellectual technique, throughout his life, was a dyadic pairing, a long-running two-way conversation with a chosen friend, somewhere between an interrogation and a Socratic dialogue.

That method would certainly ensure that he remain on the right course, without getting mired in blind alleys or illogical thought. And that broadcasting his thoughts constantly may serve the same purpose – that people would point out his mistakes. Though this may appear as arrogance to others, it is actually humility in the quest for truth – there was always the possibility of ridicule and he was willing to risk that. 

N.B. I am working on a post about Crick’s particular visual approach to his work – from being  a physicist designing magnetic and acoustic mines during WWII in the Admiralty to his later work as a molecular biologist – and how this could be the reason for his unfettered creativity.

* In fact, as recently as 1999, an eminent neurobiologist had said of one of Crick’s bold hypotheses (and those of a few others) on consciousness: “But this is slick and unstable terrain, lacking the guideposts of established experimental paradigm (deflecting, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, nearly all but fools and Nobel laureates).”

** From Matt Ridley, Francis Crick, 2006

*** For a up-to-the-minute overview of the place of art in vision, read Eric Kandel, the Nobel neurobiologist’s 2012 The Age of InsightThe quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain.

 ****  Particulate inheritance  means that each gene remains unchanged from generation to generation (barring occasional mutation). This is what we know now, proven beyond any doubt by discovery of the genes in the DNA molecule. But during Darwin’s time, inheritance was assumed to be blending, meaning, for example,  that a black and a white parent would produce grey offspring, who when they breed among each other, would keep producing grey offspring. The truth is, these grey parents have a 50% chance of producing grey offspring,  and 25% chance each of producing a black or a white offspring.


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