28 October 2007

Twisted DNA experts

James Watson firmly planted his foot into his mouth recently, with his comments about race and intelligence. This should, though, surprise no one. It certainly would not surprise Clive Cookson, who recently reviewed Watson's latest book in the Financial Times.

In his review, Gene genies, Cookson writes "There is something almost otherworldly about Watson, as if he does not know what effect he is having on people." Having sat through a rambling and provocative talk by Watson, I can only agree. The man may have won a Nobel Prize, but he is also a loose cannon.

The publicity will have done nothing to harm sales of Watson's book, but perhaps the biggest beneficiary will be Craig Venter and his own book. All of a sudden, this "renegade scientist" looks like a good guy.

By a coincidence that almost smacks of collusion between the publishers, Venter and Watson were both in the UK with their new books to promote. (Cookson reviews both books.) It was Watson's own book tour that blew up in his face, leaving Venter to hog the airways.

The FT isn't the only newspaper to commission joint of the two books. The Guardian also commissioned an omnibus review, Learning the lessons of life, this time from Georgina Ferry. The Guardian tells us that Ferry is "the author of Max Perutz and the Secret of Life" – a good read, by the way – but it fails to mention the book she wrote in collaboration with Sir John Sulston, who also collected a Nobel prize for his work on gene sequencing, a subject that is central to the work of both Venter and Watson.

Ferry and Sulston collaborated on "The Common Thread" an excellent account of the race to sequence the human genome. This described how Sulston and Venter were at daggers drawn, with the former horrified by the latter's commercial approach to the scientific challenge. Given her closeness to the story, it is perhaps not surprising that Ferry is not quite as gushing as Cookson about Venter's role in the story.