God and James Dewey Watson
Do our genes reveal the hand of God?
The Daily Telegraph - By Roger Highfield - 20/03/2003) - original
The discoverers of the DNA double helix dismiss the idea of God, but other scientists are not so sure. Roger Highfield reports
The scientists who launched a revolution with the discovery of the structure of DNA in Cambridge 50 years ago have both used the anniversary to mount an attack on religion.
When they revealed DNA's double-helix structure in 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson helped to invent biotechnology, provided the foundation for understanding the diversity of life on Earth, revealed the mechanism of inheritance and shed light on diseases such as cancer, and even the origins of antisocial behaviour.
Elegant work: while Francis Crick dismisses the 'god hypothesis', Francis Collins says evolution is 'an incredibly elegant' work of God.
From Copernicus to Charles Darwin, scientific discoveries have had a habit of offending religious susceptibilities. Most scientists, even Darwin, tread warily and avoid attacking religion, but Watson and Crick are both outspoken atheists.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Crick, 86, said: "The god hypothesis is rather discredited." Indeed, he says his distaste for religion was one of his prime motives in the work that led to the sensational 1953 discovery.
"I went into science because of these religious reasons, there's no doubt about that. I asked myself what were the two things that appear inexplicable and are used to support religious beliefs: the difference between living and nonliving things, and the phenomenon of consciousness."
Crick argues that since many of the actual claims made by specific religions over 2,000 years have proved false, the burden of proof should be on the claims they make today, rather than on atheists to disprove the existence of God.
"Archbishop Ussher claimed the world was created in 4,004bc. Now we know it is 4.5 billion years old. It's astonishing to me that people continue to accept religious claims," said Crick. "People like myself get along perfectly well with no religious views."
His co-discoverer, Watson, 74, told The Telegraph that religious explanations were "myths from the past".
"Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely," said Watson. "Only with the discovery of the double helix and the ensuing genetic revolution have we had grounds for thinking that the powers held traditionally to be the exclusive property of the gods might one day be ours."
The American effort to read the genetic recipe of a human being, the Human Genome Project, is currently led by a devout Christian, Francis Collins, who succeeded Watson in that post in 1993.
Collins complained at a recent meeting of scientists in California that God was receiving a "cold reception" during the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary.
He told The Telegraph he was concerned that the anti-religious views of these "very distinguished figures" will increase public antipathy to genetics, given that American polls suggest that 70-80 per cent of people "believe in a personal god".
Another survey revealed that this belief is held by 40 per cent of working scientists. "One should not assume that the perspective so strongly espoused by Watson and Crick represents the way that all scientists feel," said Collins.
Collins has, in the past, worked in a mission hospital in west Africa. Religion and science "are nicely complementary and mutually supporting", he said. As one example, his research to find the faulty gene responsible for cystic fibrosis provided scientific exhilaration and "a sense of awe at uncovering something that God knew before that we humans didn't".
"The tragedy is that many people believe that, if evolution is true, which it clearly is, then God can't be true." However, he blamed this on the reaction of the scientific establishment to the literal interpretation of Genesis by Creationists, views not held by respectable theologians.
"It is not just the fringe elements of the Church that are demanding a Creationist view in order to prove that you are a true believer; it is also the scientific community fringe who are basically saying that evolution proves there is no God."
Collins outlined his own belief: "God decided to create a species with whom he could have fellowship. Who are we to say that evolution was a dumb way to do it? It was an incredibly elegant way to do it.
"Jim, who I know much better than Francis, avoids bringing this topic up when we are having a conversation."
The antipathy to religion of the DNA pioneers is long standing. In 1961 Crick resigned as a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, when it proposed to build a chapel.
When Sir Winston Churchill wrote to him pointing out that "none need enter [the chapel] unless they wish", Crick replied that on those grounds, the college should build a brothel, and enclosed a cheque for 10 guineas.
"My hope is that eventually it will be possible to build permanent accommodation within the college, to house a carefully chosen selection of young ladies in the charge of a suitable Madam who, once the institution has become traditional, will doubtless be provided, without offence, with dining rights at the High Table," he wrote.
Watson described how he gave up attending mass at the start of the Second World War. "I came to the conclusion that the Church was just a bunch of fascists that supported Franco. I stopped going on Sunday mornings and watched the birds with my father instead."
This interest in ornithology led to a glittering career in science - and the discovery of the double helix.
The Francis Crick quotations came from an interview with Matt Ridley.