I first heard of Jon Beckwith in the mid-1970s, in a question framed by my genetics professor: Why would anyone willfully disrupt a research program designed to collect useful information on human genetics? The implied answer, of course, was that no rational person would; maybe some kind of a Luddite or a commie.
Jon Beckwith holds a professorship at Harvard Medical School, and did then. His area of specialization is arcane–how genes in bacteria work–and he has a list of honors to vouch for his authority in the area. But his fame in genetics has arisen more from his role as a leader in the internal critique of genetic research, highlighting its compatibility with certain invidious political agendas, and thereby occasionally informed more by cultural ideologies than by rigorous data.
My own field, biological anthropology, cut its eyeteeth providing scientific validity for the oppression of non-Nordics. Steeped in such a field, it is hard not to see the imbricate structure of science, culture and politics. But bacterial genetics is another story.
Making Genes, Making Waves consists of a generally chronological series of vignettes detailing Beckwith’s role in raising the consciousness of the genetics community and the public (“making waves”) interspersed with brief descriptions of his laboratory research problems at various times (“making genes”). The prose is crisp, the episodes engaging and, as a heuristic of a successful modern American scientist with a social conscience, the book is probably without peer.
Beckwith traces his interests in joining the scientific and the political to his early professional acquaintances with European scientists, especially the French bacterial geneticists François Jacob and Jacques Monod. Beckwith’s own initial activism came with the discovery that Harvard was planning an expansion and acting like a slumlord in the 1960s, buying up property and driving out tenants. In the heyday of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, he expanded his idealistic goals to get Harvard Medical School to recruit a larger proportion of minority students. And yet by 1969, he was still, in good American scientific fashion, managing to keep his social and his scientific interests entirely segregated from each other. He quotes a prominent developmental biologist who denies the capability of being “both a first-rate scientist and a social activist”–although there were obvious role models, such as Franz Boas, Lancelot Hogben, Linus Pauling and J.B.S. Haldane.
All this changed with Beckwith’s isolation in 1969 of the gene in E. coli that codes for the enzyme ß-galactosidase–which may not sound like much today, but actually represented the first purification of a single genetic instruction. Coming shortly after psychologist Arthur Jensen’s notorious article on the ostensibly genetic limitations to intelligence in blacks, Beckwith took the opportunity as a real geneticist to warn the public about the potential risks of his own area of genetic research.
Naturally his colleagues saw this as biting the hand that fed him–and them, too–and consequently Beckwith’s press conference got a very cool reception from them. And he did not exactly ingratiate himself with those colleagues the following year by turning over his cash award from the American Society of Microbiology to the Black Panthers, either.