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A couple of years ago, George Will wrote an opinion piece on the importance of pure science. He took his topic from a recent book by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the current director of the Institute for Advanced Study, in which he reprinted Abraham Flexner’s famous essay on pure scientific research (The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge) and included an essay of his own, a plea for improved funding of pure research (engaging essays both, and worth reading).
The thing that most struck me about Mr. Will’s opinion piece, which he gleaned from a very brief comment to the same effect by Dijkgraaf, is that he considered as the most important discovery due to pure scientific research, with no thought for the utility of the discovery, the 1953 discovery by Watson and Crick of the double-helical structure of DNA and the genetic code.
While this was a momentous discovery, it is the opposite of historic reality to say that this was a discovery accomplished for the sake of knowledge alone. On the contrary, the discovery was driven in large part by those with an intense agenda to discover the basis of human heredity in order to control it, for Eugenic purposes. James Watson trained under Linus Pauling at Cal Tech and was sent specifically by Linus Pauling to work with Francis Crick on the structure of DNA. Pauling had begun to realize that the key to human heredity was not in proteins, as he had first surmised, and studied extensively (he had identified the alpha-helical structure of the hemoglobin protein and identified the molecular basis of sickle cell disease in the variant hemoglobin produced by the abnormal gene); but that DNA held more promise as the key to heredity. Right he was.
Cal Tech was the epicenter of Eugenic efforts in America in the 20th Century. Linus Pauling was a militant Eugenicist (for example he was the originator and proponent of a “yellow star” program to physically brand anyone, with a visible physical mark, who possessed a single gene for sickle cell, who then had the trait but not the disease, or phenylketonuria, and other recessive traits, to avoid intermarriage of carriers who might produce affected offspring), as were Robert Milliken, the Nobel Laureate who was President of Cal Tech, and the Board of Cal Tech, which included Ezra Gosney and Paul Popenoe, along with David Starr Jordan. These board members were founders of the Human Betterment Foundation, an aggressive Eugenics organization that was responsible for more forced sterilizations than any other institution in America (about 16,000, the records of which remain under lock and key at Cal Tech, unavailable for study). Linus Pauling was the foremost researcher with a Eugenics agenda. His research, and that at Cal Tech generally, was funded mostly by the Rockefeller Foundation under their agenda of studying the “Science of Man”. That term was drawn from the Enlightenment ideas of David Hume, which precluded any idea of human transcendence, the main point of Hume’s skeptical philosophy.
This history is detailed in a treatise by Lily E. Kay, The Molecular Vision of Life: CalTech, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology.
It is unfortunate that prominent and influential commentators, as well as top-level scientists, promulgate historic inaccuracies. They do not help their case with such an approach.Published in