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DNA: The Secret of Life

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  2,524 ratings  ·  123 reviews
Fifty years ago, James D. Watson, then just twentyfour, helped launch the greatest ongoing scientific quest of our time. Now, with unique authority and sweeping vision, he gives us the first full account of the genetic revolution—from Mendel’s garden to the double helix to the sequencing of the human genome and beyond.
Watson’s lively, panoramic narrative begins with the fa
Paperback, 464 pages
Published August 17th 2004 by Knopf (first published December 20th 2002)
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Average rating 4.11  · 
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 ·  2,524 ratings  ·  123 reviews

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Lynne King
Dec 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: genetics
If I had my way over again, I would have studied genetics at university. I was never brilliant at science subjects at school but good with the art subjects, English literature, history and all that good stuff. I stumbled across genetics about twenty years ago and have amassed a considerable number of books in this area.

These books are not for the faint hearted. There is some real meaty content to absorb and I certainly found this with The Secret of Life. James Watson covers a wide range here. Fr
Mar 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is much, much better than James Watson's 1968 The Double Helix, which is full of unbearable ego and sexist opinions. It even contains a chapter which explains the discovery of the double helix sans most of the commentary that made the earlier book annoying. Watson has definitely matured, thank goodness, and into a man I wouldn't mind discussing genetics with. For example, he emphasises choice for pregnant women who know their babies have genetic disorders, insists that women have a right to ...more
Aug 03, 2012 rated it did not like it
This book is a classic bait and switch. You see the title, and you read the little bits about it, you notice its author (DNA structure co-discover) and you think you may have a real winner. The parts of the book that focus on hard science are fascinating. They delve into the subject matter in a way that those with some college biology can understand fairly well. I have taken college level biochemistry (and did terribly), so my view on what is required to understand this book may be warped. But f ...more
Tanja Berg
Dec 18, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This is a clear and lucid tale of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), written by one of the men who discovered the structure of the molecule. It delves into the history of the discovery, the human genome project, the potential of DNA in various areas such as GM foods, developing new medicines and combating crime. It becomes clear that much of the public and political fear in regards to DNA originates in ignorance. Other things, such as patenting genes, is absolutely horrifying because it effectively cu ...more
Aug 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I found this book fascinating. Watson has the knack of making difficult topics comprehensible to non-scientists like me. He is also a great storyteller. He takes the time to present each of the researchers whose works he discusses. He boils their often frustrating research down to the one or two big questions their findings helped to answer.

I learned how parts of the body work. For example, on pp. 76-78, Watson explains how the body produces hemoglobin, a protein useful in transporting oxygen.
When I came across the audio version of this book at work, I was excited. I looked forward to gaining a more solid grasp of genetics, and the thought of learning it from Watson was even better. If I'm lucky, I thought, I'll hear it in the voice of one of the fathers of genetics (Watson and his colleague, Crick, were the discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA). He did indeed read the introduction, and it was as interesting as I thought it would be. However, my youthful joy was not to la ...more
Chris Rock
Jul 22, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, biology
This is my second time reading this book (listening to it, actually). It's a pretty long book, dense, and rich with information.

Written by the scientist who discovered the structure of DNA, and played an important role in the sequencing of the human genome, the book starts with the discovery of the structure of DNA and its role in the process of life. Then it moves to cover a wide variety of topic ranging from the purely scientific, such as DNA's role in protein synthesis, to the political, like
Katie Mcsweeney
Read this as a genetics undergrad and it was one of those books that confirmed my love of the subject, along with The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry. A fascinating area! But poor Rosalind Franklin where is her Nobel Prize??? ...more
Josh Friedlander
Learning about genetics today carries two problems: a lot of the very basic stuff is so well known that it's hard to appreciate how novel it was, the great change in philosophy necessitated by Mendel. And the rest of it is so jargon-laden and tinged with the intimidating aura of white-coated genius that people glaze over when hearing it. Watson's book is a very good summary of the entire topic, from Mendel to eugenics to his famous discovery of the double helix to the Asilomar near-moratorium on ...more
Jaap Hoogenboezem
The first 175 pages or so are wonderful: a well written, clear, at times funny history of genetics, from Mendel to modern times. After that the book loses some of its direction and speed. I found myself skipping parts that were not directly about genetics but about how big science works (the chapter on the Human Genome Project is a case in point: there is much on grant applications and money but in fact very little about genetics). A whole chapter on the use of DNA in criminal investigations was ...more
Jan 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
A genetics book, by the one of the co-discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA. There's a few chapters about the science, about the history of genetics and then a variety of topics, genetically modified foods and the controversy, DNA evidence in solving crimes, genetic diseases, ancient racial ancestry, ethical questions, bio-tech politics. He got preachy near the end, which I didn't mind, even though I didn't agree with everything he said. Parts of the book made me wish I had gone into ...more
Tom Evans
Sep 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A great book by a brilliant mind. The only disappointment is that the author's mind seems to be closed to the metaphysical and spiritual angle and, as a result, in my opinion is missing what DNA is really about completely. You don't have to be a geneticist to know this by the way (and note I am an engineer not a woo-woo la-la screwball)

Technically and scientifically, the author and the book is brilliant.
Apr 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Very interesting, would recommend for anyone with even a casual interest in genetics or biology. For those who already have knowledge of biology, it might seem a little dumbed-down at first, but once you get past Mendel's pea plants and white-eyed fruit flies that are covered in every Bio 101 class, things start getting pretty interesting again. And it kind of drags in the middle when we get into all the academia and business politic, but it picks up again with the science soon enough.
Jul 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biology
Every time I read this book, it brings me more insight and amazement into the intricacies of Life. It all boils down to the simple intertwined thread of molecules called the DNA. Simple, yet so complex. Elegant yet so savage. Also, in Watson's words, the journey of a scientist is depicted so vividly. I would definitely want to read this book again.
Steve Lim
Dec 12, 2019 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book is a bit of a mix between good and bad. The good is that it was an interesting story of how DNA was discovered and how it is used today. It goes into chapters on agriculture/GM crops, crime, and healthcare pretty thoroughly. It isn't the best book to listen to as audio, because of some of the detail and the frequent use of acronyms. If I was reading it in print, I'm sure I would go back over some sections/sentences a couple times.

The bad is when Watson's opinions come in real strong.
Finlay Chedd
Nov 11, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was very interesting and compelling. However it does have two drawbacks, hence the 4/5 rating.

First, there are some pictures in the book which would have been a great addition and would help clarify some of the tricky stuff, if it were not for the lack of color. The captions of the pictures would say something along the lines of “highlighted in red you see the enzyme attacking the protein, which is colorized blue”. This would app have been good and all, IF THE PICTURES WEREN’T BLACK AN
Jeffrey Williams
Mar 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Told by the co-discoverer of the double helix, James D. Watson traces the history of the discovery of DNA through modern day advances. While he does offer technical details, they are still aimed at teaching people who have little or no background in the science. Each chapter builds upon the concepts introduced in the previous one, and he brings in other scientists who have added their contributions. Additionally, he does show how political attitudes often interferes with looking at science for s ...more
William Smith
This palpable tome is a compendious evaluation of DNA stretching from history to biology, to the future benefits of genetic engineering. Within this work, there is ample sourced information, appositely constructing a foundation particularly for those without an academic background in biochemistry. Topics such as the history of eugenics, discovery of the structure of DNA and the early advent of biotechnology (insulin and human growth hormone) are cobbled-stones towards the latter portions which f ...more
Jessica Kennedy
Jul 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, science-math
An essential read for those interested in, or studying, biological sciences. Watson charts the development of the fields of genetics and, in part, molecular biology, and their attendant controversies as discoveries were made. He also dispels many dangerous myths about what geneticists do, how genetic engineering works, and what it could mean for our future. Overall I found this to be an engaging and hopeful read, though I did see a few spots where there would be a benefit in releasing an updated ...more
Chad Rexin
Jul 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
While I don't agree with everything in the book, I found it fascinating. It is so amazing how much of who we are I in our DNA and genes. Scientists have discovered many things with DNA, but there are many areas and diseases like Alzheimer's and heart disease that likely have a genetic component to them where we don't know enough about what controls it. The book covers not only DNA and it's discovery, but the history and some of the key topics with GMOs, cloning, disease research, and all the eth ...more
Sayed Mustafa
Jan 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
It all started when I was in the twelvth grade, I was passionate about genetics and DNA, Though I disagree with much of the authors' views about society and religion, I gained so much knowledge about the past history of eugenics, genetics, DNA, recombinant DNA, biotechnology, genetically modified products, and genetic diseases.

Watson is a great scientist who I praise due to his passionate love for humanity and improving the lives of others.
Ardon Pillay
Apr 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: popular-science
James Watson’s “The Double Helix,” is by all accounts a brilliant book, but it is extremely anecdotal. His much meatier “DNA” is a more scientific exploration of not just the initial breakthroughs in the field of molecular biology, but also the subsequent advances in gene technology that it spurred. It covers events from the isolation of DNA to the current issues regarding the use of genetic technologies to produce designer babies.
Sep 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Interesting account of the history of DNA research. The author sprinkles in some funny anecdotes and observations. Bit partisan on the topic of public funding and his belief that there should be no limitations on research. Which seems a bit naive, if designer babies were technically feasible, people would use it without batting an eye.
Alan Morgan
Apr 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
It was short and pretty funny. He basically told the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. He clarified that this was entirely from his perspective. It was an enjoyable read and I gained respect for Watson and Crick.
Oct 15, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Good journey through the later part of the 20th century from the double helix to the genome project to some of the current ethical issues. There are parts that I found too technical but that it more an issue with the reader than the book.
Mar 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating to read about how Erwin Shroeder can give rise to one of the most important scientific discoveries. An excellent read
Douglas Robertson
Aug 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Good but I felt with whole genome sequencing being performed routinely it could do with a bit of an update. The historical bits were good though.
Oct 02, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: popular-science
Great, but not a classic like his original book
Feb 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Great book about DNA and the history, present and future about genetics. Must read if you like to know about this topic.
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Bio-Nerds: Genetically modified mitochrondria 1 8 Mar 12, 2014 05:39AM  
Bio-Nerds: DNA: The Secret of Life by James D. Watson 1 11 Dec 22, 2013 12:43AM  

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In 1928, James D. Watson was born in Chicago. Watson, who co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) at age 25, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His bird-watching hobby prompted his interest in genetics. He earned his B.Sc. degree in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1947, and his Ph.D. ...more

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