David's Reviews > Masterminds: Genius, DNA, and the Quest to Rewrite Life

Masterminds by David Ewing Duncan
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Dec 15, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: read-in-2008, disappointing
Read in December, 2008

Physicists may have been the scientific superstars of the 20th century, but it's the biologists that dominate as we enter the new millennium. Advances in molecular biology and genetics, including the sequencing of the human genome, allow scientists to understand human disease and aging at a level of detail that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago. This has led to significant medical breakthroughs, but has also raised a variety of questions to be grappled with, both at the individual and societal level.

A short list might include:
*genetic testing for diseases for which no effective therapy may exist
*embryonic selection based on genetic profiling
*confidentiality of patient records and insurability issues
*individualization of therapy according to a patient's genetic profile
*ethical issues arising from advances in infertility and embryonic stem cell research
*the potential to prolong human life beyond 'natural' limits
*greater ability to perform successful organ transplantation
*genetic engineering and the creation of hybrid species, up to and including the possibility of human cloning.

“Masterminds” is journalist David Ewing Duncan’s flawed effort to illuminate the frontiers of modern biology – specifically, current efforts in genetics, molecular biology, and the latest advances in biomedical research which result. He does this by profiling seven of the most prominent scientists in the field: James Watson, Craig Venter, Francis Collins, Sydney Brenner, Cynthia Kenyon, Douglas Melton, and Paul Berg. Given that Duncan appears to have had unlimited access to, and full cooperation from, his subjects, this approach is not without promise.

The extent to which that promise is fulfilled depends, of course, on how well Duncan used the opportunity that his access to these brilliant scientists afforded him. Sadly, the answer appears to be – not particularly well. He does have a reporter’s natural curiosity and a decent ability to explain relevant scientific concepts in layman’s terms, traits which serve him well in his efforts. He does not, however, have a particularly subtle mind, which prevents him from following through beyond the initial, fairly obvious questions, and reaching a more nuanced characterization of the limits of current understanding and of future challenges. Nor does he do a particularly good job of navigating his interviews with the strong, often outsized, personalities profiled in the book. Ultimately, most of these profiles are an unilluminating rehash of the media cliches through which scientists like Watson, Venter, Collins, and Brenner are usually portrayed.

This failure is directly attributable to a disastrous choice that Duncan makes at the outset. Unwilling to let his subjects speak for themselves, he insists on superimposing a stale, reductive gimmick – that of assigning to each scientist the persona of a mythological or literary archetype. Thus, the following correspondences are forced on his unfortunate subjects:

James Watson is Zeus
Cynthia Kenyon is Eve
Craig Venter is Faust
Sydney Brenner is Puck
Douglas Melton is Prometheus
Francis Collins is Saint Paul
Paul Berg is Moses

This works about as well as you might imagine. It is lazy, reductive, and virtually guarantees that nothing that any of his subjects might say is allowed to interfere with the box into which Duncan, a modern Procrustes, has forced each of them.

One can understand the reporter being seduced by his own gimmick. But what was his editor thinking?

A superficial, gimmicky disappointment of a book.

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