The Telegraph (England), via The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), Mar. 22, 2003
By Roger Highfield in London
The scientists who launched a revolution with the discovery of the structure of DNA in Cambridge 50 years ago have 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 anti-social behaviour.
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From Copernicus to Charles Darwin, scientific discoveries have had a habit of offending religious susceptibilities. Most scientists tread warily and avoid attacking religion, but Dr Watson and Dr Crick are outspoken atheists.
Dr Crick, 86, said recently: “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 non-living things, and the phenomenon of consciousness.”
Dr Crick argues that since many claims made by specific religions over 2000 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 4004BC. Now we know it is 4.5billion years old. It’s astonishing to me that people continue to accept religious claims,” Dr Crick said. “People like myself get along perfectly well with no religious views.”
Dr Watson, 74, said religious explanations were “myths from the past”. “Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely,” he said.
“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 led by a devout Christian, Francis Collins, who succeeded Dr Watson in that post in 1993. Dr Collins complained at a recent meeting of scientists in California that God was receiving a “cold reception” during celebrations of the 50th anniversary.
He is concerned that the anti-religious views of these “very distinguished figures” will increase public antipathy to genetics, given that American polls suggest that 70-80per cent of people “believe in a personal God”.
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 Winston Churchill wrote to him, pointing out that “none need enter [the chapel] unless they wish”, Dr Crick replied that on those grounds, the college should build a brothel, and enclosed a cheque for 10 guineas.
Dr Watson described how he gave up attending Mass at the start of World War II. “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.”