Today, Francis Crick, who helped lay the foundations for modern day molecular biology passed away. He was 88.
Working with James Watson, the two discovered the molecular structure of DNA. The two raced against a group of worldwide colleagues to discover the code of life. The New York Times has a wonderful obituary of Dr. Crick.
The obituary raises two sociologically significant points that are worth highlighting. First, there was an intense race among numerous scientists seeking to outline the structure of DNA. As a result, several scientists around the world--including Linus Pauling and Rosalind Franklin--were within days of discovering the underlying structure themselves. Crick's advantage was that he was in an advantageous position to know the work that others were doing and as a result able to arbitrage this knowledge into recognizing this structure. The Times writes: "By brain, wit, vigor of personality, strength of voice, intellectual charm and scorn, a lot of travel and ceaseless letter-writing, Crick coordinated the research of many other biologists, disciplined their thinking, arbitrated their conflicts, communicated and explained their results."
Crick occupied what network scholars call "structural holes." In a forthcoming AJS article on where good ideas come from, Ron Burt elegantly describes this process. He writes: "People whose networks span structural holes have early access to diverse, often contradictory information and interpretations which gives them a competitive advantage in seeing good ideas." Slight positional advantages in social networks therefore might also explain why the recognition of the underlying structure of other people in the network happened within days of Crick and Watson's discovery.
A second related point is that "Their proposal for the structure, almost immediately accepted...not only because of its inherent elegance but also because it showed how biology, evolution and the nature of life itself could fundamentally be explained in terms of physics and chemistry. Indeed, the desire to replace religious with rational explanations of life was a principal motivation of Dr. Crick's career." What is fascinating about this last sentence is the irony that religious pre-occupation was the founding factor that gave rise to the modern scientific ethos.
In his classic work on 17th century science, Robert K. Merton argued that the modern scientific ethos--especially the ethic of experimentation and diligency--required the same type of Protestant ethic which gave rise to modern capitalism. The scientist has to take the inner life seriously. Scientists, he argues, have to see their work as a vocation. Haunted by the awareness that there are several unanswered questions, the original modern scientists such as Francis Bacon were seeking to uncover the 'Divine Revelation'. Even the most hardened scientist experiences this feeling keenly. Weber describes this feeling in his classic essay, Science as a Vocation. He writes:
And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders, so to speak, and to come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript may as well stay away from science. He will never have what one may call the 'personal experience' of science. Without this strange intoxication, ridiculed by every otusider; without this passion, this 'thousands of years must pass before you enter into life and thousands more wait in silence'--acording to wjhether or not you succeed in making this conjecture; without this, you have no calling for science and you should do something else. For nothing is worthy of man as man unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion."
The danger in Crick's quest for ultimate rationality is that they ultimately snuff out the values that gave rise to rationality in the first place. Ultimately, the conquest of life by pure rationality and thus the crowding out of the self-realization of the spirit, creates the conditons in which meaning is lost and thus creates the "iron cage" of rootlessness, materialism, and a meaningless life or what Durkheim called anomie. This anomic imagery can be found in almost all of Weber's writings with respect to the the trajectory of modern society.