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Francis Crick: Seeking the Origins of Life and Consciousness

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Who is Francis Crick?

Francis Crick was a British molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist. He famously pioneered the effort with James Watson to elucidate the double-helix molecular architecture of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).  

Crick possessed a sharp intellect, extraordinary creativity, open-mindedness, and had the willingness to collaborate across various scientific disciplines. In addition, Crick was friendly, outgoing, and skeptical, a tenacious individual who loved a good debate.  

Early Life 

Francis Harry Compton Crick was Born June 8, 1916 in the midst of World War I near Northampton, England. He demonstrated an interest in science at an early age, and spent much time reading books on various scientific subjects. He attended church with his family as a child. However, he stopped attending around the age of 12, as he preferred scientific reasoning over religious belief.

Education, Career, and World War II 

Francis Crick’s educational and career path was rather unconventional.  

Crick pursued his scientific curiosity by attending University College London (UCL), earning a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1937. He then continued his education at UCL in a graduate program, pursuing a Ph.D. in physics. However, the outbreak of WW II interrupted his studies. Thus, he diverted his attention from his studies, and served on the scientific staff of the Admiralty (i.e., the Navy).  

During the war, Crick designed mines for naval warfare. He was instrumental in designing a mine that was highly effective at destroying German minesweepers. This pivotal development enabled the sinking of more than 100 German minesweepers by the British Navy. 

After the war, Crick continued working in military research, but he found the work rather unsatisfying. So in 1947, when he was 31, he sought to transfer to a field that could sustain his curiosity, passion, and dedication. There were two subjects that fascinated Crick: the field of molecular biology and the mysteries of consciousness. He was particularly interested in understanding how molecules create life and consciousness. Therefore, in 1947, Crick began working as researcher in the biological sciences at the University of Cambridge. 

In 1949, Crick’s insatiable curiosity led him to the Cavendish Laboratories at Cambridge, where he pursued groundbreaking research to determine the structures of large molecules found in living organisms. 

Then, in 1950, Crick assumed the role of research student for the second time, pursuing his Ph.D. at Cambridge University. He completed his doctorate in 1954; his thesis was titled X-ray Diffraction: Polypeptides and Proteins.

In the 1950s and ’60s Crick made exciting scientific discoveries, wrote notable publications, and received many accolades.  

Later Career and Death

From 1977 until his death in 2004, Crick held the position of distinguished professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. In this role, he focused on another one of his greatest curiosities: the neurological basis of consciousness

Crick died of colon cancer on July 28th, 2004 at UCSD Thornton Hospital in La Jolla, California. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean. In his honor, the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation became the Francis Crick Institute in 2011.  

Research 

DNA Structure and Work with James Watson

The young American biologist James Watson arrived at Cavendish labs in 1951. Watson was 23 years old, arrogant and brash, and already holding a Ph.D. Conversely, Crick was a 35-year-old graduate student with a friendly, tolerant, and forgiving demeanor. However, both men shared an interest in the fundamental problem of learning how molecules stored genetic information. In addition, both men had a fascination with unraveling the mysteries of the nucleic acids, with a particular focus on DNA.  

Thus, Crick and Watson forged a relationship that would lead to a theoretical model for the molecular structure of DNA. In 1953 they published the seminal article titled “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” in the revered scientific journal Nature. In the article they proposed the double-helix molecular structure. Their work produced one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century.  

In 1962, Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”

Molecular Biology

After the discovery of the double helix model of DNA, Crick sought to understand how the molecular structure of this molecule determines its role in living systems. During the 1950s–’60s, he continued developing theories and publishing articles that would become standards in the biological sciences. Crick’s work eventually led to the elucidation of the genetic code: the set of rules living cells use to translate information encoded within genetic material (such as DNA and other nucleic acids) into proteins.

This was yet again another one of the most important biological discoveries of the 20th century. Francis Crick earned his reputation as one of the greatest contributors to the field of molecular biology

Controversy 

Francis Crick’s contribution to our foundational understanding of living systems will always be revered. However, below are a few reminders that even the greatest of thinking minds are fallible.

Use of Unpublished Data 

There is an enduring controversy around Crick and Watson’s inappropriate use of data collected by Rosalind Franklin. They most likely used Franklin’s unpublished data without her knowledge in elucidating the DNA double helix structure. Given the significance of Franklin’s contributions, it has been suggested that she should have been named as an author on the original Crick and Watson article mentioned above, and received the Nobel Prize alongside Crick, Watson, and Wilkins. 

Crick’s Views on Eugenics 

It was not unusual for brilliant individuals to occasionally express opinions that were better kept in the privacy of one’s own mind. In this vein, Crick was known for sharing, albeit privately, his view on eugenics: the idea of “arranging reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable.” He proposed the notion that wealthy parents should be encouraged to have more children. However, eugenics became particularly controversial and distasteful after the Nazis took this subject to extremes, conducting abhorrent experiments on prisoners during WW II.   

Sexual Harassment

In the 1960s, an undergraduate student named Nancy Hopkins claimed that Francis Crick had put his hands on her breasts during a lab visit. Hopkins described this incident as follows: “Before I could rise and shake hands, he had zoomed across the room, stood behind me, put his hands on my breasts and said, ‘What are you working on?'” This is obviously shameful, and occurred at a time and place when there was limited or no recourse for such behavior.

Religious Perspectives

Francis Crick’s views on religion fueled his quest to explain the origins of life and the nature of consciousness. An avowed atheist, he had a deep disdain for religion. Crick’s biographer Matt Ridley commented that Crick “would have liked to find the seat of consciousness and to see the retreat of religion.” 

In 1966, Crick published a series of lectures titled Of Molecules and Men. In them, he critiqued an idea he called “vitalism,” the notion that an invisible force creates and guides life, evolution, and consciousness. He rejected this notion, positing that the origin further scientific reasoning and experimentation could determine the origins of life. He believed that a deeper investigation into the origins of the nucleic acids would reveal the origins of life.  

Consistent with his religious views, Crick also harbored disdain toward the notion of royalty. At one point, he refused to meet the queen when she visited Cambridge’s new Laboratory of Molecular Biology. In addition, he declined knighthood in 1963.

Francis Crick and LSD

It his widely speculated that Francis Crick used LSD to aid in elucidating the molecular structure of DNA. However, there is no evidence to support this notion. If there is any truth to this idea, Crick took it to the grave.  

Several articles that turn up in internet searches amplify the rumor that Crick used LSD to elucidate his insights into DNA. However, these articles have not survived scrutiny.

The truth about Francis Crick and his relationship with LSD can be somewhat of a letdown to the psychedelic community. The reason is that these stories give almost mythological strength to the LsD’s proponents. However, the truth about Crick does not diminish the beauty, wonder, and potential of psychedelic substances. In addition, Crick’s discoveries without the aid of psychedelics speak to the resident power of our minds and consciousness. Consider what we might learn from Crick’s problem-solving approach that we can apply with or without the aid of psychedelics. 

Francis Crick’s Mind and his Scientific Approach

Crick utilized the power of intellectual “sparring” to develop his thinking and sharpen his ideas. He forged his best ideas within the challenge of argument. This required the constant presence of a sparring partner. As such, James Watson was Crick’s intellectual sparring partner for the discovery of DNA’s double helix. 

Crick also cultivated his ability to visualize the physical relationship of objects in space. He was known for his strong ability to see the structure of molecules in his mind’s eye. Biologists and chemists develop this skill with practice; perhaps psychedelics can accelerate its development. 

Crick was known for using a mixture of intuition, imagery, and reasoning to illuminate his understanding of difficult concepts. He was often able to see answers to difficult problems prior to seeing the complete mathematical or data-derived conclusions. He once stated that “although it is necessary to be able to handle the algebraic details, I soon found I could see the answer to many of these mathematical problems by a combination of imagery and logic, without first having to slog through the mathematics.”

During a conference dinner in 1986, a gentleman named Oliver Sacks spent an evening conversing with Francis Crick. He described the experience as “a little like sitting next to an intellectual nuclear reactor … I never had a feeling of such incandescence.” Let us draw inspiration from Francis Crick’s approach as we continue exploring the nature of consciousness! 

Francis Crick’s Awards & Honors

Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 1962

Royal Medal of the Royal Society, 1972

Copley Medal of the Royal Society, 1975

Order of Merit, 1991

Francis Crick’s Books

Of Molecules and Men

Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature

What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery

The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul

Francis Crick Quotes

“There is no scientific study more vital to man than the study of his own brain. Our entire view of the universe depends on it.”

“It is essential to understand our brains in some detail if we are to assess correctly our place in this vast and complicated universe we see all around us.”

“A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong”

“One of the most frightening things in the Western world, and in this country in particular, is the number of people who believe in things that are scientifically false. If someone tells me that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, in my opinion he should see a psychiatrist.”

“A good scientist values criticism almost higher than friendship: no, in science criticism is the height and measure of friendship.”

“The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it.”

“If revealed religions have revealed anything it is that they are usually wrong.”

RS Contributing Author: B.A. Wesler

B.A. is an industrial chemist, aspiring Stoic philosopher, practitioner of Vipassana meditation, and all-around problem-solver who fills his time with activities that are aimed at elevating the human condition. He loves to explore the role of psychedelics at the intersection of science, spirituality, consciousness, and overall well-being. When he is not writing or working, he relishes in the simplest of pleasures such as trail running, staring into a campfire, and dishing out big hugs. B.A. would love to hear from you at [email protected]

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