GENEWATCH
 
IN MEMORIAM: A TRIBUTE TO BARRY COMMONER
By Sheldon Krimsky
 

If there were a Nobel Prize awarded for public interest science, without a doubt Barry Commoner would have been one of its recipients. His work, spanning more than a half century, challenged the apathy of calcified government agencies and scientists who fed from their troughs and raised the consciousness of countless young scientists to understand that inaction in the face of moral crisis was itself immoral.

Commoner found his calling in science with a public purpose. He tackled the iconic environmental problems of the 20th century, including radioactive fallout, toxic pollution, air quality, the fossil fuel economy, hazardous waste, nuclear power, chemically intensive agriculture, climate change and the ecology of the planet.

In his pursuit of fundamental questions, he refused to be limited to the disciplines of his education, namely biochemistry and genetics. He mastered the literature in other fields in order to create a more holistic view of the causes and solutions of environmental problems. On the celebration of Commoner's 80th birthday one of his students, Danny Kohl, wrote: "Barry Commoner's scientific career is best characterized by his insistent commitment to holistic (as opposed to reductionist) approaches to understanding how living things function and his alertness in bringing the most modern tools from physics and chemistry to bear on the properties of living systems."

Activist Peter Montague spoke of him most aptly as the father of grassroots environmentalism. Commoner gave ordinary citizens more credit for their ability to assimilate technical information than most of his contemporaries. He introduced the concept of "right to know" decades before it became a cornerstone of legislation.

Commoner's defiance against immoral authority began at a young age. While writing Science in the Private Interest, I interviewed Commoner for a profile I was preparing on a few public interest scientists. He told me that when he attended James Madison High School in Brooklyn, where he had been a high academic achiever spending considerable time in biology labs, his teachers prompted him to go to college to study biology. Commoner's uncle, a Russian-born intellectual on the staff of the New York Public Library, advised his nephew that Jews had a difficult time getting positions in universities; if he wanted such a career, he should enroll in an elite college, specifically not City College, the default choice of most of the children of immigrant parents. He applied to Columbia and was rejected, according to Commoner, because of the Jewish quotas that many Ivy League schools had during that period. Columbia directed him to Seth Low Junior College, which it had established to accept ethnic and racial minorities.

Commoner refused to attend the "lesser school" and eventually one of his family members contested the decision and he was admitted to Columbia and thereafter Harvard.

The issue that jump started Commoner's public role in science and on which he spent a dozen years was nuclear radiation from atomic testing. In the mid-to-late 1950s the public was assured that there were no risks from the radiation released from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. So much of the information was classified that it was impossible to make an informed decision. Commoner argued that the decision about atmospheric testing should not rest with the scientists alone. He started the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), which led to the magazine Scientist and Citizen.

Working through CNI, Commoner executed one of the most iconic citizen information campaigns in the 20th century. At Washington University, he collaborated with the Dental School and collected baby teeth to determine the levels of strontium 90 absorption from the radioactive fallout of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. The citizens of St. Louis played a critical role in delivering biological information to scientists.

Commoner also made his scientific expertise available to occupational health and safety activists who lobbied for legislation protecting workers. CRG founding member Tony Mazzocchi, who served as vice president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, wrote about Commoner: "Without [our] association with Barry we would never have changed the face of the workplace." Mazzocchi was also a participant in the Baby Tooth Survey while he was a member of SANE (the anti nuclear organization). Commoner was also a member of the advisory committee of the then nascent Council for Responsible Genetics.

Ralph Nader spoke of Commoner as one of the most complete scientists, a person who doesn't just contribute to the technical details of a debate. He asked more fundamental questions, such as why we should have a fossil fuel economy in the 21st century, or how do we organize our economy so it is not dependent on high throughput material consumption and technologies that disrupt the biosphere?

While Commoner was widely known for his environmental activism and for applying science toward a public purpose, he was also a brilliant and creative scientist working across fields of biology and physics. He began his career investigating the tobacco mosaic virus. He used electron spin resonance to study free radicals (molecules with one rather than two electrons in the outer shell which gave them unique chemical properties).

While researching the history of biology, I came across Commoner's early writings in molecular genetics. In 1964 and 1968 Commoner published articles in Nature where he questioned the Watson-Crick theory of DNA in inheritance and criticized the central dogma of molecular biology. Commoner contended that DNA was not self-replicating and that their theory failed to account for the role of proteins. He left that debate aside and came back to it many years later.

I came across a comment by Commoner in the media that stated that many of the new genetically modified products had already been tested in nature's genetic exchanges. I wrote him and explained that the new biotechnology was similar to the rise of synthetic organic chemistry and could do things nature had not imagined or tried out. Moreover, I reminded him of his early work which was emblematic of an anti-reductionist approach to biotechnology. Some time passed and I learned that Commoner was steeping himself in the newest studies of molecular biology.  Then, in 2002 he published a widely distributed article in Harpers Magazine titled "Unraveling the DNA Myth: The Spurious Foundations of Genetic Engineering." This took him full circle from his 1968 Nature paper "Failure of the Watson-Crick Theory as a Chemical Explanation of Inheritance." In his essay he questioned the biological claims of the new agricultural biotechnology enterprise.

When I began teaching a course on the political economy of the environment, I was drawn to Commoner's work. He wrote compellingly about energy, population growth, industrial production, reductionism in science and the responsibility of scientists. His book Science and Survival, published in 1963, is a classic. I also had access to audio lectures he made on ecology and survival. As a lecturer he had in his voice all the drama of a seasoned thespian. He used his stage presence as effectively as any speaker I have ever heard. And he was masterful at simplifying complex science to a general audience. I can still hear his resonant voice bellow out in the audio tapes: "We use atomic energy to heat water to 3,000 degrees when all we need is steam that requires 212 degrees."

Sheldon Krimsky, PhD, is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Council for Responsible Genetics.

 
 
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