The Ghost of Old Doc Ricketts

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JAMES WATSON: Nobel Laureate and President, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

If you're going to Monterey to ponder a big topic like the Future of Life, you can't help but think of the marine biologist Ed Ricketts (1897-1948), a scientist who studied the myriad creatures of Monterey Bay and, more important, was a thinker far ahead of his time. Better known as the model for "Doc"— the wise, philosophical scientist in John Steinbeck's books Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and The Sea of Cortez— Ricketts preached the idea that all life was related, from the sardines that once swarmed by the billions off the California coast to the people who depended on them for their livelihoods. He quaintly called his philosophy the "toto picture." In these ecologically minded times that thought may seem prosaic, but it was a message few considered in Doc's day, no more dramatically demonstrated than by the sudden collapse of Monterey's sardine fishery in the 1940s. Doc had warned against over fishing, but no one listened. And suddenly Monterey's great silver harvest was gone.

One wonders what Doc — he actually disliked the name, maybe because he was a college dropout and really didn't have a Ph.D. — would have made of high-minded scientists, government officials and entrepreneurs, gathering near his beloved Cannery Row, to think about the consequences of a biological revolution. It was, of course, a revolution even he could not have anticipated. And not just because he died five years before Watson and Crick discovered DNA's double helix (when his car was hit by a produce-laden freight train). Doc was an old-fashioned sort of biologist who combed tide pools for the invertebrates he loved — mollusks, anemones, starfish — and studied their gross features and quirky behavior (and supported himself by supplying biological specimens and slides to schools and research institutions from his rickety lab along Cannery Row). He did not even think about the molecules that made them tick. But he did have a lively, open mind — a mind without horizons, as Steinbeck liked to say. He would surely have been an eager participant in what its organizers engagingly call "a conversation, a celebration, an event."

Indeed, during the 1930s, Ricketts was a magnet for the bright young intellectuals flocking to the Big Sur country. Ruggedly handsome and loquacious, with an eye for the ladies, he was a kind of guru even before that word became fashionable. His lab was a late-night haunt for a wide assortment of artists, writers and scholars, among them Henry Miller, Joseph Campbell and, of course, Steinbeck, who admittedly absorbed Doc's ideas like a sponge and turned him into the model for half a dozen characters in his books. (Ricketts "was part of my brain," the Nobel-prizewinning writer later said.) In the hazy predawn hours, over mugs of his home brew, Ricketts spouted poetry (Walt Whitman was a favorite), discussed modern art with ease and engaged in a game he called speculative metaphysics. Boozy bull sessions? Perhaps, but Ricketts also waxed eloquently about the power of cause and effect in nature's life cycles. He saw a deep unity in elements that others might regard as incompatibly different. Above all, he espoused holistic thinking long before it became a contemporary cliché.

Yes, he would surely have been right at home bantering with fellow free spirit Jim Watson or debating evolutionary theory with Richard Dawkins or exchanging ideas about biodiversity with E.O. Wilson. And though he wasn't "a molecule man," he recognized good science when he saw it. He would have been awed and fascinated by the secrets that the decoding of DNA has yielded. And maybe a little frightened, too. After all, he grew up in a less complex time — before antibiotics, before nuclear power, before gene-splicing. Would the biologist-philosopher of Cannery Row have approved of tinkering with the genome? What would he have had to say about the creation of genetically engineered organisms like the rapidly growing salmon we are raising in pens along our coasts? Would he have shed a tear for the late Dolly? Or would he have wagged a scolding finger at her scientist creators? And how would he have regarded the development of new plant species through gene-splicing — those "frankenfoods" that raised European blood pressure about U.S. policies long before George Bush started talking tough about Saddam Hussein.

These may be solipsistic questions, but they seem more than idle historic curiosity as we gather only paces from Doc Rickett's Lab (still lovingly preserved) to ponder the future of the genetic revolution. We know he favored the simple life, as in his admiration for the unencumbered lifestyle of the Indians he encountered with Steinbeck around the Sea of Cortez. He also had a profound appreciation of nature, untrammeled and unspoiled. He did not like to see it reel under unthinking human assault. But as a scientist, he also understood the power and potential of research to improve the human condition. He was deeply concerned about the world's ability to feed itself. He knew his beloved creatures from the sea could provide new treatments against disease. Beyond all else, he believed in seeking out the truth. As he once said, "There are good things to see in the tide pools and there are exciting and interesting thoughts to be generated from the seeing." One likes to think that as the arguments fly over the future of the genetic revolution — and Doc's ghost hovers over the proceedings — in the next days, he will be disagreeing at times, nodding in approval at others. Above all, one thinks he would be pleased that there are still folks out there filtering new truths from the fresh tide pools of knowledge that the genetic revolution has spawned.