No one understands genes quite like James Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA. In an era in which we are grappling with complex questions of bioethics, Watson has long been venerated as our in-house “Mr. Science.”
Recent events, however, have shown how dangerously misplaced this trust in Watson was.
For over 50 years, Watson has been hailed for his scientific breakthrough in understanding DNA and its double-helix structure. He won the Nobel Prize in 1962 along with co-discoverers Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, both of whom died in 2004. Furthermore, Watson’s importance was felt through the 1968 publication of his book, “The Double Helix,” which brought the concept of DNA to the mainstream and revolutionized the way the public understands science. Watson was celebrated again in 1990 when he launched the Human Genome Project, which sought to plumb what makes us human by determining the DNA sequencing of the human genome.
Throughout his achievements, Watson has been no stranger to controversy. He is called “Honest Jim” for his reputation as a man unafraid to speak his mind.
He has been criticized for overt sexism, in his degrading and neglectful treatment of Rosalind Franklin, the English scientist whose unpublished data was so crucial in the construction of the double helix model. Franklin, who died in 1958, never had the chance to correct Watson’s offensive account of the discovery or to potentially share in the Nobel Prize. More recently, Watson has suggested engineering genes to make women more beautiful/ “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty,” he told New Scientist magazine. “I think it would be great.”
Yet, because his scientific achievements are undeniable, Watson has remained a trusted voice in biology. For the past 40 years, he served variously as director, president, chancellor and board member of Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island’s world-class institution for scientific research. That all changed last week, however, when Watson was pressured into leaving his prestigious posts there, following an uproar over comments he made two weeks ago to the Sunday Times of London.
On Oct. 14, the British magazine published a piece in which Watson said that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” Continuing his offensive line of thought, Watson asserted his hope that all people are equal, yet maintained that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
“There is no firm reason,” he continued, “to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
These incendiary comments caused a furor in England, where Watson was on tour to promote his new book, “Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science.” With these remarks, he certainly demonstrated one way to avoid being boring: try for offensive and outrageous, instead. The uproar in Britain was so great that several of the scheduled talks for his book tour were canceled, yet one can only wonder why his resignation at Cold Spring Harbor took so long in coming—and why his future there was even left up to him.
Watson’s remarks to The Sunday Times were by no means the only inflammatory comments that he has made. He has spoken of the “horror and destruction” of having a mentally impaired child, has discussed the duty of molecular biologists to genetically treat low intelligence, and has called “some” anti-Semitism “justified.”
In 2000, Watson suggested the existence of biochemical links between thinness and ambition, and between skin color and sexual activity. In a lecture at Berkeley, he reportedly showed a slide of famously pouty Kate Moss to demonstrate that thin people are unhappy and consequently—thanks to their heightened ambition—better workers. The distinguished biologist also contrasted images of women in bikinis with images of veiled Muslim women to propose a relation between exposure to sunlight and sexual appetite. Phenotypically darker people, he hypothesized, have stronger libidos.
“That’s why you have Latin lovers,” Watson pronounced. “You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”
Early this year, Watson spoke to Esquire magazine of his cockeyed version of eugenics. “I think now we’re in a terrible situation where we should pay the rich people to have children,” he said. “If there is any correlation between success and genes, IQ will fall if the successful people don’t have children. These are self-obvious facts.”
But so many of these notions presented by Watson are not self-obvious—nor are they facts at all.
Of course scientific inquiry and investigation are imperative, even if they fly in the face of political correctness. That, undoubtedly, is how paradigms shift—that’s how we know that the concept of ’race’ is society’s construct. It is precisely for this reason that Watson should know to cite data when making his claims, especially claims as contentious as those involving eugenics. As a scientist looming large in the public eye, a Nobel laureate whose name has long been synonymous with respected empirical authority, Watson has a special responsibility to see the world as it is—and not as it might be. Of all people, Watson must not engage in offensive speculation that he cannot back up with hard science.
At least Watson can admit that his decision to retire is “more than overdue.” Yet much of the harm has been done already; his abhorrent comments are on record, providing fodder for racists, sexists and prejudiced elitists of all sorts.
In this brave or cold (pick your cliché) new world of medical technology, the renowned Dr. Watson has not been merely provocative. With his blundering, asinine comments, he has tarnished the study of science itself.