Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Twisted Life


photo credit-jurvetson
creative commons license


So, having read a little bit more about James Watson after reading the comments to my last post, I thought I would add a bit more background about who exactly "Honest Jim", as he likes to be referred to, is.

Watson was born on the south side of Chicago in 1928, to relatively poor surroundings. He was accepted to the University of Chicago at the age of 15, and graduated with a degree in zoology. By this time he was interested in genetics. In 1948 he started working on a Ph.D. in zoology at Indiana University, working on bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). He spent that summer at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which he would later in life lead.

Watson's project at Indiana involved using x-rays to inactivate the bacteriophages. He received his Ph.D. in 1950, and moved to Clare College, Cambridge, where he shared an office with Francis Crick. They both shared an interest in finding the structure of DNA, and wanted to beat Linus Pauling in being able to do so.

Meanwhile, at another London college, Kings College, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were also working on this problem. Franklin, a rare female in a male dominated field, preferred to work alone and not share her work too much (perhaps this was rooted in a belief that her work would be "ripped off"). She also preferred a methodical approach, waiting to publish findings until they were confirmed.

Watson preferred taking chances and a more haphazard approach. At one point Watson and Crick were given an x-ray diffraction photo of DNA that Franklin had taken with Watson. Although this was given to them without Franklin's knowledge or consent, it is debated whether anything underhanded occurred in this taking place, though by modern standards Watson was at the very least unethical in his treatment of Franklin. In any event, Watson later acknowledged that when he saw the photo that an "ah ha!" moment occurred, enabling him to correctly guess at the structure of DNA.

Whether the data was stolen or not, only a minor footnote was made in acknowledgment of Franklin's crucial contribution to Watson and Crick's work. As Crick (who was friends with Franklin before she died) later admitted, "I'm afraid we always used to adopt -- let's say, a patronizing attitude towards her."

Watson and Crick, as well as Wilkins and Franklin, published articles in the same issue of Nature, describing the structure of DNA. It is likely that no one at the time knew the far reaching effects that their discovery would entail.

In 1962 Watson, Crick, and Wilkins all shared in the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize rules stipulate that all recipients must be alive, and that no more than 3 can share in any one prize. Conveniently, Rosalind Franklin had died of ovarian cancer in 1958,at the age of 37.

I think a few important things are important to look at, in interpreting subsequent actions and remarks made by Watson over the years. One is the time he spent at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the summer while at Indiana University. Another is his making a major scientific discovery at a young age by "taking chances", and not working methodically. Finally, one of Watson's sons is schizophrenic.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) was one of the prime centers of the eugenics movement in America from 1910-1939. Although that aspect of its nature had been closed down by the time Watson arrived, one may assume that many of the ideas that were promulgated there still existed, and that he would have been exposed to the mish mash mixing of science and racism at a time when he was just beginning to develop intellectually. A history of eugenics in the US (up to the early 20th century) can be found at the CSHL website here.

After Watson's Nobel Prize, he capitalized on it by publishing 3 textbooks, which made him rich. To a poor kid from Chicago, this could only have reinforced the advisability of "taking chances" and cutting corners when coming out with theories. His earlier brash methods had payed off, and set him up for life.

Watson went on to head Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory. He was laboratory director from 1968 until he turned 65, in 1994. From 1994 until 2003 he served as president, and since 2003 he has been chancellor of the lab. The lab has grown by leaps and bounds under his direction, as he seems to have a flair for attracting donors, as well as having the good fortune to oversee a genetics lab in an age of genetics research. After this month's debacle of his racist comments in England, the board of directors has removed him from administrative duties as chancellor. Watson served as head of the NIH human genome project for a time, but was forced out when he objected to the patenting of specific human genes. While I applaud this position, I suspect that it was taken from an ideological standpoint of wanting to "perfect" the human race in as quick a fashion as possible, and not from either an economics or ethical point of view.

As was detailed nicely in 2003 by Ralph Brave here, Watson is a modern day eugenics proponent. He not only wants to "cure" such diseases as autism and stupidity, he wants to inject new genes (from any source-animal, plant, lab made) into human gene lines (so called human germline genetic engineering).

As detailed in Brave's post, at a 1998 UCLA conference, Watson said,

"And the other thing, because no one has the guts to say it," Watson informed the 1998 conferees, "if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we do it? What's wrong with it? Who is telling us not to it?"


This goes far beyond manipulating genes in specific individuals to modify or cure specific disease states.

Watson's firm basis in wanting to "improve" the human race, and his wanting to use any method available to make it palatable to the public, is illustrated by the following (also from the Brave article):

But what exactly are Watson's eugenics intentions? How would he design better human beings? The germ-line intervention that he and other advocates most often mention is improvements to the immune system. There is a gene, for example, which provides absolute resistance to the AIDS virus. If it were possible to safely implant such a gene into an embryo, who would object? Or a gene that similarly protected someone against SARS or an even more deadly emerging infectious disease?

Such germ-line alterations are viewed cynically by Watson, though, as a means to other ends: the wedge that will open the door to further engineering. "I think that the acceptance of genetic enhancement," he writes in his new book, "will most likely come through efforts to prevent disease."

The range of potential genetic enhancements at this point is almost entirely a matter of speculation. But Watson is not shy about suggesting his own eugenic targets. In a British documentary on his life and work to be broadcast in the U.S. this fall, Watson announces that he'd like to genetically treat the 10 percent of children whom he considers "stupid" and prevent the birth of ugly girls. "If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease," Watson says. Furthermore, "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."


Watson doesn't seem to care if some lives are lost in his quest, and doesn't even flinch from describing himself as a eugenicist:

As with other biomedical innovations, even if germline engineering proves successful in other primates, the same technique applied to humans would have unknown results. That's why, Watson writes, "the start of human experimentation will require resolute courage; the promise of enormous benefit won't be fulfilled except through experiments that will ultimately put some lives at risk."

"My view," he concludes, "is that, despite the risks, we should give serious consideration to germ-line gene therapy. I only hope," he plaintively appeals, "that the many biologists who share my opinion will stand tall in the debates to come and not be intimidated by the inevitable criticism ... If such work be called eugenics, then I am a eugenicist."


It's no wonder that legitimate scientists cringe whenever Watson opens his mouth.

Now there is certainly a whole group of scientists that feel that all scientific research should be allowed to proceed, no matter what, and that they should not be shackled by political and ethical concerns. I heartily disagree with the divorcing of ethics from scientific endeavor (the ultimate example of this would be the experiments undertaken by the Nazis and Japanese during WWII), but Watson goes even further in his comments. He finds little nuggets of information in his research, then extrapolates something completely different than what really exists. It's like looking at chicken nuggets, and deciding that all chickens are flat oval blobs.















photo_credit(nuggets)-yoppy, chicken-LollyKnit

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If he had commented only that genetics may show us that some populations are smarter than others, then that might be something that would be worthy of scientific scrutiny and debate. Legitimate criticisms could be made of tests of intelligence (domains they cover, ways they are administered, bias in interpreting results, etc.). Also it would be valid to question what purpose there was in even measuring such things. There will always be a great deal of variation within populations, and even if one population were to be shown on average to be more intelligent than another, it would not tell you anything regarding specific individuals.

However, Watson can't resist using little scientific nuggets of information to prop up his eugenic racist, sexist, and homophobic utopian vision he probably ingested during his summers at Cold Spring Harbor when he was young. The comment that got him into trouble most recently was the following:

The 79-year-old geneticist said 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." He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".


But this isn't the first time Watson has said something so incredibly stupid. He's had a lot of similar things to say in the past, such as the following quote from a BBC documentary in 2003:

"It seems unfair that some people don't get the same opportunity. Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no one can stop it. It would be stupid not to use it, because someone else will. Those parents who enhance their children, then their children are going to be the ones who dominate the world."


This is from an interview that was published shortly before the most recent dust-up:

He talks of the “horror and destruction” of life that can arise from having a severely autistic child, and hopes that by diagnosing autism early, “we might prevent some [autism-prone] families having subsequent children”.


According to this account of a lecture Watson gave at Berkely in October of 2000,

Witnesses were flabbergasted when the 72-year-old discoverer of the double helix suggested there was a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges. "That's why you have Latin lovers," Watson said. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient."

In a lecture hall jammed with more than 200 Berkeley students and faculty members, Watson showed a slide of sad-faced model Kate Moss to support his contention that thin people are unhappy and therefore more ambitious.

"Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them," Watson said.


I can't find a quote that says so, but it appears that Watson would want to sterilize all people over a certain weight, too.

Much of the Cold Spring Harbor Lab's emphasis lately has been on finding the genetic basis of autism and schizophrenia. Watson's son, Rufus, now 37, has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, and this undoubtedly has been much of the driving force behind Watson's efforts.

This year a new "Psychiatric Genomics Center" was founded at CSHL specifically to study the genetic basis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism.

According to this article, what Watson would do with genetic information is absolutely clear:

And he has publicly revealed that he wishes a genetic test had been available which would have shown that his son Rufus would turn out to have schizophrenia. "I think I would be a monster to want someone to suffer the way he has... so, yes, I would have aborted him," he once said.


While Watson has spent a lot of money and time on trying to find the genetic cause of autism and schizophrenia (so he can prevent anyone that carries these genes from reproducing, and aborting anyone that happens to slip thru the cracks), I did find one quote from Watson that I didn't find offensive. In talking about his son in an interview with The Guardian he said:

My wife and I have a schizophrenic son. We didn't want to accept this for 30 years, so we put him under great pressure when we shouldn't have. He just wanted to be looked after, and we didn't respect that. We tried to make him independent.


If only the vast majority of Watson's life hadn't been spent in trying to "perfect" the human race thru eugenics, there might be some hope for him.

5 comments:

kristina said...

If only that last quote was where he started from----but I think it is hopeful that it could be said. It amazes me how few people seem to know about, or want to know about, the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII----students are certainly very surprised to hear about this.

Patrick said...

I agree that the last quote is about the most useful thing I see too.

Now if Some People... Like Autism Speaks, DAN!, Generation Recue, U.S. Gov't (Other Gov'ts too) etc. would get that through their heads then maybe we wouldn't have reports of folks lighting building complexes on fire, accidentally killing themselves, being killed by people trying to Cure them, and a whole lot more.

abfh said...

The more one sees of Watson, the creepier he looks.

Thanks for posting the link to the Brave article. I've added it to my post on Watson.

Daisy said...

Thanks for the lengthy and informative post. I found it both fascinating and frightning. I'm hearing impaired (possibly genetic in nature, cause unknown) and the mother of a child who is congenitally blind (Leber's Amaurosis, autosomal recessive) and has Asperger's. Despite our many strengths and the richness of our lives, my child and I would be considered second class citizens by Watson and his like.

Club 166 said...

Thanks to those that responded to both the last post as well as this one.

As an update, Watson resigned as chancellor of the CSHL this week.

It is interesting that while everyone took notice of his racist comments in this last incident, his eugenetic comments never threatened his job status.

It is sad that Watson chose to make so many negative comments over the years, and so few positive ones.

Joe