There’s more to life than discovering DNA

Remarks by Nobel laureate James Watson have proved that there are worse crimes than being boring. Like being a eugenicist, for instance. 
Michael Cook | Oct 19 2007 | comment  



James Watson / London Times OnlineWith their buzz, gossip, and glamour, Nobel Prizes are a lot like the Oscars. And if ever there were a Nobel for entertainment, James Watson would surely win it. He shared a Nobel Prize with Francis Crick in 1962 for discovering the structure of DNA, and  since then he has seldom been far from the headlines. To mix metaphors, he is both a sharp tongue and a loose cannon.

At the age of 79, Watson has written a book, Avoid Boring People: And Other Lessons from a Life in Science, and embarked upon a publicity tour in Britain. This began with unequivocal proof that he is not a boring person. He had a long lunch with a contributor to the London Sunday Times, who winkled out of him some astonishingly crude racist remarks.

Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe's profile of Watson included this unnerving paragraph:

He says that he is "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", and I know that this "hot potato" is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true". He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because "there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level". He writes that "there is no firm reason 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".

There was an immediate uproar. The Science Museum in London cancelled a sell-out appearance by Watson, claiming that he had gone "beyond the point of acceptable debate". A chastened Watson apologised (at a book launch, suggesting that loose lips cannot sink promotional trips): "To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly, there is no scientific basis for such a belief." 

Watson is no stranger to controversy and, apart from the apology, the latest brouhaha has unfolded according to a very tattered script.  He is notorious for supporting selective abortions; denigrating a deceased female colleague whose work helped him to win his Nobel, Rosalind Franklin; sexist remarks; contempt for "stupid people"; support for human reproductive cloning; scorn for fat people; and on and on.

For years, his penchant for offense and denigration has made him a kind of scientific Mister Bean whose audiences squirmed between giggling and shrieking. In 2000, he told students at Berkeley that there was a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and libido. "That's why you have Latin lovers," he said. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient." Funny, perhaps, but insensitive. Boorish even. Perhaps he won his Nobel too young -- he was only 34 -- before he had learned tact and humility. 

Now that he has been accused of outright racism, his colleagues are diving for cover. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, where Watson is Chancellor, issued a press release saying that the staff "vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments".

They should have been bewildered and saddened long ago, because Watson's remarks are a direct consequence of a lifelong commitment to genetic determinism. Reducing the essence of what it means to be human to something quantifiable means that we can be distinguished from other life forms only by our DNA. Since we share about 99.4 per cent with chimpanzees (the figures vary), there are a lot of people who believe that we are only 0.6% superior to them. By the same token, humans are distinguished from other humans mainly by their IQs. No doubt what he really meant to say was that no matter what colour they are, people with low IQs are genetically inferior. 

Any thorough-going materialist will find it difficult to resist the temptation to classify people into inferior and superior types. One of Watson's bon mots is "People say we are playing God. My answer is: If we don't play God, who will?" He once told a British documentary, for instance, "If you are really stupid, I would call that a disease... so I'd like to get rid of that". He also has plans for the fair sex: "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it'd be great."

This is one reason why racism persists -- not despite the progress of modern science but because of it. Like polio, its eradication is announced regularly, only to flare up in the most unexpected places. And as long as human beings are regarded as mere bundles of chemical reactions, it will happen over and over again. Only if we acknowledge that human beings have a transcendental dimension, which is the unquantifiable source of their dignity, is there a firm foundation for fundamental equality and universal brotherhood.

Watson is not a old-fashioned racist and he is probably genuinely sorry for having offended people by his clumsy remarks. However, he is something more dangerous than a racist: a eugenicist. His work with Francis Crick (and Rosalind Franklin) has opened up vast new territories for science and medicine, and for this all of us are in his debt. But his dream of a super-race of "transhumans", people who are genetically engineered to be as smart as he is and faster, leaner and more beautiful than the rest of us is repellent. 

It is commonly thought that eugenics died out with the Nazis. It didn't. It's alive and well amongst scientists who believe that human beings are just machines for transmitting DNA. It is this side of Watson's thinking which should have bewildered and saddened his colleagues years ago. The scary thing is that they have only repudiated it now.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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