Friday, October 19, 2007

Inherit the Wind

For over half a century James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule has been one of the most famous scientists in the world. And before I trash him, which is the purpose of this post, let me tell one of my favorite stories. Watson and his colleague, Francis Crick in 1953, after cracking the structure of DNA saunter into a pub near Cambridge University and announce, “a round for everyone, we’ve just discovered the secret of life.”

Anyway, I have never been much of a fan of James Watson, and found his tell-all account of the 1953 discovery, The Double Helix, snarky and mean-spirited, and my estimation of him sank further when I have read in recent years how Watson and Francis Crick, at the very least, failed to give a fellow researcher, Rosalind Franklin, credit in their work for her invaluable contribution to unraveling the mystery of DNA. (Brenda Maddox’s biography of Rosalind Franklin, detailing all the sexism she faced as a female scientists in her tragically brief career, is one of the greatest and most moving of all scientific biographies.)

Anyway, Watson has been director of the Cold Spring Harbor research laboratory on the North Shore of Long Island for many decades now. This story appeared in the paper today:

In an interview published Sunday in The Times of London, Dr. Watson is quoted as saying that while “there are many people of color who are very talented,” he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.”

“All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

This is a reminder of Cold Spring Harbor’s inglorious history as, from its founding in 1910 until about 1940, as the center of American eugenics research. One could add, to the other distinctions of New York City and State in the first third of the 20th century that it probably was the world-wide center for the study in eugenics. (In 1933, we passed the baton to Berlin, whose race scientists always acknowledged what they learned from New York’s race improvers.) Cold Spring Harbor tirelessly advocated for eugenic education and legislation, such as Virginia’s mandatory sterilization bill upheld by the US Supreme Court in their infamous 1927 Buck v Bell decision. Cold Spring Harbor’s efforts to weed out the breeding stock were supported by New York City Madison Grant, a leading advocate of immigration restriction, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History, the site in 1921 of an international conference on eugenics. And so on.

Other than the fact that Watson is a dick (and he has been suspended by the administration at Cold Spring Harbor) I am not sure what this proves other than the fact that Watson is a stupid old man. I think it is a reminder however, that genetics has been put to noxious uses in the past, and likely will be so used again. The possibility of arguments from genetic determinism has only increased with the explosion of genetic knowledge in recent years. Neo-Darwinian explanations of every type of human behavior abounds. We probably (I hope) will not make the same crude genetic errors the eugenicists did in the early decades in the early 20th century. But we likely make equally wrongheaded leaps from science to social policy. If nothing else, Watson’s gaffe is a reminder for us to be ever-vigilant against the misuse of science.

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