More threads by HA


Dr. Watson's Next Case
Oct 1 2007
By Alan Boyle

I had no idea that James Watson had a son with schizophrenia until I recently read this article and the interview at the end of it. HeartArt

Nobel-winning biologist James Watson is still serving up science with a spin at the age of 79: In his newly published book, Avoid Boring People, Watson looks over his life as brash young researcher, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, science policy adviser and the undisputed gray eminence of genetics. In the process, he distills dozens of lessons about life and rising in the scientific establishment (work on Sundays, for example, and never dye your hair)......

Cosmic Log: I was most intrigued by what you said at the very end of the book: how you saw the course of genetic analysis going, and the implications for people who are working in that field.

Watson: Everyone is curious why some people are successful. And of course other people are curious why people fail. I have a son who has schizophrenia and no working memory. So that’s really the origin of my intense interest: that the Human Genome Project might finally give the origin of his disability.

Q: In that case, it’s pretty straightforward: If science can do something to help with that condition, there are few people who would question whether that should be done. But I think you were also touching on the issue of people who might show some genetic predisposition to, I don’t know, low intelligence, or …
A: Being a psychopath.

Q: Yes, being a psychopath.
A: Another consideration would be our laws. We would like everyone to be equal, so we could have one law and one way to treat everyone. But I’m sure it’s not true. I heard a lecture from a criminologist that left me reeling … all about how many psychopaths there are, and how you deal with such people, who don’t seem to have any regard or remorse if they damage someone else.

Q: Right. So what do you do if you find someone with that genetic “fingerprint”?
A: I’m strongly opposed to sequencing people at birth and predicting their future. But if there’s a violent criminal, and I’m wondering whether to release him, in the future we would certainly look at his or her DNA. With our knowledge of genetics, I would never want to use that as the basis of discrimination, without some behavioral evidence.

Q: You also mentioned that the idea of all humanity having a common genetic heritage may be called into question once we start looking at personal genomes.
A: Yes, I just wonder … For example, if you compare Greeks and Swedes – Greeks talk without alcohol, OK? [Watson chuckles.] Now is that nature or nurture? The personalities probably have been selected for by evolution. So if you were a Swedish farmer whose house was a mile away from someone else and it was a dark winter, you had to pretty well get along without much conversation – whereas if you were on a Greek island, you’re probably right next to someone else.

Not only the color of our skin, but also our personalities, could be evolutionarily selected for. It’s really just saying that we’re all products of evolution. As a boy I wanted to be a naturalist, so the big hero was Charles Darwin. Everything was there because of survival of the fittest.

Q: In the book, you led into those issues with the whole controversy over Harvard President Lawrence Summers and his remarks about genetic differences between the sexes [relating to proficiency in math and science], and how you might have handled that situation differently.
A: I would have, but you know, I think Larry had ****ed off everyone even before he made that remark and didn’t know how to handle the hysteria afterward, which was led by my former student Nancy Hopkins, who went on television to denounce him.

Our brains aren’t equal. The same gene will make a boy badly autistic, and a girl will not suffer as much. So why? That’s really all I’m saying: This assumption that everyone has to be equal … Biology seldom treats people as equal. It hasn’t evolved to make laws easier, or social behavior easier.

But I’m convinced that instead of leading to a nastier society, we’ll be more compassionate. Instead of saying, “How can Summers be such a bore?” we’ll just say, “He can’t help it.” Of course, if you knew that, you wouldn’t have put him in as president of Harvard, because he really didn’t know how to deal with people. …

Q: And that gets into what I thought was an interesting theme in your book, that there’s a strong social component to the pursuit of science. That idea may surprise some people.
A: Yes, I think science probably is somewhat selective for people who think that if they go into it, they’ll be judged totally by how fast their brains can do mathematics, not how well they can interact with people. Whereas in truth, the interaction with people may in the long term be more important than how fast you can do your math.

Q: Your book pointed out how it was that a young man such as yourself developed into a scientist: It took scientific acumen, for sure, but it also took meeting the right people and take advantage of those opportunities.
A: By English standards, I was a slightly vulgar American who would walk into someone’s office without an invitation – whereas Francis Crick wouldn’t. So if I hadn’t been around, Francis had to write a letter, saying he was going to be in London, by chance could he drop by? He just couldn’t go in. Very old-fashioned.

Q: Have things changed in the scientific community to the extent that you can’t really follow those niceties anymore.
A: I don’t think we should have ever followed them anyway. That type of mannered behavior … I’m impulsive. If I want to see someone, I want to see them tomorrow, not send a letter off and wait a week. That’s not my speed.

Q: Each chapter of your book ends with a list of lessons learned, and I’m amazed that you were able to recall together lessons that go back as far as your childhood.
A: Well, why did I succeed? For one thing, I never accepted dares that put my life at risk. And I learned when I was on a softball team to put spin on balls. These are hints for survival. … I play tennis obsessively now, and you know, every one of my backhands spins. If you don’t know which way the ball is going to bounce, you have to wait for the bounce, and you can recover your position by using spin.

Q: I suppose some people would say the book is a bit gossipy. …
A: Of course. But people like gossip. The Double Helix was very gossipy, and I think that was the reason why people enjoyed reading it. You know, Francis Crick objected to The Double Helix, saying that I didn’t put enough science into it. And I said, “Well, if I put all the science that you want into it, no one will read it – except advanced scientists.”

Q: Another facet of the book was your discussion of all the female companions that you came in contact over the years. I was curious what your wife thought about that?
A: Heh, you know, none of them were as suitable for me as my wife. If I think back on my early life, I was attracted to girls because their parents were interesting. Suddenly someone would bring you into a new world. By the time I married, I wasn’t interested in who someone’s parents were, because I was established in life. I didn’t need a wife to introduce me to rich people, or let me join a country club or, you know, all that crap. But I grew up pretty poor in Chicago. I wasn’t surrounded by interesting people when I was a child.

Q: So you looked at the whole package as you met people along the way. …
A: Yeah, that was fun. I describe all these people. Someone who was a girlfriend of JFK – that interested me. Well, OK, one of his many girlfriends, I should say. That made it more exciting. But in the end, I discovered the most important quality in a girl is, she has to like you.

Q: Hmm, that sounds a lesson that I didn’t read in the book.
A: No, I didn’t put any lessons in about girls. This book was for success in academia, not success with girls.

Q: I guess that’s for a future book.
A: [Laughs] No, I’m not sure I could pull that off.

Q: Shifting gears a bit … you also discussed your role in science policy. That’s certainly a hot topic today, between the questions about national competitiveness and the concerns about homeland security. Are there any lessons you might pass along to policymakers as they consider the future of science in this country?
A: I think you ignore the nation’s bright people at your peril. During the Second World War, we won because the brightest people in our country helped us win. It wasn’t just G.I. Joe; it was also the people who developed radar. I think our government now acts as if bright people are just a nuisance. When Eisenhower was president, he knew what he needed to win a war. I don’t think our current government has the slightest idea what it needs to win a war.

Q: Are there any fresh ideas you’ve seen that might be worth calling attention to?
A: No, I think you just accept the advice of experienced people.

Q: If you were back at Harvard, starting out again, what would you want to target as the field to study?
A: That would be the genetics of behavior. I probably wouldn’t be trying to find out at the deepest level how the brain works, because I’m not sure the time has arrived for that. Right now we’re going to find the genes behind mental disease, and hopefully we’ll help families not have the curse of bipolar disorder going into their futures.

At my age now, I’m very oriented toward having less disease. In my 80s, if I’m successful, people will remember that I really helped to stop cancer. That’s my aim for the next decade, if I can live another 10 years.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about extreme longevity being perhaps within reach in the next few years. …
A: Oh, I doubt it. Men will continue to die in their 80s. How many people make it past their 80s? Some do, large numbers, but most people don’t. I’m just happy that I can still play tennis. I hit my best tennis serve, the fastest in my life about a week ago. So that really cheered me up.

Q: Well, I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.
A: Yeah, you can. You just have to know where you want to go. And if you don’t know where you want to go, you probably won’t get there.

Daniel E.
On at least two different TV programs on PBS, he has mentioned it before in passing, but he purposely didn't mention any details except something like his son needs a full-time nurse or something like that. I think one of the programs was:

Anyway, it reminds me of the fact that Einstein's son Eduard was schizophrenic. It also reminds me of Dr. Watson's statement: "If we don't play God, who will?" He likes to make that statement when arguing for genetic engineering.
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