Sunday, November 21, 2010

Life Lines 41


I was saddened by the mess Jim Watson found himself in when he went to London. Contrary to what most people think occurred, Watson was not interviewed in England on a book tour when his racist and sexist remarks occurred but interviewed earlier in the United States by a former student whom he had recruited from an English girl’s school. A former student of mine in Edinburgh sent me the 12-page article on Watson. In it the author of the article described Watson’s beneficial influence on her life and his views on genetics and society. He had recruited the student ten years ago to help bring more women into science. She described his positive accomplishments at Cold Spring Harbor bringing many of the most creative scientists there to make substantial contributions to our knowledge of human genetics and health. She gave a balanced account and remarked that his thinking and conversation was often erratic and blunt, sometime hurting his own reputation and she cited several of these from his past. She also recounted his remarks about IQ and race and it was this that led to his resignation from the Chancellorship of the CSH Laboratory and the Watson school. This does not exonerate Watson if he made those remarks. He apologized immediately for them and felt he was quoted out of context.

I read his latest book, Avoid Boring People. It is part autobiography and part a homily on how to be an effective scientist. Any young science student reading it will get a lot of practical advice and good insights in how to have a successful career. He mentions growing up in Chicago in the Depression. His parents were both liberal Democrats who believed in Roosevelt’s programs. He mentions sneaking a peak at his own IQ scores in high school and finding to his dismay that at best his IQ was 120. Those are not boasting scores; they are five points above the upper end of normalcy. He would need another 20 to 25 points to be in the genius category (145 and up). To Watson’s credit he succeeded in his career and he did not let his modest IQ prevent him from achieving eminence as a scientist. It is also to Watson’s credit that he insisted on a portion of the funding of the money for the human genome project to go to studies of the ethical, legal, and social aspects of the use of that new knowledge. When I heard Watson give a talk on the history of CSHL Press in 1999 he spoke of the importance of subsidizing books on the history of genetics and eugenics. I asked him if he would read a manuscript I was working on that covered the history of allegedly “unfit people” from Biblical times to the present. He not only read it, he recommended it for publication to CSHL Press. On many occasions when I was working with groups at CSHL on various eugenic history studies, he stated the importance of making all of the “skeletons in the closet” at CSHL to be made available on line for the world to see so the errors of the past will not be repeated. I would rather associate myself with a person who does good things and occasionally says regretful things than a person who says good things and acts to undermine those things by deeds that damage what we were misled to believe. I felt sorry for Reverend Jesse Jackson for his incautious comments some years ago but he is a person who far more consistently acts for the public good. We live in an age where off the cuff remarks become epitaphs to destroy reputations built over decades.

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