Tweeting the life of the mind

Academic colleagues of mine who are only slightly or not at all involved with social media often ask me why I do it, while those of us who are involved often seem to find ourselves defending or proselytizing (see special essay series…). Yet one of the most important reasons for me is that it gets me out of the ivory tower for a bit of fresh air.

My Twitter feed is only maybe 20% historians of science and medicine. I follow and am followed by scientists, journalists, novelists, biotech executives and marketing types. I’m pretty sure my feed has a better racial and gender mix than my university, as well as a wider spectrum of political views and commitments. In short, Twitter broadens me.

Another reason I do it, though, is community service. I think that we who stroll the groves of Academe have a duty to get out and engage with the wider world somehow. One of my colleagues does political work in Latin America. Another raises consciousness about climate change. Yet another helped break the story about North Carolina’s official eugenic sterilization program—a story that led to an official apology from the state and reparations to at least some of the victims’ families. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a place in the Academy for the dreaming scholar, alone with her books, researching esoterica. Supporting the gathering of knowledge for its own sake strikes me as a pretty good use of money. But those of us who are moved to do so can help keep the life of the mind vital and relevant by getting out and getting our hands dirty.

Regular Genotopia readers know that fighting genetic determinism is among my main causes. “Gene-for” explanations have a way of supporting the status quo, reinforcing existing power hierarchies, blaming the victim. When social problems are explained away with genetics, it tends to divert attention from environmental solutions. It lends an aura of power and inevitability to racism, sexism, and homophobia. The genetic determinist says, Black/Hispanic/poor people are innately less intelligent; why bother fixing the schools? Such arguments have been around in almost exactly the same form for a century or more. More data doesn’t seem to make a dent. Among the public, the popularity of genetic determinist thinking stems mainly from our desire for simple explanations and from the cultural authority of science. When scientists do it, it’s mostly because when all you’ve got is a sequencer, everything looks like a gene.

And yet lots of people use this kind of language without having insidious political ideologies. It’s easy, it’s ubiquitous, we’re conditioned to think this way. But when we use determinist language, inadvertently or not, we’re making real social change more difficult. So when I see such language in the popular press or in the scientific literature, I call it out—gently if I think it’s accidental, with a bit of a bite if I don’t.

My daily dose of determinism last Friday was in a piece by the science writer Greg Jenner. If you don’t know him, he does the BBC’s “Horrible Histories” and is the author, most recently, of the brand new book, A Million Years in a Day. He writes about science and history in a jokey, easily accessible way and has a large following, in several different media. The piece, published on his blog and tweeted by @erocdrah, was about the acquisition of language. It brought together data on the evolution of linguistic ability in Homo sapiens and other data on the absence of language in people with autism. I choked on one sentence, fairly far down in the piece, where he discussed evidence from the gene FOXP2, a potent gene that has been implicated in language—it has even been called “the Twitter gene.” Jenner wrote,

“Why can homo sapiens speak so eloquently, yet Neanderthals possibly couldn’t? The likeliest cause is genetics.”

This looked like a job for Anti-Genetic Determinism Man.

I tweeted that I wished he wouldn’t write sentences like that, and followed up with a respectful compliment to show that I wasn’t a troll. What followed was among the most rewarding experiences I’ve had on social media. I’ve storified the conversation:

After this exchange, Jenner sent me a direct message saying that he always wanted to avoid deterministic language and was happy to hear any other suggestions I had for how to improve the piece. I had to sign off for the evening though, and by the time I got back to it he’d already made his own edits. Not only did he change the offending sentence but he added several other tweaks to make sure it was clear that a trait as complex as speech does not—cannot—have a single cause. Here are the key paragraphs:

Why can homo sapiens speak so eloquently, yet Neanderthals possibly couldn’t? One factor is perhaps genetics. In 1990, scientists were introduced to the KE family (a label applied to protect their identity), who were three generations of Londoners struggling with an unusual medical condition. About half of them lacked fine motor control over their facial muscles, lips and tongues – making their speech unintelligibly slurred – and they also found grammar highly problematic. We now know that this family carried a faulty version of a gene called FOXP2 that regulates the expression of other genes, and seems to be crucial to speech. In fact, when given the human version in a recent experiment, the squeaks of mice dropped to a strange baritone sound. Admittedly, it’s not as if the rodents suddenly stood up on their hind legs and quoted the romantic poetry of William Wordsworth, but it’s still remarkable.

Whether a Planet of the Apes scenario of articulate chimps might be theoretically possible seems unlikely, as humans have also evolved descended larynxes and the crucially-positioned hyoid bone, both of which are vital components in producing our array of vocal sounds. But the fact remains that our ability to deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy is, in large part, the by-product of a lovely evolutionary accident. Had another gene mutated instead, you and I might possess glow-in-the-dark skin, or blue nipples as long as our index fingers. But, then again, maybe not. We have to be careful with our desires to apply a simplistic determinism to genetics, no matter how tempting it is to say “this is a gene for *insert thing*…”.

Ain’t that fine? That last sentence almost made me cry—and then I’d have had to dab my eyes with my long blue nipples. The entire piece is here. Afterward, Jenner wrote me to thank me for my comments and said he appreciated my expertise. I took care not to lecture, though, and I hope that the respectful tone I tried to strike helped keep him receptive. Pedantry is endemic among academic faculty and is a real barrier to wider engagement.

So. Thanks to Greg Jenner and all smart, skillful journalists who are receptive to a stuffy old professor. Thanks to the scientists who will talk with a humanist and to the private-sector executives who engage with an idealistic egghead. And thanks to everyone else on social media who use that platform, so crammed with idiocy and hate and bunk, to discuss serious ideas with civility and humor.

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Human Theome Project

This is one of the most serious pieces ever posted on Genotopia. As the shooting at the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo shows, satire can be dangerous business. It is also one of the most important forms of speech—both provocative and healing. We are reposting this feature, originally posted in 2011 and lightly edited, to lock arms with the staff and writers at Charlie Hebdo and with satirists everywhere. We hope it offends someone and are glad that our home address is not public.

Joe and Mary Juke are models of piety. They attend services twice a week, are active in faith-based charity organizations, and their house brims tastefully with Christian iconography and literature. They describe themselves as “fundamentalists,” although Joe is quick to emphasize, “We’re moderate fundamentalists—we don’t bomb clinics or anything.” They are planning to have a family, and they are making sure to create a pious environment for their children. They know that the setting in which a child is raised helps determine the kind of adult he or she becomes.

But for the Jukes, books, icons, and saying “Grace” are not enough. In what is being cited as a milestone in personal genomics, Joe and Mary have taken steps to ensure their baby is religious—by selecting its genes.

 photo gods-dna-church.gif

From Poor Old Spike’s photobucket

 

Using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a combination of genetic screening and in vitro fertilization (IVF), Joe and Mary are loading the genetic dice for their progeny, selecting embryos that carry the traits they want in little Joe Jr. (or mini-Mary). Modern techniques allow them to select for a wide range of qualities, from avoiding hereditary diseases, to selecting eye, hair, and skin color, to shaping aspects of personality. For example, choosing a combination of half a dozen genes allows them to add a cumulative 40 points to their unborn child’s IQ. Many of these tests have been available for years, although they have only recently begun to be available to consumers. But the most striking decision in their family-planning process was to expressly select for embryos that will grow up to be religious, because they carry the allele known colloquially as the “god gene.”

“It kind of gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Chosen One,” Mary says.

Sequencing the human theome

The gene, which was identified statistically in twins in a study published in 2005, was recently cloned and sequenced, as reported in the online journal Nature Theology. Dubbed yhwh1, the gene correlates strongly with feelings of religious fervor. Studies show that the gene encodes a protein that is expressed in a part of the brain called Chardin’s area 86, long associated with religious activity and, strangely, anterograde amnesia. One famous patient was Guineas Phage, a virologist who suffered an injury with a pipetteman that resulted in a plastic tube being driven precisely into area 86; he spent the last two decades of his life on a constant pilgrimage along US Route 66 between Kingman and Barstow, accompanied by his wife, Winona, whom he continually left behind at gas stations.

Particular expression of religiosity in a given individual varies according to environment; what is inherited is the capacity for intense religious experience and evangelism. First described in the Amish in a classic study of the 1960s, the trait was described as an autosomal recessive with high penetrance, and was linked to a rare inherited form of dwarfism. Recent analyses have also found the trait occurring at high frequency among charismatic ministers, shamans, and suicide bombers.

The yhwh1 allele is one of the latest findings in the burgeoning field of “theomics,” which aims to identify all genes associated with the practice of preaching, as well as general feelings of spirituality. The Human Theome Project overran its projected completion date of December 21, 2012—the date, according to ABC News, the world as we know it might have come to an end. All things considered, then, researchers are content with their progress.

Here are some of the most exciting new findings of the HTP:

▪   Scientists estimate that at least 400 genes are involved with religious feelings or activity. Thus far, more than 100,000 variants have been described. Easing the task of studying these genes is the fact that they cluster into “ecclesiotypes” — groups of religion genes that tend to segregate together. A research team at Mystic University in Connecticut is coordinating an effort, called the “EccMap project,” to characterize them.

▪   The EccMap project consists of 400 trios  (deity, parent, and child) representing each of the five dominant world religions—christianism, judaishness, islamian, confusianity, and pastafar-I. Researchers say these explain 80% of genetic variation for religious belief.

▪   Polytheism is more common than had been thought. Ninety-five percent of all trios in the EccMap project have genes for at least two religions. Since phenotype is almost always monotheist, this suggests that the environment may play some role in fine-tuning religious beliefs.

▪   A related project seeks to uncover the epigenetics of evangelism, which is thought to be caused by methylation of regions of the X chromosome, a reversible process that can profoundly affect gene expression. Researchers hope this may provide therapeutic targets for drugs or gene therapy to “de-program” those who become convinced, against thousands of years of recorded history, that theirs is the only path up the spiritual mountain.

▪   A newly discovered kinase, called Bub666, is strongly correlated with atheism. It seems to be responsible for the breakdown of yhwh1, suggesting that biochemists are approaching a mechanistic explanation of religious experience.

▪   Rocker Ozzy Osborne has had his genome sequenced. Preliminary results show 85% homology with a Presbyterian minister from Des Moines.

“It’s tremendously exciting research,” said Mary Magdalene-Gohdtsdottir, a senior researcher in the University of Utah’s Department of Omics. “Just think of it: the genes for God! Isn’t that cool?” Indeed, the federal government thinks so. NIH Director Francois Colon, a molecular biologist and born-again Christian, has recently created a National Institute of the Molecular Biology of Yahweh (NIMBY), with an annual research budget of $400/year, as part of the government’s effort to support faith-based initiatives in biomedicine.

 

But is it science?

Some critics have called the Jukes’ actions a step toward eugenics, described in the 1920s as the “self-direction of human evolution.” They see religiosity as a gift, not something that can be ordered from a catalog. “This is an outrage,” said the Reverend Reginald S. Inkblot, of Southboro Baptist Church in Onan, Kansas. “Religion can’t be in your genes. Science can’t explain it. It’s just a part of who…you…um, are. It’s just in your…uh, yea…” He brightened and added, “If God had wanted us to be religious, he would have….oh, wait. Damn!—I mean, darn!”

Others are appalled that religion would receive scientific consideration from scientific foundations at all. Dick Dorkins, President of the atheistic Society for the Prevention of Intelligent design, Theology, Or Other Nonsense (SPITOON), calls the entire effort a “travesty.” “If I must check my brain at the church-house door,” he said in a Skype interview, “then you must check your soul at the laboratory door. Come on—be fair.

Dorkins worries that should the procedure become widespread, it could lead to nonreligious persecution. If those chosen by PGD tend to express genes such as yhwh1, scientists predict, it could lead to changes in gene frequency across the population. Dorkins envisions a dystopian scenario in which an atheistic underclass washes the wineglasses and polishes the pews for their genetic spiritual superiors. “It will be GATTACA crossed with The Ten Commandments,” Dorkins said, an audible quiver in his voice.

Evolution in religious hands

Some theologians have condemned in vitro fertilization because it normally results in the destruction of unused embryos. However, new gene therapy techniques make it possible to link a “suicide gene” to alternative forms of the desired genes in Joe’s sperm samples; thus, only sperm that carry the traits they want survive to fertilize Mary’s eggs. No embryos are destroyed in the process. This makes in vitro fertilization acceptable to many pro-life Christians.

Joe and Mary dismiss critics who say they are taking evolution into their own hands. “That’s just your theory,” says Joe. They view their decision to choose the religiosity of their unborn child as a command from above. “WWJC?,” Mary asks. “Who would Jesus clone?”

Ironically, as Biblical literalists, the Jukes dismiss Darwinian evolution as “unproven.” To them, the earth is 4,000 years old, and all the types of animals in the world today were on Noah’s Ark. They see themselves as spearheading a Crusade of believers into biomedicine.

His eye acquiring that spark of evangelism that is a tell-tale sign of heavy methylation at Xq66, Joe’s voice deepened and he intoned, “The heresy of modern science will only be righted when human evolution is safely in the hands of people who do not believe in it.”
Read more at http://scienceblog.com/76171/human-theome-project/#07U8Wl33hcVj3mjI.99

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Usmanov: ‘I don’t need no stinking medal’

It’s pledge week again on National Public Radio. Imagine if Bill Gates had called in and told them, “What’s your fundraising goal for this drive? I’ll meet your target right now if you’ll call off the drive”– and NPR said, “Thanks but no thanks—we’ll see what we can get on the phones.”

Alisher Usmanov (from Wikipedia)

It turns out that’s what happened with Watson’s Nobel medal. Christie’s whispered word about the auction in several countries before the sale. Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia, contacted Watson before the auction and made an offer for a financial contribution to the Lab, on the condition that Watson call off the auction, according to the latest report by Anemona Hartocollis in the New York Times (she’s had the Watson auction beat). But Watson turned down Usmanov’s offer. Hartocollis reports that Watson wanted to see how much he could get for the medal.

So Usmanov let Watson hold the auction and then bid on the medal, determined to win—but to not take home his thank-you coffee mug. As one astute Genotopia commenter observed, things have reached a strange state when a Russian oligarch takes the moral high ground.

This latest twist is vintage Watson. I can well imagine him waving away the rotund Russian and his “boring” (my imagining of Watson’s word) offer of a straight gift. I think the thrill of the gamble caught him. Crick (‘s family) got $2.1M for his. Watson was confident he could beat that. But by how much? At the auction, he watched the bidding intently, grinned broadly when it crossed $4M, and celebrated afterward.

In remarks at Christie’s before the auction, he told the audience to always “go for gold.” Silver was never enough, he said. It turns out that he had something specific in mind: he wanted not the “silver” of Usmanov’s initial offer, but the maximum gold he could get for his gold. The gamble, the risk, the competition, the publicity. The chance to take the stage once again, to rile people up, confuse them, yank the public’s chain. It became about him, not the gift.

Watson enjoys playing the scoundrel and he chose, with classic perversity, to punch a few holes in this clichéd last refuge. The reasons to undertake philanthropy are to be–or at least appear–moral, generous, selfless, humane. As the dust settles on this latest bizarre event in Watson’s long career, he ends up seeming competitive, avaricious, and childish. Of all the reasons he gave for wanting to sell the medal, the most oddly touching was the wish to rehabilitate his image. Alas, he has only reinforced it.

 

 

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Having His Medal and Selling It Too

Just when we thought that the Jim Watson Nobel medal story couldn’t get any weirder, the anonymous bidder who won the medal last week is returning it.

The medal-winner revealed himself to be Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia. He is paying the total $4.68 million but insists Watson keep the medal. His gesture appears to be one of generosity—but is it really?

“In my opinion,” Usmanov said, “a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognising his achievements is unacceptable.” He added, “James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him.” In short, Usmanov used the auction as a means of making a more than $4M donation to scientific research.

As I wrote the other day, it’s not true that Watson had to sell his medal—he’s hardly eating cat food. Usmanov’s stipulation that the money go to research tacitly acknowledges this fact. Triangulating—or rather, heptangulating—on Watson’s numerous statements about what he would to do with the money, he probably intended to keep a chunk of it, but give most of it away. Although he mused about giving to each of the schools that were primary to his education, experience suggests that most will go to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (always his favorite charity). We—or anyway I—will be watching for an announcement in the near future about the endowment of a new Cold Spring Harbor fellowship, probably for young scientists.

So much for the Hockney, though.

But there remains the question of whether Usmanov is doing Watson a favor by returning the medal. Usmanov has upstaged Watson, foiling any effort for Watson to rehabilitate his image through major charitable giving. Watson still has the $600k from the sale of the documents, which went to a different bidder, but that is a small fraction of what his total gift could have been.

Is Usmanov’s gesture a well-intentioned blunder or is it philanthropic one-upsmanship? By returning the medal, Usmanov is simultaneously contributing to scientific research and throttling Watson’s effort to do the same.

If, on the other hand, Watson’s only intention was to raise money for the Lab, then he gets to have his medal and sell it too. I think we can dispense with the prospect of his turning around and selling it again—that seems too cheeky even for Watson. But who knows? Every time he goes out for a long one, he seems to do a double reverse.

The one safe conclusion is that deterministic explanations rarely fit Watson’s actions. A single motivation almost never fully accounts for what he says. Darwin knows, Watson says much that deserves criticism. But anyone who takes his remarks at face value misunderestimates him, is more interested in self-congratulatory castigation than genuine understanding, or some combination of the two.

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The Trouble with Jim

Colleagues, writers, readers, hear me for my cause…I come not to bury Watson, but to historicize him.

James Watson has not been in the news much in recent years. In fact, he has been lying low since 2007, when he 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,” and was removed from the official leadership of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Prior to that, he had for decades been a staple of science gossip. No one has ever suggested that he embezzled money, cheated on his wife, or beat anyone up; his scandals have all been verbal. If there were a People magazine for science, Watson would have been its Kanye West.

Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation via Wikimedia Commons

But last week, he was once again making headlines and enemies—this time with his auction of his Nobel Prize medal and the original drafts and typescripts of his Nobel speeches. The medal sold for $4.1 million, with another $600,000 for the documents. The event was a good deal more interesting than you probably think.

Facebook and Twitter have been venting all week, the public’s ire only fueled by Watson’s public statements. In an interview with the Financial Times, Watson said several things that made right-thinking people go ballistic. (A link to this and a selective list of other major articles is at the bottom of this post.) He suggested he was financially hard up, as a result of being made a pariah since 2007. “Because I was an ‘unperson,’” he said, “I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income.” And yet, he wanted to buy art: “I really would love to own a [painting by David] Hockney,” he said. He iced it by insisting that he was “not a racist in a conventional way,” which sounds a lot like he was confessing to be an unconventional racist. Watson’s admirers buried their faces in their hands once again.

Watson, however, has not been the only one to thoughtlessly voice ill-considered views. In response, serious scholars expressed such nuanced positions as “Watson is a professional dickhead,” and “I no longer want to hear what [he has] to say.” “He’s a misogynist,” wrote one person on my feed. “…And don’t forget a homophobe,” chimed in another; “Yes of course,” replied the first, “I took that for granted.” Back-slapping all around, with much self-congratulation and smugness.

The mainstream media hasn’t been much better. In Slate, Laura Helmuth achieved the trifecta of yellow journalism: inaccuracy, hyperbole, and ad hominem attack. Her article, “Jim Watson Throws a Fit,” asserted that Watson was “insuring [sic] that the introduction to every obituary would remember him as a jerk.” In her professional analysis, “he has always been a horrible person.” Always? I would love to borrow Helmuth’s time machine: I have a lot of gaps I’d like to fill in. Watson, Helmuth coolly noted, “knows fuck all about history, human evolution, anthropology, sociology, psychology, or any rigorous study of intelligence or race.” Serious academics whooped and cheered. Helmuth, however, knows fuck-all about Watson; her piece is riddled with inaccuracies, rumor, and misinformation. Nevertheless, she exhorted Slate readers not to bid on the Watson medal. I admit I did follow her advice—and for the foreseeable future I’m also boycotting Lamborghini, Rolex, and Lear Jet.

Most surprising to me was the generally serious Washington Post. Like many people, I think of WaPo as a sort of political New York Times: tilting slightly leftward but mainly committed to high standards of journalism. But they headlined their article, “The father of DNA is selling his Nobel prize because everyone thinks he’s racist.” That sounds more like the National Enquirer than the Washington Post. Elsewhere, several articles referred to him as the “disgraced scientist” or “disgraced Nobel laureate.”

Watson-haters may jump down my throat for what follows, on the premise that I am defending Watson. I am not. Watson-lovers (dwindling in number, but still more numerous than you might think) may believe I fail to defend him enough. What I want to do is cut through the hyperbole, the ignorance, and the emotion, and attempt to do good history on a challenging, unpopular biographical subject. Watson has much to reveal about the history, the comedy, and the tragedy of 20th century biomedicine.

*

I have known and watched Watson for nearly 15 years. A year ago, I published in Science magazine a review of his Annotated, Illustrated Double Helix. I used the review to argue that in his treatment of Rosalind Franklin, Watson was conveying Maurice Wilkins’s view of her. In 1952-53, Watson scarcely knew Franklin, and later, Crick became good friends with her. Wilkins, however, hated her. The feeling was mutual and stemmed, at least in part, from lab director JT Randall’s bungled hiring of Franklin. Wilkins may well have been sexist, but probably not unusually so for his day. Ditto Watson and Crick. But in The Double Helix, Watson wanted to curry favor with Wilkins—his prime competitor and fellow laureate. The Double Helix is part history, part farce. It is naive to read it prima facie.

I had thought the review critical, but to my surprise and his credit, Watson loved it. He wrote me a personal note, saying that I was the first Double Helix reviewer who had gotten him, Wilkins, and Franklin right. (Against myself, I must note that Horace Judson was the first person to note that Watson and Crick’s principal competition in the Double Helix was not with Linus Pauling, but with Franklin and Wilkins.)

Last summer, I received a call from a senior person at Christie’s auction house, saying that Watson was auctioning off his Nobel medal, as the Crick family had recently done with Francis’s. Crick’s medal fetched about $2 million. Watson has always idolized Francis and, of course, competed with him. He has said more than once, in private and in public, that the idea to sell his medal first struck him when Michael Crick sold Francis’s medal. The other day, he told Nature, “I wanted to be at least equal to Crick, but this exceeded his.” The friendly competition between the two still exists. Yes, I’m aware that Francis is dead.

Based on the Science review, Watson requested me to write an essay for the auction catalogue. In addition to the medal, he was selling a draft of his Nobel speech and a complete set of drafts of his “Banquet” speech. A medal’s a medal; these documents were what piqued my interest. Since my current book project is on the history of DNA, it was literally a golden opportunity. Further, I would have unlimited personal access to Watson (he turns down most interview requests, especially from historians). I would of course be invited to attend the auction. In full disclosure, Christie’s naturally paid me an honorarium for my writing; I charged them as I would charge any private, for-profit company. Watson himself has paid me nothing.

Keep your friends close—and your biographical subjects closer.

When Christie’s broke the story of the auction, the press and the blogosphere pounced. Many people’s immediate reaction to the news was disgust, a sense that he was disrespecting the award. Two principal questions were on everyone’s mind. In formal interviews, public comments, and private statements, Watson obliged with a bewildering array of answers.

Why was he doing it?

  • He needs the money. (“I have no income, apart from my academic income” [Financial Times])
  • He is not doing it for the money (“I don’t need the money” [public remarks at Christie’s]). He doesn’t. The New York Times reports his annual salary as $375,000. He also has a mansion on Long Island Sound, an apartment on the Upper East Side, and other assets.)
  • He wants to restore his image/polish his legacy (quite plausible)
  • He wants to get back into the news (not entirely implausible)
  • He is thumbing his nose at the scientific establishment (Slate). (Not only unfounded but ignorant. Science is one establishment he doesn’t want to thumb his nose at.)

What is he doing with the money?

  • He wants to endow a fellowship for Irish students (from his ancestral County Cork) to study at Cold Spring Harbor.
  • He will give money to The Long Island Land Trust and other local charities.
  • He wants to give money to the University of Chicago.
  • He wants to establish an HJ Muller lecture at Indiana University.
  • He wants to give money to Clare College, Cambridge.
  • His “dream” is to give Cold Spring Harbor a gymnasium, so that the scientists could play basketball (this would have required about $10M, he said after the sale).
  • He wants to own a painting by David Hockney.
  • He will keep some of the money.

Several observations immediately pop out of this. First, he plans to give away at least most of the money. Almost everything he has said involves charity, although in some cases (e.g., the Hockney—see below), this was not obvious. Most of these non-obvious gifts would go to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory—always Watson’s favorite charity.

Second, his eyes are bigger than his wallet. Reasonable estimates for an endowed lectureship are $250,000 and about $750,000 per student for graduate fellowships (http://www.gs.emory.edu/giving/priorities/naming_policy.html). A Hockney oil could cost more than Watson’s medal: they routinely fetch $7M–$8M (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2045824/Modest-British-artist-David-Hockney-74-worth-staggering-80-million.html).

On the Hockney, Watson said at the auction that in fact he “already had a couple of Hockneys.” He has a decades-long relationship with the artist, dating back, he said, to when Hockney offered to draw him, did so, handed him a print—unsigned—and then put the signed original up for sale. Watson laughed that he had to buy back the drawing he had been offered. He said he had no Hockney oils, however. But nor did he have any space in his house for a Hockney: his intention was to hang it in one of the Laboratory’s buildings. For many years, Watson has been decorating the Lab grounds with artwork. Reasonable minds may disagree about the need for a scientific laboratory to boast millions’ worth of art, but Watson wants Cold Spring Harbor to be a place of beauty and even luxury.

Third, the man is all over the place. Most articles about the auction seized upon one of his remarks and presented it as “the truth” about what Watson thinks. That’s even worse than reading The Double Helix at face value. Watson loves pissing people off—he may well have deliberately misled the media. Perverse, given the rationale of burnishing his image, but not for that reason ridiculous. He simply is not consistent. That inconsistency is something to explain, not brush aside.

Watson has always cultivated a loose-cannon image: having no filters has been part of his shtick. He has been observed deliberately untying his shoes before entering board meetings. But in his prime, he could usually filter himself when necessary. Nowadays, he keeps his shoes tied. Although he is clearly compos mentis, his ability to regulate his filters may have slipped. He’s always been cagier than he’s been given credit for, but his loose-cannon image is becoming less of an image and more of a trait. The quality he has nurtured, one might say, is becoming part of his nature.

*

Which raises the question: Is Watson merely a crank? Clearly, many in the science community believe he hurts the image of science and is best simply ignored. They treat him as an outlier, an aberration: someone whose views do not represent science or what science stands for.

I have a different view.

Granted, Watson is extreme in his candor; even his staunchest allies admit that he over-shares. But for both better and worse, he is emblematic of late twentieth-century American science. His lack of filters, not just over the past few days but over the last few decades, throws a harsh but clear light on science. He was there at the creation of molecular biology. Through his guileless but often brilliant writing, speaking, and administration, he has done as much as anyone to establish DNA as the basis for modern biomedicine and as a symbol of contemporary culture. He has helped reconfigure biology, from a noble pursuit for a kind of truth into an immensely profitable industry. Thanks in part to Watson, some students now go into science for the money. It has been said that in transforming Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory into a plush campus, filled with gleaming high-tech labs, posh conferences, and manicured grounds full of artwork, Watson made Cold Spring Harbor into a place where the young Jim Watson could never have flourished. The same can be said about his role in science as a whole.

The remarks Watson has made about women and minorities are emblematic of the late 20th century. His comments focusing on women’s looks rather than their intelligence are precisely the kinds of comments feminists have fought against since The Feminist Mystique was published, the year after Watson won the Nobel. Although such comments are thankfully much less tolerated than they once were, far too many men still objectify women. Once again, this is not to forgive his remarks; rather, it is to demand thoughtful explanation.

As to race: we are a racist society. From the time the first British and French landed on these shores, whites have condescended to and exploited every non-WASP ethnicity they have encountered: Native Americans, Africans and their descendants, Latinos, Asians, Jews, Irish, Poles, Italians. And many of those groups have then turned around and condescended to and exploited others. In his book of last summer, the New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade wrote that anti-racism in this country is now “so well-entrenched” that we can afford to ask “politically incorrect” scientific questions about racial differences in intelligence. The current protests over police brutality toward black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, and elsewhere say otherwise.

Were Watson merely a rich old white guy who says retrograde things about race and gender, he could—and arguably should—be ignored. What makes Watson different is that he sees everything in terms of genetics–and not much else. In New York this week, he said that if one looked hard enough, one could find a genetic correlation with Baptism or with being a Democrat. One can probably find a “gene for” essentially anything. Genomic analysis is now so fine-grained, so precise, that the definition of “trait” is arbitrary. The problem is not that Watson is wrong about these presumptive correlations, but that it’s meaningless. The project of finding the genetic basis of everything has become too easy, too inexpensive, too powerful. His style of genetic determinism may again be more extreme than most, but his scientism (crudely, the belief that all social problems can be addressed with science) generally is common and becoming commoner.

Watson, then, shows us what happens when a typical man of the twentieth century thinks about genetics too much. James Watson is worth listening to, is worth understanding, because he represents both the glory and the villainy of twentieth-century science. He may not be easy to listen to, but neither was the viral video of Daniel Pantaleo choking Eric Garner easy to watch. If we shut our ears to Watson, we risk failing to understand the pitfalls of the blinkered belief that science alone can solve our social problems. Those who resort to simplistic name-calling do little more than reiterate their own good, right-thinking liberal stance. Doing so may achieve social bonding, but it gains no ground on the problems of racism, sexism, and scientism. Those who think the conversation ends with playground taunts are doing no more to solve our problems than Megyn Kelly or Bill O’Reilly. Calling Watson a dickhead is simply doing Fox News for liberals.

What is the corrective? Rigorous humanistic analysis of the history and social context of science and technology. Science is the dominant cultural and intellectual enterprise of our time. Since the end of the Cold War, biology has been the most dominant of the sciences. To realize its potential it needs not more, better, faster, but slower, more reflective, more humane.

I share the romantic vision of science: the quest for reliable knowledge, the ethos of self-correction and integrity, the effort to turn knowledge to human benefit. And at its best it achieves that. But science has a darker side as well. Scientific advance has cured disease and created it; created jobs and destroyed them; fought racism and fomented it. Watson indeed is not a racist in the conventional sense. But because he sees the world through DNA-tinted glasses, he is unaware of concepts such as scientific racism—the long tradition of using science’s cultural authority to bolster the racial views of those in power. Historians of science and medicine have examined this in detail, documented it with correspondence, meeting minutes, and memoranda. Intelligent critique of science is not simple “political correctness”—it is just as rigorous (and just as subjective) as good science. The more dominant science becomes in our culture, the more we need the humanities to analyze it, historicize it, set it in its wider social context. Science cheerleading is not enough.

The trouble with Watson, then, is not how aberrant he is, but how conventional. He is no more—but no less—than an embodiment of late twentieth-century biomedicine. He exemplifies how a near-exclusive focus on the genetic basis of human behavior and social problems tends to sclerose them into a biologically determinist status quo. How that process occurs seems to me eminently worth observing and thinking about. Watson is an enigmatic character. He has managed his image carefully, if not always shrewdly. It is impossible to know what he “really thinks” on most issues, but I do believe this much: he believes that his main sin has been excessive honesty. He thinks he is simply saying what most people are afraid to say.

Unfortunately, he may be right.

**

Here is a selective list of some of the highest-profile articles about Watson and the Nobel medal auction:

11/27/2014 “James Watson to sell Nobel prize medal he won for double helix discovery” (The Telegraph)

11/28/2014 “James Watson to Sell Nobel Medal” (Financial Times)

12/01/2014 “The father of DNA is selling his Nobel prize because everyone thinks he’s racist” (Washington Post”)

12/1/2014 “James Watson Throws a Fit” (originally titled, “James Watson is Selling Off His Nobel Prize: Please Do Not Bid On It”) (Slate)

12/02/2014: “Disgraced scientist James Watson puts DNA Nobel Prize up for auction, will donate part of the proceeds” (New York Daily News)

12/02/2014 “Jim Watson’s Nobel Prize Could Be Yours…For Just $3.5 Million” (Scientific American)

12/3/2014 “By Selling Prize, a DNA Pioneer Seeks Redemption” (New York Times)

12/04/2014 “Watson’s Nobel Prize Medal for Decoding DNA Fetches $4.1 Million at an Auction” (New York Times)

12/04/2014 “Watson’s Nobel Medal Sells for US$4.1M” (Nature)

12/05/2014 “James Watson’s DNA Nobel Prize sells for $4.8M” (BBC) [incorrect: their figure includes the “buyer’s premium,” i.e., the cut for the house]

 

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Cardboard Darwinism

My recent review in Nature of Nicholas Wade‘s, Michael Yudell‘s, and Robert Sussman‘s new books criticizes all three. The first comes out of the political right wing and is slyly allied with the racist, Pioneer-Funded scientific camp; the latter two identify with the Left’s argument that race is purely a cultural construct. Wade’s argument is far more dangerous than Yudell’s or Sussman’s, but I didn’t like any of the books. It is just as wrong-headed to argue that science proves that race isn’t genetic as it is to argue that it is.

Interesting, then, that the Orwellian HBD crowd, whose newspeak renders white power as “biodiversity” and anti-racism “new creationism,” is jumping down my throat for criticizing their current darling but ignoring my criticism of their antagonists. Since the piece came out, I’ve fended off attacks on Twitter and on white-supremacist sites (Nature wouldn’t let me call them that; it’s good to get it off my chest) such as Stormfront (I refuse to link to them; you can Google it if you want).

And then this missive from Larry Arnhart, a not-quite Dead White Male political scientist:

Dear Professor Comfort,
You might have some interest in my blog post on your Nature review:  http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-confusion-in-scientific-study-of.html

Very little, in fact. The gist of Professor Arnhart’s argument is that he doesn’t understand mine. Actually, I’ll give him that much–his commentary makes it abundantly clear that he can’t follow the thread of my reasoning. But that’s a pretty weak rhetorical position, n’est pas? If the book reviews in Nature are over his head, perhaps he should stick with lighter fare.

Arnhart’s basic stance is typical of the people who like Wade’s book. Darwinism, they say, is inherently a politically conservative ideology. This is laughable. Shall we start with those ardent Darwinians Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels? From them forward, a thick cord of Leftist Darwinian thought courses through the history of evolutionary biology, down through Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould.

A cord of right-wing politics, similar in girth, twines around it. You have your Herbert Spencer , your William Graham Sumner, your Charles Davenport, etc., on up to Jared Taylor. But really, are those the kind of people you want to associate with?

One important difference between Marxist Darwinians and right-wing Darwinians is that the Marxists don’t use Darwin to justify their politics the way the right-wingers do. The HBD types wrap themselves in the flag of Darwinism–and anything one says against them is taken as unpatriotic to Darwin and to science.

You can use science, just as you can use history, to support any ideology you want. But Darwinism has not been kind to right-wingers–it tends to make them look like ignorant bigots.

The HBDers hide their faces behind a cardboard Darwin stapled to a stick. They make that gentle and egalitarian soul stand for hatred, arrogance, and xenophobia. It must be the most cynical appropriation of science I’ve ever seen.

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