The Whig interpretation of the gene

I have an essay in the June issue of The Atlantic, out online now and at your favorite magazine dealer or airport in a week or so.

It’s an essay review centered around Siddhartha Mukherjee’s newest book, The Gene. The book is part history of genetics and part discussion of current genetic science and medicine. Scientists don’t seem to like the latter too well. An article, based on the book, that appeared in the New Yorker earlier this spring, is receiving a great deal of criticism from the scientific community. They say that the piece badly misrepresents the mechanisms of epigenetics.

I take him to task on his history. I use the book as the base for a discussion of “Whig history” and why it is so dangerous when writing about science. Whig history, crudely, is writing about the past from the perspective of history’s winners; it is history as a justification of the present.

Good, critical history of science is vital to doing good science on a community scale. Only when we understand that “the” gene is a human concept that describes a bit of biology in a particularly productive way, can we harness the full power of genetic knowledge for good.

Take a look!

 

Criticism of Lander reaches mainstream media

Sometimes the Whigs get called on the carpet. Carolyn Johnson summarized the kerfluffle over Lander’s history of CRISPR in today’s Washington Post. “The tweetstorm erupted,” she writes,

when the leader of an institution vying for control of the technology published a lengthy historical account of CRISPR in a top scientific journal, an account that one critic (who happens to work at the opposing institution) described as erroneous “propaganda.”

To critics, the big problem is that “Heroes of CRISPR” is a history told by a person with a dog in the fight over who created it. The author, Eric Lander, is head of the Broad Institute, a Harvard- and MIT-affiliated research institution that is now in an all-out patent battle against the University of California, Berkeley, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

To put this in perspective for non-scientists, Lander is a powerful voice in the field — a former leader of the human genome project, a co-chair of the committee that advises President Obama on science and technology matters, and a charismatic communicator who has turned his institution from a start-up to a massive research heavyweight over a decade. In other words, he is influential and people read his work, including this paper.

Whig history is all about who gets to control a historical narrative. For to some extent, it is to the one who controls the history to whom go the spoils—in this case, potentially a winner-take-all patent that could be worth billions, as well as lucrative and glorious prizes, awards, and honors. Nominators for those prizes will write their nominations with a narrative in their minds. Whatever becomes crystallized as “the” history will invariably shape how credit is attributed. I have watched people “campaign” for Nobels and then win them.

I find it impossible to avoid reading Lander’s seemingly generous history of CRISPR as a canny attempt to strip credit from the Broad Institute’s principal competitors, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. It seems inconceivable that the fact that it ran in Cell just days before a judge filed an interference (conflict between two patents) between the Broad’s Feng Zhang and Doudna/Charpentier is mere coincidence.

It would be nice to think that those of us who howled at Lander’s history ran a little interference of our own. Once again, credit is due to Michael Eisen for bringing my attention to the matter, and thanks to everyone else who also cried “Foul!”

A Whig History of CRISPR

“Shitstorm” would be one term of art for the reaction in the genome community to a commentary in Cell by Eric Lander, published on January 14. It presents as a definitive account of the discovery of CRISPR, the “gene editing” technique invented in 2013 and which blasted onto the science pages this year. CRISPR is likely to go down as the most important biotechnological invention since Kary Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

But I prefer another phrase to describe Lander’s account: “whig history.” The term comes from the Europeanist Herbert Butterfield. In a classic 1931 essay, Butterfield wrote that Whig history was “the tendency in many historians to write [English history] on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”

The term—now often lower-cased to distance itself from the particularities of British politics—has become historical shorthand for one way to use history as a political tool. It rationalizes the status quo, wins the allegiance of the establishment, justifies the dominance of those in power. One immediate tip-off to a Whiggish historical account is the use of melodramatic terms such as “heroes” in the title.

Lander’s piece is called “The heroes of CRISPR.”

In April 2014, the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT—of which Lander is the director— was awarded the first patent for CRISPR technology. The team of Jennifer Doudna (UC Berkeley) and Emmanuelle Charpentier (Umeå University, Sweden) filed their own application seven months earlier, but Zhang obtained fast-track approval. Much remains at stake over CRISPR: fat scientific prizes, almost certainly including a Nobel, as well as further patents. Who claims them will be decided in part by what version of history becomes accepted as “the truth.”

When Michael Eisen, the UC Berkeley/Howard Hughes Medical Institute biologist and astute commentator on genomics read Lander’s article, he went ballistic. In a tweet-blast of righteous indignation, Eisen howled that Lander’s piece minimizes Doudna’s contributions to CRISPR and thus (I’m paraphrasing here) serves as a propaganda organ on behalf of the Broad’s claim to the patent rights. “The whole thing is about trying to establish Zhang paper as pinnacle of CRISPR work,” tweeted Eisen. He continued, “it’s a deliberate effort to undermine Doudna and Charpentier patent claims and prizeworthiness.” It is, he believes, “science propaganda at its most repellent.” “Eric Lander and @broadinstitute should be ashamed of themselves.”

Others have joined in to express their dismay. At the least, many in the community think, some sort of conflict-of-interest statement should have accompanied Lander’s article. A long thread at PubPeer is devoted to the kerfluffle.

Is Eisen right? I’ll leave analysis of the technical arguments over the relative merits of each group’s contributions to the biologists. What I can do is look at the paper itself. Good writers know how rhetoric can be used to persuade. Does Lander use writing techniques to advance a self-interested version of history?

On first read, Lander’s piece seems eminently fair, even generous. It “aims to fill in [the] backstory” of CRISPR, Lander writes; “the history of ideas and the stories of pioneers—and draw lessons about the remarkable ecosystem underlying scientific discovery.” He traces CRISPR’s origins all the way back to Francisco Mojica, a doctoral student at the University of Alicante, in Spain, in 1989. Mojica discovered a new class of repeating sequence that was present in diverse organisms, suggesting widespread taxonomic importance. These, of course, were the first CRISPR sites—clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats. By 2000, Mojica had found CRISPR loci in 20 different organisms.

By turning his lens on such unsung heroes, laboring away at universities well beyond the anointed labs of Harvard, MIT, UCSF, Johns Hopkins, and the like, Lander creates the impression of inclusiveness, of the sharing of credit among all the “heroes” of CRISPR.

But when he reaches Doudna and Charpentier’s chapter in the story, the generosity becomes curiously muted. Though Lander maintains his warm, avuncular tone, Doudna and Charpentier enter the story as brave soldiers, working shoulder to shoulder with others on the long journey to practical application of CRISPR. Some subtle techniques create a very definite impression.

For example, Lander narrates Charpentier’s story alongside that of the Lithuanian scientist Virginijus Siksnys. But Siksnys receives top billing. His name appears in the first line of two sections of the paper:

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.38.28 AM

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Charpentier’s name, on the other hand, appears at the bottom of a paragraph devoted to a component of the CRISPR-cas9 system called tracrRNA.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.38.53 AM

Jennifer Doudna is graciously given the epithet “world-renowned,” which may distract our attention from the fact that her first mention is buried in the middle of a paragraph, in the second half of a long sentence, the direct object rather than the subject of the sentence:

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.45.59 AM

Doudna and Charpentier go neck and neck with Siksnys through the next sections, but Doudna and Charpentier’s contributions are repeatedly diminished. “Sisnysys submitted his paper,” begins one paragraph. At the end of the paragraph Doudna and Charpentier’s paper receives mention. “Both groups clearly recognized the potential for biotechnology,” Lander writes.

Now, enter Feng Zhang and George Church of the Broad Institute. They receive the longest treatment of any actor in the story—a solid page out of nine pages of text. Then Doudna submits a key paper “with assistance from Church.” This and three other “short [ie., minor] papers,” Lander makes sure to note, “were accepted soon after Zhang and Church’s papers were published in early January, 2013.

Lander concludes his saga with words of benevolent wisdom, extolling the “ecology” of science that produces profound discoveries. History provides optimistic lessons about the idealistic world of pure science, carried out purely for the sake of furthering knowledge. One can almost see Lander dabbing away tears of joy as he writes,

The human stories behind scientific advances can teach us a lot about the miraculous ecosystem that drives biomedical progress—about the roles of serendipity and planning, of pure curiosity and practical application, of hypothesis-free and hypothesis-driven science, of individuals and teams, and of fresh perspectives and deep expertise.

I think Eisen has a point, therefore, in reading the paper as a crafty effort to establish Zhang and Church as the scientists who brought the relay race to the finish line—and to portray their principal competitors for patents and prizes, Doudna and Charpentier, as merely two in a long string of runners.

I’m glad to see other scientists, such as Mojica, receive credit in a major CRISPR narrative. Too often the early players and the scientists at lesser-known universities become lost to history altogether. But we should also recognize how Lander uses those actors to create a crowd in which to bury Doudna and Charpentier. It would have been possible to mention Mojica, Gilles Vergnaud, and others while still giving Doudna and Charpentier their due.

Update 1/19: Both Doudna and Church have said the article contains factual errorsI’ll leave it to the experts to debate the technical details of the science. My argument—stimulated and shaped by Eisen’s tweets—is about the tone and style of the piece. Lander is a public-relations master. He’s a compelling speaker and a sophisticated writer. He’s a giant in the field: he has been a leader in the genome community since early days of the human genome project. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

A Nobel can be split at most three ways, and there are four principal actors. How will the prize be partitioned? Doudna, Charpentier, and Zhang? Zhang, Church, and Doudna? Zhang, Church, and Mojica? I have witnessed the steady PR campaigns of scientists who went on to win Nobels. The Prize is supposed to be wholly merit-based, but, we being humans, reputation matters.

Update: One should also note the gender dynamics of the story. However conscious or unconscious it may be, efforts such as this underscore the often-subtle ways in which “history by the winners” still tends to end up being “history by the men.” Only way that stops is by saying it out loud. Tip o’ the pin to Anne Fausto-Sterling and Alondra Nelson for nudging me on this.

At its best, science is a model of human interaction: cooperative, open, focused on evidence and reason, unbiased by prejudice of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or disability. But science is no longer done in monasteries. Competition, pride, ego, greed, and politics play all too great a role in determining who gets credit, who wins the prizes, and who gets into the textbooks. As Butterfield recognized, controlling the history is both a perk of coming out on top and, while the battle still rages, a way to cement your team’s role in the crystallizing master narrative.

When a scientific history promises an account of “heroes,” when it is filled with sentimental language “miraculous ecosystem” of “pure curiosity and practical application,” and when that history is written by an individual who has much to gain by the acceptance of his own account, the piece should come with a conflict-of-interest statement—or at least a road-sign reading, “Danger! Whig history ahead.”

PS: See also Dominic Berry’s take on the Lander article, also drawing on the history of science but framing it in terms of intellectual property, here: http://blogs.sps.ed.ac.uk/engineering-life/2016/01/18/crispr-in-the-history-of-science-and-intellectual-property/

Poor Richard Dawkins’ Almanack

September:

Fine fall weather may tempt you to harvest your memories in a Booke, but beware an early frost. Avoid fatuous pontification before the Squash blooms wither. One who failed to heed this commonsense warning was “greeted with critical sneering so intense it was almost audible,” If only he’d followed Poor Richard’s advice!

On the 20th, don’t forget to turn your clock back. Into a clock. A Muslim boy may bring you a timepiece that seems like a bomb. We know this sounds like one of our Homely allegories, but seriously. It may indeed prove to be a time bomb—but only if you will it so. Question not the boy’s motives, for once you walk down that road you may not ever walk it back. Even your Guardian cannot protect you then, no matter how much you Huff and Puff. Remember: Tweet not, want not!

The autumnal equinox is on the 23rd, but for you, Fall may already have begun. Early to bed…and maybe just stay there for the winter.

Plant seeds of next book during the full moon: sowing animus and xenophobia can be back-breaking labor. Early to bed and early to rise brings wealth to all men telling fortunes and lies!

 

Top 10 Things I Learned From Reviewing Richard Dawkins

 

10) Links between genetic determinism and white supremacy remain strong.

9) The staunchest Dawkins followers got nothin’.

8) Wasps are brainless but extremely aggressive.

7) Opinions on Dawkins split down party lines as neatly as a Congressional vote.

6) Saying, “So, chill” is defensive.

5) When they like you, it’s good writing. When they don’t, it’s “rhetoric.”

4) Fundamentalist atheists HATE being called that. So do it early and often.

3) Incredibly, even an atheist with postgraduate work in ecology and evolution can still be a church-kissing, climate-change-denying reactionary one step to the left of Mike Huckabee.

2) Lay back and let your friends and your enemies duke it out.

1) It is important to log off Twitter with the same number of fucks you logged in with.

Through a candle, darkly

Dull, dull, dull, my God it’s dull! It’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL! —Michael Palin

Nature has posted my review of Brief Candle in the Dark, the bloated second volume of memoir by  Richard Dawkins, everyone’s favorite genetic determinist. Nature is very genteel–and they have very strict lawyers–so my temper is muted.

Still, the gist should come across. It reads, frankly, like he contracted for two books but, incomprehensibly, just got bored with writing about himself.

Perhaps the review may provoke a smile–or a scowl, if you’re of that genotype.

Enjoy!

 

 

TH, PUA

Nobel scientist Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs. English biochemist tells conference women in laboratories ‘fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry’” (The Guardian)

“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls…  I’m really, really sorry I caused any offence, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually.” (Tim Hunt)

 

Stockholm, 1983. A certain English scientist whose surname rhymes with…let’s go with a small boat that you pole along the river Cam…is 40 years old. He has received an invitation to the Nobel festivities honoring the geneticist Barbara McClintock, “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.” He fancies himself a pick-up artist and thinks this will be an excellent place to meet girls. He starts at the top.

Tim Hunt (Nobelprize.org)

BMC: And so, Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, I wish to thank you and the Swedish people for their many courtesies. I hope I have conveyed some of the joy of the marvelous maize plant and the startling phenomena of the genome that one can discover when one has the time and the solitude to watch and to think. Are there any questions?

TH (aside, to companion): Watch this. Observe the master.

(to McClintock):           Yes, thank you. Before I speak, I’d like to say something: that’s a smashing dress.

BMC:       I hate dresses. They said I had to wear one, so I wore one. My niece found it somewhere near here.

TH:           Ahem, yes, I see. Well, jolly good one on me then!

[You see? She’s falling for me. Works every time.]

What I wanted to say was, all of these elegant trappings notwithstanding, that I find your argument…unconvincing. You haven’t shown any data of any sort that a contemporary biologist would recognize.

BMC:       Are there any questions?

TH:           [Always compliment them, then insult them a little. Never fails. Watch.]

What I mean is, I don’t mean to be indelicate, but what gives you the right to make such claims?

BMC:       What gives me the right, or what basis do I have? Please be clear. Well I can address both. What gives me the right is fifty years of studying genetics and the fact that I’m standing at the Nobel podium. The basis for my claims is my data, which I just reviewed. Weren’t you paying attention? Are there any other questions? Yes, you in the back…

TH:           [Ouuuuch! <grins> God I love older women! They find me irresistible!]

 

Later, at the Banquet…

TH: (suavely)      Ah! Dr. McClintock!

BMC:       Yes.

TH:           I just wanted to apologize for my remarks at your lecture.

BMC:       Yes.

TH:           I ought not to have been so candid in such a public forum.

BMC:       No.

TH:           I mean, I don’t honestly see what all the fuss is about your work. but I ought not to have said so in front of all of those reporters and, you know, the King and all. I hope I didn’t upset you. I just wanted to be honest.

BMC:       You’re the one who looks foolish. Did I upset you?

TH:           You…me…? I…

BMC:       Your pronouns seem to be functioning normally. But haven’t you any verbs? I would have thought Cambridge would teach you better English.

TH:           Now look here. There’s no call to be insulting.

BMC:       Oh, don’t take me too seriously. Turn sideways. [casts her eyes downward] I’ll give you this: you have a nice tush. [pats it][1]

TH:           WHAT?!? I never!

BMC:       Never? Too bad. Me neither…much. Never had the time. I was just too interested in chromosomes—and the Y is so short and stubby and dull. I do enjoy looking at a good tush, though.

TH:           You never fell in love? Say, with a charming professor, aloof yet alluring, with beguiling nostril hair?

BMC:       [snorts] Good one. Maybe you’re all right, Tom.

TH:           Tim. Timothy.

BMC:       Suit yourself. If I may be frank, I could never feel attracted to someone I thought wasn’t as smart as I am. And, well,…

TH:           [stiffens] Really! Now listen, what I need to tell you is this: Your experiments are just so baroque. You practice this old-fashioned style of genetics, your writing’s impenetrable, and your experiments! They’re so complicated—one has to learn half your maize strains and strange chromosome constructions just to grasp your hypothesis! I can’t honestly imagine how the Nobel committee even followed your work, let alone evaluated it. Why don’t you do some molecular experiments? Things become so much simpler!

BMC:       Yes. As I was saying…

TH:           Are you implying that I’m not…???

BMC:       Must I spell it out for you? If you’re not clever enough to grasp what I’m doing, why are you even here? God I hate these stuffed-shirt evenings!

TH:           Now look here, madam!

BMC:       No. You look here, squirt. And be quiet. I don’t mean you any harm—you’re no dumber than most of the other men I’ve spent my career around. But you’re no smarter either. I’ve been listening to you for ten minutes now, and you haven’t said a single intelligent thing. Don’t you ever grow up? There are more interesting punchbowls in this room. And I’ve had plenty of your Australopithecine views. That’s A-U-S…

[At this, TH’s eyes start to well] T-R-A-L-O-P-I-T-H-E-C-I-N-E. There!

BMC:           Gold star. [rolls eyes] Tom, I’m sure what you do is perfectly interesting to someone. And maybe—although of this I’m less certain—what you say, someone finds charming. But with me, neither happens to be the case. Now, about that punch… [walks off]

[Tears stream down TH’s cheeks. He falls to his knees, one arm extended melodramatically in her direction] Barbara! Dr. McClintock! Don’t go! I—I love you!

BMC: [To another, female, guest] My trouble boys is that all they want to talk about is romance and their own feelings. Always falling in love with you and weeping. How do they ever get any science done?

 

[1] McClintock was known to compliment people—men and women—on their tushes. In the words of a long-time friend, “She just liked tushes.”

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]

 

Truth in science advertising

I’ve run across this chestnut from NdGT before, but this time it struck me as both untrue and misleading. Of course in a crude sense it’s true. When you get on an airplane, it flies thanks to Bernoulli’s principle whether you believe in or even know of Bernoulli’s principle.

But in a deeper sense it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of science. The good thing about science is not that it’s true–it’s that it’s open to revision. Science’s truths are constantly in flux. As John McPhee said, “science erases what was formerly true.” It’s time to abandon the science cheerleaders’ trope that science is about finding the truth about nature. Every scientific fact ever discovered, every scientific theory ever put forward, is eventually rejected, revised, or limited. The beauty of science isn’t that it’s right–it’s that it can be proven wrong.

The statement is misleading because it is actually more true of religion than science. In his essay “Science and Theology as Art Forms” (Possible Worlds, 1928), JBS Haldane made the point about Christianity, although it holds for certain other religions as well: its gravest problem is its view that it is only true if you believe in it. Hinduism, Buddhism, and many, many others do not hold this view. They hold that their beliefs are true whether you believe in them or not. Karma, for example, just is. It doesn’t matter to a Hindu whether you believe in karma–the wheel will turn on you just the same.

The good thing about good science popularization is that it’s true, period. At a time when science is under fire from fundamentalists, we need to make sure that what we say about rational inquiry into nature is accurate.

NdGT quote

Race and Genetics in Nature

My review of Nicholas Wade, Michael Yudell, and Robert Sussman leads off Nature‘s Fall Books number and is featured in the Nature/SciAm Diversity special. And it’s free–no paywall!

This is the piece I was writing when the brick hit my deck, inspiring this earlier post, which is now a finalist for the 3QuarksDaily science blog prize. For a more detailed and absolutely deadpan look at Wade, see Dick Dorkins’s review.

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