Tag Archives: DNA

Golden opportunity

The fabled Karolinska Institutet (KI). To anyone involved with science in the last century or so, that name springs to the mind’s eye plated with the gold of the Nobel Prize. It conjures images of elegant, wealthy Stockholm, a supermodel of a city: cold to the touch, remote, yet gifted with such stunning beauty, elegance, and wealth that it almost seems unfair, hoarded. Is has the glamor and pomp of royalty, the self-confidence (and cost of living) of New York, yet the cozy social democracy that provides reliable, clean public transportation and schools.

The KI is Stockholm’s crown jewel. Every December, Nobel week transforms almost the entire city into an opulent, charming celebration of science. Historians of science know that the curtain before the prize archives moves slowly forward, revealing the nominations and evaluations of individual laureates fifty years after the prize is awarded. The Chemistry and Physics prize archives are maintained at and administered by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Physiology or Medicine archives and prize, however, are administered by and housed at the Nobel Forum, a separate entity on the Karolinska campus. Alfred Nobel constructed an administrative architecture designed to maintain the integrity of his prizes, but the result is Byzantine.

Like the Rockefeller University or the PhD program at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the Karolinska is all science. Almost. They do have a small staff of trained, credentialed historians, who work at the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, a medium-sized yet rich collection—larger than Johns Hopkins now, yet much smaller than London’s Wellcome Library)—yet rich collection that focuses on works from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. Located in a nineteenth century building that was, until recently, a courthouse. The facilities are solid with stone, warmed with wood, and softened by thick rugs.

In May, I had the great fortune to both work in the Nobel Forum archive and to be a guest at the Hagströmer Library. Both were thanks to the effort, persistence, and generosity of Eva Åhren a historian of science and medicine and now the head of the Unit for Medical History and Heritage, which includes the library and also houses a number of scholars in medical history,


The old courtroom at the Hagströmer Library

I first gave the Hagströmer Lecture, a public talk, sponsored by the Friends of the Hagströmer Library, to showcase the value of historical studies of science and demonstrate their relationship to both current science and current events. My lecture, based on my last book, was titled “From medical genetics to genomic medicine.” The main argument is that a medical-eugenic thread runs through Progressive-era eugenics all the way through the birth of medical genetics and the emergence of modern personalized genomic medicine. Thus, the “old, bad eugenics” was less hostile to medicine than scholars have thought—and contemporary medical genetics and genomics have a stronger connection to human population improvement than most of us are comfortable acknowledging. I’ve never seen much intellectual value in making people comfortable.

The lecture took place in what is certainly the most beautiful venue in which I have ever given a talk. It was in the former main courtroom, built on a circular plan, now lined with old books, and lit by a vast picture window that admitted the long Swedish evening throughout the lecture and the following reception.

Judging from the audience and the questions, we got the attention of the Karolinska scientists and some of the intellectual public of Stockholm. After the lecture, we had a luxuriously long question-and-answer period, in which scientists and laypeople alike peppered me with thoughtful questions on everything from the history of European eugenics to CRISPR and the possibility of designer babies. Near the end, Eva and I had a fun one-on-one conversation—a sort of scholarly stand-up routine—about the value and the need for historical studies of science. My argument, as regular readers will know, is that the more dominant science becomes in our culture, the more we need historians to help interpret it. The sciences and the humanities are not—or should not be—in competition. It’s more like human evolution: the better your fine motor skills become, the more valuable it is to have a well-developed prefrontal cortex to aid in planning, strategizing, choosing future options.

Dumanski and me

Ms Dumanski and me, at the podium where they announce the prize. You see? She’s actually very nice!

Having sung, I then had my scholar’s supper: Eva was pivotal in arranging for me to work in the Nobel Forum archives. The entire Physiology or Medicine prize, from sending out the nomination forms to organizing and hosting the meetings of the Nobel Committee, to arranging the banquet is done by three full-time staff. There is no trained archivist, even part-time. The administrator Ann-Marie Dumanski is gatekeeper to the archive and the Nobel Forum. By necessity, one of her principal jobs is to keep out the kooks and riff-raff. Not even my Johns Hopkins and Library of Congress affiliations satisfied her. For me to gain access, we had to persuade her that I was not a loony.


The fierce Ms Dumanski was in a good mood. Indeed, she was warm, welcoming, even chatty. Before handing over the documents I had requested, she regaled us with stories from her years there. The Nobel Prize is not the richest prize in science, but, thanks in large measure to Marie Curie, who won it twice (in 1903 and 1911) it is the most famous and the most prestigious. Some people will do almost anything to get one. They forge nominations. They show up at the front door with their inventions, saying, “I can haz Nobel Prize?” One man mailed them a generic silver trophy, on which he had had engraved:

Nobel Peace Prize

Nature             Science

Awarded to [his name]

The cover letter simply asked that they return the cup to his address, registered mail. That way, he could say, truthfully, that he had received a Nobel prize from the Karolinska Institute! Ms Dumanski said, “That cup will never leave this building!” I began to understand why she needs to be so protective.

Nobel table

Where the Knights of the Nobel (in Physiology or Medicine) congregate

The documents themselves were rich and fascinating. I was looking at the prize for the double helix, to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins in 1962. I received every nomination they received (which spanned 1960, 1961, and 1962), as well as some of the evaluations conducted by members of the Nobel committee. You will have to wait for the book for all the details, but the story behind this prize is a good deal more complicated than the histories thus far have told. Maurice Wilkins has a much more interesting role than has been acknowledged, as does Laurence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Institute, where Watson and Crick (but not Wilkins) worked. This in turn has implications for the social history of DNA, such as Watson’s treatment of Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in his best-selling book, The Double Helix. Looking at the nominations, one would have expected Watson and Crick to win the prize in Chemistry, not Physiology or Medicine. Nearly all their nominations were in Chemistry—and most did not include Wilkins. But Wilkins had a strong partisan on the Nobel committee, and Bragg and Arne Tiselius (the head of the committee) played a good deal of politics. It is not a coincidence that the Chemistry prize went to two other Cavendish scientists who worked with X-ray crystallography: Max Perutz and John Kendrew. It was a red-letter day for X-ray work, for the Cavendish, and for Bragg.In all, it was an exhilarating trip.


Linnaeus’s house

I haven’t even mentioned the jaunt up to Uppsala before Stockholm, in which I stayed next to Linnaeus’s garden, gave another talk, on DNA, to the history of science colloquium, and saw some of the sights of this charming old university town. These events were organized by another good friend and colleague, Maria Björkman. Maria also did me the indispensable favor of arranging for a graduate student, Felicia Edvardsson, to assist me by translating the Swedish evaluations.
I’ll admit, there was a bit of glamor to the trip. At the Hagströmer, I felt a slightly embarrassing surge of pride as I came onstage via the small back door through which the judge once entered the courtroom from his chambers. At the Nobel Forum, Ms Dumanski allowed me to sit at the seven-meter-diameter table, carved from a single piece of wood, where the Nobel committee deliberates the prizes, and let me stand at the podium where the prize is announced every October. We took a ferry that entered Stockholm harbor—for centuries, the primary way one arrived in Stockholm—with its grandly imposing buildings on full display. These moments are folded now into my life’s narrative, among the colorful stories with which one can bore one’s grandchildren.


Uppsala cathedral makes you believe in *something.*

Most important and valuable, though, were the opportunities to be a real historian: tracking down and poring over difficult-to-obtain documents; discussing both history and the value of history with scientists and the public; and spending time with generous and intelligent colleagues who are also friends.

This was not “collegiality,” the canned concept, often paired with “interdisciplinarity,” that is rife in university mission plans and which largely stands for not pissing anyone off. My experience in Sweden, however, was collegiality without quotation marks. It was the real deal: the genuine mutual affection, the shared joy of working with ideas, books, manuscripts, and past actors, the dedication to humanistic values that is eroding so quickly in today’s neoliberal university.

One can still find pockets of true collegiality. When we do find it, we need to enjoy every second.

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!


DNA as Commodity

Here’s a riddle: In the morning I was in the soup. At noon I was in a dish. In the afternoon I was in your gas tank. And at night I am in the bank. What am I?

The answer is DNA. From a natural object emerging, some say, from a primordial soup, to a laboratory object, to a cultural object, it has become data, a special string of computer code endowed with the power to foretell disease, identify criminals, and be leveraged, like software, as a product.

from venturebeat.com

Robert Resta, a genetic counselor and always a reliable source of depressing, ironic, frightening, and amusing stories about heredity and DNA, forwards this piece, by @alexlash, from Xconomy.com on how your DNA is becoming commodified. What’s happening is interesting not for how new it is, but for the way in which the exotic is becoming commonplace. Featuring the San Francisco biotech company Invitae, the piece shows how this small but highly capitalized company is taking on giants such as Illumina, 23andMe, and Myriad in a bid to monetize your sequence—and give you a small cut.

The troubling thing is how commonplace this is all becoming. Nothing Invitae is doing is really new. They want to persuade you to donate your genome to their database, where it can be analyzed to inform you about your health, contribute to research, and be sold to other companies who might use it for anything from curing cancer to targeted advertising. Invitae CEO Randy Scott he is not bringing in new tests–only offering existing ones all in one place, an approach he calls “generic genetics.” (“Generic genomics” would be more accurate–this is about as far from Gregor Mendel as you can get with a double helix.) And he wants to include users in the process, so that if their sequence is bundled into some DNA-based product, you get a tiny royalty. Sort of like allowing ads on your blog.

For some time, historians and sociologists of science have been writing about “biological citizenship,” the idea that we’re coming to base our identity on our biological status rather than our labor. Many people today identify more as a cancer survivor, as living with depression, or as gluten-intolerant than as a carpenter, secretary, or professor.

DNA has been a big part of that shift to biological citizenship. It’s not the only thing, of course, but it’s a big one. DNA, a hypothetical Marxist historian (there are still a few!) might say, came to have “use value.” We hear every day suggestions that our genes make us who we are. Leaving aside for the moment whether they actually do—a challenge for me, as regular readers know—we believe our DNA to be the secret of life. And so, in a sense, it is.

What’s happening now is that use value is being converted into exchange value. DNA is becoming a currency. An investment account we’re all born with. What are you going to do with yours? Hide it under a mattress? Or make it work for you?

One could imagine a day when there’s a new kind of hereditary aristocracy. A group of nouveau riche whose wealth nevertheless was inherited. Those who, through no effort of their own, received a legacy of valuable SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms). But it will take a go-getter to capitalize on that legacy. You’ll have to have ambition, street smarts, and at least a bit of lab smarts.

Marx also said that history was determined by the material reality of the individual. One might now say the molecular reality of the individual. But total self-awareness at the molecular level won’t lead to the end of exploitation of man by man. Indeed, it is only the beginning.

Professor of Astro-what?

Today, the Library of Congress and NASA announced my new gig for next year, as the Baruch Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the LC. From October 2015 through September 2016, I’ll be resident at the Library.

LucyLawlessXenaHandsUpWhy astrobiology? My next project is a biography of DNA. One key part of the book will be the story of how we’ve come to understand the origins of DNA and the origin of life in an RNA world. So I’ll be using the unparalleled resources of the Library to write the history of origins research since the genome project, as well as working on the rest of the book.

Looking forward to joining the excellent people at the Library!

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 2.40.13 PM

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.



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]


DNA Day Hype

Happy DNA Day everyone. On this date in 1953, Nature published four articles on the structure of DNA, including the 800-word, data-free masterpiece by Watson and Crick—but also the work of Rosalind Franklin, Raymond Gosling, and Maurice Wilkins that did actually have data, and without which the first Watson and Crick paper would have been handwaving fluff. The Watson-Crick paper is a rightful classic of the scientific literature, but it’s too easy to forget those who provided the evidence to back them up.

MRC Biophysics Unit from PaulingBlog.

The MRC Biophysics Unit in 1951, from Paulingblog. Wilkins is scrunched up at the far left. Gosling is on his feet straining his lower back at the right.

To celebrate, the genetic testing company 23andMe posted a DNA Day infographic that is a marvelous inadvertent evidence of genetic oversell. That’s the best kind, because it unself-consciously undermines its own claims.

Rosalind Franklin

An unusual image of Franklin at the microscope, and the familiar portrait, from fantagabriele.blogspot.com.

These claims are about health. Last year, the company was ordered to stop marketing their genomic testing service as a health service and it agreed to stop selling it altogether. It would henceforth focus on the genealogy side of their service. They are evidently sneaking back in, though, with ads—sorry, “infographics”; so much more documentary-like than “advertisements”— like this one.

Ninety-one percent of Americans, it trumpets in giant type at the top of the ad, “correctly believe that knowing their genetic information can be helpful in managing their health.” On one level, Well, duh. Everyone knows that some diseases run in families: you don’t have to have a high level of genetic literacy to be aware that knowing whether your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and aunts have had breast cancer is a pretty useful little medical tidbit. The statement is worded so vaguely as to be meaningless. The remaining nine percent probably have some strongly hereditary learning disability that keeps them from correctly knowing how to feed themselves.

On a second level, though, I’d like to know what percentage of Americans incorrectly believe that knowing their genetic information can be helpful in managing their health. What percentage, for example, think that having one of the BRCA risk-factor alleles means they are going to get breast cancer unless they have a mastectomy? What percentage believe that a 300% increase in risk for an extremely rare disease—from one in 3 million, say, to one in a million—is cause for alarm? What percentage think that the association of a single nucleotide polymorphism with a genetic disease means that biomedicine has the cause—let alone a cure—for that disease? What percentage of Americans, in short, have no understanding of probability, pleiotropy, penetrance, or gene–environment interaction, and yet read ads from companies such as 23andMe and think, “Yee-haw! I can learn what diseases I’m going to get, and which ones not, just by spitting in a cup!”

Watson and Crick

The dynamic duo. From The Sandwalk.

The infomercial continues downward, with more statistics: smaller numbers in smaller type. Thirty-one percent know that genetic testing can “show their body’s ability” to metabolize caffeine, etc. At the bottom, though, the numbers get large again. “People still need a refresher on the basics of genetics,” they say. Forty-nine percent of women “believe their sex chromosome is XY.” Their sex chromosome is XY? What percentage of genetic testing companies employ staffers who can write simply and accurately about genetics? Another statistic: forty-one percent don’t realize DNA is organized into chromosomes.

Finally, in tiny print at the very bottom, they tell us that the survey was conducted on 1000 “nationally representative Americans” by an “independent research firm, Kelton.” Kelton Global is a marketing firm that specializes in repositioning companies that have lost market share or want to break into new markets. Their motto is “helping brands navigate change.” They take surveys, track metrics, re-brand companies, and so forth. Their niche is using numbers to persuade and making statistics say what their clients want them to say.

Let’s make a few postulates for the sake of argument. Let’s say that this is a real sample, designed seriously by people who understand statistics. Let’s say the questions were worded better than this and that those questioned understood what they were being asked. Let’s assume the ad was just badly written. It may be that these are totally unjustified, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for just a moment.

If their numbers are in fact meaningful, what they show is that people are buying the hype about genetic testing without understanding it. How happy should we be that people who don’t know what a chromosome is nevertheless believe that genetic testing can tell them about their health? We’re not talking about informed decision making about subtle and complex data; we’re talking drinking the Kool-Aid. What this ad says, most of all, is that even though officially 23andMe is out of the health-claim game, they are still very interested.