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May 27, 2007 5:29 AM   Subscribe

Controversial geneticist Jim Watson will soon be the first man to receve a fully-decoded copy of his own DNA blueprint. Watson and Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule and won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Watson is also known for his frank opinions. Very frank, indeed.
posted by chuckdarwin (36 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Taken from the wiki:
He is, for instance, a strong proponent of genetically modified crops... He has also repeatedly supported genetic screening and genetic engineering in public lectures and interviews, arguing that the "really stupid" bottom 10% of people should be aborted before birth; that all girls should be genetically engineered to be pretty and has been quoted in The Sunday Telegraph as stating "that if the gene (for homosexuality) were discovered and a woman decided not to give birth to a child that may have a tendency to become homosexual, she should be able to abort the fetus."

Watson doesn't think much of the ambitiousness and energy of fat people, and is quoted as saying "Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them." He has also been attacked for justifying anti-semitism, for advocating that certain racial, religious and ethnic groups' "numbers should be restricted", for claiming that blacks are genetically lazy and for advocating the infanticide of handicapped newborns.
One hopes that he was only kidding...
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:32 AM on May 27, 2007


Really too bad we can't ask Rosalind Franklin what she thinks about Watson's "achievement."
posted by MarshallPoe at 5:52 AM on May 27, 2007 [4 favorites]


I really can't stand the obsession of the pop science press with people like Watson and Crick.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:03 AM on May 27, 2007


We're one step closer to Gattaca. And what a lovely world that will be.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:11 AM on May 27, 2007


eugenics was the word used in the Guardian article linked above. I read a book about it all. Very interesting.
posted by infini at 6:27 AM on May 27, 2007


MarshallPoe, if you didn't put in a Ros Franklin mention, I was, especially when I read:

Appropriately perhaps, the man will be Nobel prize winner Jim Watson, now 79, who will go down in history, with Francis Crick, as one of the most famous double acts in science.


A colleague of mine saw Watson talk in Switzerland, where he spoke about how quiet Rosalind was. Let this be a lesson. If you don't make yourself heard, you will be stepped on in life.
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:33 AM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


I imagine Watson's "quiet" line about Franklin is just a highly polished response he trucks out when asked about her (which is all the time now). I've heard (but do not know) that he consciously tried to bury her contribution until the evidence and the many voices of her defenders just made further denial impossible. Not to mention the fact that he seems to have said some very nasty things about her. After the truth came out, he just became a crank. So we have the genome of a crank. Great.
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:49 AM on May 27, 2007


In his accounts of his pursuit of the opposite sex, there is a poignant little tragedy in his failing ever to leave even his genetic fingerprints on the undergarments of the objects of his desire.
Christ I tought I was reading The Sun Bukkaked Edition or some other tabloid shit...but I don't so oh NO NO NO don't tell me Rupert Murdoch owns The Guardian now, too ?
posted by elpapacito at 7:14 AM on May 27, 2007


I think a lot of the criticism of Watson is overblown. What seems to be forgotten is that the man helped make the biggest discovery in the biological sciences since Darwin at the age of twenty five and was receiving all of the accolades that go with such discoveries at an age when most aren't even able to do their own work yet. This does no small number on one's ego, I'd imagine, especially in an area of work where many toil their entire lives in obscurity.

And while I think Franklin certainly should've gotten more credit than she did at the time, I don't think people view the context of the race to figure out what nucleic acid was correctly. As Ernst Mayr noted "...one of the investigators, James D. Watson, more than any of the others, realized the decisive importance of the DNA molecule in biology, and it was this understanding which urged him relentlessly to push this work toward a successful conclusion, in spite of his rather modest technical qualifications for this task." So it took Chargaff, Boivin, Pauling, Wilkins, and many others to collect the evidence and begin to puzzle about the implications of it before Watson and Crick's eureka moment was distilled into a one page summary in the April 1953 issue of Nature that earned them each a Nobel. Sure, high school students probably don't learn about Chargaff, Boivin, Pauling, or Wilkins, but these sort of 'injustices' are not uncommon in science.
posted by inoculatedcities at 7:26 AM on May 27, 2007


Franklin should have gotten a hell of a lot more credit, that is, inoculatedcities.

Also, Watson's an ass. No wonder he had a problem with recognizing the contributions of his immensely talented female colleague.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:55 AM on May 27, 2007


I understand where Watson's ideas come from; it's as if he is the first person to figure out that computers are not magic boxes made by the gods, but mechanical works that can be understood and possibly troubleshot. Your computer does not crash at random, he is saying, it crashes for reasons that could be understood and fixed.

The problem which he does not get is that evolution is a rather sloppy engineer, and our DNA is billions of lines of undocumented spaghetti code written by Mel. And there appears to be a lot of chaotic expression involved, so that making small changes to the code will not make a small change in the final result. This is why I tend to think the kind of tweaking Watson advoctes and that is portrayed in GATTACA may not in fact be possible.
posted by localroger at 8:00 AM on May 27, 2007


He was given licence to say anything that came into his mind and expected to be taken seriously. And unfortunately he did so, with casual and brutal offhandedness.

The direct genetic ancestor of much of the population here, then?
posted by gimonca at 8:03 AM on May 27, 2007


Franklin should have gotten a hell of a lot more credit, that is, inoculatedcities.

Also, Watson's an ass.


You're right, a hell of a lot more credit. I think that's plainly obvious to anyone familiar with any of these people.

So what if Watson's an ass? Does that somehow change or nullify his contributions to biology? To the other fields that were immediately affected by his co-discovery? I can name plenty of other famous scientists who might rightly be called rude or arrogant or any manner of unpleasant thing -- it sort of goes with the territory, especially when you're a public intellectual.

However, I fear that much of the anti-Watson rhetoric comes from the same 'liberated' people who were threw fruit at E.O. Wilson's lectures after he published Sociobiology, a book most of them likely never read themselves, but nonetheless villified because they thought it challenged their 'cause'. That kind of nonsense has no place in serious science and should be called out.
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:07 AM on May 27, 2007


Franklin should have gotten a hell of a lot more credit

Are you so sure she wouldn't have, had she not picked such an inconvenient time to die? Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously.
posted by RavinDave at 8:23 AM on May 27, 2007


Wikipedia said: He is, for instance, a strong proponent of genetically modified crops... He has also repeatedly supported genetic screening and genetic engineering in public lectures and interviews, arguing that the "really stupid" bottom 10% of people should be aborted before birth; that all girls should be genetically engineered to be pretty and has been quoted in The Sunday Telegraph as stating "that if the gene (for homosexuality) were discovered and a woman decided not to give birth to a child that may have a tendency to become homosexual, she should be able to abort the fetus."

Watson doesn't think much of the ambitiousness and energy of fat people, and is quoted as saying "Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them." He has also been attacked for justifying anti-semitism, for advocating that certain racial, religious and ethnic groups' "numbers should be restricted", for claiming that blacks are genetically lazy and for advocating the infanticide of handicapped newborns.

inoculatedcities said: However, I fear that much of the anti-Watson rhetoric comes from the same 'liberated' people who were threw fruit at E.O. Wilson's lectures after he published Sociobiology, a book most of them likely never read themselves, but nonetheless villified because they thought it challenged their 'cause'.

I uh, think there's a teeeeeeeeny bit o' difference here. Just a little one, so I understand how you could overlook it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:37 AM on May 27, 2007


Isn't this the same Watson who is on Charlie Rose everytime they talk about something genetic related? The dude is old, as in not all there old.

Though I have to say, if such tests were available, for homosexuality, intelligence, etc. I think it would be naive for us to think that the aggregate populace would not see a decline in low intelligence or homosexuality. I don't know if that is what Watson meant, it sounded as if he were advocating for selective births, but given the choice I would be inclined to believe that people would chose the option they would see as being more ideal. The pressure would be immense, a huge herding effect, especially if people began to believe if they didn't select they would be giving their kids an inherent disadvantage in life, or at least that would be the justification ("Well, I mean if they're doing it I will have to do it to keep up") which is why I think such testing based on non-life threatening illness should be illegal. Of course I doubt there is much controversy on this.
posted by geoff. at 8:57 AM on May 27, 2007


A furore has developed over the ethics of creating "designer babies" ahead of new UK guidance on use of genetic screening techniques.

Dozens of couples in the UK have opted for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to avoid giving birth to children with serious genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis and haemophilia.

But revelations that the technique has allowed a US couple to create a baby to act as a donor to save his sister from a life-threatening disease has led many commentators to ask where the line will be drawn.

via hte Beeb
posted by infini at 9:14 AM on May 27, 2007


What makes me cringe even more than Watson's inanities is the reckless inaccuracies in the Independent article..

Until now, full gene sequencing has been the stuff of science fiction

Um, no? It's really not too hard to sequence a gene. A genome, maybe, but not a gene.

Richard Gibbs, a DNA sequencer at Baylor College of Medicine

I guess they're giving faculty positions to any old 3730xl these days...
posted by greatgefilte at 9:16 AM on May 27, 2007


Every time I read about Watson, I think "Christ, what an asshole."

I think a lot of the criticism of Watson is overblown.


You mean we should overlook his assholery because he was a Great Scientist? I don't think so. It's quite possible to be a Great Scientist without being an asshole.
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on May 27, 2007


We're one step closer to Gattaca. And what a lovely world that will be.

From the "Pent-Up Consumer Demand" department -- actually, IMDB's trivia for the movie:

When Gattaca was first released, as part of a marketing campaign there were adverts for people to call up and have their children genetically engineered. Thousands of people called, wanting to have their offspring genetically engineered.

I sure hope that's an urban legend....
posted by pax digita at 9:30 AM on May 27, 2007


in a memoir of this period, Edward O Wilson, Harvard's great classical biologist, and author of The Diversity of Life, described Watson as 'the most unpleasant human being he had ever met'. At department meetings, Wilson suggested, 'Watson radiated contempt in all directions. Having risen to fame at an early age, [he] became the Caligula of biology. He was given licence to say anything that came into his mind and expected to be taken seriously. And unfortunately he did so, with casual and brutal offhandedness.'

Heh.
posted by Rumple at 9:58 AM on May 27, 2007


I advise commenters to listen to a recording of Watson, speaking without a script, made in the last five years or so; it won't take you 30 seconds to realize he is completely demented, now.

A few years after he is dead, I doubt anything he's said in the last twenty years will be of interest, except to clinicians.

If you had been able to punish him for his sins, I doubt any of you would have been so ferociously cruel as what has actually happened to him.
posted by jamjam at 10:26 AM on May 27, 2007


Though I've heard and read dozens of discussions like this one, I always find them fascinating. People wrestle with themselves and others when assholes (or people accused of being assholes) produce great things.

No matter how much evidence suggests the contrary, we're reared to believe that good begets good and bad begets bad.

For whatever reason, I battle less with this than most of my friends and family. In another thread, I took part in a lengthy discussion about fiction writers. I view a story as a "found object", and I don't much care about its author's intent or opinions (though I may LOVE his story). I'm in the minority. Most people seem to care deeply about creators. Many seem to care more about creators than creations.

I doubt one point-of-view is more right or sophisticated than the other. I just find it interesting that people things so differently. To me, there's no wrestling:

Watson is an asshole.

Watson is partly responsible for one of the world's greatest discoveries.

One fact has nothing to do with the other.
posted by grumblebee at 10:30 AM on May 27, 2007


Watson is partly responsible for one of the world's greatest discoveries.

The thing is, there was a "race" going on, so it's obvious that someone would have figured it out sooner or later, they just got lucky (and they happened to see that Franklin's photographs, which would have been a huge help). They're not like Newton or Einstein or Darwin where they just come up with these world-altering ideas on their own.
posted by delmoi at 11:16 AM on May 27, 2007


When Gattaca was first released, as part of a marketing campaign there were adverts for people to call up and have their children genetically engineered. Thousands of people called, wanting to have their offspring genetically engineered.

I sure hope that's an urban legend....


Why? Most people have a pretty unrealistic view of what genetic engineering is, it's strengths and weaknesses. I have met folks who seriously think an exact clone of me (including being my age and possessing all my knowledge) is right around the corner if not here already.

So, if grandpa Joe died of a heart attack and 52, and uncle Bob had one at 47 and your dad has already had a bypass, and you though that, I dunno, they could wave a magic wand and swap a base or two and make your kid NOT be prone to dying young of a heart attack.

Similarly, I've heard the "Aieeee! They'll clone Hitler! Beastmen roaming the streets!" argument against cloning about a thousand times. I've only twice heard the "What about the poor bastard who get's to be the clone?" argument.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:24 AM on May 27, 2007


Read the Barbie Murders by Jack Vance or Ursula K LeGuin's Nine Lives for some extrapolatory explorations of the concept. I think we should all vote on it, the entire human race. And the plants and animals too, who have no voice to speak up when genetically modified. I sound crazy to myself too, but the implications are a conundrum.

Good and evil exist side and side in the same pot. Look at Alfred Nobel, his greatest invention was become into a weapon - dynamite - and his peaceloving soul was so horrified that he put all his money into creating and endowing the Nobel Prizes. Today we know him for Peace, the Sciences and advances in Medicine, Economics and Literature.

I hear that Kalashnikov has been trying to do the same, forever his family name is become death. And Sting himself put it into our common lexicon, "Oppenheimer's deadly toy..." And so will history say of Watson.

I think we've conflated the great things with the great men, their creations are neutral, in and of themselves. It is what can be done with them, the possibilities of what could be, that makes these things great or not. Arthur C Clarke's vision of a geostationary satellite was genius. Now that is a great man. Seperate from the great things that may have been built.

Once you seperate their creation from the creator as someone says above you can honour each in its own way, and entirely possible addressing different values to each of these assessments.
posted by infini at 11:43 AM on May 27, 2007


You mean we should overlook his assholery because he was a Great Scientist? I don't think so. It's quite possible to be a Great Scientist without being an asshole.
languagehat

I think you're reading him backwards. He's saying that Watson's contributions should not be overlooked because he's an asshole, as some people in this thread seem to be moving towards. grumblebee did a great job of further articulating that idea.

The thing is, there was a "race" going on, so it's obvious that someone would have figured it out sooner or later, they just got lucky (and they happened to see that Franklin's photographs, which would have been a huge help). They're not like Newton or Einstein or Darwin where they just come up with these world-altering ideas on their own.
delmoi

That's a bit unfair. Maybe someday would have eventually figured DNA out, but Watson and Crick (and Franklin) were the ones who did it, and it seems petty to dismiss their work like that. Science doesn't happen in a vacuum.
Take one of your examples of a "real" scientist, Darwin, for instance. He didn't just wake up one day and go, "Holly crap! Natural selection! Of course!" There was a long history of study of the natural world and attempts to explain it. Look at Lamarck's theory, for instance, which Darwin's mentor, the famous biologist Robert Edmond Grant, at the University of Edinburgh strongly supported. You might say, "Yes, and Darwin was the one who proved Lamarck wrong." But one might also say, "Well, there was obviously a line of research and investigation into how the natural world works. If Darwin hadn't come up with natural selection, someone would have."
posted by Sangermaine at 1:24 PM on May 27, 2007


I haven't done one of these in a while, but I can't resist:

MetaFilter: I sound crazy to myself too.
posted by languagehat at 2:20 PM on May 27, 2007


aw shuck, I dunno whether to favourite that or pretend I didn't notice.
posted by infini at 2:33 PM on May 27, 2007


If Darwin hadn't come up with natural selection, someone would have.

Indeed, Wallace did.
posted by ilyanassa at 2:59 PM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]



You mean we should overlook his assholery because he was a Great Scientist?


Of course not. We should overlook his assholery because he was a Quiz Kid.

No, not really. Ugly is skin deep but asshole is to the bone.
posted by Opposite George at 4:22 PM on May 27, 2007


I can't believe that I'm the first to say it, but here it is.

Eponysterical.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:02 PM on May 27, 2007


Meanwhile, though Dr Watson is happy to share his DNA on the public database, there are some things he does not want to know about himself. He does not want to know whether he is likely to get a debilitating condition for which there is no cure.

I guess this answers the question I was going to ask, which was "What does he plan to DO with a blueprint of his DNA?"

The next question being, is being a brilliant yet pompous, demented jerk a debilitating condition for which there is no cure? The man himself would certainly say that it is.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:06 PM on May 27, 2007


Science has absolutely nothing to do with whether you're a good or a bad person. That's its one drawback, isn't it?
posted by koeselitz at 7:25 PM on May 27, 2007


localroger - ...And there appears to be a lot of chaotic expression involved, so that making small changes to the code will not make a small change in the final result. This is why I tend to think the kind of tweaking Watson advoctes and that is portrayed in GATTACA may not in fact be possible.

The sequence of DNA has two gross functions; encode protein or regulate the expression of some protein.

Small nucleotide changes in the genomic DNA sequence can result in a defective (or more effective) protein.

The same small changes could alter the expression (how much, when) of a protein, that's otherwise "normal."

That same small change, somewhere else in the genome, wouldn't have any phenotype whatsoever.

Despite some rather poignant setbacks in retroviral therapy, I still think there's hope for some diseases where a single protein product is known to be defective. In GATTACA, I didn't get the impression that they were changing genetic code; in the doctor scene, it's explained that it's the 'best of the two of you' or something. This implies that many fertilized zygotes are produced, a cell is taken out and the genome sequences and analyzed for expected phenotype. The one best matching what the parents specify is then selected for implantation and the rest discarded.

Not too far fetched a scenario; all we need are single-cell whole-genome sequencing. We can do PCR on single cells so it's only "an order of magnitude" type of problem rather than a a theoretical one.

I have no idea where Watson's coming from.

As for 'chaotic expression,'... genetic transcription and protein translation is very tightly regulated. If you're interested in the idea of chaos in gene transcription, check out epigenetics (something that doesn't change the genetic code directly between generations but does change the expression pattern of said genes) or transposons and HERVs.
posted by porpoise at 7:48 PM on May 27, 2007


You know who else liked eugenics? ...
posted by wzcx at 10:25 AM on May 29, 2007


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