One of the points I tried to make in my VDARE.com article on James D. Watson is that he’s not just some old coot who discovered something back in 1953. When he felt his powers of new discovery decline as middle age approached, he switched to scientific management, taking over the failing Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968 and drove it to huge success. He remains a central cog in the great enterprise of modern genetic research. Here’s a Sunday Times essay by the biologist/journalist Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe who got James Watson in so much trouble with her previous article:
Science has always been open to debate. Why shackle it? What are we so afraid of? Why gag and shame on the basis of fear?
Maybe this will be a watershed moment, one that examines our inability to openly debate sensitive issues. Whether is it or not, I believe that fear of what might be uncovered – or not – as a result of further analysis is no reason to deprive ourselves of the most experienced geneticist of our age. My hope is, once the smoke clears, that the laboratory will realise that he is too precious to dismiss over fears of what he has said and might say next. He can say it, he can take it back, others can challenge it. We pride ourselves in living within a democratic society. If he said – which he hasn’t – that I might be less intelligent because I had blonde hair, I wouldn’t care. All that matters to me is that if someone I loved was ill, or dying from an incurable disease, then the man who has the brains, capability and resources to help them, be allowed to do so.
As Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Watson’s is not only a maverick in securing funding but a crucial sounding board for lab scientists. Daily, he consults with his scientific investigators – all working on disparate areas of the disease field. At nearly 80, Watson seamlessly manoeuvres his thoughts around scores of ultra-specific genetic problems. All hours of his working day his researchers look to him for advice – secure in the knowledge that he has the experience to make the decisions which, without him, they could misjudge and risk being a step behind.
I have been reported as working with him – when, as stated, I was under the guidance of the then assistant director of the lab, Winship Herr. But, any geneticist who has had their hand grasped by him in a congratulatory handshake following a hard-won discovery in the lab, will tell you that Watson has a unique ability to instil pride in achievement. Biologists rarely see the limelight, and if occasional words of praise and encouragement are enough to keep scientists working a few extra few hours a day, and if this makes our fight against disease faster, then we need him.
After a long day of conversation – the topic of racial inequality was broached. It seemed an important extension to words he had written in his book. I would never have written something that I thought he would not be prepared to defend. I am not trying to destroy a brilliant scientist and I am genuinely horrified by the response. We need to squeeze every last drop of brilliance from this man if we are to continue hoping to unravel the genetic causes of disease. He strives to help young people in their careers. My biggest concern is that, by helping me, he has damaged himself. I could not hope more, that I am wrong.
In a war – the people we want around us are the ones with the experience and proven track record. Disease is a war. We need tactics, brilliance and, above all, experience. He may push the boundaries of what is acceptable in our PC world – and stray into areas that are not his expertise – but when he sits in his role as Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, his scientists – though not the publicists – feel safe and expertly guided. And they are.
Watson’s personality is complex. We’re used to shy or Aspergery scientists who accidentally offend people around them because they aren’t very social, but Watson doesn’t fit that mold, which is why he’s been such a success as a leader of scientists.
He’s extremely gossipy, for one thing. Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, the social queen of Washington for decades, used to say, “If you don’t have anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”
But gossip provides unexpected benefits. Back in the 1970s, the LA Dodgers and the NY Yankees had opposite approaches to gossip. The Dodgers were trained by their management to always put a bland, happy spin on things. Occasionally, you’d get hints that everything wasn’t always peachy with them, such as when Don Sutton and Steve Garvey got into a locker room fight in 1978 over Garvey’s wife, but that was an exception. In contrast, the Yankees, led by their owner George Steinbrenner, were constantly denouncing each other in the newspapers. It seemed obvious to me that the Dodger system was superior, but the Yankees took two out of three World Series from the Dodgers, and went on in the 1990s (under a little more mellow Steinbrenner) to form an even better dynasty.
Sociobiology founder Edward O. Wilson, the other grand old man of American biology, famously clashed with Watson at Harvard departmental meetings in the 1950s and 1960s in a turf war between the old organismic biologists like Wilson and the new molecular biologists like Watson over faculty hiring. The normally gentlemanly Wilson wrote in his autobiography Naturalist that at faculty meetings Watson, “the Caligula of biology,” “radiated contempt in all directions,” The nicest thing he said about traditional biology was to call it “stamp collecting.” Wilson wrote:
“When Watson became director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968, … I commented sourly to friends that I wouldn’t put him in charge of a lemonade stand. He proved me wrong. In ten years he raised that noted institution to even greater heights by inspiration, fund-raising skills, and the ability to choose and attract the most gifted researchers.”
Eventually, Watson did Wilson a great service by forcing him to rethink higher level biology, make it less stamp collecting and more of a theory driven science based on natural selection, so he could compete with Watson’s triumphant brand of molecular biology. “Without a trace of irony I can sat I have been blessed with brilliant enemies … because they redoubled my energies and drove me in new directions.” Watson’s challenge also inspired Wilson to think deeply about reductionism and the proper levels of scientific research, as shown in his book Consilience.
(Wilson’s other brilliant enemy was Stephen Jay Gould, whose denunciations of Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology persuaded Wilson to learn, at age 45, how to write like a literary intellectual, so he could compete with Gould in the non-scientific intellectual marketplace. Thus, Wilson’s small 1978 book On Human Nature , in which Wilson unveiled his new prose style and hard-earned set of artistic references, won the Pulitzer.)
It’s nice to know that Watson and Wilson have reconciled in recent years, appearing in a joint interview on Charlie Rose. Perhaps Wilson and Gould would have reconciled too if Gould had not died at age 60?