Discover Dialogue: Geneticist James Watson

James Watson's solution: 'Just let all the genetic decisions be made by women'

By David Ewing Duncan|Tuesday, July 01, 2003
RELATED TAGS: GENETICS

Fifty years ago, two unknown molecular biologists at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University had one of the great eureka moments in the history of science: They discovered that DNA is organized in the shape of a double helix—two intertwining strands of nucleotides on a superstructure of sugar. Only 25 years old then, James Watson was a stringy, thin biologist with wavy hair and a desire to be famous. Born in 1928, he graduated from the University of Chicago at age 19 and got his Ph.D. at Indiana University at 22. In 1962 he, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for their discovery. In the intervening years, Watson has remained a key figure in genetics,serving as the president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island and as the original director of the Human Genome Project. In this spirited interview with author David Ewing Duncan, he reinforces his position as a powerful, independent force in biology.

What are you most proud of?

W: My textbook The Molecular Biology of the Gene and my book The Double Helix.

Not the actual discovery of the double helix?

W: No, because the double helix was going to be found in the next year or two. It was just waiting to be found, and I was the one who finally found it because I was the most obsessed about it.

How do you account for what you've accomplished?

W: Ambition. You want to get things done. And you want your university or your school to be good; you want to do important things. And you see that society will be helped, and so to what extent you say: I'm just trying to push myself. . . . Francis Crick and I both wanted to do big things. If you succeed with your first dream, it helps. You know,people trust you, possibly, for the second one. They give you a chance to play out your second one.

Why did you choose to write a book focusing more on the people involved rather than the science of the double helix?

W:I wanted to see if I could write a good book. It was ahead of its time,you could say, in terms of style. I wasn't thinking of myself as a scientist, you know. My heroes were never scientists. They were Graham Greene and Christopher Isherwood, you know, good writers.

Did it bother you that some people found your descriptions of them to be somewhat critical?

W: No one said my descriptions were wrong; they just said I shouldn't have had them. Francis Crick and I talked that way.


What about Rosalind Franklin? Do you think she got the credit she deserved?

W: She died too soon. We didn't get much credit for those first five years. You know, we knew we'd done something big, but the Meselson-Stahl experiment hadn't been done, which confirmed the double helix in 1958. She died in 1958. . . . It was sad when she got ovarian cancer. But you know, if she'd just talked to Francis, he would have told her what we were thinking. And she would have solved the structural problem. If she had shared her evidence, he would have told her what it meant. She would have gone back and found the double helix. But she didn't want to speak to us. We were the enemy.

It must have been hard for a woman in the boys'-club atmosphere at Cambridge at the time.

W: I thought she was rather dowdy. I didn't dislike her or anything like that. We never got a chance to know each other.

Should she have shared in the Nobel?

W: Some people have said that we should have shared the glory with her. .. . It's true that when I saw her photograph [of DNA], that galvanized me into action. But then people think it was all the details of the photograph that gave me the answer. It wasn't that; it's too complicated to go into. But she never held it against Francis when she was dying. She went to stay in his house. But they never talked about it. Francis says they were concerned with the future, not the past.

I've been told by some geneticists that humans are essentially organic machines and that one day we will understand how we work. If so, what happens to that unexplainable mystery of what makes us human, where we draw our passion, our poetry—our soul, if you will?

W: The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was that my father didn't believe in God, and so he had no hang-ups about souls. I see ourselves as products of evolution, which itself is a great mystery.

What about the impact of genetics on emotions?

W: Take love. At the end of it, love doesn't come from God, so it's not the greatest gift of God but the greatest gift of our genes. You see evidence of maternal care in birds, and they feel seemingly pretty strong about it. So it's an emotion that has an enormous selective advantage. You've probably met someone who you think is just not capable of love. I suspect that they lack a gene that is necessary for the emotion.

Does the lack of a love gene mean these people will lose out in evolution?

W: No, as long as you've got a good brain, you can marry for money. There are other strategies, so I'm sure there are a lot of loveless women in America.

What about other emotions—say, anger?

W: In several studies researchers have found a gene associated with violence. They found the gene can exist in two forms: the gene where you express a lot of the enzyme and the one where you express a little. Then they correlated that with what happened to children who were abused. If a child was abused and didn't have much of that enzyme, they had a much higher probability of getting into trouble with the law. If you weren't abused, the chance of your getting into trouble with the law was much, much slimmer. So most people, if they have a lot of the enzyme, the anger dissipates fast. If you come from a good family, then when you get angry, you don't hit someone in the face. I want to test myself because I bet I have the root form of the gene, but I keep it in the background.

Do you get angry?

W: Very fast.

Is it over with fast?

W: Yes.

What is the purpose of this anger gene?

W: It is extremely interesting to find out why some people have one personality and others are really different, because if there's one thing that doesn't seem to change during people's lives, it's their personality. If someone is phlegmatic, it's with them all their life. You can't change it.

Have you ever been tested for DNA markers for disease?

W: I haven't been. I had my mitochondrial DNA completely sequenced. I have a very common mitochondrion—the most common one. My Irish grandmother died in 1992 when she was in a nursing home; she was enraged for a year, and my mother couldn't handle it. So I suspect it was Alzheimer's. No one ever used the word, but she had become impossible to handle.

How do you feel about being tested for the Alzheimer's gene?

W: I don't want to know unless I can do something about it, so I'm acting as if I have the bad news.

Explain your theory of happiness.

W: My idea is we're dominated by our emotions. And emotions, you know, have chemical circuits. And these influence our genes, and this is not surprising—you might need different sorts of people in a stable society. Some people get angry, some people don't. The gene for endorphin makes up part of a protein called POMC. So this protein is broken down by proteases. On the one end are endorphins, but on the other end is melanocortin and what used to be called MSH. Now MSH is made when you're in the sun. So when you make MSH, you're also making endorphins. So my theory is that that's why the sun makes you happy. But if you're not in the sun, you're unhappy. So my theory of happiness is that there are emotions that have a selective advantage; they make you do things that are good for you.

What about manipulating things like happiness or, say, intelligence or memory—if this becomes possible? What if you were able to genetically enhance these things?

W: I think that would be great, because I think so many people hardly have the intelligence that lets them survive in our civilization. Maybe one of the reasons for this growing inequality of income may in some sense be a reflection of some people being more strong and healthy than others. Some people, no matter how much schooling you give them, will never really be up to what is now considered a necessary degree of effective intelligence. We're sitting at the top of the pyramid of an awful lot of things that happen without us knowing it, that allow us to be sitting here. We never ask what it's like to be at the bottom. There seems to be a total lack of compassion for people at the bottom.


In the 1990s we had the "digital divide" between the technology haves and the have-nots. What will happen when the wealthy have access to genetic enhancements but not the poor?

W: The function of genetics should be somehow to try to reverse bad truths. I think we need to develop a political philosophy about this, to establish rules. One is that some people fail for reasons out of their control. . . . What function of you is really caused by having a bad throw of the genetic dice?

Do you worry that through genetic engineering we may create a new subspecies of human who is stronger, smarter, and healthier, and that this new species will end up surviving while the current Homo sapiens dies out? Something like the situation with the Neanderthals and our ancestors, the Cro-Magnons?

W: No, I don't think so. It depends on how we approach it. I think some people may have to be helped. Whether it's getting the genes for mental illness out of their family, however you do it. You could add a gene that would make you resistant to HIV. Wouldn't that be a rather nice thing? But I'm not in favor of a "sterilizing the lower classes" kind of argument.

Let me jump to the next step of that: You are Jim Watson. You're put in charge of how we as a society are going to react to issues raised by genetics—stem cells, bioengineering, and the like. What would you do?

W: Well, my sensibility is very libertarian. Just let all genetic decisions be made by individual women. That is, never ask what's good for the country; ask what's good for the family. I don't know what's good for the country, but you can often say what's good or bad for the family. That is, mental disease is no good for any family. And so if there's a way of trying to fight that, I'd let a woman have the choice to do it or not do it. Not give in and have the state tell you to have a certain sort of child. I would be very frightened by the state telling you one way or the other.

What about some of the issues like stem cell cloning?

W: I think no president could withhold any treatment that works. Since we don't know whether stem cells will cure Parkinson's, you can, you know,wait and see what happens. But I don't have a problem with George Bush. He wants to be re-elected, and he may actually believe in God.

Do you have a fear that the momentum in research may shift to Europe?

W: No. The religious right is still only 20 percent of the country. And even there, if it was a question of whether they would have a healthy grandchild, they might choose a healthy grandchild.

Biotech claims to be about to deliver dozens of new drugs and therapies for everything from heart disease to cancer. How can we pay for this with a health care system already straining to pay for what we've got now?

W: We've got to find a fairly cheap way to cure cancer.

David Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, is calling for a big government-funded research project to help fill in the gaps in genetic pathways in people, which are turning out to be far more complex than expected for illnesses such as heart disease and which may be beyond the ability of private companies and smaller labs to figure out and pay for. Do you think this is necessary?

W: We should have gene expression and big projects organized by the National Institutes of Health, and they're not doing anything. We got the Human Genome Project done because we didn't work through a pre-existing institute but set an institute up to do big projects.

Looking around your office here, I notice that you have a copy of Gattaca on your desk.

W: Awfully good movie. It was pretty clever.

What do you think of the world that was depicted there? Is that something we'll see, do you think, or a version of it?

W: No. See, the reality is that we are genetically very unequal now.

So a version of Gattaca already exists today.

W: A version is already here.

All men are created equal, but . . .

W: Yeah. But you know, when he finally has a swimming race, he beats the brother.


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