A Critical Review by
Watson in Conversation with Nick Ross,
an event held as part of the first
Newcastle Science Festival,
Life Conference Centre
Centre for Life
26 April 2003.
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Newcastle Science Festival reviews page.
In their paper ĎA Structure for DNAí, published in Nature on
25 April 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson described the double helix of DNA
with its base pairing mechanism, A to T and G to C, that allows science to
explain and account for genetic heredity. For this work they received the Nobel
Watson went on to write papers and textbooks on molecular
biology before becoming the first head of the Human Genome Project. He has
courted controversy throughout his life with outspoken views on how science
should be pursued and used.
Jim is also a trustee of the International Centre for Life.
This was his only public interview in what was not only the week of the 50th
anniversary of the publication of the discovery, but also the week of his
75th birthday. It was then an occasion for much backslapping not
least from celebrity scientists such as Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins and Lewis
Wolpert. The whole thing was introduced by a sweater-wearing Matt Ridley,
clearly yet to dress for dinner.
Jim was here to discuss his life and work with the
broadcaster Nick Ross. Nick did his usual stuff, teasing difficult issues into
bite-sized packages for easy consumption. He began by holding up the famous
paper, pointing out that it takes up just one side plus credits. He asked about
the discovery itself, the actual Eureka Hour when they built the model that
showed the true structure of DNA, and the competition from the Kingís College
London team of Ros Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, and also from the American
Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling.
Jim said it was all so obvious. Ros had excellent x-ray
crystallography plates and Nottingham had published all the figures needed in
1946. In fact, he said, if Linus had read the Nottingham papers the whole thing
would have been done and dusted long before he and Francis came on the scene. He
suggested that Nobel Laureates are not, however, in the habit of reading the
work of others. While it was not clear whether this remark was meant to apply to
himself as well as Linus Pauling, this gentle bonhomie and semi-barbed wit set
the tone for the evening. Pushed on Rosís contribution he grudgingly conceded
that if he and Francis hadnít discovered the structure of DNA then Franklin and
Wilkins, or somebody else, certainly would have done. It was just a matter of
time and, unlike Mozart who was the only person who could have written Mozartís
music, they were in no way necessary to the process.
Both he and Francis had been heavily influenced by the
physicist Erwin Schodingerís philosophical work ĎWhat is Life?í For Erwin the
secret of life is the genetic information stored in a molecule. To reveal the
structure of DNA and to show how it could copy and replicate this information
was then, by Schodingerís definition, to reveal the secret of life. Indeed, Jim
went so far as to suggest their work be written up and titled ĎThis is Life!í He
went onto say that what they had done was deliver the big picture of life. It
was now important for others to work out the details - the consequences of the
form and function of DNA for the human body, and, in particular, for the brain.
If on little else, on this point he and Francis still agree.
Next up, a surprise - a video tribute from Francis Crick
himself. Francis began by saying he regretted not being present as he has long
wanted to see the International Centre for Life. On addressing their discovery,
where Jim dissembled he was unequivocal - it was important to acknowledge Ros
Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. He had obviously been primed for he went on to say
that yes, they probably had discovered the secret of life, but no, they werenít
responsible for any major new developments - they certainly had not foreseen the
rapid advent of cheap DNA sequencing methods.
Francis appeared wise and generous. His enthusiasm for
science, for knowledge, and indeed for life itself has not diminished. Although
he may not lead the charge as he did in the early days of molecular biology, he
is eager to promote research on the brain and the nature of consciousness. In
his tribute to Jim he sounded the clarion for young scientists everywhere. The
brain sciences have a very long way to go but the fascination of the subject and
the importance of the answers sought will carry it forward. For Francis it is
essential to understand our brains in some detail if we are to assess correctly
our place in the vast and complicated universe around us. His recent research
includes work to find the neural correlate of consciousness. As an ecological
philosopher I find his aims worthy of the highest praise but his approach
strained if not misconceived. Here, however, he was right on the money, not
least with the hint that, maybe, Jim wasnít quite as all-knowing about matters
as heíd like to think he is.
And so to God. Nick was keen to ask where God was in all
this. Jim, quite reasonably, answered nowhere, and was content to let the
question rest there. When pressed he said yes, there had been some concern among
science as to the existence of something divine beyond the physical that set the
whole of life, the Universe and everything going, but the discovery of the
structure and function of DNA showed that even this Aristotelian nudger did not
exist. As for religion in a wider context all that shows is that people desire
safe explanations of their circumstances and reassuring leaders to follow. There
was, however, and is, no need to worry about any of this. At this point, I
thought Richard Dawkins would perhaps leap up and stamp once more upon the grave
of theism. Richard, however, remained seated.
Nick persisted: But if thereís no God then doesnít this mean
thereís no morality? For my part, Iím constantly amazed that people still
confuse the existence of divine beings with the existence of morality. Socrates
put that old chestnut to bed many years ago. Put simply, why on earth do we need
religious fanatics, of whatever kind, to tell us how to behave? We can work out
what to do, and what not to do, on our own thank you very much - and, if you
insist, isnít that just what Jesus (to name but one) tells us we have to do?
Anyway, Jimís naive approach to morality was astonishingly
blunt - For Jim, morality is a product of human nature. And what may this be?
Well, just as dogs have dog nature, humans have human nature. Thatís it, QED.
(Down Pinker, down!) For Jim itís as straightforward as that. Well of course,
itís not, but this isnít the time or place.
Nick then asked about the consequences of the discovery of
the structure of DNA. Yes, there had been wonderful benefits not least in the
area of crime detection (Nick hosts a show called Crimewatch that reports this
very work), but wasnít there also a downside and wasnít Jim concerned about
that? Jim had been waiting for this slow train coming and said it was true that
lots of people who donít share your values have lots of kids. He had especially
in mind those born to Republicans. So whatever you do, things you donít want to
happen, happen anyway. Genetic manipulation wonít make any difference to this,
and in any case, like it or not, genetic manipulation is going to happen anyway.
True, if you close every IVF clinic you may slow the process down, but you donít
want to do this because IVF clinics do some people a lot of good. Moral:
You can't quantify the bad, but you can quantify the good, so do it
Whoah! Letís take that again - you canít quantify the bad
outcomes but you can quantify the good outcomes so you should just go ahead and
do it anyway! Throw in a backdrop of fatalism, and not for the first time, or
the last, Jim shows breathtaking naiveté in a Ďwell it worked out all
right for meí kind of way.
It is a shame how often debates about genetic breakthroughs
come down to how much people should be allowed to fiddle with their kids.
Nevertheless Nick then raised a couple of interesting cases: What about deaf
parents wanting deaf children? Jim said it runs counter to common sense but itís
their rights theyíre asserting. What about being black in a racist white
community? Sidestepping the question, Jim said we should make white skins darker
to prevent sunburn and skin cancer. He went on to say that we face pressures to
alter the way we look. Weíre always being told that we need to be better
looking. His view is that genetic intervention for purely cosmetic purposes is
frivolous and should have a very low priority.
Nick said okay to this but pointed out that Francis placed
emphasis on the extraordinary speed of techniques of genetic manipulation -
isnít the whole process already beyond our control? To this Jim insisted that
people have always been trying, and always would try, to design themselves
better, and he sees no reason why they should be prevented from doing this.
Indeed, it is right that people should be allowed to improve themselves whether
through genetic manipulation, cosmetic surgery, private education or
Nick was disturbed - but donít we need genetic diversity to
ensure humanity survives diseases such as AIDS and SARS? No, said Jim, itís not
as simple as that. Just as we donít all need to look the same, maybe we donít
all need the same immune system. Sameness isnít always good, and with respect to
looks, people get bored with sameness. On the other hand, making all humans
resistant to cancer through genetic intervention - whatís wrong with that?
But itís not just human embryos that are genetically
modified. What about GMOs? Nick pointed out that GM crops have caused a big fuss
in the UK but not in the USA. Whyís this? Jim laughed - In the UK itís a
combination of the Daily Mail, BSE, Prince Charles, and so on. Seriously, if
there were no GMOs then thereíd be sick farm workers having to use organo-
phosphates etc. Besides, itís not clear what benefits there are to eating
organic food. Jim has real fears about such things as biological warfare, but no
fears about the use of genetics.
Like other eminent figures, including Greg Stock and Francis
Fukuyama, Jim seems incapable of understanding the good objections to GMOs, such
as those put forward by the Soil Association, or offering good arguments in
favour of GMOs. No one says you should jump off the Tyne Bridge because you
donít know that the consequences will be bad (indeed, they may be good!) and
besides you may get killed by a bus crossing the road that avoids the Bridge. So
why do eminent people offer the same sort of arguments in support of GMO
development and GMO use? It doesnít seem to be that, having thoroughly
researched the issues, they can prove there are no dangers. It does seem to be
sheer blind faith and the acceptance of scientific research by Governments and
multi-national corporations as the only possible path to progress.
Jim likes to look at things on a bigger scale - Humans are
the product of evolution, not Godís design. People donít like this. Evolution
can be cruel; it makes inequalities. Itís almost as if all inequality comes from
the geneticists revealing that we are the product of evolution. Despite all the
accolades, Jim clearly feels hard done by.
Picking up this theme, Nick asked whether evolution could
ever give way to human grand design. This would be more than selective breeding,
which we do now. Could evolution ever give way to planned genetic manipulation?
Could we, should we, produce genetically modified humans?
With his usual charming evasion Jim insisted that this was
not the way to look at it. What we might aim for is not a Darwinian superman but
that, for example, all children are able to use a PC. If there were fewer
handicapped (Jimís word) children then society wouldnít be so burdened and would
be able to reach this goal more easily. Genetics only gives marginal
improvements. We are all born with a desire to improve ourselves. What Darwin
tells us is that the marginal advantage is, in Darwinian terms, the decisive
advantage. Why deny ourselves this? Why say we can improve in all ways except
through genetic advantage? Why shouldnít humanity have an enhanced future, and
why canít that be a genetically enhanced future?
Nick pointed out that one of Jimís children has epilepsy.
Wouldnít you want that genetically fixed? Yes, said Jim, that would be
wonderful. Being handicapped is not a good thing. So, asked Nick, does this mean
that eugenics is not a threat to humanity but an improvement? Yes replied Jim,
adding that Nick is a fast learner. The people at the bottom of society want the
improvements eugenics brings. It is only those at the top who want to block
enhancements for all. It is those at the top who feel they have something to
Nick then asked whether Jim sees himself and Francis as
especially qualified as bioethicists. Well, said Jim, weíre both pretty good at
common sense. This is an offhand, but devastating quip. For Jim thereís no need
for philosophy, ethics, bioethics and stuff like that because common sense and
optimism are all you need. Common sense governs all and optimism will see you
through. Well, what if your common sense isnít the same as someone elseís common
sense? What if optimism doesnít see you through? Others are far better qualified
than I to comment on this. For the first question you might start by taking a
look at John Stuart Millís ĎOn Libertyí. For the second question one suggestion
is Primo Leviís ĎIf This is a Maní. Jim may realise just how lucky he has been,
but simply saying what you think and thanking your lucky stars wonít get the
rest of us by.
There then followed several questions in the course of which
we learned the following:
- Jim said nothing to the Pope as it would not have been
- No one will ever know how the first cell came into
existence, but we do know that RNA came before DNA, and that it was a chance
thing - No divine push was needed. The question is not whether there was
primordial soup, itís what was in the primordial soup, and that weíre never
going to know.
- Young people shouldnít watch TV; they shouldnít choose
entertainment as a way of life. They should do something theyíre curious
- Jim believes in progress. Thanks to GM crops and the
like, the future is going to get better. A lot of people donít believe this; Jim
- Patents slow development and the whole process holds
discoveries back. Because lawyers win over scientists every time, we have to put
up with designs and patents. Jim would have liked to have signed over all the
human genome rights to a body of worthies who would distribute, and withdraw,
licences at low or no cost, as they saw fit. Alas, he was overruled and this did
- Though there are around 26,000 human genes, lots of them
do nothing. It is the ones in the brain that count. The better the brain, the
fewer the genes [that count]! After all, most mammals have roughly the same
genes. When it comes to numbers of genes and how many are shared across species,
donít be too quick to be too surprised.
The event ended by considering the developments we can expect
in the next fifty years. Jim thinks we will find out how genes control
behaviour, how the brain works, how we can fix genes that have gone awry, and,
yes, we will develop a cure for cancer.
Finally, Nick asked Jim what he would like to improve about
himself. Why his hair and ear lobes, of course.
The event was not without controversy. A small number of
orderly demonstrators handed out leaflets that more or less questioned whether
Jim Watson is as nice as people make him out to be and, on a separate point,
insisted that the whole business of genetics is very worrying indeed. To his
credit, Nick raised this with Jim who shrugged it off with his customary faith
in the common sense possessed by humanity. Indeed, on non-scientific matters Jim
came across as a kind of open handed Pangloss who doesnít even pretend to have
read any of the relevant literature.
So now that Jimís achievement and birthday have been
celebrated, perhaps it is a good time to look at his current impact. Well,
Stephen Jay Gouldís considerable tome ĎThe Structure of Evolutionary Theoryí
contains two references to Francis Crick and none to Jim Watson. Could it be
then, that Jimís contribution is done and gone? He doesnít seem to think so and
nor did the very distinguished audience present. Perhaps then, itís just that,
strictly speaking, genetics and evolution have little or nothing to do with each
other? This might seem heretical to a contemporary scientist, but not
necessarily to a philosopher, or to makers of models seeking to seize the
ĎToday, only science supports the myth of progress. If people
cling to the hope of progress, it isnít so much from genuine belief as from fear
of what may come if they give it up. ... Science gives us a sensation of
progress that ethical and political life cannot.
Again, science alone has the power to silence heretics. ...
In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things, but by censoring
thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting
illusion of a single established world view.í
John Gray - Straw Dogs, Granta, 2002, p.19
And, while I may not go so far as Gray, these points apply
equally to Genetics, Darwinism, Psychological Sciences, Social Sciences, Pseudo-
Sciences, mathematics and Analytic Philosophy. For anything with scientific
pretensions, anything can be attempted, and anything goes to get it done.
Experiments escorts us last -
His pungent company
Will not allow an Axiom
- Emily Dickinson
*A remark made by Francis Crick
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