The Foot-in-Mouth Gene

By Susan P. Williams,
an editor on The Post's national staff
Thursday, November 8, 2007


Lessons From a Life in Science

By James D. Watson

Knopf. 347 pp. $26.95

James Watson's "The Double Helix," published in 1968, recounted the thrilling scientific race to discover the shape of DNA, for which he had shared a Nobel Prize a few years earlier. The book was an instant sensation because it showed the author and his peers to be three-dimensional characters as elegant and convoluted as the molecule they were chasing. Today, the slim volume is considered a classic just a notch or two below Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species."

Watson's new memoir, "Avoid Boring People," will never reach that height. But it will add another layer of complexity to his legacy. This is partly because the 79-year-old scientist concludes the book with some tentative conjectures about racial or ethnic differences in intelligence:

"The relative extents to which genetic factors determine human intellectual abilities will also soon become much better known. . . . A priori, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of people geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."

But that cautious language might have gone unnoticed had Watson not elaborated on his views while promoting the book in England. In an interview with the Times of London, he intimated that the brainpower of blacks is inferior to that of whites, saying he is "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." He went on to say that although he hopes all races are equally intelligent, "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true."

Watson has occasionally made racist, sexist and anti-gay statements in the past -- suggesting, for example, that if a gay gene were discovered, women ought to be able to abort a fetus that has it. His recantation and apology for last month's remarks had a distracted feel: "I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief."

One irony, which cannot escape anyone who reads "Avoid Boring People," is that the book is structured as advice on good manners, fruitful collaboration and scientific etiquette. Among the lessons in Chapter 6 ("Manners Needed for Important Science") is: "Always have someone to save you."

Watson had no one to save him from himself. Scientific luminaries worldwide excoriated him. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, his professional home for four decades, suspended him from administrative duties. He canceled his book tour, flew home and retired.

While "Avoid Boring People" is not laced with obvious racism or sexism, these are topics Watson can't seem to stay away from. In the first chapter, he remembers his father's distaste for anti-Semitic jokes, writing, "He knew enough to avoid occasions where polite silence in response to repulsive remarks could be construed as acquiescence in their awfulness." Watson also points out that after World War II his graduate school, Indiana University, hired scientists who were Jewish or leftists when other universities rejected them.

Almost every chapter includes a litany of pretty girls and whether they liked him, which, while tedious, is still far from his 2003 quip about genetic engineering: "People think it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

In his epilogue, Watson alternately assails and defends former Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers, who stepped down in 2006 after an outcry over his musing that women might not be smart enough to succeed in science. Watson tilts at intellectual curiosity while tiptoeing perilously toward a repugnant generalization: "Anyone sincerely interested in understanding the imbalance in the representation of men and women in science must reasonably be prepared at least to consider the extent to which nature may figure, even with the clear evidence that nurture is strongly implicated."

In a statement Watson released upon his retirement last month, he noted that "the passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue." Had he followed his own memoir's proffered lessons, especially the very last one -- "Make necessary decisions before you have to" -- he might have retired from Cold Spring Harbor years ago or kept some of his opinions to himself.

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