James Watson’s Not So Brilliant Career
Until last year, James Dewey Watson was famous for two things. One was his discovery, with Francis Crick, of the structure of DNA, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. The other was the fast-paced, no-holds-barred account of the competition for that discovery in his bestselling memoir The Double Helix, published in 1968.
These achievements were more than enough to establish Watson as one of the preeminent figures of the last century, and they might have guaranteed him the reverence of the public and of his fellow scientists for the rest of his life. But Watson was only forty when The Double Helix was published, and he still had many years in which to wear out his esteem.
He made good use of them. Watson’s formidable scientific and literary skills have never been matched by an even temper or good social judgment, and in 2007 the worst finally happened: the septuagenarian geneticist told the (London) Sunday Times that he was “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.” Not content with this, he went on to assert that while he would have liked to believe that everyone was equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
These imprudent remarks soon cost Watson his job as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and earned him instant renown as a racist dinosaur. But those who had followed his career were surprised only that it took so long for him to face any consequences for his public outbursts. In the scientific community, he has long been regarded as “something of a wild man,” as the journal Science once put it. Over the past four decades he has contended, at various times, that parents should be allowed to euthanize genetically unsatisfactory babies; that the development of a genetic test for homosexuality would provide reasonable grounds for abortion; that fat people are inherently unhappy; and that skin pigmentation is correlated with sex drive.
Why on earth did Watson say these things? In part, undoubtedly, because he believes them. But the title of his latest autobiography—Avoid Boring People—offers an additional clue.* Certainly Watson himself is anything but boring, and, for all that he pretends to be surprised when he causes offense, one has the impression that his infatuation with his own brilliance is the one unshakeable fact of his life. Along with its two predecessors, The Double Helix and an earlier memoir called Genes, Girls, and Gamow (2002), Avoid Boring People recaps Watson’s career and offers a glimpse into how one insouciant scientist has managed to push the envelope for so long.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Avoid Boring People is nominally organized around a series of “remembered lessons” that Watson has abstracted from his life—or, rather, from the first 50 or so years of that life, beginning with his boyhood in Depression-era Chicago and ending with his departure from Harvard for Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1975. These lessons, presented in numbered lists at the end of each chapter, range in utility from the eminently practical (“Avoid fighting bigger boys or dogs”) to the rarely applicable (“Expect to put on weight after Stockholm”). While it is not clear exactly to whom the lessons are directed, they do serve to point out the highlights of a colorful journey.
By his own account, Watson’s Chicago upbringing was dominated by a belief in “books, birds, and the Democratic party.” His father, James, Sr., was a devoted naturalist who took his son on pre-dawn walks to spot the seasonal birds in Jackson Park—and on Friday-night trips to the local public library. His mother Margaret was a Democratic organizer in Chicago’s seventh ward, and James, Jr. was raised a partisan of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Each of these family convictions, as it turned out, played a role in shaping Watson’s subsequent life and career.
It was his interest in birds that led him to plan for a career in biology, which became the focus of his studies as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. But he abandoned ornithology shortly after beginning his graduate training at Indiana University, where he was seduced instead by the increasingly evident promise of genetics. Around the same time, he swapped bird- for girl-watching.
The subsequent two decades—representing the bulk of the time covered in Avoid Boring People—seem to have been dominated by the twin obsessions of solving the mysteries of the genetic code, on the one hand, and “finding a suitable blonde,” on the other. Between the two there is a lot of ground to cover, and Watson’s narrative moves seamlessly from highly specialized discourse to slightly prurient natter and back again, often without any pause to provide a sense of context or consequence. Interestingly, he seems to recall his romantic dalliances in at least as much detail as his experimental work. In one scene he is lunching with a pretty socialite; in the next he is hard at work on the structure of ribosomes.
Even at what was arguably the apogee of his scientific career, genetics did not appear to occupy the forefront of Watson’s mind. To hear him tell it, the high points of his time in Stockholm were the flower-bedecked girl who woke him on the last day of Nobel Week and his brief visit with Sweden’s Princess Christina, whom he persuaded to apply to Radcliffe. Although a future for Watson and the princess was not to be, six years after winning the Nobel he married a Radcliffe girl twenty years his junior.
Democratic-party politics proved a somewhat more durable pastime than birding. Like many academics of his generation, Watson was a Kennedy partisan, and he established his liberal bona fides with a brief stint on the President’s science-advisory committee. His role ended during the Johnson administration, when he crossed the military by opposing the use of an encephalitis virus as a bio-weapon. Henceforth, his political activities were somewhat less conspicuous.
As for books, the role they played in influencing Watson’s intellectual development is perhaps the most edifying detail in Avoid Boring People. In high school he read Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925), a novel about a brilliant scientist who tries to cure cholera with bacteria-killing viruses. The lesson, duly provided at the end of the chapter: “find a young hero to emulate.” Indeed, Watson would eventually achieve the kind of success that eludes the fictional Martin Arrowsmith. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he read Erwin Schrödinger’s What Is Life? and came to believe that an understanding of the gene was the key to understanding all of biology. This is what set him on his path to graduate training in genetics, and hence to glory.
But the most consequential books for Watson were, naturally, the ones he wrote himself, and above all The Double Helix. He began writing this first memoir in 1962, assisted, predictably, by a blue-eyed “muse” from Radcliffe. His catty opening line—“I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood”—was destined to become a classic quote in the history of science. It also prefigured the scandals that surrounded the book’s eventual publication.
Watson’s unflattering portrayal of Crick, the British molecular biologist who was his principal collaborator, precipitated a very public falling-out, accompanied by threats of legal action. Nor was Maurice Wilkins, the crystallographer who shared the Nobel prize with Watson and Crick, impressed by the self-aggrandizement on display in The Double Helix. Watson was also taken to task for his description of Wilkins’s co-worker Rosalind Franklin, who had died prematurely of ovarian cancer in 1958. Although it was her work that proved crucial to solving the structure of DNA, she struck Watson as dour, unimaginative, and unattractive.
Watson later recanted these aspersions, acknowledging Franklin’s contribution and saying that only in time had he come to appreciate her intelligence and determination. Still, the fact remains that he and Crick had used Franklin’s unpublished work without her knowledge.
Almost every autobiography invites its reader to wonder why an author might feel the need to record, and to submit for public inspection, the details of his life. Watson himself avers that “a major reason for writing autobiography is to prevent later biographers getting the basic facts of your life wrong.” But since he has already written two other memoirs that between them cover his major accomplishments and many of his diversions in fairly exhaustive detail, this begs the question of which basic facts he is concerned about. Surely he is not worried that future biographers will neglect his first girlfriend at Indiana.
One possibility is that Watson, now almost eighty, could simply not pass up the opportunity to have the last word on the discovery of the double helix. His re-telling of the story occupies about nineteen pages of Avoid Boring People. In the crucial paragraph, he claims that Maurice Wilkins impulsively showed him an unpublished X-ray photo of a DNA molecule from Rosalind Franklin’s laboratory, thereby providing the key piece of data that would enable Watson and Crick to uncover DNA’s double helical structure. And why did Wilkins show him the photo? For no other reason, Watson suggests, than to prove that Franklin was “badly delud[ed]” in her belief that the genetic material could not be a helix. Unfortunately, Wilkins and Crick both died in 2004. On this point, we have only Watson’s word.
For the rest, if any theme can be discerned amid the miscellany of genetics, gossip, and girl-gazing of Avoid Boring People, it is that a scientist’s career is shaped by the company he keeps. Watson had the good fortune to arrive at Indiana not long after the university had managed to recruit some of the brightest lights in American genetics. These included Salvador Luria, Tracy Sonneborn, and Hermann J. Muller—three men whose career prospects at elite East Coast universities had been hindered by their common Jewish heritage, and in the case of Luria and Muller, by their left-wing politics.
The sense of being on the cutting edge that pervaded Luria’s lab clearly left a deep impression on Watson. Moreover, it was through Luria (and his polymath collaborator Max Delbrück) that Watson was initiated into the circle of scientists that brought him successively to Cold Spring Harbor, Caltech, Copenhagen, and Cambridge University in England. At Cambridge he found himself in the midst of what were then some of the most productive laboratories in the world, and it was there, too, that he met Wilkins, Franklin, and Crick.
A corollary is thus that institutions matter as well, as do the people who run them. Watson idealizes his undergraduate college and its philosopher-president Robert Hutchins; it was at Chicago, by his reckoning, that he learned how to think—and, just as importantly, how to “call crap crap” (a training that does not seem to have been accompanied by lessons in tact). The laboratories at Cold Spring Harbor functioned in turn as a meeting-place and incubator for the pioneers of molecular genetics; under the four decades of Watson’s leadership, they would grow into an important nucleus of research in biology’s emerging fields. His recipe for success in this regard: build attractive buildings, have wealthy neighbors, and stay friendly with your trustees.
The institution for which Watson reserves most of his rhetorical bile is, ironically, the one at which he spent the majority of his productive career—namely, Harvard. Watson came to Harvard in the 1956 in hopes of helping to make it a leader in the life sciences, but clearly felt that this was an uphill battle. The chairman of the biology department when he arrived was “pedantic,” the faculty “pedestrian”; with a few exceptions, his colleagues were “prima donnas whose meager accomplishments scarcely even justified the status of has-been.” Worst of all was the university’s pusillanimous president, Nathan Pusey, whom Watson derides as an intellectually undistinguished ass. The institution’s one saving grace for Watson seems to have been its students—particularly, one gathers, its blonde female students. As he observes, “princesses don’t go to Caltech.”
Although Watson left Harvard in 1975, around where Avoid Boring People leaves off, he returns to it in the epilogue, offering his cantankerous take both on the future of the university’s science departments and on the brief and stormy presidential tenure of Lawrence Summers, who also found himself under fire for political incorrectness.
But Watson is no Summers. The problem is not that his outbursts are politically incorrect; it is not even that they are often empirically incorrect. The problem is, rather, that he appears altogether oblivious of the distinction between empirical claims and normative assertions. The fact, for example, that we can screen for certain genetic variants does not imply that we must do so—much less that we should embrace eugenics as a matter of social policy, as Watson has loudly advocated.
Boring Watson may not be. But in using his Nobel-laureate status as a means of justifying any number of scandalous and scientifically questionable pronouncements about human genetics, neither is he merely an ill-tempered crank. It may therefore be for the best if, having written Avoid Boring People, he were to decide that he has said enough.
* Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science. Knopf, 368 pp. $26.95.