Thursday, October 25, 2007

Watson Steps Down

Statement of Dr. James D. Watson

This morning I have conveyed to the Trustees of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory my desire to retire immediately from my position as its Chancellor, as well as from my position on its Board, on which I have served for the past 43 years. Closer now to 80 than 79, the passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue. The circumstances in which this transfer is occurring, however, are not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired.

That the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is now one of the world's premier sites for biological research and education has long warmed my heart. So I am grateful that its Board now will allow me to remain along my beloved Bungtown Road. Forty-nine years ago, as a newly appointed young Assistant Professor at Harvard, I gave my first course on this pernicious collection of diseases of uncontrolled cell growth and division. Cancer, then an intellectual black box, now, in part because of research at the Laboratory, is almost full lit. Though important facts remain undiscovered, there is no reason why they should not soon be found. Final victory is within our grasp. Strong in spirit and intensely focused, I wish to be among those at the victory line.

The ever quickening advances of science made possible by the success of the Human Genome Project will also soon let us see the essences of mental disease. Only after we understand them at the genetic level can we rationally seek out appropriate therapies for such illnesses as schizophrenia and bipolar disease. For the children of my sister and me, this moment can not come a moment too soon. Hell does not come close to describing the impact of psychotic disorders on human life.

This week's events focus me ever more intensely on the moral values passed on to me by my father, whose Watson surname marks his long ago Scots-Irish Appalachian heritage; and by my mother, whose father, Lauchlin Mitchell, came from Glasgow and whose mother, Lizzie Gleason, had parents from Tipperary. To my great advantage, their lives were guided by a faith in reason; an honest application of its messages; and for social justice, especially the need for those on top to help care for the less fortunate. As an educator, I have always striven to see that the fruits of the American Dream are available to all.

I have been much blessed.

James D. Watson One Bungtown Road Cold Spring Harbor, New York October 2007

Too bad JW's obstinate belief in genetic determinism has tarnished the occasion with controversy and overshadowed a fitting tribute to the man's incredible contributions to science.


Anonymous said...

An ancient Hindu adage goes like this "God gave us two eyes to see more, two ears to listen more and one mouth to speak less" Also another saying is that "Words are like arrows. When you fire them, they cannot come back and the reputation is tarnished". Although it is sad to see Watson going like this but people of such calibre should first think thousand times and then say one time. If genetics is the sum total of all things then why people of other skins are excelling more than what he wants to convey. Genetics is not the beginning and end of all. Environment plays a very big roll and I cannot understand of such calibre couldn't fathom this important theory that everything is GXE not G alone.May God give him some social manners or maybe it is his genetics which cajoled him to say so

anilsonika said...

One more thing i want to say about watson is "Avoid Boring people"

The Doc said...

I have difficulty with the status we place on some of these people. This dude, for example, solved a crystal structure. Now, big ups to anyone who can do that without a calculator, because it's now something we only do with hogh-power computers... but by the same token, his original paper, and the nobel prize, was for a single crystal structure. An important one, granted... but only one.

Any is anyone else really bothered by his active status as the pin-up boy for religious scientists? Heck, he's been stuck up for the anti-evolution folk so many times...

kamel said...

I agree with you that just because they've won a prestigious award, we should just take as truth their proclamations in every area of intellectual inquiry (more on that in a separate post), but let's not belittle the man's accomplishments.

Yes, he did solve a crystal structure at a time when the computational power we use today wasn't available. It was one of the first molecules of that size and complexity to be solved - the first protein wasn't solved (according to wikipedia anyway: sperm whale myoglobin) until a few years later in 1957, a feat that also won a Nobel prize the same year as Watson.

Still, unlike others who have won for crystallography, Watson and Crick didn't win a Nobel prize 'just for solving one crystal structure', but also for "its significance for information transfer in living material." True, this was just a throwaway line in the original paper: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material", but they followed it up with another Nature article a month later expanding on their ideas of base-pairing and more importantly a model for DNA replication - a discovery and model that formed the basis for molecular biology. Writing it off as winning for 'solving a single crystal structure' seem like short changing them a bit.

I admit I'm not familiar with his full biography, but I didn't know he was a pin-up for religious scientists. That seems odd, considering he's on record as saying he's an atheist and a firm believer of evolution (an absolute view that he's taken fire for in the past). Still, it wouldn't surprise me if some nugget of his was taken and twisted around to be pro-religion/anti-evolution. Should we condemn Einstein as well?

The Doc said...

I retract my earlier statement on his religious views. I had him confused for someone else (I think it was Crick, who has been used by the ID brigade for their causes).

I do, however, stand by the statements that we seem to give more credibility to those who have won nobel prizes, and the like. Do you critically analyse what these people say, or is it assumed that they speaketh the truth?

I don't think we do. I was a little harsh on the comment (I was actually being sarcastic, but it was a little too sarcastic).

kamel said...

I agree that we tend to afford them more credibility than they are due in areas outside their expertise (though Watson can tell me whatever he wants about the DNA crystal structure and I'll probably believe him). It's not just prize winners, either - most celebrities (scientist or otherwise) get that kind of treatment and we should be thinking critically about what they have to say.

I think you may have been thinking about Francis Collins as the poster boy for religious scientists.

kamel said...

Ha ha. I just notice a pretty major typo in my original comment. It should say: "...just because they've won a prestigious award, we SHOULDN'T just take as truth their proclamations..."

Not 'should' as I originally typed.

Bayman said...

I agree there's a problem in the way famous scientists and others are presented - I think this mainly comes down to a general problem with how the mainstream media communicate information. Limiting discussion to short, sensational soundbites does not allow for a balanced, evidence-based and realistic discussion of interesting people or events. You can see this even in the way the reason Watson debacle was depicted.

Off topic, but overall, the way scientists are portrayed is probably much less of a problem than say, portraying drugged-up high performance baseball players or olympic track stars as role models for young children to emulate. Overall, we need to realize that achieving extreme success in one area of human capacity usually comes at at the cost of sacrificing the development of others. Those who are "the best" at one particular endeavor are often not the most well-balanced human beings. We should admire their single-minded dedication and appreciate their sacrifices but not necessarily seek to emulate them. Most "interesting" or accomplished people have become so by applying effort in doing things they enjoy, maybe this type of self-expression is all we need to strive for.