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“Genetics’ embarrassing, cranky old uncle”


As Laura Helmuth explains, James Watson has always been a definitive case study in the perils of thinking that being an expert on one thing makes you an expert on everything:

One of his earliest sins: Watson didn’t credit Rosalind Franklin, a chemist also working on DNA at the time, for her crucial research on X-ray diffraction images, without which he and Francis Crick would not have been the first to discover the double helix structure. (Linus Pauling and others were right behind them and would have figured it out.) In Watson’s The Double Helix memoir, he calls Franklin “Rosy” (not a nickname she used), critiques her clothing and makeup, and characterizes her incorrectly as another scientist’s assistant.

Watson was also famously insulting and arrogant as a professor at Harvard, even for a professor at Harvard. Fellow faculty member E.O. Wilson described Watson in the 1950s and ’60s as the “Caligula of biology” for his contempt of scientists who studied anything other than molecules. Wilson wrote that, unfortunately, due to Watson’s stroke of genius at age 25, “He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously.”


And, of course, Watson fundamentally misunderstands research on race, genes, and intelligence. Scientists have been debunking ideas like his since well before The Bell Curve made a mockery of statistical analysis. The latest for-crying-out-loud-do-we have-to-do-this-again moment came this year with the publication of Nicholas Wade’s book Troublesome Inheritance, which Watson blurbed as “a masterful overview of how changes in our respective lineages let us begin to understand how human beings have evolved.” Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and pretty much anybody with real expertise explained why the book’s assumptions about race-based traits were wrong—and Wade is much more sophisticated in his thinking than Watson is.

Watson had a major insight 61 years ago about the physical structure of DNA. He is one of the founders of a very important but very specific subset of modern biology, and he devoted most of the rest of his career to the study of cancer biology. But he knows fuck all about history, human evolution, anthropology, sociology, psychology, or any rigorous study of intelligence or race. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works for him to think that his expertise at one level of analysis—a molecular level—predicts anything at a higher level of analysis. The structure of DNA does not predict the workings of a cell, which does not predict the shape of a body, which does not predict the characteristics of a culture. It’s not as if the idea that people with dark skin are genetically inferior to people with light skin is some horrible secret that scientists had been trying to hide from the world until Jim Watson came along and revealed the truth. It’s simply incorrect.

Helmuth is also very good on the passive-aggressive self-pity of Watson auctioning off his Nobel Prize — he’s been extremely well-compensated for decades, but like many privileged white supremacists he’s always looking for a chance to whine in public.

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