James Watson and Francis Crick did not discover DNA. “Nuclein,” as DNA was initially called, was discovered in 1869 by a Swiss chemist named Friedrich Miescher. And they did not discover that DNA was what genes were made of; that was Oswald Avery and his colleagues MacLeod and McCarty at Rockefeller University.
Watson and Crick discovered that DNA exists in the form of a three-dimensional double-helix. That discovery is probably no more important than many others. I’d argue that the Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiment tops Watson and Crick. But Watson and Crick’s work is far more memorable, probably because it’s possible to draw a picture of it–which can’t be done with the others.
The double helix has become one of the most famous scientific images of all time–indeed, one of the most famous images of any kind. Not many molecules are honored by being chosen as a battle rapper’s stage name.
Despite the acclaim for the double helix, admiration for Watson has plummeted in recent years. It’s now more accurate to say that he’s become infamous–even reviled. (Crick died in 2004.) And deservedly so. In a blistering takedown at Slate, science and health editor Laura Helmuth recaps some of the worst of Watson’s sexist and racist comments, and blasts him for claiming scientific expertise far beyond the work that won him his Nobel. Her piece was prompted by the announcement that he is going to auction off his Nobel Prize, because, he says, “he has become an ‘unperson,’ and ‘no one really wants to admit I exist.’”
Selling the medal is Watson’s way of sticking his tongue out at the scientific establishment, which has largely shunned him since 2007. Watson had been making racist and sexist remarks throughout his career, but he really outdid himself seven years ago when he told the 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…”
Watson had a major insight 61 years ago about the physical structure of DNA…But he knows fuck all about history, human evolution, anthropology, sociology, psychology, or any rigorous study of intelligence or race.
And sexism? “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective,” Watson said. It’s painful just to re-type that.
Even his scientific predictions have been off. As Helmuth notes, he’s famous among science writers for his claim in The New York Times in 1998 that research by Judah Folkman in Boston would “cure cancer in two years.” In the same article, by Gina Kolata, Jerome Groopman of Harvard cautioned that “a sober scientist waits for the data.” (So does a sober reporter, but that’s another story.)
On the one hand, we shouldn’t care about Watson. Anyone who’s covered him or paid attention over the past few decades knows that it’s best to ignore him. But those who haven’t paid attention probably still take his pronouncements as some kind of Nobel-laureate gospel–which is especially dangerous now. Recent protests sparked by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri “are a reminder that racist ignorance is pervasive and dangerous,” Helmuth concludes, “and that Jim Watson’s bid for attention isn’t just about him tarnishing his own legacy.”
What makes it a great discovery is that it suggests the mechanism by which information about life’s building blocks (proteins) might be transmitted from one generation to the next. That, in turn, was enabled by their viewing of the x-ray crystallographs done by Rosalind Franklin. These pictures were shown to Watson and Crick by Maurice Wilkins, who was laboring under the mistaken assumption that Franklin reported to him (and that he could therefore show her data to others without her permission or knowledge). This was not, in fact, the case, as the two (Wilkins and Franklin) were independent researchers at the same level. The central dogma was actually known to be overstated not so long after it became a mantra taught in high schools; this knowledge did take a while to percolate beyond genetic specialists. It was neither Watson’s nor Crick’s fault, however. Crick, who was almost ten years older than Watson, became interested in a variety of other problems and made himself rather useful at the Salk Institute.
Watson was indeed what we would then have called a wolf or a womanizer. To this I can bear witness because I took the first course he ever gave at Harvard, saw him pinching bottoms, and concluded he was an old reprobate (older than me by a good 15 years and quite unattractive). Why he chose to clutch reactionary notions to his bosom from then forward is no mystery: he always wanted to be “one of the boys,” and underlined that presentation of himself in any way he could. He fastened himself to his current institution, and I imagine that, like a barnacle, a lot of energy must be expended to scrape him away.
Correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not in Academia, but I’m sure many on this list are) but I believe Watson was also largely responsible for maintaining what was for a while called the ‘central dogma (sic: I thought scientists didn’t HAVE dogmas, silly me) of molecular biology, viz: that the coding part of the DNA material codes directly for a protein, and that’s the whole story of how genes work.
When I first started self-educating myself about genetics, about 30 years ago, I was quite confused by this: how could simply creating a protein be responsible for all the structures in cells, and so on.
I also read a reputable intro to genetics that informed me that most of the DNA in a cell was ‘junk’ and had ZERO function.
Now we know that that the ‘junk’ has probably hundreds of functions and that the coding of a protein is just a fairly small part of how genes do their job.
I believe Watson held back progress in genetics for a couple of decades by his ‘central dogma’.
Also, the guy is a CHEMIST: no matter how brilliant his work in the fifties was, it was CHEMISTRY, not genetics.
I’ve heard him on the radio and he sounds like a jerk. I wasn’t at all surprised that he made the comment about Africa.
I think EO Wilson called him the most unpleasant man he’d ever met.
I wonder, if he auctions off his Nobel, will he give the money back to the Nobel people too?
You can’t be serious. Watson and Crick’s “…discovery is probably no more important than many others…” Watson’s judgment and personality aside, the structure of DNA is surely the greatest discovery in all biological science save natural selection.
Gina Pera says
Very interesting, Merry! Thank you. This absolutely corroborates all I’ve heard about Watson.
Boyce Rensberger says
Watson and Shockley.
Sallie J Ortiz says
Hi Merry, I met Watson at the beginning of the race to sequence the human genome, right after he dissed Craig Venter’s shotgun sequencing method by saying “any monkey could do that.” Venter left the govt-funded effort then and started the private-side competition to sequence the genome first, maybe in part to spite old Watson.
I thought then that Watson was just a big old dork. I’d always thought that he had been along for the ride on the discovery of the DNA helix and his behavior nailed down my poor opinion of him. At this point, I think he is a scientist of no consequence and not worth discussing. Even his Nobel medal should sell at a big discount.
Gina Pera says
The larger issue, for me anyway, is our collective failure to see the red flags for his poor mental self-regulation early on in his career. Perhaps it was dismissed as the price of “brilliance.”
At least that’s how most of the left-wing psychologists and sociologists waxing rhapsodic and omnipresently online about the “gifts of ADHD” might interpret it. Too bad more real scientists don’t have the time to counter their deluge of self-promotional nonsense.