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Watson's World

by Jesse Reynolds
October 24th, 2007

James Watson in 1957

Nobel Prize season has come to an awkward end. Once a day during last week, we heard announcements of the winners in the six fields, including a high-profile award to Al Gore. The recipients will forever be honored to include the word "laureate" in their biographies.

But a few days later, the most prominent Nobel scientist winning scientist deeply marred his reputation. James Watson, who in 1962 won the prize for his elucidation of DNA's structure, unequivocally stated in an interview with the United Kingdom's Sunday Times that black people are less intelligent than whites. Speaking on development programs in Africa, Watson lamented that "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really… [P]eople who have to deal with black employees find [equality] is not true."

It may be tempting to dismiss this stunning utterance as the sloppy, irrelevant ramblings of a once-great scientist who is well past his prime. But Watson is a remarkably influential figure who has consistently reduced behavior to biology and explained away inequalities as matters of genetic destiny. He's previously asserted that dark skin color and sexuality, as well as thinness and ambition, are biologically linked. And Watson's ethnic bigotry is not confined to blacks: He recently even said that "some anti-Semitism is justified."

Watson's worldview is not simply racist; he's promoting full-tilt eugenics. He's called for the culling of undesirable genes. He wants to rid the world of "ugly girls" and "stupid" kids. And if a prenatal genetic test were developed that could predict the sexual orientation of the future child, Watson sees no problem in aborting a fetus if the test indicates homosexuality.

In twentieth century America, eugenic advocates typically encouraged the successful to have more children, while discouraging children for the poor - a position Watson has explicitly endorsed. In fact, tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized under state programs, the legality of which were upheld by the federal Supreme Court. In a famous 1927 decision, progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Homes wrote, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Now Watson wants to update such crude techniques for the twenty-first century. At a large 1998 conference promoting genetic enhancement, he argued ,"If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we? What's wrong with it?… Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say that we've got a perfect genome and there's some sanctity?"

More recently, Watson elaborated in a BBC interview. "I think it's irresponsible not to try and direct evolution to produce a human being who will be an asset to the world." Clearly people - and their genes - are only means to an economic end.

Watson is not alone. A significant chorus of scientists, bioethicists, and philosophers are actively organizing for a future in which genetic engineering not only gets rid of "ugly" and "stupid" people, but creates a new species - the posthuman.

Most Americans have an intuitive distaste for hubristic proposals to steer human evolution. Genetic modification would lead its recipients to claim superiority. In our economically unequal society, the wealthy would have the best access to inheritable enhancements. This could unleash profound social forces, widen and harden socioeconomic gaps, and undermine the ultimate American ideal: that all people are created equal.

Fortunately, few biologists share Watson's views. At the same time, too few are willing draw clear lines and move to take proposals such as his permanently off the table. Most often, scientists confine recommendations about ethics to voluntary guidelines and limit research regulations to questions of safety - always leaving the door cracked open by qualifying any prohibitions with the language of "at this time."

This need not be the case. Americans of a wide variety of political persuasions reject proposals for a market-driven, technologically based new eugenics. Liberals are concerned about undermining equality, while conservatives are more likely to see it as "playing God." But they come to the same conclusion: It's time to develop responsible oversight of these powerful biotechnologies. Without it, we could all too easily end up living in Watson's world.


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