Do you know who James Watson is?
He, along with British molecular biologist Francis Crick published a paper in 1953 that revealed the mystery of what we call DNA. You know, the stuff CSI shows and crime investigators like to blabber on about. Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work.
And now he has stepped in a DNA poop.
For a moment let’s discuss DNA. That is short for Deoxyribonucleic acid. Without melting your brain, DNA is a molecule containing a precise set of chemical bonds that contain all of the genetic instructions necessary to create life. These little sets of instructions form chromosomes. Each cell in a human has 23 chromosomes (23 and me anyone?) and those basically are the building blocks of all life.
In simplest terms, we are built from the instructions we receive from teeny-tiny nitrogen-based chemical bonds. DNA makes a chromosome, which codes our genes, which creates us and so on. We are simply, chemical machines.
Which leads us to Dr. James Watson.
Welp, Dr. Watson was recently stripped of several honorary titles he held at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a place he once headed. They stripped this man, still with us, in his 90s, of several honorary titles over his views about intelligence and race. Basically, over the years grandpa has said some really shitty stuff about minorities, Africa, etc. Read the linked article.
So what we have is utterly fascinating. A molecular biologist credited with figuring out the microscopic mystery of DNA, who helped us to understand genetics, basically how LIFE works at a chemical level, mutter grandpa dinner table bullshit about how intelligence in Africa was inferior to Europe and well I guess you can see where this is headed.
Think on this for a second. This man, along with others (including a British chemist named Rosalind Franklin, who, being female, didn’t get a Nobel Prize) sorted out that our entire essence – our cellular makeup – literally everything about us from our skin, our eyes, our organs, our height, our hair, everything – was due to a few basic chemical bonds in certain orders. And yes, we can catch bad guys now too.
Yet he tossed out everything he knows about how humans are made and went all bigoted in remarks about Africa, blacks, etc. And accordingly, people, including the scientific community, were appalled. There is ZERO scientific data that correlates a social concept such as race with intelligence.
Did you know that if you took the tiny little chemical strands of DNA in your body they would stretch nearly 750 million miles? Literally your strands of DNA could stretch to the Sun and back nearly four times. That’s bananas. It’s also a ton of chemical bonds, of which you and the dude next to you share nearly 99 percent of the same genes. In fact, we share genes with yeast, which might explain why I continue to expand.
Yet Dr. Watson equated intelligence with genetics. This is called Eugenics. Never heard of it? Read up. It’s a school of thought that says your genetic makeup determined your social status, intelligence, capacity, etc. Also, the movie Gattica goes down this rabbit hole. but I digress.
Eugenics was a popular theory in the early 20th century, and I mean really popular. Ironically, or maybe where Watson got the idea to begin with, The Eugenics Record Office was located in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. It served as a center for eugenics and human heredity research from 1910 to 1939. That doesn’t sound like a sinister Nazi master plan at all.
The “theory” was finally discredited, but this idea still lingers, apparently even within the mind of a Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist.
When the truth is this; we all start as nearly identical, carbon-based, chemical machines, with only enough evolutionary programming to get us running. The need to eat, the sensation of needing to stay warm, basic sounds, the need to pee, to find mom, etc, are the few lines of code we start with.
The rest of us – our intellect, our personalities etc are molded by a few basic factors – geography, economics, and status. Our education, our capacity for learning, our beliefs, our fears, our dreams, everything, is a product of those factors. If this is too wordy, just go stream Trading Places. One of the old men was a Eugenics fan and I bet you never even considered that.
Anyway, that’s not to say our chromosomes don’t impact us; Down Syndrome for example, or finding mutations that cause cancer, and you have the occasional savant that can remember every moment of their lives or play concertos at the age of three. Genetics certainly is in play here and we have so much to learn still.
But even typing that sentence gives cover to bigots and racists, eager to extrapolate intelligence from race. Watson lamented Africa apparently because the people there were black. And as someone that lives in the American South, I can assure you there are LOTS of people that share his beliefs still today.
Hell, much of the argument regarding slavery pre-Civil War was around the idea that Africans (and they were not African-Americans remember; they were not citizens) were simply intellectually inferior and well hey, they were really just built by God to be laborers and the slave owners were really doing them a favor. Or maybe we sterilize them. Seriously. This was a popular idea, even among OTHER Nobel winners. In the 1950s.
So what do we do with this? I’m not sure taking away any honors makes a bit of difference, other than the recinding party feels better.
Or what about Iowa 4th District of White Supremacy Representative Steve King? House leaders have stripped him from committees, gone on news programs waving their hands and saying they disavow his views. Yet he still has those views.
No amount of telling people that someone who is conveniently labeled as black, or white, or asian, or whatever, is in fact a miracle of chemistry, a creature made of elements formed in the explosions of stars billions of years ago seems to make a dent. We seem to be more concerned about where you are FROM rather than what you are capable of.
In each of us our DNA is a product of the mingling of countless generations of people before us. We are a chemical gumbo that has been simmering for millennia. Yes, genes affect your body’s appearance, so everyone in one geographical area that mingles, makes babies, etc will share physical traits. But WHO you are is a product of so many other environmental and societal factors.
So what then? Even now people are arguing about this topic on boards, in comment sections – just static noise. How do we get past this, for those of us that actually DO want to get past it?
I would suggest we start with the idea that in each of us, and more importantly, in each OTHER – regardless of geography, economics, or social class – there is a capacity for greatness, for living a profound life, for allowing our minds to be educated, our bodies used for good, our thoughts to be engaging, curious; to never be guided by fear or lazy thinking. I think Dr. Watson, more than anything, just got lazy. As smart as he is, maybe he just never got around to challenging his own belief system.
And if the man responsible for unlocking the mysteries of genetic coding can just be a grumpy old bigot, what chance do the rest of us really have?
I don’t know. What I do know is this – I try to look at each person as the thing they truly are – a unique, chemical miracle. Not part of a group to be judged, but a person, singular in nature, with the same capacity for greatness, or failure, as me.