No hope of reality modifying brilliance

January 19, 2001

Belief in genetics hype is Watson's problem, says Tom Shakespeare

Max Delbruck, the pioneer of 1930s genetics, inspired James Watson to abandon ornithology for molecular biology and later labelled his protege the "Einstein of biology". Watson has undoubtedly had a brilliant career. Aged just 25, and working alongside Francis Crick, he identified the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, for which the pair shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 1962. He went on to administrative triumphs as head of molecular biology at Harvard University, then directed the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, and finally led the Human Genome Project in its early years. Add to this the most influential popular science book of modern times, The Double Helix , as well as the most influential textbook of molecular biology, The Molecular Biology of the Gene , and a picture emerges of an extraordinary man, and a scientist whose name will always be remembered.

The current book reprints various articles and speeches, adds some new "autobiographical flights" about his early research career, but mainly relies on his series of introductory essays for the Cold Spring Laboratory annual reports. The result is an uneven and often repetitive collection, which nevertheless has interesting things to say about the 1970s recombinant DNA controversy, about cancer research and about the ethical and social implications of science in general and the Human Genome Project in particular. Watson's aspiration was for The Double Helix to stand alongside The Great Gatsby , and to this end, he twisted the history of his scientific discovery into a cliff-hanger narrative of quest and competition. A Passion for DNA displays no equivalent literary dexterity: much of the science is opaque to a non-specialist, and the writing is often clumsy.

The book is mainly of interest as further evidence of the Watson world view. He is the great apostle of science. Scientists, we learn, are wonderful people. They spend most of their time coming up with brilliant ideas, but every now and then they make a real difference to the world. The state has no business interfering with science, and we certainly do not need committees trying to regulate research. Governments exist to fund, not to regulate. To succeed in science you need to be bright and unconventional, to avoid dumb people, to take risks and to make sure you have someone powerful on your side when things go wrong. Oh, and you have to network like mad, because you might find out something to your advantage from your peers.

Because Watson has been central to the new genetics, his discussions of ethics and regulation deserve attention. In general, he argues that lay scrutiny of science is a bad thing, and he seems to have no time for the precautionary principle. Although he was one of those calling for a moratorium on recombinant DNA research in the 1970s, in retrospect he feels this was a mistake. After all, he says, no one ever died as a result of recombinant DNA research, and the discussion only delayed progress. Watson coins a rule, "never postpone experiments that have clearly defined future benefits for fear of dangers that can't be quantified". The family of Jesse Gelsinger, who died in 1999 after a gene therapy trial, might disagree about those unquantifiable dangers. So might the relatives of 691 other people who suffered "serious adverse events" after US gene therapy experiments. And the majority of the UK public - including many scientists - are less sanguine than Watson about the environmental dangers of genetically modified organisms.

However, Watson realises the importance of ethics. Indeed, he makes public statements such as "in so moving through genetics to what we hope will be better times for human life, we must proceed with caution and much humility". After all, he made sure that the Human Genome Project devoted 3 per cent of its budget to ethical, legal and social implications research (Elsi), because of his fear "that all too soon critics of the genome project would point out that I was representative of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory that once housed the controversial Eugenics Records Office". He notes that a smaller funding percentage would have been seen as tokenism, while any more might not have been used wisely. With an eye to good publicity, he ensured that individuals at risk of genetic disabilities, and women who "disproportionately share the burden of caring" were prominent among those discussing the ethical issues. As Barbara Katz Rothman has suggested, Elsi was a statement that ethics were being taken seriously - but not seriously enough to interfere with the project.

Not surprisingly, the Elsi programme has achieved little besides job creation for bioethicists, and Watson remains robustly in favour of genetic intervention. Throughout this book, he is unreflective in his use of language, such as "bad genes", "culprit proteins" and "the horrors of genetic disease". While he vigorously supports individual reproductive freedom, it is quite clear that he thinks any sensible person would terminate an affected pregnancy, and he even suggests it would be immoral not to do so.

But genetic disease varies in impact, ranging from conditions such as Tay-Sachs, where babies inexorably decline and die, to conditions such as my own, achondroplasia, where difference and even discomfort do not prevent a good quality of life. A few months ago, I introduced Watson to my daughter - who, like me, has a G to A transposition at point 380 of her FGFR3 gene - at Newcastle's International Centre for Life. Did he really think that this bright and interested 12-year-old, happy at school and with every prospect of a good career, was leading a "genetically damaged" existence?

The Human Genome Project has underscored a fundamental truth about embodiment: we are all impaired, and that includes genetic disease. Watson suggests "no one feels comfortable with the thought that we, as humans, virtually all contain one to several 'bad' genes that are likely to limit our abilities to fully enjoy our lives". But every individual has four or five recessive genes that might result in impaired children. One in four of us will develop cancer, and many will develop late-onset diseases such as dementia. We are never likely to screen out all these "bad genes", and the task remains to distinguish between those severe genetic conditions, which most people would want to avoid by selective termination or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and the many less difficult problems that can be ameliorated by medicine or by social intervention to remove the barriers that disable people. Despite Watson's claim that "seeing the bright side of being handicapped is like praising the virtues of extreme poverty", genetic disorders do not invariably equal doom, nor do they usually prevent enjoyment of life.

The problem is that Watson believes the hype about genetics, and indeed bears part of the responsibility for it. If you think "our genes are so crucial to our potential for meaningful lives", then his sort of consumer eugenics is a logical corollary. This, after all, is the determinist who suggested that our fate was written in our genes, rather than in our stars, and the reductionist who claimed that all that mattered was physics, everything else in science being "social work". Yet despite Watson's scorn for his leftist critics, not everything is in our genes, and often it is more efficient and desirable to improve economic and moral environments than it is to try to alter individuals.

Many scientists are pressing to push back the boundaries of moral acceptability, or are making discoveries that raise difficult ethical questions. Watson's views here seem inconsistent. In an interesting chapter dating from 1972, he presciently discusses human cloning. Prior to this, frogs had been cloned, and Watson realised that the work of Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe was sooner or later going to result in the birth of the world's first "test-tube baby" - as it did on July 25 1978. He correctly predicted that IVF would become routine in major countries within two decades. But Watson's main argument in this paper is against human reproductive cloning. His usual faith in unregulated reproductive choice is replaced by strong support for a worldwide legislative ban on human cloning and a dismissal of " laissez-faire nonsense". This is gratifying caution, and one wonders whether he still holds to this position. However, later in the book, he endorses germ-line gene therapy - experiments that would be transmitted to future generations through eggs or sperm - despite the prevailing ethical opinion that this should remain subject to a moratorium. Moreover, he seems to see no problems in gene therapy for the purpose of enhancement, to make more intelligent or otherwise superior babies, despite the likelihood of this increasing social inequality.

George Monbiot has argued that modern scientists can be compared with autistic savants, brilliant in narrow areas but not necessarily wise when it comes to the real world. The "Einstein of biology" is prone to sweeping generalisations and incautious remarks. His appealing frankness is the corollary of his sometimes naive lack of self-awareness. He admits that "our finding of the double helix did not represent a particularly difficult intellectual effort", and he often appears anxious that Francis Crick might be assumed to be the real brains of the partnership. By focusing on the key question, and by realising the importance of Rosalind Franklin's crystallography X-rays, the pair ensured their place in history, but in their absence, someone else would have made the breakthrough: for this reason, the discovery cannot rank alongside the achievements of Newton or Darwin, despite being a milestone.

Reading this collection, you get the sense of a rather boyish figure - ambitious, competitive, always interested in pretty girls, but ultimately rather insecure - and you remember that he went to university aged 15. Newton described himself as "a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me". Recent research suggests that Newton was a rather less humble figure than this account implies. Perhaps Watson, with his relentless curiosity and his molecule models, is not so very different after all.

Tom Shakespeare is research development officer, Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute, University of Newcastle.

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