God's little helper

March 14, 1997

James Watson, the joint father of molecular biology, has just arrived in a UK that now boasts one famous cloned sheep. But, as he tells Kam Patel, the prospect of cloned humans saddens rather than alarms him.

James Watson takes a sip of orange juice and casts his eyes over a panoramic view of a watery, sunlit city from the top floor restaurant of a London hotel. He smiles and predicts a pleasant spring for the capital.

Having flown in from New York just hours earlier, he is suffering from jet lag. Watson, who will turn 69 next month, looks tired, but is nonetheless keen to discuss the controversies surrounding the latest advances in molecular biology - a conversation punctuated by his trademark nervous giggle.

Molecular biology is a field Watson and Francis Crick gave birth to in 1953 by unravelling the structure of DNA, the elegant helical chain of chemicals that makes possible the transmission from parents to offspring of inherited characteristics. He has maintained a high profile presence in the field ever since. In 1989 he was appointed head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, the multi-billion dollar international effort to identify all 100,000 human genes. But in 1992 he was sacked from his post following a bitter feud with Bernadine Healy, the then head of the NIH, centre for the project's operations. He is currently president of the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in New York.

Despite his reputation for being provocative and confrontational, Watson was shocked by the interpretation of remarks attributed to him in a recent newspaper interview. The Sunday Telegraph claimed that the Nobel prizewinner had called for babies with gay genes to be aborted. So did he? He says he did not even use the word "abort" and was trying to make the point that women should have the right to decide and that the state should not be involved. "I was misquoted. They made me out to be a homophobic individual which I never felt I have been. And the headline must have made homosexuals feel like you know, when Hitler said kill all the Jews - it could only make them feel really unhappy. It certainly hurt me ... yes I was damaged. There was an element of cruelty about it."

But with hardly a week going by without researchers claiming to have discovered yet another gene which contributes to a certain human behaviour or predisposition to disease, the repercussions of the new genetic knowledge look set to remain controversial. And the human genome project, scheduled for completion early next century, is heightening the tension.

The project's aim is to work out the genetic message which specifies the human being. Watson likes to say that each gene is a very long sentence composed from just four chemical letters. The human genome project is about working out all these sentences and finally understanding why each sentence is compatible with every other one in the "human book". Watson says that interest has chiefly focused, up until now, on "those sentences which have somehow 'unlocked', don't fit in with the rest of the sentences in the book and cause some bad disease." Of most interest are the gene sequences implicated in cancer. "The project is considerably speeding up our understanding of cancer - without it progress would have been much slower," he says.

Mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and manic depression, are also coming under the genetic microscope. Such research is controversial - the argument about how much mental illness is caused by nature, how much by nurture is critical to psychiatric treatment. But Watson is clear: "There are genetic components and non-genetic components to certain diseases and we are trying to find the genetic contribution." The area should be less controversial, he feels: "...it is clear that if your brain doesn't function properly you might have difficulty fitting into society. I don't believe most crime has any genetic component but you can imagine people having brains that don't work. Such people will do things others will not and if they harm people it's called crime. It should not be controversial that there will be genetic changes which lead to human behaviours which we don't like - whether it's schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia or frightening shyness. All of these make it difficult to function and maybe we can help these people."

But what about the risk that genetic data might be misused? If a gene predisposing to schizophrenia were identified and could be tested for in the womb - could a mother choose to abort a foetus at risk of developing the illness? "Well all information can be misused. Cars and electric light bulbs can be misused. We are trying to get this information so we can combat schizophrenia. I think the real ethical issue is not its misuse but the possibility of not using it."

The arguments seem clear-cut in the abstract, but the human consequences and costs of genetic research will eventually reach into the depths of millions of lives, bringing terrible decisions as well as miraculous benefits. There is thought to be a genetic component to so many human capabilities, including the ability to remember and to learn. Watson himself has a son with severe learning difficulties about whom he is reluctant to speak at length: "It is of great anguish to him and all those who love him," is his one direct remark.

But the knowledge perhaps provides a context for his belief that giving people genetic information which would enable them to have a greater chance of having the kind of children they really want is a good thing: "People go around saying how terrible this is. If your children are all functional you don't have a problem, but other people, whose children are not functional, do."

He goes on: "You know, when people have children, they look forward to all the things children can do ... whether it is walk, talk, pass their exams, graduate from school, become a doctor. All these things you want to happen and if they don't it can be painful. So I think a lot of people who believe themselves to be good-doers ... even though they think they are very bright, are like chickens without heads.

"Some people think someone ordained you to be born with these bad genes and you just have to suffer ... like if you give birth to a Down's child it's your duty to love the child. But what if you can't love the child because it doesn't look right and every time you look at it, it makes you feel uncomfortable...you can't just say love and expect everything to be all right."

Who is he directing his anger at? "Well you know these people who think there is wrong in trying to make people better than they are now. Why shouldn't we? We try to paint better, we try to run a mile faster ... we try and do all these things. Why shouldn't our children do better? We are the products of evolution, not of some grand design which says this is what we have and that's it. We don't expect big miracles, just little ones which wouldn't have happened without the new knowledge. People say we are playing God. My answer is: 'If we don't play God, who will?'" The argument is likely to become even more heated should gene therapy, which involves changing an individual's genetic makeup, become available: "I think it will be very hard to achieve. But if it becomes available you could say we are reversing fate - which is what people have always wanted. I think people have wanted gods because they have wanted to be able to control their fate, to know what has controlled their fate, and to change it."

To what extent we will be able to change ourselves and our children via genetic engineering is an open question. Watson admits that to say that our lives are largely controlled by our genes is "probably not true" - there are many environmental factors which have a defining impact. He considers what might have become of him if he had not met Francis Crick. "For the most part we have focused on nurture because that is something we can change. Nature is something we were powerless against and now we can tweak it just a little bit and I think that's great."

Watson has arrived in Britain in the wake of the announcement by scientists at Edinburgh's Roslin Institute that they have succeeded in cloning the first mammal, the ewe Dolly, theoretically opening the prospect of human cloning. He has been concerned about cloning for long time. In 1971 he produced a remarkable paper, Moving Towards the Clonal Man: Is This What We Want? The paper was born out of his worry that not enough attention was being paid to the issue. He wrote then: "If the matter proceeds in its current nondirected fashion, a human being born of clonal reproduction most likely will appear on earth within the next 20 to 50 years." He concluded: "If we do not think about it now the possibility of our having a free choice (on the issue) will one day suddenly be gone."

He can see no great advantage in creating clonal man and woman, although he can imagine, for instance, a woman whose only child had died, being able to bring the child back as a copy with the help of a consenting surrogate mother. "I don't think anything can be much worse than what Hitler did. You are probably not going to be able to prevent people from using whatever means they have to be pretty awful and maybe cloning can be used in that way. But I somehow feel it won't take over. Twenty-five years ago I would have loved to have learnt that for some reason cloning humans was impossible, because I don't look forward to it. But I don't think cloning is going to change human destiny." There is, he argues, far greater danger from some terrorist getting hold of a nuclear weapon or the release of a terribly infectious bug that kills half of London. But nevertheless you can sense some unease: "I just wish it wasn't possible. It's not that I think it will definitely happen. I am waiting for the monkey clone because if you can't do it for the monkey then I guess I'd feel relieved." Certainly if it could be achieved, it would have the potential to change the nature of human society. "As someone pointed out, men wouldn't be necessary. But I don't think women would like that, do you?" he says laughing.

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