Summers' storm was 'written in his genes'

August 10, 2007

Could genes explain the controversial behaviour of Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University, who caused an uproar when he questioned whether women possessed the innate potential for doing science at the highest level? And could finding an answer to that first question also reveal an uncomfortable answer to the second?

It is a possibility that James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, will raise in his forthcoming autobiography, Avoid Boring People .

Professor Watson suggests that the anger of many of those upset by Professor Summers's actions might yet give way to sympathy. He writes: "It may be that Summers is not entirely to blame for his social ineptitude. His repeated failures to comprehend the emotional states of those he presided over might be indicative of the genetic hand he was dealt as a mathematical economist."

Professor Watson notes that finding a genetic cause for such behaviour would involve "much more effort to uncover how genes control the relative development and functioning of male and female brains". Which, of course, would also probe the very question that dropped Professor Summers in hot water in the first place.

The book is to be launched with a tour of UK university cities that kicks off at the London Science Museum on October 19 and ends in Oxford on October 24. It courts controversy with its lively accounts of some of the famous episodes in the history of modern biology and its advice for aspiring scientists, such as to "avoid gatherings of more than two Nobel prizewinners" and the eponymous "avoid boring people".

Details can be found at www.oup.co.uk/general/popularscience

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