Electric EDGE
Web Edition of
The Ragged Edge
March/April 1998

Electric Edge


You probably won't like
James Watson's ideas about us

By Tom Lee

Nobel Prize winner James Watson, co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, a founder of the Human Genome Project and currently President of the renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has interesting ideas about people with disabilities. You probably won't like them.

Watson delivered the keynote speech to delegates at last April's German Congress of Molecular Medicine held in Berlin. Much of his long address (available at http://www.cshl.org under "Annual Report" - click on "President's Essay") was an overview of the history of eugenics in this country and the application of its pseudoscientific conclusions by Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime. To his credit, Watson told the 1,000 delegates that "never again must geneticists be seen as the servants of political and social masters" and said that "genetics as a discipline must . . . strive to be the servant of the people, as opposed to . . . governments."

But then we're treated to his wrap-up. Talking about "keeping governments out of genetic decisions," Watson declares, "The truly relevant question for most families is whether an obvious good to them will come from having a child with a major handicap. Is it more likely for such children to fall behind in society or will they develop the strengths of character and fortitude that lead...to the head of their packs?"

Watson continues, "From this perspective, seeing the bright side of being handicapped is like praising the virtues of extreme poverty. To be sure, there are many individuals who rise out of its inherently degrading states .But we perhaps most realistically should see it as the major origin of asocial behavior that has among its many bad consequences the breeding of criminal violence."

These are the considered reflections of a man who, as a July 4, 1995 New York Times article reminds us, occupies a niche in the scientific hall of fame and is a highly influential figure in the world of genetics.

Watson dredges up the time-worn bootstrap theory of how a few courageous people with disabilities (or, as he says, "the handicapped") can rise above their troubles by managing to become somehow strong and brave. Then, in a tortuous analogy, he likens people with disabilities to those "degraded" by being poor.

Assuming that someone might have been disturbed by Watson's remarks, featured on the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Web site, I asked Wendy Goldstein, a Laboratory representative (goldstein@cshl.org) ,what kinds of reactions had been received about this message by their President. Goldstein said the Laboratory has a clipping service that performs nationwide searches for any mention in the press of both the Lab and Dr. Watson. "I know of no published reaction to these comments," she told me.

Yet these comments should not be dismissed merely as Watson indulging in a penchant for political incorrectness.

They call for some serious consciousness-raising.


To reach Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory:
P.O. Box 100
1 Bungtown Rd.
Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724
(516) 367-8397

Tom Lee, a professor of biology at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH, is author of The Human Genome Project: Cracking the Genetic Code of Life (Plenum 1991) and Gene Future: The Promise and Perils of the New Biology (Plenum 1993). He can be contacted at tomlee@anselm.edu.


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