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If you like James Watson's story, you might also like:
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Norman Borlaug,
Linda Buck,
Francis Collins,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Susan Hockfield,
Elizabeth Holmes,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Robert Lefkowitz,
Linus Pauling,
George Rathmann,
John Sulston,
James Thomson,
Bert Vogelstein,
Ian Wilmut,
Edward O. Wilson
and Shinya Yamanaka

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring James Watson in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine

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James Watson
James Watson
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James Watson Interview (page: 8 / 9)

Discoverer of the DNA Molecule

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  James Watson

What do you consider to be the most serious ethical issues confronting the use of information from the Genome Project? There are some obvious issues regarding health insurance?

James Watson: Well, I look at it another way.

I think our biggest ethical problem is people won't use the information we get, and I think that's just as bad, to let a child be born with no future -- when their parents certainly would have not wished to have such a child -- but had not been genetically tested to show the risk. I think that's totally irresponsible, and of course it gets into this right to life question. Is all life equally valuable? I don't think it is, in the sense of people like to have a healthy child. And if you're -- you know, have a bad throw of the genetic dice and you've suddenly got a child that you're going to have to take care of, it's bound to seriously lower the quality of your life, as well as the suffering caused within the child.

People keep saying, "Oh, you're going to try and direct the future." But I would love to direct the future because -- you know. Weather prediction, I think, you could make arguments. "Oh, you're going to spoil your future because you know the week you've chosen for a holiday it's going to rain." Well that's better than not knowing that, and it is sort of saying we can look into our future. But of course, we're only looking to our future so we can do something about it. So I don't think any of us, you know, want to know the date of our death or anything like that, or how we're going to die. But if we knew we were going to die in a rather awful way unless we do something about it, we want to do something about it.

So as a biologist you just regard some people as lucky throws of the evolutionary process and others -- you know?

Evolution only occurs by creating variants, and a lot of variation is harmful to the individual who carries it. So evolution is not a kind thing, and we're all products of evolution. Well society, you know, says we're products of God. We're products of evolution and it's very different. You know, a just God wouldn't have done anything which didn't have a purpose. But I think like most biologists, we don't think there's anyone to answer our prayers and change the course of destiny. So, I mean, scientists and doctors, you know, have this right of change -- have this ability to change the future. In that sense we are the gods, and people are, of course, afraid of evil gods, and then for some people, you know, my way of speaking right now is just totally inappropriate and sacrilegious, and you know, in some countries they'd shoot me, or just -- You know, saying there's no one up there in the heaven telling us what to do, but I don't think there is.

What role do religious issues play in the whole issue of the Genome Project, and why is it people are so reluctant to confront those issues?

James Watson: I think because they don't want any attempts to stop the project, and just figuring, "Why unnecessarily get enemies?" Eric Lander got up and said, "I'm not a eugenicist." Well, I thought, "What hypocrisy!" I mean, you might not use the word, but of course you would like to change the future when the future is bad. And there's a difference. Who is controlling the future?

I think all genetic decisions should be made by women, not the state, not their husbands, just by women, because they're going to give birth to those children, and they're going to be the ones most responsible. And let them decide to the extent that we have the ability to decide. But when my little book came out, they excerpted a chapter in Germany and it was in the Frankfurt newspaper, and I thought it was perfectly sensible, but it came out and the head of the German Medical Society was saying, you know, my views were those of Hitler, and so on, but really all I was saying was women should have the choice whether to have a child who will be seen as a bad throw of the genetic dice. That's all I was saying.

I think it was partly religion and partly the Germans saying, "We misused genetics and so we're not going to use it ever again." Most of my friends just go ahead and work out the script, but they don't want to say how we're going to use it at this level. Of course, the outside world does, and when we started the program I said, "We'll spend five percent discussing these ethical issues." So...

When you go out, people say, "What about super babies?" I said, "None of us know how to produce a super baby, but what would be wrong with a super baby?" And if you could have kids brighter than yourself, you always want to have your kids have opportunities you didn't, and this sort of saying, "Oh, we can't! We shouldn't try and enhance life because we'll make the spread between those who are lucky and those unlucky even greater." That's a very, rather nasty view of human nature. I think we would actually try and help the people at the bottom. And it's always, you know, "The rich are going to get richer,' and, you know, our current tax bill is pretty upsetting because you're thinking the rich get richer, and so I don't like that. But I think, you know, those people really don't want homeless people on the streets because they're schizophrenic. That's not very nice to live with. I mean, those people--it's not nice. So we're trying to help those people. I think you've got to sort of assume we've succeeded as a social species because we really do like each other. We're not fundamentally nasty. The nasty people are the exception. Of course, you know, in individual lives we have our good moments and we have some bad moments, but I think one should see genetics in an optimistic way, not a pessimistic way where you've got to stop everything.

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Where would you draw the line in genetic research? What sort of research is technologically possible that you would agree shouldn't be pursued?

James Watson: I wouldn't stop anything. Now it looks like cloning would likely lead largely to defective human beings. So a law against that, I have no objection, because I can see harm being done. That is, I don't see the need for a clone. But if you said there's no harm, I just think, when you really ask who is trying to stop these things, when they say bad things, they are generally people who don't want genetics to be used at all. For the most part they're people on the extreme left or right who, for ideological reasons, political doctrine, religious doctrine, don't want genetics as an important factor in the way human decisions are made.

Many other species now, the mouse, C. elegans, for example, or the fruit fly, are being or have been sequenced. How do you see this information as ultimately benefitting our understanding of the human genome?

James Watson: Well, we wanted to get the scripts for simpler forms of life because of understanding the evolutionary process, and also becaus many of the mouse genes will function the same way they do in humans, so you can do experiments on the mouse that you can never do on humans. Getting the mouse will allow us to probe human disease better. Doctors wouldn't want to experiment on mice per se, but it's to understand ourselves and that's why we study the mouse. What should be the impact of the Human Genome Project? The biggest impact would be it's going to make people realize we're products of evolution. We are.

What's your view on the true number of human genes? We've had estimates going from as high as 100,000 now down to a more conservative 30,000. Does the answer to this question really matter?

James Watson: I don't think it matters that much. I think we were first surprised, but then rather relieved. In some cases people discovered we really knew the genes already in particular things. The smaller the number, the easier it is to find what you're looking for.

People were first surprised humans didn't have any more genes than a plant. But I think the way to look at it is "plants is dumb." It can't move. It has no nervous system. Whereas really, we've advanced by a few key genes giving us a nervous system which can do these extraordinary things, let Beethoven and Shakespeare and Rembrandt, et cetera, come into existence.

There's not a Rembrandt gene. There was just a brain which was put together in a very good fashion. So when you want to find, you know, the uniqueness of humans, it's not going to be a gene. It's the human brain, which is put together with lots of genes, but it's the brain we want to understand.

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This page last revised on Nov 29, 2013 14:30 EST
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