The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 55.0°F | Overcast

Watson Advocates Eugenics, Screening

By Aurora Schmidt

Dr. James D. Watson, co-discoverer of DNA structure, addressed a packed lecture hall at the Harvard Science Center Thursday. Watson’s lecture was the first in a series to celebrate the newly planned Center For Genomics Research at Harvard University.

“I didn’t anticipate such a crowd, but it’s wonderful to see so many people who like DNA,” Watson said after taking the podium.

At times eccentric, always unrestrained, and never politically correct, Watson commented on everything from his opinions on the ethics of genetic screening to the sheer luck that befell him and Francis Crick in being the first to discover the structure of the blueprint of life.

Watson, a huge proponent of the Human Genome Project and a key figure in getting funding for the project from Congress, recounted the struggle to get support for sequencing the human genome which he undertook with others in 1986. Watson did not fail to criticize Harvard for not having supported sequencing early on.

The project “was too dull to be done by Harvard people which is probably why it wasn’t, but it needed to be done by bright people,” he said.

Watson also discussed an ethics committee he helped to organize to discuss the implications of sequencing human genes. He insisted that a woman head this project because, “Women like babies and men essentially want to avoid them,” he said.

Genetic knowledge underused

Watson said that fear and ignorance in society at large prevents many beneficial uses of current genetic knowledge. For instance, Watson staunchly supports the screening of all women for the Fragile X chromosome, which causes severe mental retardation in males who receive it from their mothers. He even made a call for Harvard to begin screening all females students, faculty, and staff for this dangerous mutation of genes which one out of every 273 women carry. He said, “If any good comes out of this lecture, Harvard will screen its women.”

Watson further questioned why more isn’t done to make the public aware of the discoveries concerning public health and genetics. He concluded that, “Human geneticists make so much money they’ve forgotten about the public.”

He also criticized organizations such as The National Foundation for Infant Paralysis -- intended to stop the debilitation of young by birth defects -- for not donating money that would result in the termination of pregnancies.

Watson continued by expressing his support of eugenics -- the science that deals with the improvement of hereditary qualities of the human race -- in that it is the science of having better children.

However, he tempered his support by acknowledging the negative consequences of state efforts in support of eugenics including massive sterilizations at mental institutions in the United States and Sweden and the excesses of the German eugenics programs. He also supported privacy for personal genetic information.

When it came to the politics of genetic research he dismissed politics as unimportant. Watson said he is not in support of any legal measures to protect people from the results of genetic information saying that the undertaking would be too messy. His advice was to “keep politics out of it and always try to improve the quality of human life.”

Audience reacts to speech

There was a wide range of reactions to Watson’s very charged political views among audience members. One offended Harvard student remarked, “This can’t be what I came to see.”

Another Harvard undergraduate, Micheal Moss, enthusiastically commented, “He is so unapologetic. He just lets it go. It’s great.”

Watson’s lecture also fostered some heated discussions among audience members.

Watson describes himself as ‘lucky’

Early in the lecture, Watson also discussed the early quest to elucidate DNA structure.

He said he felt lucky that Linus Pauling, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and for Peace, hadn’t discovered it first.

He asserted that all the evidence was out there and was merely waiting for a scientist to combine it all and make the proposal as to the structure.

“We were incompetent.” he said, all the facts in the literature were “staring at us”.

Relating genetic expression to a play in which proteins were the actors and DNA the book dictating the action of the players, Watson took another jab at chemists saying they “were too concerned with the actors while we wanted the book.”

Watson also recounted the original negative reactions to his findings. “People were just fighting the obvious.”