I wrote about the opening of the World Science Festival 2009 and Edward O. Wilson's 80th birthday at the Lincoln Center in New York City but he was not the only august personage in attendance.  Present to give tribute to him was also molecular biologist, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson.

You might think there would be no love lost between these men, since Wilson once described Watson as "the most unpleasant human being I had ever met"(1) which Watson mentioned in the first 30 seconds of his salute and indeed, he does not suffer fools gladly and as a younger man didn't have much patience for others - that word 'unpleasant' comes back later in his salute in a very different context.

Watson:  "And I probably was.  'Wilson,' I said, 'is there any point in knowing him?'  He's doing old biology and everyone knows the big things will be happening at the molecular level" (which got a laugh from the 30% of the audience that actually knew something about science or Watson) "plus he was a year older than me which meant he would get tenure and I would not, which is what you expect from Harvard."

Watson is not the great speaker that Brian Greene is but Greene didn't escape unscathed either.   In discussing the importance of the research and discoveries of Wilson, including some of the more controversial items such as sociobiology and the biology of behavior as nature's 'genetic leash', Watson said, "Biology does not need string theory.  We have evolution.  It works."

Brian Greene had to have been chuckling that Watson just trashed his physics career, along with all dark matter/dark energy/dark gravity/dark (insert your favorite word here) theorists.  Watson can be a bit of a Scud missile when he talks; you know he is going to do damage, you just never know where he will land.

Why would Watson mention the controversies around Wilson at all, or compare evolution to string theory?    Because in both cases their positions, grounded in their scientific beliefs, valid or not, have thrown the people who filter their science through their politics (50% of the audience at Lincoln Center) into something of a tailspin, since Wilson is the same guy with a love for ecology who has been a strong voice for environmentalism and yet who basically said that behavior was not culturally based but part of our genetic hardware.   What to do with that if you want to paint all left wing people as intelligent atheists who care about science and right people as religious demagogues who are immature and want to squelch knowledge.
For that, he was accused of siding with racism, misogyny, and eugenics - as he noted about both of them, by the left.

They weren't siding with any ideology, they were siding with science - something modern researchers (and many science bloggers) could do more of.    It's unfortunate that it's fashionable in science culture to disregard religious people and be cheered by peers but disregard people who make their money talking about cultural racism and getting government dollars to do so and you get water poured on your head, as Wilson once got.

Watson had this same issue two years ago.   He was quoted as saying he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really."

Difficult stuff, in its place.   But, if he said it, and he did not attempt to deny it in any real way (the Sunday Times UK Magazine stated they have it on tape), he was likely making a scientific point that got somewhat lost due to either his age or editing.   "There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."

Indeed, what biologist with any belief at all in Darwin or evolution would say that geographically separated species will evolve identically?  Yet that is not really the case with Europe and Africa, unless you're Lamarckian.

He apologized, of course, “"I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."”

This was the only knock he got from people here - there's no scientific basis for what he said - but in the more political science community (most everyone else) there was a real firestorm of vitriol and condemnation and disgust.   The kind of thing that young people do, especially those steeped in the world of academia.

Cold Spring Harbor ran from him in a way you would expect any political organization to run, suspending him immediately but, like Einstein or Stephen Jay Gould or any number of great scientists, time will be kinder to Watson than the young politically minded folks in science who want to live in important times and make meaningful strides, even if it includes trashing a good scientist.

Could Brian Greene have done without Watson saying biology doesn't need string theorists to basically make stuff up?  Sure, but when you are a Nobel prize winner, you get to say what you believe and Watson couldn't have been thrilled that Alan Alda called Wilson one of the most important biologists since Darwin.

But, politically incorrect or not, his later affection for Wilson (Harvard will never get so lucky as his jibes at his former school showed) after getting to know him  was genuine (and, really, who doesn't have an affection for Edward Wilson after spending 5 seconds around him?) and he wished him what we wish of all scientists; that he keep talking about "uncomfortable truths" even  if it arouses the ire of "unpleasant leftists. "  And then he told him he loved him.

In biology, people  often tend to think of right wing and/or religious people as the enemy of science and evolution.   James Watson , for his seemingly careless way of speaking, was choosing his words and his meaning very precisely, and his enemies are  the real enemies of science because they claim to believe in it, but only if it matches their cultural agendas.

More World Science Festival articles can be found here.


(1) "Chairman of the Bored", Steven Shapin, Harvard Magazine, January-February 2008