Where I’ve been, and about James Watson
2 November, 2007
OK, so I missed the first day of NaBloWriMo.
OK, so there ISN’T even a NaBlogWriMo.
I can challenge myself anyway, right?
So, I know you all are wondering…where’ve I been?
At conferences. Five weeks, four conferences, three involving overnight stays, two involving stays of more than one night, and one in the Western time zone. The biggest one was #2. I presented on the first day, in the plenary session after the introductory speaker, who was…Jim Watson. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Fifty years ago he and others divined the structure of DNA in a perfect storm of insight, ambition, office politics, and teamwork. Two weeks ago he ended his career in disgrace…but ENTIRELY PREDICTABLY, in a way that surprised ABSOLUTELY NOBODY WHO’D EVER MET HIM. And I’m gonna tell you why, and give you a front-row seat–literally–on his behavior.
When you are precocious enough to earn your BS at 19 and your Ph.D. at 22, ambitious enough that you decide at age 23 that you will solve the biggest scientific problem of the day, intelligent enough that you DO SO by age 25, and important enough to the field that the insight wins you a piece of a Nobel at age 34…well, this is not a recipe for modesty, and modest he’s never been. He has accomplished a lot with his scientific capital, such as starting the human genome project (until politics forced him out) and leading the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to prominence in the genetics field. But he has also not had to edit himself for nigh on 30 years, and got in the habit of blurting out ideas that…might not have always been appropriate. And as he’s veered into the crochety-old-man-with-cushy-job phase of life, he’s gotten more and more outrageous.
The race stuff he said wasn’t too far out of the ordinary for him–just two things were different. First, it was about race, not about ugly women or fat people or stupid people, as it’s been in the past. Considering genetics’ history with eugenics, this naturally sits more poorly with people than the other viewpoints, which are more easily laughed off. And secondly, he said it to a member of the press on a book tour, not to a room of star-struck scientists whose reaction to him, for decades, has been “*roll eyes* That’s Jim!”
I went to three genetics conferences, which got progressively more general. The first one, featuring my BIG PRESENTATION (a whole other post), was the World Congress on Psychiatric Genetics, in NYC this year–a grand name for a medium-sized meeting of 1000 people. As I said, Watson opened it with a half hour or so of chat. (I was in the front row, hence your front-row view.) Remember, this was PRE-brouhaha, although listen carefully to his media interviews up to that point and you’ll hear previews of what was to come. And indeed, this meeting was a preview. He was talking to, you know, psychiatric geneticists, so his comments focused on that instead of, say, race or attractiveness. What we do is so important, he sez. So many families have pain over this sort of issue. he himself has a schizophrenic son and a friend has a bipolar son who killed himself. Our field is heading in great directions, and being an old man he hopes we can develop, say, tests for psychiatric disorders…in a time-frame he can witness! (audience chuckling.) Such test scould be ever so useful, he goes on. For families, you know, and prenatal diagnosis.
Excueeze me? I baking powder? Prenatal diagnostic testing for MENTAL ILLNESS?
We’re not talking about horridly painful diseases that kill all affected kids before they turn 3 or whatever. We’re not even talking about Down Syndrome or Huntington’s Disease–diseases for which the genetic tests are definitive, but in which people can and do live full lives by almost any standard you apply. We’re talking about illnesses with unknown cause–illnesses where reasonable experts may not even agree on whether a person HAS it or not!
I was livid, as you can probably tell, and for two reasons. First: we have no idea what is going on genetically in these disorders. Take it from me, because I just published a major study in the area and spent 3 weeks absorbing the work others have been doing, and I can tell you for sure that knowing all the genetic everything that we know right now about someone will predict their odds of illness no better than will taking a simple family history. OK, I know that was a confusing sentence, so, an example. We know that if you have an aunt with schizophrenia, your odds of being schizophrenic yourself are one to four times higher than the general population’s odds. The absolutely MOST MOST optimistic spin on the genetics we know right now can’t do better than odds of 2. That means that just by asking for a family history, you can know more than if you do a genetic test. (Yes, some people don’t have anyone in their family with the illnesses…but this is rarer than you might think, especially once you start digging, and hear tell of that weird great-aunt who spent her life in a home or the boisterous cousin with the 5 divorces and so on.)
The second reason is, well…I had been to the Holocaust Museum the week before this conference, and seen this exhibit. (A summary: “The ‘Law for the prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases,’ proclaimed July 14, 1933, forced the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, such as mental illness (schizophrenia and manic depression), retardation (‘congenital feeble-mindedness’), physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism.”) It was a hell of a juxtaposition.
I felt conflicted after his talk. Sure, we scientists knew to roll their eyes, but the guy had a LOT of credibility among influential people, and there is already pressure in certain privately-funded corners of psychiatry to develop “definitive” psychiatric diagnostic tests. The imprimatur of a guy like him, I imagined, could mean a lot to decisionmakers–it had done a lot for the Human Genome Project, after all. What could I, a lowly postdoc, do? Where did my power lie? Anywhere??
So I was actually pretty glad that Watson dug his own hole. He’s not the first prominent person to shoot himself in the foot like this…the dude IS 80. It’s an unfortunate end to an amazing, and, personally, inspiring career, but I think–I hope–history will be kind.
Next time: How Did Techne’s Talk Go??
(Preview: They laughed, they cried, it was better than Cats)