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Henry Louis Gates Jr. Interviews James Watson

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on June 9th, 2008

Back in October of last year, James Watson started a heated debate over race and genetics by making a series of statements suggesting that Blacks are an inherently inferior racial group. To recap, Watson noted that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” since “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” Moreover, he is quoted as saying that “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.”

Race scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has filmed two documentaries on race, genetics, and ancestry while also founding a DNA ancestry company, was troubled by Watson’s seemingly pernicious use of race and genetics – particularly since Gates has said that he has “been among those who have long held Watson in high regard.” This led Gates to interview Watson to, in a sense, determine whether he’s a bigot. Gates concludes:

I don't think James Watson is a racist. But I do think that he is a racialist—that is, he believes that certain observable traits or forms of behavior among groups of human beings might, indeed, have a biological basis in the code that scientists, eventually, may be able to ascertain, that the "gene" is some mythically neutral space and what it purportedly "measures" or "determines" is independent of environmental factors, variables and influences.

The difference, the distinction, between being a racist and a racialist is crucial. James Watson is not the garden-variety racist as he has been caricatured by the press and bloggers, the sort epitomized by David Duke and his ilk, and he seemed genuinely chagrined, embarrassed and remorseful that Duke and other racists had claimed him as their champion, as one of their own, because of his remarks as quoted in the London Sunday Times. And, as we might expect, he apologized profusely for those remarks, contending that he had been misquoted, at worst, and his remarks taken out of context, at best.

You can read the full transcript of Gates’ interview with Watson here. Are you persuaded by Gates’ distinction between a racist and a racialist? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Partisan fratricide over stem cells in Missouri?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 6th, 2008

Just when you thought that the strange saga of stem cell research policy in Missouri was over, think again. Two years ago, the state underwent an expensive, divisive battle over the issue - but for little significant policy change. Now, a group of state Republicans appears ready to repeat the strife, again with little policy implication, but this time within the ranks of their party.

In 2006, a wealthy Missouri couple successfully bankrolled a ballot initiative which constitutionally protected all forms of human embryonic stem cell research in Missouri. It was a bit superfluous, however, because at the time, the closest thing to a threat to the work was a bill introduced annually by a conservative senator to ban cloning-based stem cell research. This bill had never even made it to the Senate floor, and both the Republican governor and his likely future Democratic opponents had promised to veto any such ban. To top it off, cloning-based stem cell research was not performed in Missouri, nor were there any plans to do so. It was thus something of a mystery as to why Jim and Virginia Stowers were so eager to spend over $30 million on Amendment 2, which passed by a small margin.

But in January of this year, Governor Blunt announced that he would not run for reelection this fall. While the two major Republican contenders to take his place oppose embryonic stem cell research, the constitutional protection remains in place. However, the state's largest newspaper just reported that

Nineteen of the region's most prominent and generous Republicans - who over the years have donated millions of dollars to their party and its candidates - have launched a new effort aimed at protecting embryonic stem-cell research....

[Republicans To Protect Medical Advances founder William] Danforth indicated that some of the founders may link financial support to a candidate's position on the research.

What makes the establishment of Republicans To Protect Medical Advances even stranger is that (contrary to the claims of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) the new Missouri Republican party platform [PDF] does not actually oppose embryonic stem cell research using IVF embryos. It only is against "all human cloning" and "fetal tissue research."

Isn't this potential gubernatorial threat to embryonic stem cell research exactly what the constitutional amendment was designed to block? Why would party bigwigs lunge for the financial jugular of their own party - and possibly cede the governorship to their opponents - over a debate that will have little effect on actual policy? Although there may be state political dynamics of which I am unaware, Republicans To Protect Medical Advances are more likely to fracture their own party than materially protect "medical advances."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Willy Wonka and the cloning factory

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on June 5th, 2008

In yet another publicity bid, BioArts International has announced its Golden Clone Giveaway contest. On June 16, the California start-up will award "a free clone of YOUR dog" to the person who submits the best 500-word essay on why their dog is "clone-worthy." BioArts is being run by cloning impresario Lou Hawthorne; disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo Suk is also involved.

Why does the Golden Clone contest call to mind the five Golden Tickets hidden by candy entrepreneur Willy Wonka among his billions of chocolate bars? You remember the story: Each lucky child who finds a ticket gets a free tour of Wonka's top-secret factory, along with a lifetime supply of special chocolate.

In the 1971 film based on Roald Dahl's children's novel, Gene Wilder plays Wonka as a creepy guy who looks on placidly as one child after another barely escapes a grisly fate, the just desserts, so to speak, of sneaking a taste of the wares. One girl is transformed into a giant blueberry; another child is shrunk to a few inches high; a third is rejected as a "bad egg" and sent down a garbage chute into the Egg Sorting Room. The factory workers - the Oompa-Loompas, who in the 2005 (post-Dolly?) remake of the movie were all played by the same actor, Roy Deep - break into song after each mishap.

Do similar outcomes await those partaking in the Golden Giveaway? Is Lou Hawthorne biotech's Willy Wonka? Stay tuned.

Dog Cloning and Intellectual Property

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky and Jesse Reynolds on June 5th, 2008

Lee Byeong-chun

In the minor flurry of stories last month about an on-line auction of dog cloning services, the issue of intellectual property was completely overlooked. That’s too bad, since the cloning business, like so many others, is best understood by following the money. 

What we learned last month: Lou Hawthorne, former CEO of a now-defunct pet cloning venture, and Hwang Woo Suk, the notoriously fraudulent cloning scientist, will head a new cloning company called BioArts International. Its business plan is to auction off five dog-cloning slots, with bids starting at $100,000 each. Good Morning America’s “broadcast exclusive” featuring Hawthorne and cute cloned puppies was a fluff piece (so to speak) worth a bundle in free publicity. 

Part of the missing context: Back in February, a Korean company called RNL Bio made a similar announcement. RNL Bio said it would clone a pit bull named "Booger" for an anonymous California woman; the work was to have been performed by a team at Seoul National University (SNU), where Hwang did his stem cell and cloning research. Heading the SNU cloning group was Lee Byeong-chun, a former key collaborator of Hwang’s and coauthor on the two cloning papers retracted by Science when it was discovered that their data had been fabricated. Hwang was fired by SNU, but Lee seems to have held on to his job. Both were indicted on embezzlement and ethics violation charges; their court cases appear to be ongoing.

Surprisingly, the California-based biotech company Geron now enters the picture. Back in 1999, Geron – better known for its repeated promises of imminent embryonic stem cell clinical trials – acquired exclusive licenses on an animal cloning patent held by the Scottish research institute where Dolly the sheep was "created." After fending off other claimants, in 2005 Geron helped form stART Licensing Inc. to manage its IP portfolio. (The other partner in stART Licensing is a holding company for several projects of John Sperling, the billionaire who has funded various cloning and human life extension projects including Hawthorne's previous cloning endeavor, Genetic Savings and Clone.)

Now the action picks up. In early March, RNL Bio announced that it had met with Booger's owner in Los Angeles, that Booger's cells had arrived safely in Korea, and that the birth of Booger II was anticipated. Another cloning race was on, with former partners Hwang and Lee – both still under indictment for various crimes – now rivals.

But just days before the Hwang-Hawthorne dog-cloning debut, Seoul National University announced it was pulling out of animal cloning. Why? Turns out that stART Licensing had sent SNU a cease-and-desist letter claiming that its commercial animal cloning efforts violated Geron's patent. Presumably, SNU decided either that it didn’t want to deal with a legal challenge, or that it didn’t need any additional cloning notoriety.

The Hawthorne-Hwang duo, on the other hand, has no such compunctions.

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