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James Watson's Legacy

Posted by Center for Genetics and Society on October 22nd, 2007

James Watson

Over the past half century, millions have known James Watson for his Nobel Prize and double-helix fame. Only last week did most learn about James Watson, bigot and eugenics enthusiast.

Watson now says, "That is not what I meant." But take a look at these statements by  him, stretching back years. And he's not the only one; some of his colleagues have joined him in advocating for a new high-tech eugenics.

Do you have a Watson quote we've missed? Post it as a comment below, and we'll add it to the list. Please be sure to include citation.

On race and intelligence

“[A]ll our social policies are based on the fact that [Africans'] intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really… [P]eople who have to deal with black employees find [equality] is not true.”

Interview with The Times of London, October 14, 2007

"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."

Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science (2007)

On "stupid" kids, ugly girls, and enhanced children

"If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease.... The lower 10 percent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what's the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.' It probably isn't. So I'd like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 percent...."

"It seems unfair that some people don’t get the same opportunity. Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no one can stop it. It would be stupid not to use it because someone else will. Those parents who enhance their children, then their children are going to be the ones who dominate the world..."

"People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great...."

"I think it's irresponsible not to try and direct evolution to produce a human being who will be an asset to the world."

DNA, British documentary, March 2003

"Then I am a eugenicist"

"My view is that, despite the risks, we should give serious consideration to germ-line gene therapy. I only hope that the many biologists who share my opinion will stand tall in the debates to come and not be intimidated by the inevitable criticism ... If such work be called eugenics, then I am a eugenicist."

DNA: The Secret of Life, 2003

On sex and discriminating against overweight people

Watson proposed that skin color and sex drive are linked. "That's why you have Latin lovers. You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient."

Watson proposed that thinness and ambition are linked, and thus thin people are better hires. "When you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them."

"The Pursuit of Happiness: Lessons from pom-C," Watson's lecture at University of California, Berkeley, October 2000

Let's play God

"If scientists don't play God, who will?"

Addressing members of the British Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, May 2000

Embracing the Master Race

"Here we must not fall into the absurd trap of being against everything Hitler was for.... Because of Hitler's use of the term Master Race, we should not feel the need to say that we never want to use genetics to make humans more capable than they are today."

A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society, 2000

On inheritable human genetic modification

"I'm afraid of asking people what they think. Don't ask Congress to approve it. Just ask them for the money to help their constituents. That's what they want.... Frankly, they would care much more about having their relatives not sick than they do about ethics and principles. We can talk principles forever, but what the public actually wants is not to be sick. And if we help them not be sick, they'll be on our side....

"If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we? What's wrong with it?… Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say that we've got a perfect genome and there's some sanctity?"

Engineering the Human Germline, symposium at University of California Los Angeles, March 20, 1998

Aborting fetuses with a "gay gene"

"If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn't want a homosexual child, well, let her."

The Telegraph, February 16, 1997

On the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications program of the Human Genome Project

"I wanted a group that would talk and talk and never get anything done," Andrews quotes Watson as telling a meeting. "And if they did do something, I wanted them to get it wrong. I wanted as its head Shirley Temple Black."

Quoted by Lori Andrews in The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology

More on Hitler

The time has come to "put Hitler behind us," Watson said, urging Germany to put more resources into genetic research.

Keynote speech to a conference on molecular medicine in Berlin, May 1997


Hillary Clinton and the Office of Technology Assessment

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 19th, 2007

Earlier this month, presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton used the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet Sputnik launch - a surprise that spurred American investment in scientific research and education - to challenge Republicans on science. Unveiling her "Agenda to Reclaim Scientific Innovation," she leveled the expected accusations against Bush.

Such charges have dramatically lifted the position of science in political discourse in recent years. The Administration has been accused of suppressing and distorting data, retaliating against nonconforming researchers, ignoring and dismissing key science advisors, censoring National Park Service rangers, and promoting tainted reports of business-backed "sound science." Taken together, Bush's critics maintain, these actions amount to a partisan war on science.

This description of an assault on facts conducted by the Bush Administration largely rings true. Distorting and suppressing scientific data and conclusions have allowed the President to pander to the two primary components of his base: big business and religious conservatives. As Clinton paraphrased Stephen Colbert, "this administration doesn't make decisions on facts. It makes facts based on decisions."

The media coverage of Clinton's speech hit on many of her plans: preventing appointees from altering scientific reports, establishing a $50 billion fund for clean energy, complying with existing laws regarding climate change, and most prominently, rescinding the funding limitations on embryonic stem cell research. An intriguing element that got less play was her call to strengthen scientific advice for policy makers. Her proposal to restore the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, a position eliminated by Bush, seems uncontroversial and an obvious choice. But what about her plan to revive Congress's long-defunct Office of Technology Assessment?

The demise of the OTA in 1995 left a critical gap in policy-making that urgently needs to be filled. It was established by Congress in 1972 to balance fact-bending by an earlier Republican administration. Like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, it provided analyses to Congress that were not only shielded from executive influence, but demonstrably nonpartisan. On a relatively slim budget, the OTA produced hundreds of insightful and widely-read reports, and rapidly became a model for similar agencies throughout the world.

But conservatives soon set their targets on such reality-based work. OTA's reports on the proposed missile defense shield, in particular, riled Reagan Republicans. By the nineties, it was at the top of Gingrich's hit list. In what Chris Mooney called [PDF] "a stunning act of self‑lobotomy," in 1995 the new House Speaker engineered its demise by defunding, despite significant support for the agency from moderate Republicans. Since then, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has championed OTA's revival, but has made little headway. Currently, the only technology assessment proposal in Congress is a tiny appropriation to the GAO.

Clinton's pitch to bring back the OTA is commendable. Existing bodies fail to fill the gap. Some are too easily swayed by political winds. Others are limited in scope. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, is mandated to look only at safety and efficacy issues, and is not permitted to consider social or ethical concerns. And because the wheels of both parties are greased by big business, particularly by high-tech industries, executive agencies are vulnerable to regulatory capture.

The next best substitute, the National Academies, is not even a governmental body. Furthermore, while the Academies are adept at forming expert committees to make specific policy recommendations, what's need are broader assessments of the economic, social, and environmental impacts of emerging technologies, done in a context that is shielded from commercial conflicts.

Such assessments are needed now more than ever. Artificial intelligence technologies may force a reevaluation of sentience, consciousness, and personhood. Human enhancement, particularly through genetic modification, could reinforce social stratification or produce new varieties of it. Nanotechnology presents a fundamentally novel challenge to public and environmental health. Let's hope the next administration prioritizes technology assessment - the kind that promotes both scientific advance and the public interest.

First One in the Pool...

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on October 17th, 2007

Last month, Biopolitical Times commented on the prominent British judge who proposes that DNA be collected from the country’s entire population – and anyone visiting – as a way to avoid racial genetic discrimination. That post, “Everybody into the Pool,” was followed by another – “They Really Mean EVERYBODY into the Pool” – about the 100,000 profiles already in the UK's criminal databases from children who have never been charged with a crime.

The point, of course, is that in fact not everybody is equally represented in the DNA databases that are rapidly expanding in the United States as well as the UK – or in the courts and the jails. A study by Queens College Professor of Sociology Harry Levine, for example, finds that eight times as many blacks as whites are arrested in New York City for low-level marijuana possession. But government statistics consistently show that marijuana use among blacks is significantly lower than among whites.

At a recent symposium on DNA in law enforcement organized by the Genetics and Public Policy Center, former CGS staffer Tania Simoncelli, now with the Technology and Liberty Project at the ACLU, cited these statistics to support her assertion that “privacy is not the only concern” about DNA databases. She comments:

[L]et’s be very clear about what we’re doing here. If we expand our databanks to arrestees, we are essentially creating a massive government database and databank comprised mostly of people of color.
The symposium transcript is well worth a read. Simoncelli discusses several reasons to be alarmed about the DNA database juggernaut in the U.S. Did you know that ten states and the federal government have decided to collect DNA not just from people convicted of a crime, but also from anyone merely arrested? Did you know that police now get DNA samples by following people around and picking up their cigarette butts and coffee cups?

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after your DNA.

File Under: Gene of the Week

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 15th, 2007

Photo by Sylwia Kapuscinski for The New York Times

In a widely-circulated article, the New York Times recently reports that aversion to new foods (i.e. being a picky eater) is 78% genetic.

Researchers examined the eating habits of 5,390 pairs of twins between 8 and 11 years old and found children’s aversions to trying new foods are mostly inherited.

The message to parents: It’s not your cooking, it’s your genes....

According to the report, 78 percent is genetic and the other 22 percent environmental.

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