Dr Watson of DNA fame – cuddly or creepy?

I was lucky enough to see a talk by Dr. James D. Watson of DNA fame this morning. It was a real experience … the talk started off with "Jim" in friendly uncle mode reminiscing about his DNA discovery days when he appeared to be just another dorky postdoc (who originally wanted to be an ornithologist).

He then moved on to some much more challenging, controversial, almost <i>creepy</i> discussion of his work on autism. The creepiest point was when he used Rosalind Franklin as an example of the poor empathy skills exhibited by people with autism. Why was this creepy? Rosalind's work was critical to the discovery of DNA, and there is some controversy regarding Watson and Crick's use of her X-ray data when it was still unpublished. Furthermore, Rosalind died from cancer before the Nobel prize was awarded. Either way – the use of her as an example in his current research seems tasteless.

Read on for my snippets from the talk:

Early days

  • JW has moved around: Indiana -> Cambridge -> Caltech -> Harvard -> now at ColdSpring Labs (http://cshl.edu)
  • PhD: was turned down by Caltech! Then accepted by Indiana (thought by many to be 2nd best, but actually better due to basketball)
  • Originally wanted to be an ornithologist.
  • Discovered DNA at age 23 as a postdoc at Cambridge in 1953.

Onto Cambridge

  • Met Francis Crick on day 1 at Cambridge.
  • Inspired by Schrodinger's "What is life?", which argued that the basis of life must be information stored in a stable form (i.e. a molecule)
  • Their work was discouraged … they were told that DNA was going on in London, and proteins in Cambridge
  • Crick seems to have been a loudmouth. He upset the head of group, who wanted to "give Crick his PhD so he would not have to hear his annoying voice any longer".
  • JW arrived from the US with a crewcut and without a tie, then grew his hair trying to look English. His dentist thought he was Irish!
  • Only 2 teams were working on DNA(London and Cambridge). Most people thought "it would be too complicated and focused on simpler things".
  • London team got structure wrong and inspired them. One member of the London group was Rosalind Franklin "who was very intelligent but bad with people", and "trying to solve the crystal" (the wrong approach). Her X-ray of DNA was key to their discovery. Alas, she died before the Nobel prize award ceremony in 1962 (Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously).
  • After these various inspirations and clues, they got it in 18 months.
  • Neither Crick or TW knew any chemistry! Early on, TW copied something out of a textbook and it turned out to be wrong (colleague pointed this out). Thought he was going to be focused on Maths at Cambridge.
  • Rosalind hated Crick at first (found him annoying). Later became close to Crick.
  • After the discovery, no one asked us to give a talk in Cambridge! First talk was in the US.
  • Took 5 years for it to be accepted, until then only about 20 people interested
  • Wrote up in the "Double Helix", wanted it to be as good as the Great Gatsby. Got played by Jeff Goldblum in TV adaptation, would have preferred John McEnroe! Joshua Cushner would be OK too.

Advice to the audience:

  1. Aim to get results in 3 years, that how long people will trust you.
  2. Work with the competitors (Rosalind's mistake)
  3. Don't work alone, have someone who thinks you are sane ("I had Crick, and Crick had me")
  4. Don't be the brightest person in the room (that way no way can help)

DNA and the Brain (this is where the talk gew more "challenging")

  • The last century = coming together of biology and chemistry (focus = fruit fly)
  • The next century = coming together of biology and psychology (focus = human)
  • Human genome project finished 3 years ago, since then chimp, mouse etc.
  • Question of nature versus nurture, "1st child – both important, by the 2nd child, parents give up on nurture"
  • TW: "I'm a nature guy. Nurture is important, but hard to quantify. You need to focus on what you can study"
  • Example of why more than than genes is at work = identical twins, one with schizophrenia, one without
  • Prediction: in 5 years, possible to sequence everyones' DNA


  • Current focus = autism. Estimates from 1 in 100, to 1 in 1000. Most common by far in boys.
  • Why are boys more awkward than girls? 2 possibilities (i) they only have 2 X chromosomes, (ii) they have a Y chromosome (joke, hoho)
  • 50 years ago, psychiatric belief was that it was caused by "cold mothers", given up 20 years ago. Then most people believed that parents' behaviour has nothing to do with it.
  • Now almost swinging back to original viewpoint. Simon Baron-Cohen argues that 2 general kinds of people (i) systematisers (the so called "male mind"), and (2) empathisers (females tend to be more ii) than i), vv for males).
  • Studies have shown parents who are systematisers are more likely to have autistic kids.
  • Common misconception: rate of autism is not increasing, definition is widening, and we are becoming better at observing it. Also, some parents have interest in getting autism diagnosed.
  • TW: "Probably more autistic kids in Silicon Valley".
  • Average IQ of people with babies in Seattle is 112 (RB: I assume this is high)
  • One possible factor is the level of fetal testosterone in 3 month old fetuses.

Controversy – this is where he really left the "goofy uncle persona behind

  • TW: "Autism to intellectuals is what HIV was to homosexuals"
  • He then went on to describe what came across as a backlash – he seems to have had a hard time getting funding, and there has been lots of resistance to this research, MIT not keen, hard to get autism data for Silicon Valley. Recently they have relied on one private donor who has an autistic child. This seems surprising for such an eminent research lab.
  • He argued that a better world will result from this research, "some people are born awkward, and research will show reasons why, and how we can help them"
  • Reiterated how these issues are most common in men compared to women, but that some women have a greater "male mind" tendency. He then referred to Rosalind Franklin as an example of this (which came across as particularly tasteless. I couldn't make up my mind if he was being a goofy old guy who can get away with stuff like this, or if something more creepy was going on …)
  • Dig at PC'ness: "When I was a young teacher, PC came in and people wanted to think/were forced to think that people were not that different, and that would be a way of promoting equality".
  • His conclusion: "Today we see widening gap in society, with greater intellectual capability being rewarded with higher wages etc. Some people do not have intellectual potential, but still play an important part of society. I would like to see more effort in bridging this gap." (at this point he really seemed to be hinting at the existence of a 2-tier society based on intellectual ability).

So overall, it was a great talk in that it was both amusing and challenging. To be honest I'm still lost as to what to make of him.

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One Response to Dr Watson of DNA fame – cuddly or creepy?

  1. Joe McCarthy says:

    Interesting and provocative, on several dimensions! I particularly like the advice to the audience (and wonder how many more advances we might see if more organizations were willing to support research efforts that may not yield results in 3 years).

    With respect to the notes on autism, Steven Johnson shared some illuminating aspects on this condition from psychology and neuroscience in his book “Mind Wide Open”.
    I’ll include a few excerpts from the first chapter below (found at ):

    “autistics are mindreading-impaired. The social distance associated with autism is a vivid example of the brain’s modular nature: autistics generally have above-average IQs, and their general logic skills are impeccable. But they lack social intelligence, particularly the ability to make on-the-fly assessments of other people’s inner thoughts … Simon Baron-Cohen believes that the symptoms of autism exist on a continuum: while some people clearly suffer from extreme cases, millions suffer only from minor cases of mindblindness.”

    I found the notion of an autism continuum particularly interesting, as I sometimes perceive wide variations in mind-reading capability (or performance)in myself and others. For anyone who wants to see where he / she lies on this continuum, an online version of the Autism Spectrum Quotient test can be found here: http://glennrowe.net/BaronCohen/AutismSpectrumQuotient/AutismSpectrumQuotient.aspx

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