October 22, 2007

James Watson as a leader

One of the points I tried to make in my VDARE.com article on James D. Watson is that he's not just some old coot who discovered something back in 1953. When he felt his powers of new discovery decline as middle age approached, he switched to scientific management, taking over the failing Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968 and drove it to huge success. He remains a central cog in the great enterprise of modern genetic research.

Here's a Sunday Times essay by the biologist/journalist Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe who got James Watson in so much trouble with her previous article:

Science has always been open to debate. Why shackle it? What are we so afraid of? Why gag and shame on the basis of fear?

Maybe this will be a watershed moment, one that examines our inability to openly debate sensitive issues. Whether is it or not, I believe that fear of what might be uncovered – or not – as a result of further analysis is no reason to deprive ourselves of the most experienced geneticist of our age. My hope is, once the smoke clears, that the laboratory will realise that he is too precious to dismiss over fears of what he has said and might say next. He can say it, he can take it back, others can challenge it. We pride ourselves in living within a democratic society. If he said - which he hasn't – that I might be less intelligent because I had blonde hair, I wouldn't care. All that matters to me is that if someone I loved was ill, or dying from an incurable disease, then the man who has the brains, capability and resources to help them, be allowed to do so.

As Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Watson's is not only a maverick in securing funding but a crucial sounding board for lab scientists. Daily, he consults with his scientific investigators – all working on disparate areas of the disease field. At nearly 80, Watson seamlessly manoeuvres his thoughts around scores of ultra-specific genetic problems. All hours of his working day his researchers look to him for advice – secure in the knowledge that he has the experience to make the decisions which, without him, they could misjudge and risk being a step behind.

I have been reported as working with him - when, as stated, I was under the guidance of the then assistant director of the lab, Winship Herr. But, any geneticist who has had their hand grasped by him in a congratulatory handshake following a hard-won discovery in the lab, will tell you that Watson has a unique ability to instil pride in achievement. Biologists rarely see the limelight, and if occasional words of praise and encouragement are enough to keep scientists working a few extra few hours a day, and if this makes our fight against disease faster, then we need him.

After a long day of conversation – the topic of racial inequality was broached. It seemed an important extension to words he had written in his book. I would never have written something that I thought he would not be prepared to defend. I am not trying to destroy a brilliant scientist and I am genuinely horrified by the response. We need to squeeze every last drop of brilliance from this man if we are to continue hoping to unravel the genetic causes of disease. He strives to help young people in their careers. My biggest concern is that, by helping me, he has damaged himself. I could not hope more, that I am wrong.

In a war – the people we want around us are the ones with the experience and proven track record. Disease is a war. We need tactics, brilliance and, above all, experience. He may push the boundaries of what is acceptable in our PC world – and stray into areas that are not his expertise - but when he sits in his role as Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, his scientists – though not the publicists – feel safe and expertly guided. And they are.

Watson's personality is complex. We're used to shy or Aspergery scientists who accidentally offend people around them because they aren't very social, but Watson doesn't fit that mold, which is why he's been such a success as a leader of scientists.

He's extremely gossipy, for one thing. Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Alice, the social queen of Washington for decades, used to say, "If you don't have anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me."

But gossip provides unexpected benefits. Back in the 1970s, the LA Dodgers and the NY Yankees had opposite approaches to gossip. The Dodgers were trained by their management to always put a bland, happy spin on things. Occasionally, you'd get hints that everything wasn't always peachy with them, such as when Don Sutton and Steve Garvey got into a locker room fight in 1978 over Garvey's wife, but that was an exception. In contrast, the Yankees, led by their owner George Steinbrenner, were constantly denouncing each other in the newspapers. It seemed obvious to me that the Dodger system was superior, but the Yankees took two out of three World Series from the Dodgers, and went on in the 1990s (under a little more mellow Steinbrenner) to form an even better dynasty.

Sociobiology founder Edward O. Wilson, the other grand old man of American biology, famously clashed with Watson at Harvard departmental meetings in the 1950s and 1960s in a turf war between the old organismic biologists like Wilson and the new molecular biologists like Watson over faculty hiring. The normally gentlemanly Wilson wrote in his autobiography Naturalist that at faculty meetings Watson, "the Caligula of biology," "radiated contempt in all directions," The nicest thing he said about traditional biology was to call it "stamp collecting." Wilson wrote:

"When Watson became director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968, ... I commented sourly to friends that I wouldn't put him in charge of a lemonade stand. He proved me wrong. In ten years he raised that noted institution to even greater heights by inspiration, fund-raising skills, and the ability to choose and attract the most gifted researchers."

Eventually, Watson did Wilson a great service by forcing him to rethink higher level biology, make it less stamp collecting and more of a theory driven science based on natural selection, so he could compete with Watson's triumphant brand of molecular biology. "Without a trace of irony I can sat I have been blessed with brilliant enemies ... because they redoubled my energies and drove me in new directions." Watson's challenge also inspired Wilson to think deeply about reductionism and the proper levels of scientific research, as shown in his book Consilience.

(Wilson's other brilliant enemy was Stephen Jay Gould, whose denunciations of Wilson's 1975 book Sociobiology persuaded Wilson to learn, at age 45, how to write like a literary intellectual, so he could compete with Gould in the non-scientific intellectual marketplace. Thus, Wilson's small 1978 book On Human Nature , in which Wilson unveiled his new prose style and hard-earned set of artistic references, won the Pulitzer.)

It's nice to know that Watson and Wilson have reconciled in recent years, appearing in a joint interview on Charlie Rose. Perhaps Wilson and Gould would have reconciled too if Gould had not died at age 60?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

20 comments:

Dutch Boy said...

Dr. Watson's problem is elementary. He is a brilliant scientist but a horrible philosopher (a scientific reductionist). If all that exists is matter in motion, than power is more important than truth. His little slip threatened the interests of the powerful and they retaliated. Now that he has tasted the fruits of his own philosophy, perhaps he will re-think his premises. It might even make a Christian of him!

Peewee said...

We knew that pun was coming.

Cromwell said...

http://news.independent.co.uk/sci_tech/article3081838.ece

People with big heads have higher intelligence

By Roger Dobson

Published: 21 October 2007

New scientific research proves that people with big heads have higher than average intelligence.

Edinburgh University researchers, using MRI scans and IQ tests on 48 volunteers, discovered that the larger the head, and therefore the brain, the greater the IQ. A person with a brain of 1,600cc has an IQ of around 125.

Dr Alasdair MacLullich of the university's Queen's Medical Research Institute said: "As a general rule, the larger the dimensions of front to back and side to side, the greater the IQ, although, of course, there will be exceptions.''

Examples of gifted people with larger heads include the broadcaster Emily Maitlis, who speaks fluent French, Italian and Spanish but insists her Mandarin Chinese is "rubbish".

Among exceptions is satirist and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop whose head size is relatively modest but who is renowned for his fierce intellect.

Anonymous said...


in a turf war between the old organismic biologists like Wilson and the new molecular biologists like Wilson over faculty hiring


Which Wilson is which?

Dis said...

To be honest, I'm rather glad that Watson was a philistine of a scientist enough to call traditional biology "stamp-collecting." In an ecology class in high school, my teacher noted my strong ability to organize and lead my team, but my relative inability to recognize different forms of greenery.

"They're all just plants to me."

Watson's claims about race and IQ have wrecked his reputation, but I also think that the fact that one of the biggest biologists of our time, if not for the ages, went forth to make statements like that raised a lot of eyebrows. A friend of mine, who has traditionally held no knowledge of the topic, told me how shocked he was.

In the coming years, more and more information will bring to light that perhaps race differences have genetic origins that extend into the mental realms. Let it pass, and don't rub it in people's faces. For those of us already acquainted with the data, it's up to us to show that acknowledging genetics doesn't mean we will become Nazis, or will be forced to return to the days of Jim Crow.

We can have a liberty-loving, democratic society that judges people as individuals, even if the races are equal but not the same. To reach that would be the ultimate triumph of freedom.

tggp said...

Steve, Watson and Wilson's names are so similar that you contrasted one scientist with himself.

dutch boy, I don't see how your conclusion follows from your premise in the second sentence. Perhaps you don't understand the difference between modernism and post-modernism.

James Kabala said...

The seventies were a good decade for feuding baseball teams (not only the Yankees but the A's earlier in the decade), but the 1990s Yankees seemed to partake more of the pld Dodger philosophy. You never heard about Jeter or Rivera or Williams not getting along with anybody, although I'm sure there was some hidden conflict. In the 2000s, when some open conflict did begin to appear, the World Series wins came to an end.

SFG said...

If all that exists is matter in motion, than power is more important than truth. His little slip threatened the interests of the powerful and they retaliated. Now that he has tasted the fruits of his own philosophy, perhaps he will re-think his premises. It might even make a Christian of him!
I don't see the connection. They would have gone after even if he'd been a Christian. Christ spoke truth to power and still got crucified (literally in His case).

In fact, you could argue that, in speaking truth to power, Watson put others' interests ahead of his own, which would be the Christlike thing to do. (I think he was just a garrulous (if brilliant) old coot.) Atheists are more than capable of behaving in altruism.

Mike said...

Gould and Wilson? Nope.

Gould was an unregenerate NYC Marxist. To my knowledge he never buried the hatchet with anyone who did not support party line.

Jack said...

The Orwellianism of this episode is sickening. The thought totalitarians are showing their true colors. So much for academic freedom....

From the Observer: As to Watson's own prospects today, those can only be described as unpromising. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's campus is set in rolling wooded hills on the north shore of Long Island, dotted with buildings set amid the trees turning bright orange and red as autumn sets in.

Executives there have already revealed just how seriously they are taking the Watson case and on Friday triggered a compete PR lockdown at the campus: students and staff were warned not to talk to journalists, security guards were on the lookout for unannounced reporters and interlopers were picked up and taken to the campus PR department.

Steve Sailer said...

Let's see, I got Clinton and Carter mixed up yesterday, Watson and Wilson today. Maybe there's a pattern here?

Mark said...

Off the topic entirely, Mr. Sailer, but what's up with the complete silence at VDare on the Swiss elections? It seems like the kind of news would want to pop a bottle of bubbly over.

Hans Gruber said...

On head size and IQ, mentioned by the above commenter, Chris Langan, one of the world's smartest people as far as IQ tests are concerned, claims he has a head 11 standard deviations from the norm.

Anonymous said...

a horrible philosopher

Seriously, STFU. Watson has been attacked by all manner of morons on the left. Attacking him from the Jeebus right at this point is uncalled for and simply unnecessary.

And in any case, had Watson believed in Jesus or a sky fairy or whatever, it wouldn't have saved him. The problem is belief in PC, not lack of belief in JC.

Anonymous said...

The "skeptics" at "The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe" abandon some of their skepticism when it comes to egalitarian dogma:
Skepticast #117: 10/17/2007
The female "skeptic" acts as the attack dog, savaging Watson while the Chief Skeptic makes a lame attempt to maintain an illusion of objectivity.

James Kabala said...

Anonymous 1:27: It looks as if you believe in a PC of your own. We shouldn't pile on a man when he's down, but we shouldn't feel obliged to falsely make a man a hero if we think he doesn't deserve it. Why should religion be any more off the table for discussion than racial differences? If Christopher Hitchens made a politically incorrect comment about race, would all his other views suddenly become beyond criticism?

Hal K said...

jack:

The Observer article is troubling, both for the information it reports and for the slant it gives to the story. It says that this episode was partly caused by Watson's "hubris." I certainly wouldn't have chosen that word, since it has negative connotations. Also the article quotes people saying that there are different kinds of intelligence not measured by IQ tests and that intelligence is not correlated with skin color. Both of these statements may be true in a sense, but they are still obfuscations in my opinion.

David said...

Way to succeed: Tell people what they want to hear.

Way to be in hot water: Tell people what they don't want to hear.

Dr. Watson should sue the hell out of the "lab" (sic) and the reporterette who probably incorrectly quoted even his full interview statement.

The "lab" (sic) is a fraud in my opinion. Its supporters should end their support. How can it help to find cures if it is congenitally allergic to the truth? and more: is actively hostile to the truth on principle?

Anonymous said...

but we shouldn't feel obliged to falsely make a man a hero if we think he doesn't deserve it.

He does deserve it. He discovered the structure of DNA, built up Cold Spring Harbor, and spoke truth -- however briefly -- to power.

That's a hell of a lot more impressive than mindlessly repeating what you read in the Bible or the Torah or Koran or what have you.

Glorying over the attack on him by the rabid dogs of the media -- as if this was some sin that Watson brought on himself by failure to believe in Jesus! -- is just stupid. It's exactly the same thing as Westboro Baptist seeing the hand of the Lord in the deaths of American soldiers.

As for Hitchens re: race, I'm reminded of Churchill:



If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.


The most important issue of the modern era is whether or not the West can come to grips with the IQ-race nexus and all its implications. It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every major story today -- terrorism, crime, health care, income inequality, immigration -- has this unmentionable issue at its root. Those who are pragmatic about the fate of the west will ally with all who are willing to use their positions to spread truth on this issue.


Those who are not can pray to imaginary gods while men with real courage stand up to Big Brother. It takes utterly no courage to believe in fairy tales from JC or PC, or to kick a great man when he's down.


JW

Mark said...

The most important issue of the modern era is whether or not the West can come to grips with the IQ-race nexus and all its implications.

No, the most important issue of our time is whether or not the West can come to grips with the dangers of excessive immigration and face the truth that too much racial diversity is detrimental to our survival.

It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every major story today -- terrorism, crime, health care, income inequality, immigration -- has this unmentionable issue at its root.

Not necessarily. There are a whole lot of very smart people who believe in really dumb ideas. Politically, I'd pick a white contruction worker from Alabama over a marketing manager from San Fran any day.


Those who are not can pray to imaginary gods while men with real courage stand up to Big Brother.

Well like it or not, those people praying to "imaginary gods" are probably doing far more to save Western civilization than you are. For one thing, they're actually bothering to have kids. Most other whites have outsourced that job.