James Watson has left his post as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in disgrace. He's apologized for questioning the intelligence of Africans, and issued a statement saying that there "is no scientific basis for such a belief."
Apparently unsatisfied with his double-helix fame, the man who long occupied the pinnacle of scientific achievement has made repeated headlines with egregiously offensive pronouncements. Over the last decade, Watson has said that sunlight and darker skin is the source of more powerful libidos; that abortion to eliminate a fetus predisposed to be gay would be fine; that fat people are less ambitious than thin people; that children he considers "stupid" should be genetically treated; that we should pay rich people to have more children; and that we should do what we can to prevent the birth of "ugly girls."
That's not all. Watson has pursued an aggressive agenda to mobilize genetic science in the service of a renewed eugenics. That's right: Watson wants to genetically re-engineer the human species.
At a high-profile 1998 UCLA conference, Watson joined other well-known scientists and nearly a thousand audience members at an event meant to lay the groundwork for making this new eugenics "acceptable" to America. "If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we do it?" he proclaimed.
In fact, polls and surveys confirm that large majorities strongly oppose the prospect of adding genes to "make better human beings." Down that path lie dangerous new forms of discrimination and inequality, and vastly widened social rifts.
Advocates of this eugenic vision understand that few people are willing to entrust even Nobel Prize winners with the future of the species. How to convince them otherwise? Watson suggests a bait-and-switch approach: Promise them cures, and they'll follow us anywhere. "We can talk principles forever," he advised at the 1998 conference, "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."
Most genetic research is, indeed, aimed at treatments and cures, but what Watson is promoting - often called "inheritable genetic modification" - has almost nothing to offer as a therapy. And proposals to use it for enhancement purposes are bound to provoke memories of eugenics past. Watson rejects the comparison - sort of. "Because of Hitler's use of the term Master Race," he wrote in Cold Spring Harbor Lab's 1996 annual report, "we should not feel the need to say that we never want to use genetics to make humans more capable.. . ."
Perhaps because of his past accomplishments and continuing influence, few of Watson's scientific colleagues had been willing to publicly criticize his advocacy of a new eugenics. But his most recent racist outburst may be a turning point.
Now we need other scientists as well as politicians, scholars, leaders of civil rights and human rights groups, and other influential figures to renounce Watson's bigoted views and eugenic advocacy. And we need to bring a keen understanding of the potential hazards to kitchen tables and school rooms.
Perhaps Watson's most important legacy will turn out to be as a counter-example: a demonstration of what not to do in order to use science for the good of humanity.
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