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James Watson’s foot-in-mouth gene

“I know many people, at least when I was young, who thought I was quite unbearable,” James Watson once said. Last week, this outspoken icon of genetics for the past 50 years found out that little has changed for him at the age of 79.
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DNA discoverer James Watson, seen here in 2004 with DNA Double Helix model, has had a London speech canceled after remarks about race.Markus Schreiber / AP
/ Source: contributor

“I know many people, at least when I was young, who thought I was quite unbearable,” James Watson once said. Last week, this outspoken icon of genetics for the past 50 years found out that little has changed for him at the age of 79. A Nobel Laureate and the legendary co-discoverer of DNA’s double-helix shape, Watson told a British newspaper that there is scientific proof that Africans are genetically inferior.

In a half-hearted retraction last Friday, Watson backpedaled, saying: “There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

The reaction was swift as disgusted colleagues and weighty institutions around the world condemned his comments. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York, which Watson headed for three decades and had built into a world-class research facility, suspended him from his administrative duties as chancellor. Cold Springs President Bruce Stillman declared that the administration, trustees and faculty “vehemently disagree” with his statement in the UK.

This comes a few weeks after Watson released his complete DNA – virtually all 3 billion base pairs and nearly all of his genes – as one of the first named humans to have their entire genome mapped.

Scanning the results, which he publicly released, I find no foot-in-mouth gene – at least, none that has yet been discovered – but scanning Watson’s genes does reveal he has one of the “novelty-seeking genes,” a variation of the DRD3 gene associated with risk-taking and outlandish behavior. No surprise there where Watson is concerned.

I was unable to find out if Watson has a gene associated with people who sometimes say inappropriate things and exhibit anti-social behavior, but in my interview with him he said that he has a quick temper, and suspects he has this gene. ”I want to test myself because I bet I have a root form of the gene but you keep it in the background where you don’t say things too outrageous.” Ahem.

One caveat: these genes are not fully understood, and no one should assume that just because a person has a gene variation for a disease or trait such as novelty-seeking gene that they have or will have that disease or trait. As Watson recently told me when I interviewed him about his genome, he also has a gene that in some carriers causes blindness by age 50. “I’m 79, and my eyesight is still quite good,” he said.

Watson talks in sputters and clicks, and delights in being outrageous, as I discovered when I visited him in Cold Springs Harbor for my book, “Masterminds: Genius, DNA and Quest to Rewrite Life.” Ushered into an office where his Nobel prize hung close by a girly calendar featuring a buxom woman that looked more appropriate for a mechanics shop, he was soon informing me that some people are born with less intelligence than others – and that those people should have their genes altered, if such a thing becomes possible. At the same meeting he called surreal painter Salvador Dali (he painted “Homage to Watson and Crick” in 1963) a fascist, denigrated women scientists as being more “difficult” than men and refused yet again to acknowledge that a long dead geneticist named Rosalind Franklin made a crucial discovery leading to Watson and Crick’s famous discovery.

Anyone who has worked with him has a Watson story about his imperiousness. Yet he also was a major player in a number of scientific efforts over the decades, not the least of which was his crucial backing of the Human Genome Project in the early 1990s. He was appointed as the first head of the project in 1990 – only to be fired in 1992 after he insulted then director of the National Institutes of Health, Bernadine Healy, and refused to follow her directions and those of Congress.

Even by the standards of our celebrity-drenched culture, top scientists stand tall as iconographic characters venerated right up there with our most revered sports stars, statesmen, and artists. We have an unwritten pact with these people that if they keep providing us with cures, gadgets, and great discoveries, we will lavish them with praise, awards, celebrity, book contracts and even these days money. Indeed, the story of James Watson suggests that even repeated bad behavior and outlandish remarks is indulged if they keep producing.

Few scientists alive today have benefited more from this arrangement than James Watson, who looked like he might just get away with his behavior, only to discover that many people have what might be described as “the outrage gene.”      

David Ewing Duncan is a Contributing Editor to Portfolio, Chief Correspondent for NPR Talk’s “Biotech Nation”, and bestselling author of Experimental Man: One’s Man’s Journey Inside Himself, Cell by Cell, due out in 2008. His Web site is