James Watson is an American molecular biologist best known for his discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick in 1953. He was born in Chicago in 1928 and attended the University of Chicago for his undergraduate degree in zoology. While pursuing his Ph.D at Indiana University, Watson became interested in molecular biology, which led him to the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory for postdoctoral research. There he met Crick, the two recognized a common interest in discovering the structure of DNA. Watson, Crick, and another researcher Maurice Wilkins would later share the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in this field.
In 1956, Watson became a junior member of Harvard University's Biological Laboratories, where he quickly advanced to the position of full professor. Then in 1968 he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island, New York, where he shifted his research emphasis to the study of cancer. Between 1988 and 1992, Watson was also associated with the National Institutes of Health, spearheading the Human Genome Project. In 2007 he became the second person, after molecular biologist Craig Venter, to have his entire genome sequenced. Watson remained involved with CSHL, as president and later as chancellor, until 2007, when he retired following a controversy over comments he made claiming blacks are less intelligent than whites.
Watson has written many books, including the seminal textbook "The Molecular Biology of the Gene" (1965), his bestseller "The Double Helix" (1968) about his discovery of the DNA structure, and his memoir "Avoid Boring People" (2007).
Question: How much do we know about the genetic components of behavior?
James Watson: We know in animals there’s sort of forms that are called instinctive. And I think you know, I tell everyone, I think this century which you know, has another 90 years to run, will be the century you know, when psychology becomes a science. You know, that when our chief focus will move—hopefully after we’ve got on top of most cancer—toward understanding healthy aspects. You know, why we behave differently and, you know, very practical things; trying to get better ways to stop depression and so on.
Most psychology departments, when we get near them, are not science departments. And so, you know, people say well you have to have something called cognitive science. I’d like to believe, you know, that people would actually like to know the truth about themselves. But certainly some people would not want you to study whether in anyway men and women are any different. You know, seeing if you discover differences, it would just perpetuate wrong behavior. Likewise, they really don’t want to really measure intelligence because they don’t want intelligence to be something you are born with as opposed to having it been largely determined by how you grow up.
So psychology departments now are just not as bad as anthropology, but almost as bad. Just totally dominated by political correctness. Which to me, you know... in the past, political correctness has never been a way to more toward the truth. It’s like, you know, saying something is religiously correct. You start from that.
Question: So there are genetic differences in intelligence?
James Watson: Yes. You know. How much they are we know very little. But because we don’t want to pinpoint some people as unable to learn—unless it’s so bad that you have to. We’re sort of avoiding maybe learning some how and some day to make our brains work better. I worry now that human life in day-by-day life has got more difficult because it’s just so complex and that more and more people aren’t really equal to the complexities of current life. And I think that may underlie this, you know, awful phenomena of the rich people getting so rich because they’re just using their, you know, innate intelligence to think faster and to seize opportunities faster. And you know, there could be other reasons. You know, there are other reasons. Last night my wife and I saw "Wall Street," you know, far from a perfect movie, but, to say the least, thought-provoking.
Question: Are men genetically smarter than women?
James Watson: On the intelligence tests, men do worse in verbal things and they’re able to do spatial things better. And this has been related, whether correctly or wrongly, to our past evolutionary role as hunter/gatherers where we really had to strike out and be able to find home again. So we had to really look at visual clues and think constantly about where we are. Whereas women were, you know, staying in a fixed place. Whether that’s right or wrong, but the truth is that we only have IQ tests which makes the sexes essentially the same because we adjust the tests so that they contain some questions which girls would do better on and some which would be a boy. And you can bias the tests and then one sex or the other would be called the brightest.
There is a fact that at the ends of these curves of intelligence, there are more boys. Many more mentally retarded boys than girls, and at the extreme highest level, but not really very important. There seem to be more boy, you know... true math geniuses... but true math genius is so often accompanied by you know, strange behavior or anti-social behavior. It’s not clear that people really want to give birth to boys at those ends of the curves, either end.
Recorded on September 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman