‘We’re going to cure many, many nasty genetic diseases’
James Watson interview: DNA-pioneer on racism, Trump, belief and scientific truth
American molecular biologist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA James Watson: Trump has not been good for science. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
It is clear that the pursuit of greatness has driven James Watson throughout his remarkable life.
It was an essential motivator in his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA, the genetic basis for life. When he spoke at a special 90th birthday celebration earlier this year, he titled his address Maintaining Greatness.
Some would contend, certainly in his latter years, that it’s a case of “greatness tarnished” – in spite of his contribution to “the greatest achievement of science in the 20th century” and a lifetime fighting the cause for good science.
This is because a conversation with Watson often returns the issue of race and what he perceives to be differences in intelligence.
While he says he rarely makes public statements any more, he adds: “I still can create unease among the politically correct . . . They are a little scared of me nowadays.”
Sometimes, it seems as if he simply relishes notoriety and assuming the role of the contrarian. In other instances, it appears that he believes there is evidence for his uncompromising verdicts.
Watson acknowledges that he has been accused of being anti-Semitic, which he strongly denies. But he stands over his view: “Israel is not the country it was 30 years ago.”
He recounts his family history and his closeness to his father, also James D Watson, and also a man of strong views.
“We were not racists,” he concludes emphatically.
Clearly his father was a most important figure in his life, especially as he never had a close friend of his own age when going to school.
Books as inspiration
“My education was by reading books, not by meeting interesting people.”
Books fuelled his wish to move toward greatness.
“I had first got that bug from the ‘great books’, for example War and Peace and The Wealth of Nations,” as a student, he says. Looking back on his career, Watson relishes his role as both scientist and writer.
His first book, The Double Helix was noted for its thriller-like style and almost racy account of the 1953 DNA breakthrough. He acknowledges that having robust views, reflected throughout the book, is one of his best qualities.
His first book, The Double Helix was noted for its thriller-like style and almost racy account of the 1953 DNA breakthrough
Asked if it’s also one of his worst traits, he responds: “Occasionally, it gets me in trouble . . . but it’s saying the truth.”
Some 65 years later, he notes scientists “still move fast and furious in seeking out fundamental biological truths”.
He is confident more discovery beckons as “we’re going to cure over the next decade or two many, many nasty genetic diseases. We have a right to be a little arrogant as long as we convey it in a humane way.”
Watson was in Dublin this week for a gathering of some of the world’s leading scientists in honour of What is Life?, a “little book” written by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1944 while working at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
The book prompted a revolution in molecular biology that has lasted for the past 75 years. Speakers were asked to consider the future of biology, and of life itself, in much the same way that Schrödinger foresaw life’s building block, the gene.
The book was “game-changing”. It quickly became obvious to him it was a possible step to greatness, as evidence was emerging that the gene was a physical entity – a sequence of DNA – and the race was on to determine its structure.
“That the essence of DNA came in less than 1½ years after I came to Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, in the early fall of 1951, was more than wonderful,” he recalled at that birthday celebration at his beloved Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island in New York.
His close personal friendship with colleague Francis Crick was the most important catalyst, though he was not without flaw, especially in “believing himself over everybody else”.
“Within a day of our first meeting, I saw the then 35-year-old Francis Crick as extraordinary, not only through his brains but in his basic kindness, later always warmly treating me like a younger brother that had to be looked after.”
As for Schrödinger, he is “forever grateful to Dev” for bringing him to Ireland. Watson sat through most presentations at the Schrödinger at 75 event, where the central role DNA played in leading to a greater understanding of biology and medicine was frequently cited.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable manifestations of that was an account of the ability to edit genes with precision using technology given by Prof Feng Zhang of MIT. Watson acknowledges its significance, and predicts it will warrant five Nobel Prizes given the input of scientists all over the world.
When Watson moved to Cold Spring Harbor in 1968, he shifted its focus from bacterial genetics to cancer viruses. Big breakthroughs resulted from researchers under his direction. But he points to unfinished business.
“Further greatness in cancer research will likely only come through the development of drugs that give lifetime cures for the vast majority of its victims.”
Numbers of people dying from cancer are the same as when Schrödinger lived, he notes, “because chemotherapy does not work” though it extends your life.
“Cleverly crafted immunologicals” (drugs) are available but they were likely to remain much too expensive for the vast majority of people, he says. What must be developed are “inherently inexpensive small molecules that individually kill multiple, if not most, major cancers”.
Watson believes such drugs are realisable but currently it’s a “30 per cent chance”. Fundamentally, the critical positive is that “the underlying biochemistry of the cancer cell is different enough” so that it’s possible to kill it without damaging ordinary cells.
The critical positive is that 'the underlying biochemistry of the cancer cell is different enough' so it’s possible to kill it without damaging ordinary cells
He speculates that China, with its vast population, may lead the world in achieving greatness on this front. The life-long cure “would be the biggest victory”, especially as cancer hits so many young people. He will remain active in the cancer fight and in helping to raise funds for research “as long as my brain remains functional”.
Trump and dishonesty
Watson does not want to say much about US president Donald Trump other than: “He doesn’t seem to have a single, likeable quality – except his money, and he got that from his father.”
He adds: “Is he talented in some way? Of course.”
Has he been good for America? “No. He is so dishonest.
“The US is in worse shape than 40-50 years ago . . . The Republican Party was ‘the reasonable party’ and [back then] business had to reflect reality,” he submits – in contrast to the “awful dumbness” evident today.
The US is in worse shape than 40-50 years ago
Has Trump been good for science? “Not at all.” He has not increased funding but more fundamentally “he denies the truth”, which Watson agrees applies to scientific evidence including proof of climate change.
“There is great advantage from people saying the truth, because then we can move ahead; when we know something is true. I believe in basic truth.”
Controversially, he supports restricted immigration to the US, yet he does not believe such restrictions should apply in the case of the best scientists who move across borders in the course of their research careers.
Watson has regularly visited Ireland and supported scientific endeavour here. “My DNA say 53 per cent Irish,” he says, acknowledging Gleeson, Dewey and O’Malley blood in his lineage. He knew Ireland had great writers, but he “never thought the Irish were intelligent” until the “new Ireland” emerged on the world scene in recent decades.
As for big regrets in life, he wishes he could have helped his mother, Jean, more. She had a damaged heart and could not walk upstairs without great difficulty.
“I can still walk upstairs!” he adds triumphantly.
He has “no regrets” relating to science. Far from it, separate to the satisfaction of finding the “more than extraordinary significance of DNA”, he recalls his time in Harvard as “15 years of good life”, helped by having “the brightest lab in the US”, though some of his opponents elsewhere, notably at Stanford, “may have had more ‘home runs’.”
The origin of life is too difficult a scientific problem for him, he says.
“I don’t believe in God. I have to see some evidence.”
He adds that Jesus existed and commends the values of Christian society as it “cares for the people at the bottom”.
Past beliefs that we all individually have been created by God now are convincingly ruled out by Darwinian evolution, he adds.
“No longer believing in heaven or hell, however, should in no way make us less moral. I shall always strongly prefer the good over the bad because of my genes-determined human nature. Likeable human voices and smiles always will remain at the heart of our humanity,” he declared at the party.
To his mind the teachings of Jesus “still remain the best religious expression of our several-hundred-thousand-years-ago-evolved human nature”.