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WASHINGTON — “The only people who can bring about miracles, who can really make the lame walk, are scientists,” proclaimed James Watson, 75, the renowned Nobel Laureate, who, with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA.
This story first appeared in the April 23, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Given his role in history, it’s not surprising that Watson has plenty to say regarding genes, biology and all the newest gene-based medical discoveries. He can talk at length about the quest for drugs to stop binge eating, eradicate blindness caused by diabetes and to enhance memory. But these days, Watson is equally outspoken about the growing power of organized religion.
“My friends — but you know, we’re in the minority — are genuinely frightened by the fact that President Bush may actually believe in God, that God is on his side. It’s a simplistic view of life,’’ observed Watson, who was in town last week for the National Institute of Health’s gala at the Library of Congress to celebrate the completion of the Human Genome Project, which he initiated in 1990, and to mark the 50th anniversary of his co-discovery of the double helix.
“It’s almost gotten to the point where we have to say religion is harming us. If religion is used in ways to keep parents from knowing whether their child will be born genetically damaged, I think that’s harmful to those individuals.’’
Watson also worries about President Bush’s views questioning the merits of Charles Darwin’s contribution to science. “He says the evidence is still out on evolution. Some people say this indicates he has a very open mind. I would say it does not inspire confidence,’’ said the former television quiz kid who entered the University of Chicago at age 15 and received his Ph.D. at age 20.
On the role of miracles, Watson said, “I always thought one way the Catholic Church could modernize itself was to make saints out of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Prayer won’t save Christopher Reeves. What he hopes for is a new scientific discovery. There is no god who’s going to make you walk, but you might take a pill that lessens your rheumatoid arthritis so that suddenly you’re out of the wheelchair and you’re walking.’’
Such pronouncements have made the Nobel Laureate and president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory too unpredictably brash for some unscripted television interviewers who have to worry about offending sponsors. As one TV personality on hand for the Library of Congress gala put it, “I always wanted to interview him, but I hear he’s kind of a nut.’’
Watson is no nut. Rather, his belief that political correctness makes for bad science goads him into making all kinds of potentially offensive observations. For example, at a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley in 2000, he argued that plump black people were predisposed to greater sexual arousal than say, skinny, white people because of hormones associated with skin color and weight gain.
Now, over a light dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel of asparagus, oysters on the half shell and a bottle of Sancerre, he appears on safer ground regarding the subject of human cloning.
“Most products of cloning now are not perfectly healthy. So it would be irresponsible to let a child be born as a clone in the same sense you would say it’s irresponsible for a woman to drink heavily during pregnancy,’’ Watson began. But then he offered one case for “why people might want to do it: Because you can’t have your own child and you want a child to look like you rather than adopt someone from South America who will sort of stick out. You could say it doesn’t matter what you look like, but I suspect it does. People say it doesn’t matter whether you’re good looking, but,’’ Watson’s blue eyes twinkled as his voice dropped to an impish whisper, “it does.’’
As for his own looks, he admits to a dash of vanity. “I never liked the bags under my eyes,’’ Watson said, offering the fact that, four years ago, a plastic surgeon friend gave him a free tuck.
Just back from celebrating his 75th birthday at the Ritz in Paris with his wife, Liz, who he met when he interviewed her to be his administrative assistant, Watson sounds very much like an incurable romantic. He loves Evelyn Waugh’s book, “Brideshead Revisited,’’ fine wines and great art. Last summer, to his profound delight, David Hockney asked him to pose for a portrait, which he later bought from Anthony Juda, Hockney’s London dealer. He also likes beautiful women, like Deeda Blair, a longtime friend who organized last week’s Library of Congress gala and symposiums to mark the historic occasions.
But even when he talks of love, he likes to strike sparks.
“I live in this world where no one is surprised at all by much of what I say, but you don’t have to move very far away,’’ Watson conceded. “I was in France recently when I realized the person I was talking to actually believed in God. I was saying love doesn’t come from God. It’s a product of our genes. He worked for a pharmaceutical company, and I could see this was a way of thinking he would not accept.’’
Watson does not underestimate the power of his observations to generate a kickback. “On religious fundamentalism, the real enemy is not DNA. It’s Darwin, because he says the Bible is not literally true. He really changed things,’’ Watson offered. “So if someone asks me whether I’m Christian, I say yes, culturally. But in reality I’d have to say I am Darwinian, because the first person who got it right was Darwin.’’
Looking back on the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, he explained, “Francis [Crick] and I were united when we met because we wanted to find the essence of life in molecules as distinct from God. There was nothing more than molecules to life and, of course, a long evolutionary history.
“I like seeing new and creative things. To achieve this, you have to have the ability to be different, and that’s going to upset some people,’’ Watson said, admitting that, as a child, he “was out of kilter because I never tried to please my classmates. Trying to be popular, that’s terrible for kids.’’