Contrary to what Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe predicted in her interview published in the Sunday Times (The elementary DNA of Dr Watson), James Watson did not “enthusiastically counter the inevitable criticisms” that arose from his unacceptable comments on racial differences in intelligence. After being suspended, he apologized and finally resigned yesterday as Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (Watson’s statement).
It is striking to observe that these very sad events occur in the current context of a literal explosion of studies in human genetics and genomics. Thus, it is only a few months ago that Watson’s and Venters’ personal genome sequences have been released, while an uninterrupted stream of new genome-wide association studies are being published. If we just consider some of the papers that appeared in Nature and Nature Genetics the last few weeks, we see an impressive concentration of genome-wide studies on human genetic variation, addressing the genetic basis of highly visible phenotypes like skin, eye, and hair color, the impact of geographical location, revealing evidence of positive selection and analyzing heritability of gene expression in human populations:
- Genetic determinants of hair, eye and skin pigmentation in Europeans.
- Population genomics of human gene expression.
- A genome-wide association study of global gene expression.
- Discovery of expression QTLs using large-scale transcriptional profiling in human lymphocytes.
- A second generation human haplotype map of over 3.1 million SNPs.
- Genome-wide detection and characterization of positive selection in human populations.
- The NCBI dbGaP database of genotypes and phenotypes.
The extraordinary development of the field of human genomics will inevitably lead to important questions on the social and ethical implications of this research. If anything, “”http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/449948a">Watson’s folly" might be a warning that we may expect to see in the future more confrontations between racist ideologies and scientific discoveries. Beyond the issues surrounding ethnicity, one can also anticipate that tense debates will arise as how to define the line that separates “patient stratification” from mere genetic “discrimination” of human beings.
A cardinal value in Science, perhaps even above openness, is the ability of critical reasoning. This implies rigor and depth with very little place for unsubstantiated provocations. In this regard, I disagree with PZ Myers (Pharyngula), when he writes that the prompt decision of CSHL to suspend Watson appears as a “declaration that their director must be an inoffensive, mealy-mouthed mumbler who never challenges (even stupidly)”. I do hope that there is an alternative to inoffensiveness but debates on these very sensitive issues and at this level of responsibility and visibility require the highest scientific and ethical standards, and we should definitely expect much more from our prestigious leaders than being “challenging” just by making outrageous statements…
Note: publication of this post was unfortunately delayed due to technical problems
(Illustration drawn after http://www.nlm.nih.gov/visibleproofs/media/detailed/vi_a_206.jpg)