The Seven Stones

The broken double helix


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:

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, “”">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

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  1. Report this comment

    jdwren said:

    All I hope is that researchers will be able to ask honest questions and present honest data without being tried by the media if their data just happens to support or weaken some political beliefs/tenets held by some group(s). It’s honestly so strange that people accept that genes control things like our skin/hair/eye color or average tibia length and don’t get offended when someone says that curly hair is more prevalent among some races than others, but even suggesting that anything neurological might vary as well by race is forbidden. It seems like a clear sociopolitical mark has been placed upon scientific research regarding what hypotheses are appropriate to form and what are not. If this “level of responsibility” you allude to basically means we can’t study such things because the results might be unflattering, then fine, life will go on without it. In the grand scheme of things it is a far less important question than, for example, what causes cancer. But we should just be honest about such priorities and when someone proposes a hypothesis about race & IQ, we shouldn’t beat them down as being “unscientific” or “nutjobs” – we should just say “postulating a difference offends my belief system and searching for one directly threatens it, so if you continue I will retaliate against you.”

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    Thomas said:

    jdwren: as a matter of fact, there are quite a few papers out there reporting genetic association studies on neurological diseases. Were the people who performed these studies really treated as “nutjobs”? I might be wrong, but I don’t think so. Good science is welcome and, indeed, researchers should be allowed to ask honest questions. But, precisely because some of these questions are sensitive, the “responsibility” I was alluding to requires scientific rigor and cannot tolerate provocations.

    That being said, is it really so “strange” that people are less offended by remarks on curly hair than on intelligence? I think it is quite intuitive why it is so.

    Understanding how scientific findings are perceived by the public—eg as potentially stigmatizing—and what are the potential social implications has little to do with science, but involves human, ethical, social etc… considerations. Perhaps it is precisely this conjunction of scientific and human qualities that we may have to cultivate a little more…

    see also:

    Tabor HK, Cho MK (2007) Ethical implications of array comparative genomic hybridization in complex phenotypes: points to consider in research. Genet Med. 9:626-31

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    Mr. Gunn said:

    Now that science is bestowed more and more often with the unwelcome attention of the media spotlight, scientists do have to consider what will be done with their research and how it might be misconstrued to serve the ends of various groups. We should also be aware that any statement can and will be misconstrued if it is even remotely capable of being sensationalized. Did you notice how everyone effortlessly, without even noticing it, replaces “not the same” with “not as good” in Watson’s comments? Given Watson’s previous history, one can be forgiven for assuming he must have meant something inflammatory, but let’s not forget that it is, in fact, an assumption and consider what it means for our own biases that the assumption went in the direction that it did.

    That said, if you deliberately provoke attention, even if you have the data to back up your claims, you deserve what you get.

    I think this is where editors play a particularly important role, insuring that good research doesn’t get stigmatized simply for its subject matter, but is presented in the proper context.

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    Dr Double Blind said:

    jdwren wrote "…and when someone proposes a hypothesis about race & IQ, we shouldn’t beat them down as being “unscientific” or “nutjobs” – we should just say “postulating a difference offends my belief system and searching for one directly threatens it, so if you continue I will retaliate against you.”

    Are you saying that Dr Watson’s comment are justified as a hypothesis? In that case then, shouldnt creationists and other people with a variety of opinions about issues of life (and whom we scientists dismiss as “unscientific”) be accorded room at our table? We must judge Watson’s comments on their scientific merit. And on this scale, there is no evidence. And secondly, we must also judge him on an ethical scale: in which case, his comments were potentially and indeed became inflammatory.

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    Ken Rubenstein said:

    Patient stratification is a bit of a misnomer. At best it generates a probability of disease risk that is never high enough to preclude a substantial probability that the disease phenotype will not manifest, or the disease staging or prognosis is not accurate. The word “may” is flung about with abandon in current genomic medicine. When word “is” appears more frequently, it may prove worthwhile for routine application. Until then we should stick to our research .

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