“My thoughts are aggressive”

19 May 2003

James Watson
(Picture: Associated Press)

Professor Horst Klump of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology has obtained permission from the German publication, Der Spiegel, to reprint extracts from a recent interview with Professor James Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA 50 years ago, at the age of only 24, in what has been dubbed the discovery of the century. (Translation courtesy of Prof Klump.)

This is what he had to say of the discovery of the double helix:

Spiegel: What would have happened had you not found the double helix?

Watson: Then somebody else would have found it; within a year or so, I am sure.

Spiegel: What would have happened to you?

Watson: I would have some unimportant job somewhere. It was this discovery that gave me the good job at Harvard. What else could have happened to me? I wasn't such a pleasant guy to have around. I was a nerd. But after the discovery of the double helix, there was no way around me.

Spiegel: You made the discovery of the century when you were 24 years old. Is it necessary to be that young to start a scientific revolution?

Watson: It helps. You have no responsibilities. When you are young you have no fear of failure. When you are 40 and have two kids, that's a different story.

Spiegel: But it does not mean that the brain of an older person is lazier than that of a younger one? Watson: I thought so when I was younger, but now as an older person I do not think so.

Spiegel: It is always said that the young are braver in their thinking ...

Watson: ... they most probably think differently. When you are young you are likely to do something nobody has done before.

... of the human genome:

Spiegel: A privilege of the young is to experience the consequences of one's discovery. Not only did you understand the structure of the double helix but you were also present when almost 50 years later researchers presented the unravelling of the human genome. Does this change the way we think about ourselves? Would it help you in any way to know your own genome?

Watson: Some of the aspects would make me curious, for example, I eat very fast. I would really like to know: could I have been a slower eater? Or, take the gene for mono amino oxidase, a protein that acts on the brain and that is somehow linked to aggression.

Spiegel: You want to know whether you are born with a certain level of aggression?

Watson: Yes. I am convinced that I was born aggressive, not aggressive in actions but my words and thoughts are aggressive.

Spiegel: But you know about your aggression. How does it help you to know that there is a gene that makes you aggressive?

Watson: I would like to know where this aggression comes from. It could tell me whether I had a choice.

Spiegel: That means your genome did not allow you a choice?

Watson: I do not want to go that far. But one would like to know how much freedom one has to choose. Some people run fast, others don't. The difference is hidden in the genes. You can practise. But without the right genes you will not succeed in becoming a first rate marathon runner.

Spiegel: How much will the knowledge of the genome change the world? And how much does it change the way we should think about ourselves?

Watson: Up to now it was like opening a book we could not read. It will take another 500 years before we understand it.

Spiegel: And the frequently discussed gene therapy to cure inheritable diseases, nothing but fantasy?

Watson: If you want to prevent inheritable diseases you have to abort pregnancies and not fiddle with the DNA. This is true today and will be true in the future.

Spiegel: Some researchers have already announced that man will now control his evolution.

Watson: I certainly would not mind. For example, I have problems with my skin. If I could spare my kids the same trouble why should I hesitate? Everybody knows the Irish have to be improved.

... of ethical concerns:

Spiegel: You would have no ethical concerns about improving humanity's genes?

Watson: The only argument that counts is avoidance of pain. It is not funny to be born as diverse as we are. All we can do to improve our fate should be done. You see, we gene researchers are loaded with Hitler's curse, he who killed children to reach the goal of a perfect human being. Is it only because Hitler was an evil person that we should not be allowed to improve our genetic makeup?

Spiegel: Is there any ethical concern that you would accept?

Watson: There are too many people that judge genetics from the point of religion. I do not believe that God created us. We are creations of evolution. And evolution can be very cruel. All we can do to avoid this cruelty should be done.

Spiegel: But you were one of those who pleaded for more research to accompany the genome project.

Watson: The actual ethical problem of gene research is that we do not transfer our knowledge fast enough to improve the happiness of humans- and this all because people talk about religion, God and the sacred life.

Spiegel: And besides Christian faith you think all statements that human life is sacred...

Watson: ... is nonsense, Yes.

Spiegel: What is the basis of this?

Watson: Let us not say nonsense. What I want to say is: I believe in observation and experimentation. I do not want to offend the religious community. Its' more like an attack on me, that religion is pitched against genetics. This has to be rejected.

Spiegel: Once again: on what do we base our respect for human life? Does biology give us something like natural ethics or morality?

Watson: Yes, I believe in human nature. It is the basis of a natural morality and this morality is not fundamentally different from the morality of a religious person. From the beginning humans are equipped with the potential for empathy, to feel for other humans. Like anger and rage, compassion and love are also part of our make-up. These qualities are built into our genes. Christians believe that love is the biggest gift God gave to humans. And in principle this is correct. Our potential to sympathise with other humans is the basis of all social order. We are able to love because evolution made us into social creatures.

Spiegel: Could we find human rights in our genes?

Watson: I do not believe in human rights. I believe in human duties and responsibility. What should human rights look like? Where should these come from? We surely have no right to health or nutrition. We could wish for it, and we could need it. But to have a right to something means earning it. Rights can only originate from interaction between humans. In contrast to this it is assumed human rights come from God, not alterable but absolute. But this is not correct. Rights are by no means part of human nature.

Spiegel: According to nature, life is exclusively and eternally a battle.

Watson: Correct. That's what it is, a battle.

Spiegel: And your life? Has this also been a permanent battle?

Watson: Certainly. Perhaps not quite so when I have a good meal in front of me.

Spiegel: Does this continuous battle make one happy?

Watson: No. It creates anxiety, big anxiety.

Spiegel: And it does not create happiness?

Watson: Of course, if you win. Happiness is the reward for success. The few moments of happiness must be paid for with many moments of anxiety. This is also true in science. One is happy if you understand something. After the discovery of the DNA structure we were happy. But not for long. Then it became clear. We would only be happy again if we understood RNA.

... of scientific progress:

Spiegel: Scientific progress is continuing unhappiness, interrupted by a few moments of happiness? Watson: Let's say science is the continuous search for happiness.

Spiegel: What are you currently looking for? New happiness?

Watson: When I was at the White House after the announcement of the human genome I was asked by journalists: 'Why aren't you smiling?' I answered: 'We can't cure cancer yet.'

Spiegel: It is cancer more than any other disease that shows the shortcoming of genetics and molecular biology. How many times was a breakthrough promised? How many times was victory announced? And how many successes can molecular medicine present in its favour?

Watson: When it comes to our understanding, cancer is a success story. Now we have to turn our understanding into benefits for the patient.

Spiegel: But how long will this take? Will you still experience it?

Watson: Well, what kind of life expectancy will you allow me? Eight years? Ten years? Twelve years? I am seventy five.

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