Friday, January 18, 2019

Those Who Cannot Remember The Past

James Dewey Watson is 90 years old. The plot to remove honours from Watson and to taint his reputation has been simmering for decades. The same can be said of the other scientists who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology. Their elucidation of the structure of DNA was the greatest science achievement of the 20th Century.

When I was at school, the names were Watson, Crick and Wilkins. That trio was synonymous with the way science had become integrated from traditional biology, chemistry and physics. Towards the end of the 20th Century, New Zealand born Maurice Wilkins' name was dropped from that prestigious group. The structure of DNA became attributed to the work of Watson and Crick. Wilkins had been targeted in the move to discredit all three scientists because he was the X-ray crystallographer. The moves had always been to discredit the prizewinners for their alleged use or misuse of data obtained by the X-ray chrystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, who was seen as a rival to Wilkins.

There was always controversy surrounding Franklin's ability to work with Watson, Crick and Wilkins and the contribution that she had undoubtedly made to the work of that team. There was also controversy over who should have been given the most credit for crystallographic studies that contributed to the elucidation of the structure of DNA in 1953, Franklin or Wilkins. However, Franklin died some years before the Nobel Prize was awarded for the work on DNA, so there was no way that she could have been given recognition through such an award. Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously.

A considerable and accumulating lobby against the famous scientists was made by feminist groups over the years and they used a range of reasons for their campaigns. Latterly, their thrust was of the lack of science honours awarded to women. Rosalind Franklin was featured several times as an example of a female scientist who missed out, notably with reference to the Nobel Prize that was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins after her death.

The momentum for castigation against Watson increased substantially after he was questioned for his controversial opinion of average IQ related to Africans who were native to Africa, which he made known in 2007 – and a new reason for castigation was found. By that time Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins had died, both in 2004.

James Watson was the last remaining part of the target that was DNA Nobel Prize winners. He has now been hit a bullseye with the ultimate condemnation. He has been stripped of all his academic honours including his Nobel Prize award.

The popular narrative holds that there is no difference between the average IQ of individual races. I don't believe that Watson was stating anything other than the truth when he voiced his opinion about race and IQ, an opinion based on hard core evidence obtained from many studies by different researchers. His attitude was certainly not racist, no more than that of Albert Einstein who has been castigated recently for notes he scribbled in his own private holiday diary, over 100 years ago, on aspects of Chinese culture that he disliked.

Watson's recent castigation is uncannily similar to that of Galileo's in the 17th Century. Galileo was undoubtedly a brilliant scientist who was maligned by those who defended popular narratives at the time and sought to castigate him for his beliefs that differed from those narratives.

In the words of George Santayana,

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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