No Restrictions on Genetic Research
American biologist James Watson, 77, took part in one of the greatest scientific revolutions. Paternity tests, transgenics, cloning—none of them would have been possible without the discovery made in 1953 by him and his partner, Francis Crick (who died last year). The duo unveiled the structure of DNA, the molecule containing the information of the genetic code. Dr. Watson now heads the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. He was interviewed there recently by Jeronimo Teixeira of the Brazilian weekly Veja.
NPQ | In 1953, you and your partner, Francis Crick, announced the discovery of the DNA structure, in a one-page article. Considering the importance of the finding, the text may be one of the most restrained in the history of science. Why such modesty?
James Watson | Because we could not foresee the future. When we wrote that essay, Crick and I believed we were contributing for a better understanding of reality. We did not know that, in fact, we were contributing to transform it. This transformation started to occur 20 years later, when scientists Herb Boyer and Stanley Cohen invented a technique that enabled the manipulation of the DNA molecule and inaugurated the era of genetic engineering. They gave a practical use to our discovery and, from that point on, things speeded up.
NPQ | What innovations can we expect from genetics in the years to come?
Watson | I would say that in 10 years almost all crops will be genetically modified. In the area of medical research, in which I work, I would emphasize progress in two directions. In the treatment of cancer, we are stepping forward to make DNA biopsies, in which we will examine the tumor in order to verify what kinds of genetic alterations are taking place. With this, we will have better treatments, with drugs that kill the cancerous cells that suffered a specific mutation in their genes.
I have hopes that some 25 years from now, cancer will no longer be considered a serious disease. We will know its causes, and we will be able to fight it. On the other hand, I believe that we will soon start to find the genes that are responsible for a series of mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism.
NPQ | The genetic understanding of mental disorders would then be a frontier that must still be crossed by genetics?
Watson | Yes, I believe so. Our laboratory is even building a new aisle that will be dedicated to the research of schizophrenia. This is a good topic for science today.
NPQ | You actually have a son with mental problems.
Watson | Yes, but I do not want to comment on this. He is able to read, and I do not want him to read anything about himself.
NPQ | The question is about yourself: To what extent did your son’s disease determine your interest for research in this area?
Watson | Of course there was an influence. But my son has been suffering from his disorder for a long time, and only recently have I dedicated myself to the research on the topic. During the last 40 years, I devoted myself to cancer research more. The fact is that, for a long time, we had no clues in the area of mental disorders. Now, I believe that the problem is within the reach of genetics, although not so clearly yet.
NPQ | You caused a lot of controversy when saying that stupidity could be treated as an illness. Could you explain your stance?
Watson | Many people believe that we are all alike and that, with a good education and good social conditions, everyone will learn in the same way. It is not so. Learning difficulty is not always a product of the environment. Some people are born with hindrances. There are illnesses related to infectious agents, to traumas during pregnancy, to bad genes; there can be different causes for the same final effect. No matter what the cause is, if your brain cannot work, let us say, with mathematics, it is not a normal brain. If you cannot add up two and two to make four, it is because something is not well.
We call schizophrenia a mental illness, and the same can apply to some very low IQs that are not functional. If a child cannot learn to read, I believe that this is an illness. Or, if the word “illness” is too strong, I would say that this person needs help. To call this an illness or not is not the main issue.
NPQ | What kind of help can genetics offer to these people?
Watson | It depends on the reasons of the problem. People with moderate dyslexia, for example, can read, but people who have a more severe form of this disorder will never learn to read. When someone suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and his memory dissolves itself, we have no problem in calling this a disease. The same can apply to a person who is not able to form memories. This may be the reason for some people’s stupidity: Maybe they are not able to retain certain memories due to some genetic defect. The fact that we call this a disease does not mean that nothing can be done about it. On the contrary, it means that we are looking for ways to help these people. And we are making some progress.
NPQ | A characteristic such as intelligence, which involves a complex of genes, may one day be manipulated?
Watson | We have no idea. Intelligence does involve a complex of genes. But you can lose it with a defect in only one of them. This is what happens, for example, in the syndrome of the fragile X: Due to a defect in one gene, the person will never progress beyond the intelligence of a 5-year-old child. At the moment, we do not have a cure for these conditions. Maybe one day we will have a genetic therapy to solve the problem, but I believe that, technically, it will be very difficult to insert a healthy gene in the brain of the victims of this syndrome. What science can offer, at the moment, is prevention. We can prevent the birth of children with serious mental problems.
NPQ | Do you consider it acceptable to abort babies who could be able to live, even with some deficiencies?
Watson | Some people think that abortion is irresponsible. In my point of view, what is irresponsible is allowing the birth of a child who will have a serious incurable disease. It is something that will cause unnecessary suffering. But this, of course, is an individual choice that belongs to the pregnant woman. Each one acts according to her values, and I do not want to steal from anyone the right to make her own decisions.
If, for example, your unborn child has Down’s syndrome, you may ask if there is any chance to cure him. As a scientist, I will answer that no, there is no chance today that this child will be normal. This is a scientific fact. How people will deal with it is another problem. Some will see the syndrome as being God’s will. I see it as a biological flaw: Instead of two pairs of the chromosome 21, there are three, and this will lead to the abnormality. I do not see the purpose of the birth of someone who will have a lesser, restricted life.
NPQ | What if, someday, we are able to predict if a fetus will be, let us say, homosexual? Would reasons like this be acceptable for an abortion?
Watson | Women must have the freedom to do what they consider best for their family. Women from different cultures and with different circumstances will have different conceptions. What is right for one of them may not be for the other. Genetic decisions must be made by the mothers or in agreement with their families. The state should not influence this in any way.
NPQ | Is there the need of some legal restriction to genetic research?
Watson | I would say no. I am very libertarian. If someone discovers one day that we can add a gene so that children can be born more intelligent, or more beautiful, or healthier—well, I do not see why not to do it. I do not believe that suffering does any good to a person. Some people say: “Christ suffered, therefore men also need to suffer.” I do not buy this argument. Today, we do not have the ability to improve humanity in this way. If someday we can, why not do it? Some people allege that this would favor the rich, but there is no novelty there.The rich always buy the new technologies before other people.
NPQ | Isn’t there always the risk of these technologies being used for racist ideologies?
Watson | Anything can be used for evil purposes, but this is not a reason to stop progress. It would be silly to limit genetic research because the racists can take hold of it. An epidemic caused by a virus or a bacteria can be a much greater threat than racism; it could even decimate the human race. Not long ago, we had the bird flu in Asia, which could fortunately be controlled. The Black Death, around 600 years ago, devastated the European population and left a recession that lasted for centuries. What if a new infection today decimated half of Africa’s or Latin America’s population? This would be terrible. Genetics can protect us from this peril if someday we have the ability to change the constitution of people so that they can become, for example, resistant to the HIV, which causes AIDS.
NPQ | Do you see any reasons to prohibit human cloning?
Watson | In 1972, when I realized for the first time that someday there would be the possibility of cloning a human being, I wrote an article about this. It was a premature text; nobody gave it the least attention. I do not like the idea of producing human copies. They have just cloned a dog, but this is still something difficult do to. If someday the technique becomes more accessible and most of humanity is made of clones, well, this would not be a world in which I would like to live. A single clone, however, will not change the world. It is not a nuclear weapon. And I am no longer interested in futuristic projections. Cloning should be the concern of a scientist who is around 20 years old. At my age, I am more concerned about the cure to Alzheimer’s disease.
NPQ | You are considered a creator of controversies. Do you see it that way?
Watson | Genetics will always be a controversial issue. Because people do not like to imagine that what they are is determined by DNA molecules. No woman likes to think that she was born ugly. “Well,” they say, “if I wear my hair in this manner, or if I wear better clothes.” She can do all this, of course. But the uncontestable fact is that some women got luckier in the game of genetic dice than others. The question is even more delicate when it comes to the brain—personality, intelligence, etc. People like to imagine that the brain is totally malleable, but it is not.
NPQ | Will we someday get to the end of the debate about which affects our personality more—genes or environment?
Watson | No. This discussion will always accompany us. Many people still insist on the fact that the way you are raised at home has more influence on what you are than your own nature. Some people even want to deny that there are innate differences among individuals. They say that, if someone has some deficiency, it is because they were the victims of poverty. I do not think that this is true, but I understand the motivation: It is natural that, when something is wrong, we try first to modify the environment in order to eliminate the problem. Modifying the genes is much more difficult. Genetics and evolution may be cruel, and some people have bad luck in this game.
NPQ | Where do you stand in this controversy between evolution and “intelligent design” by a higher being?
Watson | More than one century after Darwin, there is an impasse between science and religion—or, at least, between science and certain religions that are obsessed with the course of biology. They do not like the concept of evolution, although all biologists apply it because it is not about a mere theory but about a fact. The current controversy is about the wisdom of teaching at school the “intelligent design” side by side with evolutionism. This is mixing up science and belief. It is mixing up ideas that have an experimental basis with other ideas that have no basis at all. I do not think that this should happen.