Watson Says Law Cannot Handle Genetic Engineering
In a speech to a capacity crowd, Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson, called for legislators to stay out of genetic engineering-- - and to leave the ethical dilemmas to women.
'Trust women, they'll look after themselves," he said.
Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, spoke yesterday to about 1,000 students in the Science Center, with just as many watching on simulcast from nearby overflow rooms.
The hour-long speech was the first of nine seminars sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. and the new Harvard Center for Genomics Research (CGR).
Director of the CGR Dari Shalon introduced Watson by saying that the center plans to "carry forward the revolution that James Watson started."
In introductory remarks, Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine said, "The new center...represents an absolutely major, crucial University priority." He promised that there would be "no break in stride" as Harvard builds the new center.
"The resources will be found... The main job will simply to attract the best students, faculty and staff to carry out the progress and our teaching at the very highest level," Rudenstine said.
Watson began his speech with an account of his most famous accomplishment, the discovery of the double helical structure of the DNA molecule.
Looking back on his achievement, he seemed frustrated that he and partner Francis Crick did not discover DNA's structure earlier. "There was no reason, [we didn't find it earlier]. We were incompetent," he said.
Watson, who joined Harvard's Faculty in 1956, said he considers his time at Harvard a success.
"The real reason I came here was to find a wife. I got one," he joked. "I always wanted to marry a student, and I did."
"I was looking for good genes," he quipped.
The speech's main focus was on the future of genetics, and its impact on society. In particular, he called for governments to stay out of legislating genetic engineering.
"Law cannot handle [genetic engineering]...I'd even stay away from laws about cloning," he said.
Watson said he believes that debate over legislating genetics is wasted effort. "The real dilemma is the disease," he said. If geneticists can cure a disease, Watson indicated, they should be able to do so.
Watson's attack on politicians was non-partisan, as he criticized both ends of the political spectrum for interfering in genetics.
He blamed the left-wing for holding up genetic research at Harvard for many years and singled out "people like Pat Buchanan" for blocking prenatal screening that might prevent birth defects.
Watson spoke at length about how prenatal screening needs a champion, even challenging University Health Services to offer prenatal genetic screening of students. "If there is any good from this talk, Harvard University will screen their women," he challenged. "Someone should lead."
The only instance in which laws and genetics should intersect, Watson said, is to stop individuals from using another's DNA. In his opinion, he said, employers and insurance companies should never have access to a person's DNA.
"We don't want someone else to be looking at our DNA... No one should be able to do that," he said.
Watson said, only half-in-jest, that when he was putting together an ethics committee to look into cloning, that he wanted a woman in charge. "Women essentially like babies, men try to avoid them," Watson said.
"If a woman wants to control the sex of her next child...let her! What's wrong with that? Who is harmed?" Watson asked.
Many Harvard students were angered by what they viewed as sexist comments by the Nobel laureate.
"As a female, I'm glad that he sees that a woman has a right to control her own body," said Renee J. Gasgarin '03. "But, as a person struggling for equality, I don't like that he cast me purely as a mother role, like fathers don't have anything to do with it."
Selin Tuysozoglu '03 agreed, saying, "I don't think it is as black and white as [Watson says]."
Fiery A. Cushman '03 said he was not disappointed with the speech. "Just seeing James Watson is enough," he said.
Watson finished his speech by challenging geneticists to "always keep trying to improve the quality of human life."
As he left the packed auditorium, Rudenstine began a standing ovation for the 71-year-old scientist.
Watson stopped at one point to offer advice to his audience.
"Never be the brightest person in the room," he said. "If you are...no one will help you. Always go places where people are brighter," he proffered before pausing. "That's why people go to Harvard, right?"