Lecturing to an overflowing audience at a genetics and genomics symposium in Harvard’s Geological Museum Lecture Hall Friday, Dr. James D. Watson advocated preventative genetic testing as a means of individually-based eugenics in one of the most heated speeches of the day.
Watson, whose son suffers from schizophrenia, said that genetic testing should be available and used orderly to ensure better public health. Although medicinal research into the treatments of genetic diseases is progressing, Watson said he advocates measures to lower the number of families who are affected by these ailments.
“I like to believe that we could find the right drug,” said Watson, who was part of the team that discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. “But my son can’t take care of himself...[we should] fight against genetic injustice.”
Watson advocated specific genetic testing on an individual level, so that people considering having children will know the potential for genetic disorders in their offspring, referring as an example to the possibility that children of two intellectual mathematicians have a higher probability of being autistic.
Yet even with such a heavy subject matter, Watson, known for his shrewd humor, tried to lighten the mood.
One has to consider, Watson half-joked, “Do MIT people have a higher risk?”
While he did not advocate policies akin to the notorious societal eugenics of the World War II-era, Watson recommended a careful consideration by all potential parents before producing a child with a life-long genetic ailment.
Watson’s controversial statements provoked some heated responses among attendees.
Rob J. Kulathinal, a post-doctoral student in evolutionary genetics, said he found Watson’s speech “very provocative.”
He commented that there may have been several problems with Watson’s approach.
“He never talked about the effects of the environment,” Kulathinal said, adding that it is possible for one’s chromosomes to tell a bleaker story then narrated.
Jamila Newton, one of the organizers of the symposium and a second-year graduate student in Harvard’s Genetics and Genomics Training Program (GGTP), said that although genetic testing provides benefits to research for prevention and treatment, preventative eugenics shouldn’t be the foremost focus of the scientific community.
Once it becomes commonplace for an individual to be genetically tested, Newton said, the personal decision-making that Watson advocates will eventually be supplanted by insurance and societal policies.
“The best move is none at all,” Newton said.
GGTP student Matt J. Hegreness said that he thought Watson’s ideas were a “voluntary, benign form of eugenics.”
“It is something worth considering,” Hegreness said.
GGTP student Ilan N. Wapinski said that Watson’s personal experience gives him a different perspective on the issue.
“He’s more realistic,” Wapinski said. ”When you decide on what measures to take, in the end it’s the family that decides.”
The third annual symposium was organized by second-year GGTP graduate students and included speeches from five other researchers on the topic.