Tom Abate / SF Chronicle 13nov00Nobel laureate James Watson, whose co-discovery of DNA revolutionized the field of genetics, has provoked a scientific controversy by suggesting there are biochemical links between skin color and sexual activity and between thinness and ambition.
Watson advanced his thesis during a guest lecture at the University of California at Berkeley last month, prompting several faculty members to brand his remarks as racist, sexist and unsupported by any scientific data.
Witnesses were flabbergasted when the 72-year-old discoverer of the double helix suggested there was a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges. ``That's why you have Latin lovers,'' Watson said. ``You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.''
In a lecture hall jammed with more than 200 Berkeley students and faculty members, Watson showed a slide of sad-faced model Kate Moss to support his contention that thin people are unhappy and therefore more ambitious.
``Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them,'' Watson said.
Even those who chalked up Watson's remarks to his penchant for deliberately stirring things up were concerned that hearing such views expressed by a Nobel laureate would fuel irresponsible speculation about how genes might influence behavior.
``Doesn't a guy like Jim Watson have the responsibility to make this not ugly?'' asked UC Berkeley biologist Michael Botchan, a Watson protege. ``Yes. But I cannot tell Jim Watson to change his ways.''
Watson, who shared a Nobel Prize for his role in figuring out the structure of DNA in 1953, and who launched the Human Genome Project in 1990, declined to answer questions about his lecture.
However, a spokesman at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institute on Long Island where Watson serves as president, confirmed the gist of his remarks and said Watson has voiced similar sentiments at other scientific gatherings.
Berkeley biology professor Susan Marqusee walked out about a third of the way through Watson's hourlong lecture, titled ``The Pursuit of Happiness: Lessons from pom-C.''
CLAIMS UNSUPPORTED BY DATA``I was kind of in shock most of the time,'' Marqusee said. ``He took a lot of what I consider sexist and racist stereotypes and claimed a biochemical basis without presenting any data.''
Botchan, who presided over the session, said Watson was merely trying to call attention to a protein (pom-C) that helps create several different hormones: One determines skin color (melanin); another enhances a sense of well-being (beta endorphins); and the third plays a role in fat metabolism (leptin).
Botchan said Watson was wondering out loud why evolution had linked these hormones, and whether the interrelationship of these mood and behavior-influencing compounds might be affected by exposure to sunlight.
Unfortunately, said Botchan, Watson advanced his hypothesis with ``comments that were crude and sexist and potentially racist.'' But Botchan, who did post-graduate work under Watson, said he doesn't think the Nobel laureate is racist or sexist, merely insensitive.
``Jim says startling things,'' he said. ``He is a person who tends to shock people.''
For instance, Botchan said, Watson once suggested Japan should be bombed for dragging its feet on supporting the Human Genome Project.
Berkeley genetics professor Thomas Cline said Watson's lecture ``crossed over the line'' from being provocative to being irresponsible because the senior scientist failed to separate fact from conjecture.
``If he wants to give a talk like this in his living room, that's his business, but to give it in a setting where it's supposed to be scientific is wrong,'' Cline said, adding that listening to Watson at the podium was ``more embarrassing than having a creation scientist up there.''
GRADUATE STUDENTS UPSETThe controversial talk was profoundly disturbing to some graduate students in Berkeley's molecular biology department, who ultimately brought Watson's comments into the public spotlight.
``I found it really offensive,'' said Sarah Tegen, one of several graduate students who recounted Watson's remarks.
She said Watson happened to be in Berkeley when the department needed a speaker for a regular scientific seminar. The lecture hall, which seats around 200 people, filled to overflowing as word spread that Watson, one of the founders of modern biology, would speak.
Watson, who has a reputation as an engaging lecturer, started off describing an experiment by scientists at the University of Arizona, who injected male patients with an extract of melanin. They intended to test whether they could chemically darken the men's skin as a skin cancer protection, only to observe an unusual side effect -- the men developed sustained and unprovoked erections.
``He said this (melanin injection) is even better than Viagra because you don't even have to think about sex,'' Tegen recalled.
``Then he launched into this whole thing about the sun and sexual drive,'' added Berkeley graduate student Jill Fuss. She said Watson showed slides of women in bikinis and contrasted them to veiled Muslim women, to suggest that controlling exposure to sun may suppress sexual desire and vice versa.
Watson reportedly went on to suggest that people who live in northern climates drink more alcohol to compensate for the unhappiness they suffer because of sunlight deprivation. Then he delved into what he presented as the bad news, good news aspects of being fat, the students said. The bad news, said Watson, is that thin people are more ambitious and therefore make better workers. On the other hand, fat people may be more sexual, Watson told the assembly, because their bloodstreams contain higher levels of leptin, one of the hormones derived from pom-C. He used a slide of a Reubens painting to illustrate the assertion.
Tegen was offended by Watson's repeated references to women. ``To be a woman in science is difficult enough as it is without one of your own demeaning women,'' she said.
Jeffrey Friedman, a molecular geneticist at Rockefeller University and a leading authority on leptin and obesity, had this reaction when presented with a distilled version of Watson's remarks: ``People can speculate about anything they want,'' he said. ``But I know of no data linking differences in weight to any particular set of personality differences.''
OTHER LAUREATES TARNISHEDIf Watson's theories are judged as being beyond the scientific pale, he would not be the first Nobel laureate to fall from grace after winning the highest honor in science.
Now-deceased Stanford University professor William Shockley, who shared a Nobel for inventing the transistor, was ostracized during his lifetime for calling certain races genetically inferior, and for suggesting that people with IQs under 100 be paid bonuses if they agreed to be sterilized.
Former biotech scientist Kary Mullis, who won a Nobel for inventing a process to multiply DNA samples, was marginalized after he lent his name to several dubious causes, including the discredited notion that HIV is not the cause of AIDS.
No matter how history judges Watson's emerging views on pom-C, his fame guarantees a broad audience for his views, however politically unsettling or scientifically unsound they may be.
Berkeley biology professor Caroline Kane, who did not attend Watson's talk, said she was disappointed that ``a figure who looms so large in the science of the late 20th century'' would take such a provocative stance in the absence of the precise data that is the hallmark of good science.
``Sometimes, Nobel laureates are asked to give their opinions on areas where they should keep their mouths shut,'' Kane said. ``Unfortunately, Jim just likes to talk.''