Not so much a defense of Watson as an indictment of modern biology

An interesting post on The Trouble with Jim Watson. Watson and biology are victims of a successful paradigm — you could still argue that that paradigm is partly Watson’s fault! — and you can’t really kick Watson unless you also take a few swings at how molecular genetics has produced a skewed, simplistic, and deterministic view of how life operates.

The trouble with Watson, then, is not how aberrant he is, but how conventional. He is no more—but no less—than an embodiment of late twentieth-century biomedicine. He exemplifies how a near-exclusive focus on the genetic basis of human behavior and social problems tends to sclerose them into a biologically determinist status quo. How that process occurs seems to me eminently worth observing and thinking about. Watson is an enigmatic character. He has managed his image carefully, if not always shrewdly. It is impossible to know what he “really thinks” on most issues, but I do believe this much: he believes that his main sin has been excessive honesty. He thinks he is simply saying what most people are afraid to say.

Unfortunately, he may be right.

I think I disagree that he has “managed his image carefully” — I don’t think he’s had to do much managing at all, but trusts that he can blunder about gracelessly and his respectful peers and a hero-worshipping media will do the work of covering for him.

But otherwise, yes. The press loves a good “gene for X” story, and there are plenty of scientists willing to serve that right up for them…and of course, you can also get funded by proposing to search for causal genes (although I think most scientists are a little more skeptical than the media). The science establishment will let the ENCODE project sail through, powered with shovelfuls of money, and not question it because it serves the gene-centric perspective so well, even if it is fundamentally flawed.

The scary thing is that while Watson’s career will be neatly wrapped up as he sinks into retirement, I don’t see any sign that the genetic reductionist view is going to retire with him.