Ralph Brave

James Watson Wants to Build a Better Human

Did you have a nice DNA Day? And how was your Human Genome Month?

If you missed those Congressionally-designated celebrations last month due to minor distractions, like a war or being laid off from your job, don't worry: The media missed the real story anyway.

Many of the newspaper, radio and television accounts of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double helix, focused on the eccentric genius and baffling charm of co-discoverer James Watson. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, Nobel laureate Watson, or "Honest Jim" as he likes to consider himself, celebrated in his own way: by continuing to aggressively advance his agenda for genetically re-engineering the human species -- even if that requires engaging in medical experimentation that puts lives at risk.

Some observers reflexively dismiss Watson's genetic prescriptions as the idiosyncratic ideas of a crank; wasn't that, they ask, the fellow who suggested a genetic linkage between skin color and sex drive? Or else ascribe them to Watson's desire to keep genetic research at the cutting edge. Yet while both of these hypotheses could be true, they miss the more important point: James Watson genuinely believes in a renewed eugenics, now scientifically accurate and technically powerful, and has laid out a logical, strategic framework for moving science and society in that direction.

Reviewing a recent biography of Watson, his former Harvard colleague Walter Gilbert tells the story of Watson mussing up his hair and untying his shoelaces before going into meetings with philanthropic donors. While we might still bemuse ourselves with Watson's performance as the absent-minded professor, we would also do well to keep a serious eye on his program for the human genetic sciences.

Gaining some insight into James Watson's genetic agenda is not really difficult -- all we need do is read his own words. The key requisite scientific notion to grasp is "inheritable genetic modification," most often referred to as "germline genetic engineering." When genetic therapy is attempted to cure the disease of an existing person, those genetic changes will affect only that person. But if genetic engineering is carried out on a sperm or an egg or an embryo, that genetic alteration will be present in every cell of that new person -- including their "germline," the sperm or egg cells which will then carry those modified genes forward into all future generations.

During the 1990s, after being forced out as director of the National Institutes of Health human genome research center, James Watson began explicitly advocating human germline engineering. His opening rhetorical move is to demystify, or some would say devalue, the existing human genome and the real humans that develop from them.

"I think it's complete nonsense ... saying we're sacred and should not be changed," Watson railed at a 1998 UCLA conference. "Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say we've got a perfect genome and there's some sanctity? I'd like to know where that idea comes from because it's utter silliness ... To try to give it any more meaning than it deserves in some quasi-mystical way is for Steven Spielberg or somebody like that. It's just plain aura, up in the sky -- I mean, it's crap."

Watson then sought to pre-empt any scientific self-doubt: "We should be proud of what we're doing and not worry about destroying the genetic patrimony of the world, which is awfully cruel to too many people," he said. "We get a lot of pleasure from helping other people. That's what we're trying to do."

With the imperfect human genome cast as the cruel enemy and the scientist as the savior, one might assume that Watson is merely referring to curing genetic disorders. His recent public revelation of having a child of his own with a serious neurological disorder resulted in much of the media reporting that Watson's genetic engineering advocacy was motivated by this tragic personal experience. However much that may be the case, though, Watson doesn't stop at treating disease.

"And the other thing, because no one has the guts to say it," Watson informed the 1998 conferees, "if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we do it? What's wrong with it? Who is telling us not to it?"


Making "better human beings" differs from making human beings better by curing their diseases. Making better human beings is more closely aligned with the old eugenics vision. The previous century's eugenicists sought to breed better humans by promoting specific types. In America, state fairs held "Fitter Family Contests." In Germany, they mandated specific matings. In both countries the drive was to optimize the chances of producing the desired "Nordic" characteristics.

But that was still producing progeny the old-fashioned way, with its probabilities of failure and limitations imposed by the genetic mixture of the two individuals involved. With the new genetic technologies, the desired breed of better humans will be predictably engineered in your local fertility clinic.

But what exactly are Watson's eugenics intentions? How would he design better human beings? The germ-line intervention that he and other advocates most often mention is improvements to the immune system. There is a gene, for example, which provides absolute resistance to the AIDS virus. If it were possible to safely implant such a gene into an embryo, who would object? Or a gene that similarly protected someone against SARS or an even more deadly emerging infectious disease?

Such germ-line alterations are viewed cynically by Watson, though, as a means to other ends: the wedge that will open the door to further engineering. "I think that the acceptance of genetic enhancement," he writes in his new book, "will most likely come through efforts to prevent disease."

The range of potential genetic enhancements at this point is almost entirely a matter of speculation. But Watson is not shy about suggesting his own eugenic targets. In a British documentary on his life and work to be broadcast in the U.S. this fall, Watson announces that he'd like to genetically treat the 10 percent of children whom he considers "stupid" and prevent the birth of ugly girls. "If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease," Watson says. Furthermore, "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

But Watson doesn't want to simply stop with the existing human genetic repertoire. Remember, Watson wants to "add genes," meaning genes from outside the existing human gene pool. Just to make certain that I wasn't mistaken on this, I tracked Watson down in February at the Time Magazine "Future of Life" conference. By adding genes, were you referring to genes from other plant or animal species or even artificial genes created in the laboratory? I asked Watson. "Anything!" he spat back, and turned away as if the question were not even worthy of discussion.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Discussion of this agenda is something Watson is not interested in conducting, whether it's with a journalist or with Congress. "I'm afraid of asking people what they think," he admitted in 1998. "Don't ask Congress to approve it. Just ask them for the money to help their constituents. That's what they want ... . Frankly, they would care much more about having their relatives not sick than they do about ethics and principles. We can talk principles forever, but what the public actually wants is not to be sick. And if we help them not be sick, they'll be on our side."

Once again, treating genetic illness is as much a ploy as it is a therapeutic achievement: If Watson and friends keep our DNA trains running on time, the argument goes, then we'll let them proceed with germline genetic enhancements.

Not that Watson has ever put much stock in "ethics." At last month's NIH symposium honoring Watson, he was hailed for having proposed that 3 percent of the human genome project budget be devoted to exploring the ethical, legal and social implications of the research. No one, however, bothered to mention legal scholar Lori Andrews' witnessing of Watson explaining his real agenda in setting up a bioethics component of the genome project.

"I wanted a group that would talk and talk and never get anything done," Andrews quotes Watson as telling a meeting. "And if they did do something, I wanted them to get it wrong. I wanted as its head Shirley Temple Black."

Since re-engineering humans according to Watson's program arguably not only affects all future generations but at least theoretically raises the prospects of altering the species itself, some would claim that this is a choice for the global village of humanity to make, not individuals or even nations. Needless to say, this idea is repellant to Watson.

"I think it would be a complete disaster to try and get an international agreement," he asserted. "You end up with the lowest possible denominator. Agreement among all the different religious groups would be impossible. About all they'd agree upon is that they should allow us to breathe air. ... I think our hope is to stay away from regulation and laws whenever possible."

With the human genome, evolution, Congress, ethics and the international community dispatched as evil or irrelevant, the remaining obstacle to Watson's program lies within the scientific community itself: What scientist is willing to engage in germ-line engineering experimentation?

Watson used the occasion of this 50th anniversary of the double helix discovery to break through this barrier. In a just-published book, "DNA: The Secret of Life," he acknowledges the problem. "A failed germ-line experiment would be an unthinkable catastrophe -- a human being born flawed, perhaps unimaginably so, owing to our manipulation of his or her genes," he writes. "The consequences would be tragic. Not only would the affected family suffer, but all of humankind would lose because science would be set back."

Human guinea pigs

As with other biomedical innovations, even if germline engineering proves successful in other primates, the same technique applied to humans would have unknown results. That's why, Watson writes, "the start of human experimentation will require resolute courage; the promise of enormous benefit won't be fulfilled except through experiments that will ultimately put some lives at risk."

"My view," he concludes, "is that, despite the risks, we should give serious consideration to germ-line gene therapy. I only hope," he plaintively appeals, "that the many biologists who share my opinion will stand tall in the debates to come and not be intimidated by the inevitable criticism ... If such work be called eugenics, then I am a eugenicist."

Rescuing the word eugenics from its pernicious past, Watson knows that inevitably the connection with Naziism will arise. But he's well prepared for this. "Here we must not fall into the absurd trap of being against everything Hitler was for," he wrote a few years ago. "Because of Hitler's use of the term Master Race, we should not feel the need to say that we never want to use genetics to make humans more capable than they are today."

The technology for human germ-line genetic engineering is considered to be some years or even decades away, though an unexpected laboratory breakthrough could accelerate its arrival. Germ-line genetic alteration of our fellow mammal, the mouse, is already a standard procedure in laboratories world-wide.

Harnessing a natural process known as "homologous recombination," scientists are able to target specific genes in order to turn them on or off. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, openly worries that when this technique advances so as to be reliable and efficient in humans, "there will be those arguing that it is time for us to take charge of our own evolution." Of course, this is precisely what James Watson is arguing we should do.

Scientists choose sides

As with most other developments in the life sciences, three camps have formed over the germ-line issue: those who join Watson's choir in favor of germline engineering, those who adamantly oppose any germline interventions, and those who believe that there may be instances in which germline engineering is justified and should be managed under some regulatory regime.

The Watsonians include Princeton biologist Lee Silver and University of Manchester bioethicist John Harris. Professor Harris, author of the book "Wonderwoman and Superman," responded to an email query that he does "not think there are any principled objections to germ line therapy or alterations." The only question for him, as for Watson, "is the level of risk of things going wrong set against the benefits."

While this group believes that the best social protection is keeping the government away from any involvement in the genetic decision-making, biologist Silver is famous for forecasting that the social result will be a genetically-enhanced class of the "GenRich" dominating the world. He and fellow Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson concur in believing that the ultimate development will be a number of distinct human species.

Such visions have helped ignite an opposition movement, which opposes any germ-line intervention as the means to assure that no such social scenario can ever come into creation. United with religious and social conservatives who oppose any manipulation of the embryo, these opponents are receiving a hearing of their views under a Bush administration with a president's bioethics council headed by Leon Kass. Progressive activists such as Judy Norsigian of the Boston Women's Health Collective and environmental writer Bill McKibben have been prominent in urging a ban on cloning, as this technology is viewed as another technique that would enable a genetically-modified human future.

Their arguments are both principled and pragmatic. As a principle, they resist a biotechnology that would deepen existing social chasms or further undermine human identity and meaning. As a practical matter, they believe there are existing alternatives to germ-line engineering that can achieve any prospective therapeutic goals.

Even University of Texas health law professor John Robertson, well-known for his advocacy of free choice in utilizing reproductive technologies, "doesn't see a strong case for doing" germ-line. Since germ-line would likely require the creation of multiple embryos, Robertson believes that the existing technique of Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) can be used to screen out embryos with the genetic problem. "It's hard to see that the benefits of it are going to be so strong that they would outweigh or justify the risk of having severely affected offspring," he said in an interview.

But there are cases in which even PGD would not work, as when both parents are carriers of a gene mutation which can cause serious disease. There also will be instances, says Georgetown University bioethicist LeRoy Walters, in which parents for religious reasons do want to destroy an unwanted embryo. Walters also cites the "functioning of the human immune system so that fewer people would have allergies or autoimmune disease" as an example where germline intervention may be desirable and perhaps necessary.

In this, he represents the pragmatic approach, saying "let's take each case and look at it on its merits and try to balance benefits and harms on the basis of the best evidence we have from preclinical studies." But Walters admits to worry about social justice, about "the distribution of such an intervention and trying to avoid exacerbating the gap between the best off and the least well off in society." For this and other reasons, he favors regulation of germline rather than either an open door or a ban.

Walter's view is the dominant one in scientific and biomedical circles. In the fall of 2000, the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued the report of an expert working group on the subject calling for regulation of germline genetic experiments and technologies by "a public body...assigned responsibility to monitor and oversee research and developments" in the area. Still, the AAAS report is concerned not only about the safety issues, but that germline genetic engineering has "the potential to bring about not only a medical, but also a social revolution, for they offer us the power to mold our children in a variety of novel ways."

While the federal government currently does not fund research which involves human germline genetic engineering, neither is there any U.S. law forbidding it in the private sector. Almost every effort at instituting regulatory oversight in the life sciences has met stiff resistance, based on arguments that it would interfere with individual liberty or impede scientific advances and economic growth in the biotechnology sector. As a result, today there is no regulation of genetic testing or of the fertility industry.

Those who oppose germline engineering on principle oppose a regulatory regime which would make case by case judgments. For them, the question is not a matter of cases, but what kind of world we want to live in.

Whether that opposition or even any regulatory scheme can withstand the genetic enticements offered by James Watson is the story the human species will be living through in the years to come.

Ralph Brave is a freelance science who has been covering developments in the life sciences since 1996. His work has appeared in The Nation, Salon, the Washington Post among other publications.

Joel Kovel Battling Nader for Green Party Presidential Nomination

Joel Kovel is a new entry on the national Green scene, running for president for the first time this year. But to certain sectors of academia and of left political activism, Kovel is widely known for his many writings analyzing the effects of capitalism on human relations, social development and even sprirituality.Formerly a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, Kovel is currently a professor of social studies at Bard College in New York. Kovel ran in that state as a Green candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1998.He now appears on the ballot as an alternative to the only other Green presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, who, at press time, has not yet officially announced whether he is in fact running.]In the interview below, Kovel lays out his vision of the Green agenda, his differences with Nader, and why he sees socialism as a necessary component to Green Party politics and program.Ralph Brave: What would you say is the main thrust of your message as a Green Party candidate? What distinguishes you from Al Gore or Bill Bradley?Joel Kovel: Well, there is a very striking difference. I believe that the established two party system is hopeless and can't meet the needs of humanity and the earth. The reason for that is the ever expanding, ever destructive global reach of the capitalist system of which Al Gore and Bill Bradley are basically paid servants. So, it's that clear and that simple. I also have a rather complex and elaborate platform that has maany different planks and programs in it.RB: It sounds you believe there needs to be an alternative to capitalism?JK: Yes. And that's I guess the audacious thing to come forward with at this time. There are those who believe, like Margaret Thatcher, that there is no alternative. This is it, this is the way the world has to be. This is the only way history can unfold. And that's become an article of faith for people, an automatic assumption. And it's to unsettle that assumption, to breakdown its terms and to show that it has to be different or else we're really tremendously in trouble, that I'm in the running. And its basically in the form of an assumption which is an article of much ecological and Green thought that our society is as they say unsustainable, and cannot keep going in this direction, breaking down its own natural foundations without widespread havoc and much more to come.RB: So what's the alternative to capitalism?JK: I don't have any magic blueprints. I think its something that has to be worked out. It's something that requires, just a national raising of consciousness, international global raising of consciousness that will get people to begin thinking along these lines instead of just numbly accepting the status quo. But, what I call for is something called ecological socialism. In other words, I'm willing to raise the "S" word that nobody wants to use. You can call it cooperative commonwealth if you like, which is what many socialists called it over the last century. But, you have to get the fundamental point that its not about regulating the capitalist system, but its about basically altering it by changing the ownership and control of great institutions that now run our world.As we all know, and have been told innumerable times, what went under the name of socialism failed and cannot be the organizing principle of our society. I absolutely agree with that. What went on under the name of socialism was a huge disaster. However, that also was not socialism by any coherent definition of the term true socialism. What passed as socialism within the Soviet world and the Marxist Leninism world was basically an attempt to rebuild capitalism under conditions of scarcity and low development. And we need to rid ourselves of the notion that it was really socialism and start thinking about what socialism could really be.Here's where the term ecological comes in. I believe that if you place those two words together, you start thinking in terms of fundamental changes -- not just ownership of the means of production, which is part of a socialist society, but actually the way production is carried out, the way human relations are ordered, the way democracy becomes a much more fundamental principle in society.RB: I think people interested in developing an alternative would want to have a notion of what kind of model, even at a micro-level, Joel Kovel has in mind.JK: Well, first of all, the model is that there are many models of enlightened ecological production. Beginning with organic farms. The pathway towards a radically new production is fairly well laid out. I mean there's lots that has to be discovered, but we know that it involves decentralization of the unit of production. We know that it involves dealing in organic relationships rather than synthetic ones, and so on and so forth. We know also, that where and when these have been given a chance, to enlighten political action, they thrived. Organic farms always produce much better than non-organic farms, et cetera.RB: I'm wondering where the Green Party and Joel Kovel in terms of agricultural biotechnology?JK: My position is that we need a moratorium on the release of transgenic material into the environment. This is not to say that I am totally against technology. I know, some Greens are more fundamentally against then I am, but because I used to be a physician and I have scientific training, I just don't believe that we can turn away from technology. But, I do believe that we must stop the control of these technologies by the capitalist private sector who inevitably is going to abuse them, because it's a monster that can easily, easily get out of hand. And when it's produced for profit rather than the welfare of the earth, you have a ready-made situation for abuse.I'm also against the patenting of lifeforms. Pure outrage, that you should patent genes, that this most fundamental domain of nature should become the province of commodity capitalism. As for the moriatorum, my principle is just that it's not an absolute ban, but it's a stopping it in its track, so that we can have a really genuine dialogue on this, free from the control of the agribusiness and the capitalist formations of the world. So that we can really have an enlightened dialogue and approach using the very best of science and ecological thought and democratic institutions put together.RB: Most people, when they hear about the Green Party, assume that it's anti-technological, even anti-scientific. It sounds like your position is actually more complex than that.JK: Oh, much more. I appreciate the Luddite impulses, because I think that people try and defend their life space against the encroachment of destroying technology. But on the other hand, it's human nature to make tools. We're the tool-making animal, that's who we are. The question is how those tools are to be socially organized and constructed. Not just used, but the whole way in which the social relationships enter into the making of the tools and the whole history that enters into that. But, I absolutely am not for a kind of neo-primitivism. Besides that of my valued position, it is simply inconceivable that you could deal with the existing state of the world by pulling back from a great deal of the technological aspects of the world, like computers. While I do think that in ecologically socialist society, there has to be much more actual human hands entering the production of things, that's different from saying that you should destroy our machines and not think intelligently about technology.RB: Is your experience though that much of the Green Party constituency is made up of a neo-primitivism, back to the earth approach?JK: No. My experience of the Greens is of a very diverse group. Most Greens are people that concerned to defend their communities and public spaces from encroachment. Most Greens have a basically anti-capitalist point of view because they're always fighting a power plant or the tearing down of forests or whatever. All of which is very clear and obvious function of capital accumulation. Most Greens are people who are defending community values. Defending the values of localism, intact, small economic systems. Most Greens are basically from an anarchist tradition, of defending the integrity of democratic processes and spontaneous face to face interactions. That's really where they come from. I believe they are increasingly moving in a more anti-capitalist direction. I think the biggest limitation on the Greens is the Greens have a lot of work to do to overcome class differences, to overcome differences in ethnicity, racial distinctions and so on. They need to go a lot further in that direction. They need to build many more bridges to communities of color for instance. And many more bridges to the labor movement.RB: Many people don't believe that a Green government would be particularly good at producing the wealth that Greens want to redistribute.JK: Well, you know, it depends on what you mean by wealth. I would hope that a Green government would be very good at producing true values. I think the Green government, would not, should not, produce certain forms of what's called wealth. Sports utility vehicles, things like that, Barbie dolls. Not that Barbie dolls are bad in themselves, but in mass amounts are cultural junk.We have by any reasonable economic analysis now a tremendous problem with overproduction in our society. In fact, one of the hallmarks of capitalism is that its main virtue -- its only virtue -- is producing wealth for the sake of capitalism. So it, produces, produces, produces. And there is a constant flood of commodities and constant overproduction of everything. A sane society, whether you call it Green or Eco-socialist, would be free of that compulsion. It's that compulsion, that reckless growth compulsion, that really cancerous growth compulsion, that's causing the ecological crisis, that's making our society unsustainable. So, yes indeed, a Green society, a sane society, does not overproduce the wealth that fills Wal-Mart and strip malls and our highways.RB: I want to turn briefly to the existence of your name on the ballot and Ralph Nader's as Greens. Is there something that distinguishes you from Nader as a Green candidate?JK: Talking about Ralph Nader, you're not talking about Bill Bradley, Al Gore, but someone who's made very fundamental, heroic contributions to our society. And who's definitely on the side of the angels. I would ask voters to insist that Nader and I have one or a series of debates. Not so much to see "who is the better man," but to sharpen awareness of the fundamental issues. While I think what Ralph is doing is tremendously valuable, I would have people go further. I think that what Ralph is doing is based on the assumption that the capitalist system can be regulated. My assumption is that it can't be regulated and it has to be fundamentally changed. So, you'd have to say that Nader is what you would call a progressive populist. He believes that citizen movements can offset the power of corporate capital. I believe those movements are all necessary, but they're not sufficient. I believe you have to go beyond that to also think of a transformation of the system.RB: Now I hate to do this to you, but if you had a thirty second message to voters about why they should vote for you, what would that thirty second message say?JK: I'd say, "Look beneath the superficial signs of prosperity. Look at the deep contraptional problems that our society faces under its present state of organization. Look to the future, look to save the future for our children. Look to save the children of the future. And make a fundamental change in the way in which our society is organized."RB: How do you find the response to what sounds like a very conscious effort to reintroduce some version of socialism into the political debate?JK: Well, I certainly think that people are more responsive than they used to be. I don't think that I could really state as to how far that's going to go. I do believe, to borrow an old song title, that times are a-changing. I think that we're turning and not just American society, but the global situation is changing. And, in a very broad sense, that's why I'm running. I'm responsive to those flickers of hope.