Coyne on Watson in the TLS

There is an excellent and, to my knowledge, fair and accurate, account of Jim Watson’s life, attitudes and achievements in the latest TLS by the excellent scientist and writer Jerry Coyne — wrapped up as a review of Watson’s latest book. If you are at all interested in this topic, do read the TLS article. I reproduce two paragraphs below.

"It would be easy to condemn Watson as arrogant and opinionated – he is – but a more nuanced look at his past reveals an infinitely more complex individual than that typically portrayed in the media. When he took a job at Harvard University, some of his colleagues found him so abrasive and lacking in inter-personal skills that one of them remarked that he wouldn’t put Watson in charge of a lemonade stand. Yet with an intuitive flair for recognizing scientific talent, he founded a department at Harvard that became a world-beater. Although Watson can seem relentlessly self-centred, he flouted scientific convention by unselfishly refusing to put his name on his students’ publications. And despite repeated statements about women that can only be viewed as sexist, he has ardently supported the work and careers of his female students."

"The book’s epilogue, though bizarre, is its most illuminating part. Despite having left Harvard over thirty years ago, Watson takes it personally that biology is, as he sees it, in decline there. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard’s local rival, has come from behind to overtake the biology programme he lovingly and successfully tended during his years as a Harvard professor. Part of the problem is Harvard’s recently deposed president, Larry Summers, who, in Watson’s opinion, combined arrogance and ignorance of matters scientific with a determination to expand Harvard biology. The result, Watson notes, is over-expansion and science done on a “B+ level”. Summers, however, was not undone by his vision for Harvard science; rather, he was hounded from office after making public comments about the possibility that women are under-represented in science because of innate differences between the sexes. It is ironic that the final chapter’s account of a public figure laid low by unwise comments about genetic differences parallels in many ways what may be the final chapter of Watson’s career."