Thursday, November 5, 2009

James Watson Eugenics Cold Spring Harbor Lab

This is the last of a series of postings in regard to James Watson who along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won a Nobel prize in 1962 for their work in 1953 in determining the chemical structure of DNA. Watson has been a controversial figure because of statements he has made over the years that seem to indicate his continuing interest in eugenics. Eugenics is the attempt to improve mankind and enhance human development by weeding out problematic genes and enhancing those that are associated with better physical and mental health. Eugenics is nothing new but the ethical dilemmas are much increased now that the entire human genome has been sequenced.

Eugenics was the movement in the early 1900's that increased in influence until 1940 when it essentially went underground. The idea of a "master race" did not originate with Adolf Hitler. He used already prevalent eugenics ideas to justify his extermination of the Jews. The heart of the eugenics movement was not Nazi Germany however. It was the United States and it's intellectual center was Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. It was there that eugenics "research " was begun and it was there where there was a eugenics register kept. The ideas of those believing in eugenics were widely adopted here in the 1930's and resulted in the mass involuntary sterilization of thousands of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

Although the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory changed it's major focus to cancer research, for years it was headed by James Watson who was the Director, later the President, and then the Chancellor of the research center.. Watson has made no secret about his eugenics ideas and leanings and the fact that he directed Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for many years is disturbing. He was only forced into retirement in 2007 when a statement he made to the effect that Africans were not as intelligent as whites became widely publicized.

Watson is not alone among genetic researchers in thinking that the new genetic knowledge we have can be put to use to improve the human race. While hopefully there will be many positive benefits to us all from the new genetics I want to say that the eugenics movement is not dead and we must all keep vigilance to make sure that the ideas of weeding out the weak or ethnic groups is not repeated.

Thought for the day

One mark of a society is how it treats it's weakest members.

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