[Paleopsych] NYT: (Watson and Wilson) Long-Ago Rivals Are Dual Impresarios of Darwin's Oeuvre
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Thu Oct 27 02:10:33 UTC 2005
Long-Ago Rivals Are Dual Impresarios of Darwin's Oeuvre
By NICHOLAS WADE
Two eminent biologists, James D. Watson and Edward O. Wilson, have
been pitted by their respective publishers in an odd and inadvertent
competition that recalls a bitter former rivalry. They are editors,
for different publishers, of the same book.
The work is an anthology of Darwin's four principal writings on
evolution with editors' introductions. In the case of the W. W. Norton
book, to be published next month, the editor is Dr. Wilson. The
Running Press entry, which came out last month, is spearheaded by Dr.
Each has a certain affinity with his illustrious subject. Like Darwin,
Dr. Wilson is a great gatherer and synthesizer of biological facts,
perceiving new patterns like his theory of sociobiology. Dr. Watson,
co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, made the greatest advance in
biology since Darwin, confirming evolution as the explanation of human
In their editorial comments on Darwin's four books - "The Voyage of
the Beagle," "On the Origin of Species," "Descent of Man" and "The
Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" - both note the strange
disconnect that Darwin's theory is the bedrock of their discipline yet
is doubted by large segments of the American public.
It is "surpassingly strange," Dr. Wilson writes, that half of
Americans who responded to a recent poll said they did not believe in
evolution at all. Dr. Watson writes that evolution is disputed only by
those who "put their common sense on hold."
The repudiation of Darwin by religious fundamentalists is largely an
American phenomenon, dismaying to Europeans, Dr. Wilson said in an
interview. He attributes the difference to the frontier nature of
early American society.
The religion of the frontier, he said, was "very simple, very
evangelical in nature, and could summon people to quick action
together." In Europe, religion was "far more hierarchical, more
closely connected with the ruling class and more likely to be a state
The fundamentalist strain of American religion has continued to the
present day, and its collision with Darwin is one that Dr. Wilson
finds perturbing. "Evolution is one of the best proven ideas of
biology, so when you reject that you are beginning to turn away from
what is becoming the pre-eminent science of the 21st century," he
said. "So it will make a difference if the public refuses to believe
Dr. Watson is less perturbed that so many Americans do not believe in
evolution. "Oh, but eventually they will," he said in an interview in
his office at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. "As
people get themselves genetically tested and see that it helps them,
they will realize their biological instructions work this way."
He has little time for intelligent design, the proposal that evolution
is shaped at the level of DNA by some thoughtful demiurge. "If I have
any message for intelligent design, it is that it will come and go,"
Dr. Watson says he wants no war between science and religion, and sees
other reasons besides religious belief for people's sometimes feeble
embrace of science. "I think the reason people are dealing with
science less well now than 50 years ago is that it has become so
complicated," he said.
But Dr. Wilson sees the two world views as irreconcilable. He believes
that the propensity for religious belief was "hard-wired into us,"
because the tribes that believed they were favored by the gods "were
the tribes that beat the other tribes." The advance of science can
only undermine the religious view of the world. "I don't see the
modern scientific view of the human condition will do anything but
move away from traditional religious thinking," he said.
Dr. Watson and Dr. Wilson find themselves cast as dual impresarios of
Darwin's oeuvre because of a misunderstanding that developed between
Dr. Wilson and Running Press, part of Perseus Books, which first
invited him to do the book. Dr. Wilson's agent transferred his
contribution to Norton, and Running Press then enlisted Dr. Watson to
take Dr. Wilson's place.
Being authors of rival publications is as nothing compared with the
intense competition between the two when they were young assistant
professors in the Harvard biology department in the 1950's and 60's.
Dr. Watson, fresh from his triumph with DNA, did not see the point of
studying anything in biology other than genes, especially not whole
animals. "At department meetings, Watson radiated contempt in all
directions," Dr. Wilson wrote in "Naturalist," his autobiography. "He
shunned ordinary courtesy and polite conversation, evidently in the
belief that they would only encourage the traditionalists to stay
The traditional biologists and the new molecular biologists sparred
over which directions research should take and which discipline new
hires should belong to. Dr. Wilson's side received an unexpected boost
one day in 1958 when their champion received tenure before Dr. Watson.
In a biography, "Watson and DNA," Victor K. McElheny records how the
Harvard biology department was apprised of this development. "Watson
could be heard coming up the stairwell to the third floor," Mr.
McElheny wrote, repeatedly shouting the same one-word obscenity. The
two men, according to each, have long since made up, and they now
portray their clash in terms of the historical collision between the
disciplines that each represented.
"Jim was a notoriously difficult person then," Dr. Wilson said. "But
over the years, he has mellowed. And I guess I did too, and with
organismic biology making use of molecular biology, biology began to
Dr. Watson says much the same. "I was against bad organismal biology,"
he recalled. "I wasn't against Ed. I wanted molecular biology to
thrive at Harvard, and his fair-mindedness led him to appoint
Lewontin," he said, referring to Richard Lewontin, the population
geneticist who led a political and personal attack on Dr. Wilson for
his book "Sociobiology."
The anthologies are meant to coincide with a Darwin exhibition opening
next month at the American Museum of Natural History that is tied to
the approaching anniversary of "On the Origin of Species, " still
making trouble after 150 years.
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