Fifty years to the day from the discovery of the structure of DNA, one of its co-discoverers has caused a storm by suggesting that stupidity is a genetic disease that should be cured.
On 28 February 1953 biologists James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA – the chemical code for all life. The breakthrough revealed how genetic information is passed from one generation to the next and revolutionised biology and medicine.
But in a documentary series to be screened in the UK on Channel 4, Watson says that low intelligence is an inherited disorder and that molecular biologists have a duty to devise gene therapies or screening tests to tackle stupidity.
“If you are really stupid, I would call that a disease,” says Watson, now president of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, New York. “The lower 10 per cent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what’s the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, ‘Well, poverty, things like that.’ It probably isn’t. So I’d like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 per cent.”
Watson, no stranger to controversy, also suggests that genes influencing beauty could also be engineered. “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.”
But other scientists have questioned both the ethics and plausibility of his suggestions.
Nikolas Rose, a bioethics expert at the London School of Economics, says such genetic engineering may not be possible: “These are complex traits, with multiple genes interacting with the environment.”
“These are characteristically casual and provocative statements by James Watson,” Rose adds. “I think they should be treated just as amusing rather than as a serious account of what behavioural genetics or any genetics should be doing, or will be able to do.”
Geneticist Steve Jones, at University College London, dismisses Watson’s comments about beauty as “daft”. “The concept of beauty is a subjective one,” he told New Scientist.
But he adds: “The IQ suggestion is a little bit less silly, if you turn the logic on its head. Watson likes to annoy – no question – but he’s no fool.” Genetics could and does help people with severe disorders like Fragile X syndrome and phenylketonuria, both of which affect IQ, says Jones: “The problem is where do we draw the line?”
Series producer David Dugan, of Windfall Films, said the programmes also show Watson visiting a family who greatly value their child with Down’s syndrome, as well as their child without Down’s.
“We were keen to confront Jim with this – he was genuinely moved,” but insisted that geneticists should work to eliminate the disorder. Dugan believes Watson’s views emanate from his own family’s experiences with his son, who has a mental illness resembling schizophrenia.