That PBS documentary on James Watson wasn’t half bad, if you are able to abide a deep dive into the life of a man with almost Trumpian levels of self-delusion (but unlike Trump, with an actual germ of intelligence). The theme of the show, I would say, is that Watson is a man who says what he thinks, so they just let him speak.
So what does James Watson think?
He’s a scientific genius. Rosalind Franklin was an incompetent. DNA is a more important idea in biology than evolution. He’s smarter than Darwin. You are determined by your genes. No one has ever shown any evidence that environment plays a more significant role than genetics. Black people are less intelligent than white people. He regrets having to say that, but you have to speak the truth. He has black friends. He liked to surround himself with pretty girls in the lab. The stuff he said about how everyone knows black employees are inferior was said in a private conversation, and how dare that reporter publish it. His loyal wife argues that he’s not really a racist, because racists say mean things with the intent to make others miserable. Watson’s ego is immense.
I also learned a few things I didn’t know before.
His wife was an 18 year old undergraduate 20 years his junior, working in his office, when he started courting her (this would be considered a serious ethical problem now, but as we are reminded several times, the old boy network was strong.) I’ve met his wife, she was very nice, but seemed a bit frazzled by her efforts to moderate Watson’s comments when they veered off into apologetics for eugenics, as they seemed to do. He has a son with serious mental health issues and a history of behavioral problems…and Watson cared for and loved him very much, which was the one redeeming feature I took away from the show. He also has a lot of former students and colleagues who practically idolize him, but even they think he’s wrong in his genetics mania.
The way it portrayed Maurice Wilkins made him out to be a petty, spiteful little shit. How did Watson and Crick get Franklin’s crucial data? Because Wilkins was resentful of this woman working in his division, and just handed it over. Her data, not his. I guess you can get a Nobel prize for backstabbing.
There were some omissions. The program didn’t say much about his sexism — it shied away from giving any details of the objectionable lectures he was giving that led to his downfall. I would have used more quotes from The Double Helix. Those were his own words, he’s clearly proud of the book, but the way he demeaned Rosalind Franklin was blatant and deplorable. There’s a bit of that, but I would guess they were minimized because the details would have made the show too much of a hatchet job.
‘Watson Decoded’ was good journalism, just presenting the facts and letting Watson hang himself with his own words, but I worry about how some people will twist the facts. Here’s a SUPER-GENIUS who thinks BLACK GENES ARE INFERIOR, and rather than recognizing that he’s a flawed person with deep biases, as the program demonstrates, they’ll see it as a validation of racist ideas. But then, you can’t do much about people with willful, hateful prejudices, and they could have just put up a big black screen with blinking letters saying “HE’S WRONG” (as Nancy Hopkins plainly says), and those people would just ignore it anyway.