A Review of “The Double Helix” and James Watson

By: Joseph Maa

I just finished reading The Double Helix by James Watson. [1] The book was an excellent read, even if the author himself has a terrible track record as a human being. For example, in this article by Tom Abate, Tom Abate writes that Sarah Tegen, a graduate student at Berkeley in 2000 recalls her experience at Watson’s hourlong lecture thusly:

 

“Watson, who has a reputation as an engaging lecturer, started off describing an experiment by scientists at the University of Arizona, who injected male patients with an extract of melanin. They intended to test whether they could chemically darken the men’s skin as a skin cancer protection, only to observe an unusual side effect — the men developed sustained and unprovoked erections.

“This (melanin injection) is even better than Viagra because you don’t even have to think about sex,” Tegen recalled.

“Then he launched into this whole thing about the sun and sexual drive,” added Berkeley graduate student Jill Fuss. She said Watson showed slides of women in bikinis and contrasted them to veiled Muslim women, to suggest that controlling exposure to sun may suppress sexual desire and vice versa.” [2]

 

If we can recognize this man for his achievements in science, then we can also recognize the bigoted and racist views that he purports as a human. As a scientist and role model, James Watson should be held to higher standards. However, it is understandable that humanity still needed his great mind.

That being said, the man does add a sense of candidness to the pursuit of science. The book engrosses you in the struggle to discover the structure of DNA, while simultaneously exposing unsavory aspects of all people involved. In the process of losing his fellowship, infuriating his labmates, and trying to be the first to solve the most important of the problem of the century, Watson does come off, first and foremost, as a person.

Unfortunately, his raw emotion and honest narrative did not make up for disparaging remarks that he makes in the novel. Maybe it was characteristic of the time, but his derogatory use of the name “Rosy” for Rosalind Franklin did sum up his personality quite neatly. Likewise, although he definitely made clear her scientific achievements in the epilogue, his behavior was frankly unacceptable. What makes it worse is that his behavior continued thusly. [3]

Ultimately, I conceded that Watson is a compelling storyteller, as many famous figures are, but also clearly disinhibited. I believe that he captured the essence of scientific discovery honestly and lucidly, but the spectre of misogyny sits firmly on his shoulders, and reveals that at the end of the day, scientists are flawed people too. I really enjoyed the read specifically for its history and science, but not for it’s misguided interpretation of social hierarchy.

Your friend,

Joseph Maa

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