Renowned Scientists Captivate Audience

Fairfield Citizen-NewsArticle
Last Updated:08/28/2007

 Nobel Prize winner Dr. James Watson and Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Edward O. Wilson told their audience at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at Fairfield University that maybe if someone gave the pair a weekly television show, Americans would not only respect scientists and their accomplishments more, but also scientists would see that they need to have more of presence in this country.

The two world-renowned scientists charmed their audience last week with their knowledge, which was interspersed with wit, honesty and downright aplomb exemplifying a persona they feel is too scarce in the public arena.

"Leadership in science has become pathetic," said Watson. "Scientists have to realize they have to be part of society more. Scientists are afraid to say what they believe. The scientific community has to grow up," he said. "We have to be leaders. We are isolated from the community.

"There's a lack of honesty," said Watson, who joined Wilson in the program "Minds of Science," which was moderated by television talk show host Phil Donahue and hosted by the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Watson partnered with Francis Crick in the discovery of DNA in 1953. The pair identified the chemical structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid molecule of which all living matter is made. In 1962, they shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Maurice Wilkins.

Wilson authored two Pulitzer Prize-wining books, On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990), which was written with fellow entomologist Bert Holldobler.

"Minds of Science" was billed as "A Conversation for a New Century." The talk between the two acclaimed scientists was more colorful than Watson's attire of a chartreuse jacket, yellow shirt and blue tie. Donahue's customary baiting of his guests could hardly stir these two scientific stalwarts, who made a rare joint appearance on behalf of the Connecticut Audubon Society, which partnered with Donohue in presenting the three-hour program that was taped for future broadcast. CAS members and representatives from the state's academia and medical field filled the theater for the free public event.

The common theme throughout the evening was the nature vs. nurture influence in an individual's development and behavior, questioning the extent people should analyze DNA to determine or predict an individual's future, whether it be health or outcomes of behavior.

While Watson's DNA discovery heralded a major breakthrough in many areas of endeavor, he cautioned against looking at DNA too early to predict the future. He is a proponent of waiting to see some evidence of behavior before making conclusions or studying the genetic makeup.

"I don't want to know that I have a gene that predisposes me to Alzheimer's," Watson said. However, understanding genetic makeup can be very helpful.

"We won't pigeon-hole and discriminate when we get a better understanding of the genetic makeup," Watson said. Such genetic understanding has a great impact upon education, he said. "We are now in a position to read the entire genetic code of an individual."

Wilson said this knowledge and understanding can lead to tailoring a child's education. He sees in the future a time when children will be raised with a complete understanding of their health, mind and development of their talent. He said an individual's education must be based upon that person's traits.

Watson underscored the importance of looking at the evidence before making conclusions. For example, he cited what seems to be an increase of autism in this country. First, he noted that it may not be an increase, but that an autistic child formerly may have been identified as awkward or shy. He said there are many theories dealing with the cause and some are "irresponsibly bad."

"Some of the facts about biology can be unpleasant, but we have to live with them," said Watson, noting that there is an urgency to find a cause of autism. He hopes that an increase of funding for research will lead to an answer in five years. He said autism would not necessarily be solved, but society would have a better understanding of it. "No way will the truth seem nice," said Watson.

Donahue asked the scientists if society will one day be able "to explain how a man can slit the throat of another man's child. No other animal on earth behaves this way," he said.

Watson said one in 30 individuals is a psychopath. He said if the DNA is not good, the individual should not be let out of prison. "If he acts psychotic, I would look at his genes, but don't look at his genes and label him psychotic. There are serious ethical issues."

Watson, who said he was half Irish and Scottish, cautioned about placing a great deal of emphasis on genetic makeup. "When I was young I didn't want to be limited by my Irish gene. I wanted everything to be nurtured."

Both scientists did not shy away from Donahue's questions about religion and God. Wilson practices the school of thought that one should lay out in full one's religious beliefs for those that are kept hidden can have an enormous impact. He said he is not an atheist or an agnostic. He leaves the "question of god to the astrophysicist."

Watson said he "accepts truth from observation not from revelation Science is increasing difficult for people to understand and it is easy to believe you are going to have a second chance if your life is messed up. It's sort of desperation. I like being in church as long as they play the music. I don't want to be in a position that I have to obey rules coming from some revelation."

Wilson said Darwin was the "greatest man that ever lived" because he showed how life emerged.

During a question-and-answer period, a woman asked the scientists about stem cell research. Watson said it was "not a rapid panacea. Even if [President George] Bush didn't exist there is too much politics," he said.

Wilson clarified the definition of science. "Science has come to be seen as just another way to deal with a problem. That's a distortion. Science is not an idealogy, it is not a religion. It is a way of thinking, a discovery of truth and testing it. It is the most powerful instrument for attaining truth. We are falling behind other countries in science."

The scientists cautioned that this country is at risk in its leadership role in science, which negatively affects funding, training of future scientists and research.

Wilson said, "Science is the most democratic activity of all human experience. This is the worldview we owe to Darwin. It is not a religion, but a way to understand the world with the instruments of science."

When asked what role the media plays in reporting on science, Wilson said it's the culture of the media to focus on a conflict.

The scientists were asked what individuals could do to promote science. Watson said, "Put Ed and I on a TV program once a week. If people see what we are, they wouldn't be frightened. We're human beings and we want a better world."

Following the event, Sue Roer, a Fairfield resident for the past 30 years, said the program was "open, honest and uncensored" and refreshing to hear a discussion without the concern for "political correctness."

Dr. Richard Stein of Redding, a physicist, said he was impressed with Watson's and Wilson's willingness to be honest." It was not boring. It was honest and human."

Donahue has a longstanding relationship with the Connecticut Audubon Society In a statement distributed to audience members, Donahue said, "The reason I partnered with Connecticut Audubon Society is because its mission fits well with the science of today. Observing and researching birds and their habitats is just one element of increasing the public's awareness of the issues facing the vast world around us.

"The fact that CAS works with the school systems, reaches our children, partners with local and national agencies, and leads adult tours and bird watching adventures is an excellent way to instill and foster conservation stewardship is all of us."

Milan Bull, the CAS' senior director for science and conservation and a friend of Donahue's, described the "Minds of Science" event as "one of the most important scientific events that have ever occurred in Connecticut in the past 35 years" that he has been involved with the society. Minutes before the program began, Bull described his feelings as 'very proud."

The program began with opening remarks by CAS President Robert Martinez, who thanked the audience for supporting the organization's initiatives. Peter Marra, a research scientist with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoological park in Washington, D.C., shared memories growing up near the Westport Nature Center and then at the Connecticut Audubon Society when his family moved to Fairfield and he learned about bird banding.

Marra's early experience at the CAS instilled in him an interest in science, research and ornithology. Early in his career, he spent three summers working on Chimon Island in Norwalk which is part of the Stewart McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.

Incidentally, Watson's new book is "Avoid Boring People." The word boring can be used as an adjective or a verb, Watson said. Either way, the word does not apply to the minds of these scientists.