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An Intellectual Entente


“Stamp collectors” was the derisive term future Nobel laureate James Watson applied to Harvard biology professors involved in classification and anatomy in the 1950s.  The co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix structure, then in his twenties, had little tolerance for other approaches to biological science, and thought Harvard, where he had just been named an associate professor, should not waste a tenured position on subjects such as taxonomy and ecology. “Anyone who would hire an ecologist is out of his mind,” he once said.

The great sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, a y ear  younger than Watson, was one of the “stamp collectors.” And Harvard offered him tenure (countering an offer from Stanford) before offering it to Watson (who everyone knew would win the Nobel Prize). The biology department voted to defer Watson’s appointment, wanting to “get to know him better.” He did not react calmly, even though he was soon granted tenure. Wilson, recalling those days in his 1994 autobiographical book Naturalist, judged Watson the most mean-spirited academic he knew during his early years on the Harvard faculty. So began the rivalry of two scientists who have changed our understanding of life on Earth.

On September 9, in a sold-out event at Sanders Theatre, Wilson and Watson, who have since buried the hatchet, recalled the great division in the biological sciences in the 1950s: on the one hand, the organismic and evolutionary biologists; on the other, Watson—who was leading the revolution in molecular biology and agitating for the hiring of a critical mass of talent in his nascent field. The molecular biologists, Wilson recalled, “landed in the biology department like aliens in Manhattan,” with Watson as the young avatar of their movement.  The two also reflected on the modern reunification of their field, and on future challenges to the field and to the planet.

The event coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Harvard Museum of Natural History—a longtime hangout of  “stamp collectors,” whose methods and collections have proven unexpectedly critical and invaluable in the molecular age of biology—and also with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Robert Krulwich, a correspondent for National Public Radio’s Science Desk, moderated the discussion.

Krulwich, quoting one of Watson’s former students on Watson’s belief that to be good, “you have to have an enemy,” asked if he really needed to proceed as though leading a bunch of marines. Yes, said Watson. “It works with boys, anyway.” Krulwich also prodded the outwardly mild-mannered Wilson, reminding him that he once said he had been “blessed with brilliant enemies.”

Yes, said Wilson, “and I am the only scientist in modern times to have been physically attacked for an idea”—that idea being his theory that there is a biological basis for human nature, for which radical leftists once poured water on him at a conference. “Top that, Jim,” crowed Wilson. “Ambition and competitiveness,” he continued, “are essential to do really good work. I didn’t show it as much as Jim because I am a Southerner.”

Watson, in fact, attributed their eventual reconciliation to the fact that “I hated Ed’s enemies. ” But there were also larger changes in the field of biology that, over time, brought the two scientists’ world views closer together, a gradual sintering of the field. “Molecular biology had a bacterial explosion…,” Wilson explains. “But the result of this was that as molecular and cell biology matured, it produced an armamentarium of methods, ideas, and so on, which we [the “stamp collectors”] started grabbing hold of.” Before long, evolutionary and organismic biologists, who study diversity, were “still collecting bugs, but we were moving down in our analyses to include genomics, while molecular biologists started going evolutionary.” The “glory of late twentieth-century biology,” he pointed out, “is that it is unifying.”

Krulwich then asked about the future. Watson said he hoped that cancer would be cured by 2020, and pointed to studies of how the brain works and how life began as two of the most promising areas of research in the biological sciences. Wilson agreed, but would himself, he said, embark on a new study of diversity, this time in the virtually unexplored world of microbes.

Will we solve the crises of next hundred years? asked Krulwich. “Yes, if we are honest and smart,” said Wilson. “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.” Until we understand ourselves, concluded the Pulitzer-prize winning author of On Human Nature, “until we answer those huge questions of philosophy that the philosophers abandoned a couple of generations ago—Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?—rationally,” we’re on very thin ground.


Related content from Harvard Magazine:

A profile of Wilson

A review of Watson's Avoid Boring People

A review of Wilson's Consilience

Wilson on Darwin