Friday, October 19, 2007

James Watson and the Age of Arrogance

Ok, so maybe I spoke too soon in my previous posting, in which I claimed that this is the age of humility, not arrogance.

This morning, I opened up my morning newspaper (the Chicago Tribune) and found a story on page one about the suspension of James Watson, co-founder of the structure of DNA and modern genetics, by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Watson made comments in the October 14th London Times that were highly offensive in that they suggested unequivocally that black employees--and by extension the entire African race--are intellectually inferior compared to whites. Robert Sternberg, a prominent researcher on race and IQ at Tufts University, highlights the arrogance embedded in Watson's comments in the Tribune article that I read: "It is unfortunate that some people with great expertise in one area sometimes lose their sense of perspective and come to view themselves as expert in areas about which they know nothing."

For the purpose of this research project, it is interesting to note that Watson's arrogance parallels that of the scientists that M.T. Anderson depicts in his award-winning young adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Like the racist scientists in this book, Watson has worked for years in a relatively secluded enclave much removed from the larger world. And, like these scientists, he appears to have an understanding of intelligence that is deeply flawed and narrow. Perhaps there is not as much distance between the 18th century world that Anderson depicts and the 21st century world that we inhabit as we might think.

Less obvious are the multiple connections to the young adult novel An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green. Like the exceptionally talented Colin in this book, James Watson was born in Chicago and appeared on a popular (radio) show exhibiting highly precocious kids (the show was called Quiz Kids). Furthermore, Watson clearly wanted to make an impact on the world at an early age (he enrolled at The University of Chicago at the age of 15, and determined to study genetics by age 16). Watson's story, then, is not just the story of a tragic fall due to age and limited interaction with the larger world; like Green's novel, it also is a story about the perils of exceptionality, not only for the person involved, but also for the society that chooses to celebrate high performance in its most specialized forms over and above the whole person.

1 comment:

Ms. Yingling said...

An Abundance of Katherines is a great book for middle school boys who are talented in math but perhaps not as socially adept as they would like. My son adored it. I've already got pocket protectors set aside for him!