February 28, 2003
James Watson Calls For Curing A Disease Called Stupidity

James Watson, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and co-discoverer along with Francis Crick of the DNA double helix structure, calls for treating stupidity as a disease that should be cured with biotechnology.

“If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease,” Dr Watson said. “The lower 10 per cent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what’s the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, ‘Well, poverty, things like that.’ It probably isn’t. So I’d like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 per cent.

“It seems unfair that some people don’t get the same opportunity. Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no one can stop it. It would be stupid not to use it because someone else will. Those parents who enhance their children, then their children are going to be the ones who dominate the world.” Genes that influence beauty could also be engineered. “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.”

I'm with James on this one: More smarties and more pretty girls. What a wonderful world it would be.

Nervous Nellies think Watson's comments are dangerous.

Tom Shakespeare, a bio-ethicist at Britain's University of Newcastle, criticized Watson's remarks.

"He is talking about altering something that most people see as part of normal human variation, and that I think is wrong.... I am afraid he may have done more harm than good, his leadership of the Human Genome Project and his discovery of 1953 notwithstanding."

Countries where the people do not enhance the intelligence of their offspring are countries that will be left behind. "Naturalists" who do not want to see genetic enhancement of humans are going to be on the losing side in history.

Others think that beauty can not be genetically engineered because it is subjective.

Geneticist Steve Jones, at University College London, dismisses Watson's comments about beauty as "daft". "The concept of beauty is a subjective one," he told New Scientist.

This claim flies in the face of everyday experience. Why do pretty girls get elected home coming queens in high school? Why is there little controversy over who the top contenders are? Why do certain TV and movie stars become the predictable heartthrobs of millions all over the world?

Social science research finds there is a large amount of agreement on what constitutes attractive appearance. (also see this link for the same article)

Men and women generally agree about how attractive another person is, and are often quite accurate in predicting how others will rate their own appearance, new study findings show.

People are going to genetically engineer their kids. They will do this for intelligence, personality, looks, health, and other characteristics. There may well be some countries that pass and strictly enforce laws forbidding this sort of thing. But other countries won't pass the laws or that will not make a concerted effort to enforce the laws. The incentives for genetically enigneering progeny will be so great that people will find a way to do it regardless of what governments say or do.

Update: It may seem hard to believe but some scientists and medical doctors still deny genetics can control the level of intelligence.

Australian Medical Association's ethics committee chairman Dr Trevor Mudge said it was not yet known if intelligence was determined by genetic or environmental factors.

For ideological reasons some highly educated people do not want to admit that genetics is more important than environment in determining intelligence. Obviously toxins and malnutrition can prevent proper brain development. Obviously a mind's development can be messed up by putting a child in an environment in which it can not intellectually develop. But to suppose that environment is the only or even the main factor separating the average 90 IQ person from the average 150 IQ person is ludicrous. Yet as the previous article demonstrates it is still possible to go around and find people with impressive sounding titles and credentials who will deny the role of genetic variations in determining intelligence.

This debate will end when it becomes possible to genetically engineer offspring to be smarter (i.e. probably in about 10 or 20 years). The people who are willing to do genetic engineering to their offspring will stampede to use the biotechnology that does so. Many people who, if asked today, would say they oppose offspring genetic engineering will be first in line to use it when it becomes possible to do so. Many will decide it is so important to give one's own children every advantage that they will place this feeling ahead of whatever argument they advance today in opposition to germ line genetic engineering.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 February 28 03:01 PM  Biotech Reproduction

Andrew Hvatum said at October 23, 2004 10:30 AM:

I thought Steve Jones' comment about beauty being subjective was pretty funny. Doubtless beauty is somewhat subjective, but people with weak jaws, lots of fat, no muscle (men), very small breasts (women), screwed up teeth and other such things are pretty much universally ugly. Beauty is ingrained deeply in our minds, even two week old babies have been shown to prefer looking at more beautiful women. More so then even their mothers.

Not only do we have this subjective analysis of beauty, but it has also now been scientifically quantified. Look at http://www.beautyanalysis.com/ for more information.

Paul said at May 27, 2007 8:40 AM:

"Why do [']pretty['] girls get elected home coming queens in high school?"
Small breasts are "pretty much universally ugly", are they?
Sounds like some people don't understand the difference between genetics and social conditioning.

Andrew Hvatum said at August 26, 2007 11:51 PM:

Nice red herring, Paul.

Go back and read what I actually wrote instead of picking two words and using those words out of context to set up an idiotic straw-man. I wrote "very small breasts... are pretty much universally ugly." I will grant you that "very small" is open to interpretation, so I'll be specific in what I meant - something akin to less then an AA cup.

And social conditioning?


Social conditioning plays a strong role in determining tastes within a range. However a total lack of breast tissue, total lack of definition of the hips (in women) or lack of muscular tissue (in men) is perceived as unattractive across all human groups and cultures so far researched. Take a glance at the above book, don't take my word for it. If you want to take anyone's word for it, then you would probably best go to Papua New Guinea and interview some isolated tribesmen and ask them what their preferences are. Or, save yourself the effort and simply read the widely published results which strongly back up the theory that there are indeed some concrete constants in the realm of beauty.

Sorry if you thought my original comment misogynistic, it wasn't meant as such. I simply feel pretty strongly that we should take a serious look at all options when it comes to improving the quality of our and our children's lives. I suppose it's a bad choice to mention beauty in the early stages of this debate, because people (as you have aptly demonstrated) are quick to assume that by engineering beauty I mean "engineering girls to look like Paris Hilton and guys to look like Arny!" - this is not the case. I just mean sparing people from socially debilitating deformities like misshapen jaws/teeth (which we correct in their childhood anyway - in a long a painful process, read up on Orthodontics for more info!) or nearly complete lack of breast tissue, which will actually make it impossible to produce breast-milk (since you seem to take such offense to my original argument).

All the best!

L Woods Jardine said at October 25, 2007 12:33 PM:

How often do beauty and wisdom come in the same [human] package? Socrates was famous for being both very ugly and very wise--although the nature of his death have led some to wonder, but, then, he did shame the "middle class" Athenians for eternity (more or less). Like Watson, he refused to shut up. But, then, maybe if Watson had been a tad less good-looking, bright and white, he'd be a tad wiser. High IQ, likewise, does not equal wisdom; indeed, it's those who've had high IQs have probably been responsible for more human misery than those w/the more or less average and even below average IQs. Obviously, stupid people don't invent atom bombs or vaccines or unravel DNA. Or as my v. bright late ex-husband, the alcoholic/diabetic philosophy prof was fond of saying, "God must love stupid people; he made so many of 'em." I'm not quite so bright or beautiful as my late husband was, but at least I'm not dead. or as another saying has it: "Handsome is as handsome does."

Elle Woods Jardine

cpascal said at March 8, 2012 12:38 PM:

It's good to see that such a well-known scientist has brought this up, even though it cost him his job. One of the reasons wy we haven't moved closer towards genetic engineering and enhancemets is probably the fact that it's considered taboo by so many people. Having low intelligence or being unattractive makes life much harder than it has to be, and there's no reason to have anybody continue to suffer from these things for longer than necessary. The sooner this technology is introduced, the better.

mahmood adds said at September 22, 2015 1:49 PM:

Well, Everything has its limits. There is a line between trying to raise better children and being inhumane. We must not get near that line. Nazis tried to prevent weak men from having kids depending on this same principle.
Stupidity is caused by both genetics and environmental causes. There are many things to do trying to get a smarter kids in many stages starting from pregnancy to about 15 years old and all of this period depends on parents and how resourceful and knowledgeable they are.
There are more dangerous kinds of stupidities that are completely environmentally caused like the ones you found it some religious beliefs, politics, racism. And they need a very fast cure and a vaccine for children -if possible- :)

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