Arthur Kornberg died last Friday. Kornberg isolated the enzyme that synthesizes DNA in E. coli, and named it DNA polymerase. He won the Nobel for this — not a big surprise, as this was a major breakthrough in biology. He continued to do research for a really long time on DNA replication. His son Roger also won the Nobel — are there any other father/son Nobel winners? Anyway, a major light in the world of genetics, and I’m a bit older now that he’s gone.
Meanwhile, James Watson resigned as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. Watson, of course, won the Nobel along with Crick and Maurice Wilkins for figuring out the structure of DNA. He recently earned considerable notoriey:
The former Harvard University researcher created instant controversy when he commented on the intelligence of Africans in a Oct. 14 article in the Sunday Times Magazine of London. Watson told the newspaper that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa. … All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really. …There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically.” Watson also said that while he hoped all people are equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”
Now, first of all, he’s quite right in principle when he says that geographically separated peoples could evolve differently.Â The problem with this is that there’s no reason at all to suppose that the continent of Africa is geographically isolated from the rest of humanity. Homo sapiens originated there, and then spread to the rest of the world.Â Since that time, genetic evidence indicates that there has been more or less continual flow of peoples back and forth from Africa.Â Furthermore, there’s more genetic diversity among people in Africa than in the entire rest of the world, as is typical for the center of origin of a species.Â So saying anything about “africans” as a whole is pretty misleading — very little would apply to Bantus, Masai, and !kung equally, other than the fact that as an adaptation to a hot, sunny environment, they all have lots of melanin. Â So he’s wrong, and racist.Â The problem is, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise.Â Watson has gone on record being sexist and racist before.Â For that matter, anyone who has read his book The Double Helix knows what a jerk he is.
Meanwhile, I’m reading a book called Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible.Â Did you know that several Psalms are acrostics?Â Psalm 119 has 22 groups of 8 verses.Â In each group, all eight verses begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the groups are in alphabetical order.Â It was apparently a penmanship exercise for training scribes.Â Neat, huh?