LBS 333        Topics in the History of Genetics and Molecular Biology    Fall 2000

Chapter Twelve,

The Molecular Wars

by E. O. Wilson

Without a trace of irony I can say I have been blessed with brilliant enemies.  They made me suffer (after all, they were enemies), but I owe them a great debt, because they redoubled my energies and drove me in new directions.  We need such people in our creative lives. As John Stuart Mill once put it, both teachers and learners fall asleep at their posts when there is no enemy in the field.

James Dewey Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, served as one such adverse hero for me. When he was a young man, in the 1950s and 1960s, I found him the most unpleasant human being I had ever met. He came to Harvard as an assistant professor in 1956, also my first year at the same rank. At twenty-eight, he was only a year older. He arrived with a conviction that biology must be transformed into a science directed at molecules and cells and rewritten in the language of physics and chemistry. What had gone before, "traditional" biologyómy biologyówas infested by stamp collectors who lacked the wit to transform their subject into a modern science.  He treated most of the other twenty-four members of the Department of Biology with a revolutionaryís fervent disrespect.

At department meetings Watson radiated contempt in all directions. He shunned ordinary courtesy and polite conversation, evidently in the belief that they would only encourage the traditionalists to stay around. His bad manners were tolerated because of the greatness of the discovery he had made, and because of its gathering aftermath. In the 1950s and 1960s the molecular revolution had begun to run through biology like a flash flood. Watson, having risen to historic fame at an early age, became the Caligula of biology. He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously. And unfortunately, he did so, with a casual and brutal offhandedness. In his own mind apparently he was Honest Jim, as he later called himself in the manuscript title of his memoir of the discoveryóbefore changing it to The Double Helix. Few dared call him openly to account.

Watsonís attitude was particularly painful for me. One day at a department meeting I naively chose to argue that the department needed more young evolutionary biologists, for balance. At least we should double the number from one (me) to two. I informed the listening professors that Frederick Smith, an innovative and promising population ecologist, had recently been recruited from the University of Michigan by Harvardís Graduate School of Design. I outlined Smithís merits and stressed the importance of teaching environmental biology. I proposed, following standard departmental procedure, that Smith be offered joint membership in the Department of Biology.

Watson said softly, "Are they out of their minds?"

"What do you mean?" I was genuinely puzzled.

"Anyone who would hire an ecologist is out of his mind," responded the avatar of molecular biology.

For a few moments the room was silent. No one to defend the nomination, but no one echoed Watson either. Then Paul Levine, the department chairman, jumped in to close the subject. This proposal, he said, is not one we are prepared to consider at this time. With documentation, we might examine the nomination at some future date. We never did, of course. Smith was elected a member only after the molecular biologists split off to form a department of their own.

After this meeting I walked across the Biological Laboratories quad on my way to the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Elso Barghoorn hurried to catch up with me. A senior professor of evolutionary biology, he was one of the worldsí foremost paleobotanists, the discoverer of Pre-Cambrian microscopic fossils, and an honest man. "Ed," he said, I donít think we should use ëecologyí as an expression anymore. Itís become a dirty word." And sure enough, for most of the following decade we largely stopped using the word "ecology." Only later did I sense the anthropological significance of the incident. When one culture sets out to erase another, the first thing its rulers banish is the official use of the native tongue.

The molecular wars were on. Watson was joined to varying degrees in attitude and philosophy by a small cadre of other biochemists and molecular biologists already in the department. They were George Wald, soon to receive a Noble Prize for his work on the biochemical basis of vision; John Edsall, a pioneering protein chemist and youngish elder statesman who smiled and nodded a lot but was hard to understand; Matthew Meselson, a brilliant young biophysicist newly recrutied from the California Institute of Technology; and Paul Levine, the only other assistant professor besides Watson and myself promoted to tenure during the 1950s. Levine soon deserted population biology and began to promote the new doctrine aggressively on his own. Zeal of the convert, I thought to myself.


My own position was made more uncomfortable by the location of my office and laboratory in the Biological Laboratories, the bridgehead from physics and chemistry into which the richly funded molecular biologists were now pouring. I found the atmosphere there depressingly tense.  Watson did not acknowledge my presence as we passed in the hall, even when no one else was near. I was undecided whether to respond in kind by pretending to be unaware of his own existence (impossible) or to humiliate myself by persisting with southern politenesse (also impossible). I settled on a mumbled salutationÖ.

My standing among the molecularists was not improved by my having been granted tenure several months before Watson, in 1958. Although it was an accident of timingóI had received an unsolicited offer from Stanford and Harvard counterofferedóand in any event I considered him to be far more deserving, I can imagine how Watson must have taken the news. Badly.

Actually, I cannot honestly say I knew Jim Watson at all.  The skirmish over Smithís appointment was only one of a half-dozen times he and I spoke directly to each other during his twelve years at Harvard and in the period immediately following. On one occasion, in October 1962, I offered him my hand and said, "Congratulations, Jim, on the Nobel Prize. Itís a wonderful event for the whole department." He replied, "Thank you." End of conversation. On another occasion, in May 1969, he extended his hand and said, "Congratulations, Ed, on your election to the National Academy of Sciences." I replied, "Thank you very much, Jim." I was delighted by this act of courtesy.

At least there was no guile in the man. Watson evidently felt, at one level, that he was working for the good of science, and a blunt tool was needed. Have to crack eggs to make an omelet, and so forth. What he dreamed at a deeper level I never knew. I am only sure that had his discovery been of lesser magnitude he would have been treated at Harvard as just one more gifted eccentric, and much of his honesty would have been publicly dismissed as poor judgement.  But people listened carefully, and a few younger colleagues aped his manners, for the compelling reason that the deciphering of the DNA molecule with Francis Crick towered over all that the rest of us had achieved and could ever hope to achieve. It came like a lightning flash, like knowledge from the gods. The Prometheus of the drama were Jim Watson and Francis Crick, and not just by a stroke of good luck either. Watson-Crick possessed extraordinary brilliance and initiative. It is further a singular commentary on the conduct of science that (according to Watson in a later interview) no other qualified person was interested in devoting full time to the problem.


ÖI was among the Harvard graduate students most excited by the early advances of molecular biology. Watson was a boyís hero of the natural sciences, the fast young gun who rode into town.

Moreís the pity that Watson himself and his fellow molecularists had no such foresights about the sector of biology in which I had comfortably settled. All I could sift from their pronouncements was the revolutionaryís credo: Wipe the slate clean of this old-fashioned thinking and see what new order will emerge.

I was of course disappointed at this lack of vision. When Watson became director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968 (he kept his Harvard professorship by joint appointment until 1976) I commented sourly to friends that I wouldnít put him in charge of a lemonade stand. He proved me wrong. In ten years he raised that noted institution to even greater heights by inspiration, fund-raising skills, and the ability to choose and attract the most gifted researchers.


There is a final principle of social behavior to help keep thee many developments in perspective. When oppressed peoples have no other remedy they resort to humor. In 1967 I composed a "Glossary of Phrases in Molecular Biology" that was soon distributed in departments of biology throughout the country and praisedóby evolutionary biologistsófor capturing the strut of the conquerors. My samizdat included the following expressions, which I have changed here from alphabetical order to create a logical progression of the concepts:

Classical Biology. That part of biology not yet explained in terms of physics and chemistry. Classical Biologists are fond of claiming that there is a great deal of Classical Biology that individual Molecular Biologists do not know about; but that is all right because it is probably mostly not worth knowing about anyway, we think. In any case, it doesnít matter, because eventually it will all be explained in terms of physics and chemistry; then it will be Molecular Biology and worth knowing about

Brilliant Discovery. A publishable result in the Mainstream of Biology.

Mainstream of Biology. The set of all projects being worked on by me and my friends. Also known as Modern Biology and Twenty-first Century Biology.

Exceptional Young Man. A beginning Molecular Biologist who has made a Brilliant Discovery (q. v.)

First-rate. Pertaining to biologists working on projects in the Mainstream of Biology.

Molecular Biology. That part of biochemistry which has supplanted part of Classical Biology. A great deal of Molecular Biology is being conducted by First-rate Scientists who make Brilliant Discoveries.

Third-rate. Pertaining to Classical Biologists.

First rate, Brilliant, Wave of the FutureÖbelieve me, this was the phrasing actually used. Today those once oft-heard mantras clink with antique brittleness.  The passage of thirty years has done much to close the divide between molecular and evolutionary biology. As I write, systematists, the solitary experts on groups of organisms, have unfortunately been largely eliminated from academic departments by the encroachment of the new fields. That is the worst damage caused by the molecular revolution. Ecologists, pushed to the margin for years, have begun a resurgence through the widespread recognition of the global environment crisis. Molecular biologists, as they promised, have taken up evolutionary studies, making important contributions whenever they can find systematists to tell them the names of organisms. The surviving evolutionary biologists routinely use molecular data to pursue their Darwinian agenda. The two sides sometimes speak warmly to each other. Indeed, teams from both domains increasingly collaborate to conduct First-rate Work in what may now safely and fairly be called part of the Mainstream of Biology. The corridor language one overhears from molecular biologists has grown more chaste and subtle. Only hardshelled fundamentalists among them think that higher levels of biological organization, populations to ecosystems, can be explained by molecular biology.

---From Edward O. Wilson, Naturalist Washington D. C.: Island Press, 1994.