December 14, 2005

Discussion about Charles Darwin (excerpts)

CHARLIE ROSE: Joining me now: professors E.O. Wilson and James Watson. They are simply two of the great scientific minds of our time. E.O. Wilson has taught at Harvard for more than four decades. He has written more than 20 books on biology and evolution. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes. In 1962, James Watson won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. His co-recipients were Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins.

EDWARD O. WILSON: (Darwin's) achievement was not to present the idea of evolution, but to present the idea of evolution by random genetic change that was then sorted out by natural selection, by the environment.

JAMES D. WATSON: There was no designer.

EDWARD O. WILSON: 1,000 years from now, there will be two landmarks in the origin of the - of biology, modern biology. One would be (Darwin's) "The Origin of Species," 1859. And the other one would be the 1953 paper showing the structure of DNA by - by Watson and Crick.

EDWARD O. WILSON: (In a) CNN poll of about three weeks ago, 51 percent of Americans say evolution never occurred; 34 percent said evolution occurred but God guided it. And 15 percent said, well, I guess science is right about it.

CHARLIE ROSE: Let me lay into the scientific and - and Biblical conflict here. Both of you as scientists believe deeply in the law of science and the fact of science, that there`s no way you can reconcile a divine creator and the implications of Darwin`s theory of evolution, yes? And Darwin understood that too because of what he said at the time that he wrote.

JAMES D. WATSON: That`s - yes. You`ve got to define religion. If it`s a personal god who interferes with our lives and listens to our prayers and aware of our existence, I really -- I can only mention one person that I know who believes that, who`s a serious scientist. Francis Collins.

CHARLIE ROSE: ... People would say, well, you can never explain heredity on the basis of physics and chemistry. Now, I think that was the big emotional thing when we got the DNA structure. Heredity was now explainable in terms of physics and chemistry.

EDWARD O. WILSON: The point is that - that this was an immense ... made a huge difference in how you viewed possible divine intervention.

JAMES D. WATSON: But in my childhood, my father was an unbeliever. And...Darwin was ..talked about in our family. So I was raised as a Darwinian.

CHARLIE ROSE: Why is it that the phenomenon of rejecting Darwin -- however large it is in America, Jim, however large or small it is -- is more pronounced in America than anywhere else?

EDWARD O. WILSON: We`re a frontier country. Our forebearers, no matter when they came over, they came over from a structured, hierarchical society, in which everything was set for them, and if you had questions of morality, belief and so on, you just went down to the nearest cathedral and everything was pretty much in order. We came -- they came to this country, and they didn`t have that. They had to form tight communities to survive. And in order to do that, they have to have -- had to have a moral system, a belief system, and they - they had to have an authority. And that authority came from holy scripture.

JAMES D. WATSON: Well, I think people -- there`s something in our brain that wants to understand things. And human beings 3,000 years ago wanted to understand things and so - and to have rules. And so, I think developing religions was a very natural thing to do. Now, for those of us who are trained in science, everything seems much simpler without God. And you know, you don`t have to worry about why did God let a child be born autistic.

JAMES D. WATSON: Suddenly we`ve got the DNA sequence of the chimpanzee. You know, we can really now see human evolution. And we can go out and begin to see the differences between the DNA of an Eskimo and someone who is living in the tropics. And so, we really can now see evolution occurring at the level of DNA, which Darwin couldn`t. And -- but all his guesses were really right on mark.

JAMES D. WATSON: In my mind, Darwin was the most important person who ever lived on Earth. If you say that truth comes from observation and experience, not from revelation, which was the way I was raised, then Darwin was the first person using observation and experience to really put man in his place in the world.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Yes. You know, if you go through the founders of great religions and you have to understand that they have just affected part of the world and they are in contention with one another, and it`s - it`s important but it`s not all-important. Because it really -- they really were basically wrong about where man came from and where - and - and how we fit in the universe.

CHARLIE ROSE: If you were 25 years old, the thing that you would set out to do would not find the structure of DNA, which has been done .... but would be to find out how the mind works.

JAMES D. WATSON: Yeah. And -- but you better set out at 15. Twenty-five - 25 is too late.

CHARLIE ROSE: And you? Why - why molecular biology having to do with the structure of life?

JAMES D. WATSON: Oh, because, you know, my father, having rejected religion, and said that you could, you know, explain life in terms of physics and chemistry -- I wanted to show it could be done. So, you know, really, saying it`s based on physics and chemistry isn`t very convincing until you show it`s based on physics and chemistry...It just seemed so important, you know, to - to finally get it right.

JAMES D. WATSON: About 1980, some of (Wilson's) colleagues poured water over his head for suggesting that human behavior is influenced by our genes.

EDWARD O. WILSON: And that was a nasty period. But that`s another story that`s resolved pretty well. Sociobiology is now accepted.

JAMES D. WATSON: But the -- there`s still a great reluctance for some people to a certain view. They want evolution to have stopped about 100,000 years ago so that all humans are identical. And it doesn`t seem to have occurred that way.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Unfortunately. Another hard truth we have yet to face.

JAMES D. WATSON: And so, you know, science comes up with facts which sometimes society finds hard to adjust to. And we`re in the midst of that again.

CHARLIE ROSE: Explain it to me.

JAMES D. WATSON: We`ve more or less said that we`re all the same. And the only reason we`re different is that some people have got a good education; some people have gotten good nutrition. But we`re basically the same. That was the idea. We look different on the outside, but inside we`re the same. That was stated by members of your department, prominent members of your department. And it`s just not true.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Because now actually we`re getting down to the genetic -- the actual genes, by which internal traits in some cases are different.

JAMES D. WATSON: Some people, like the Polynesian people, are very, very prone to get type II diabetes. They`re not the same inside, but because they evolved to take these long trips over water, they had to have a lot of fat on them in the beginning, and none at the end. And if you put them in a world where you can go out and buy McDonald`s hamburgers, you know, and get 5,000 calories for $10 or less, they explode.

EDWARD O. WILSON: So now it`s getting accepted that we do differ a lot. Most people (think) from here (the neck) down. But that we might differ from here (the neck) up is a little harder to take.

JAMES D. WATSON: Well, see, we are going to differ, everyone, you know, has their own prejudices, you know, whether the Irish are better poets, and whether there`s anything genetic.

JAMES D. WATSON: But it`s really whether there`s -- whether our cultural history is also seen in concurrence -- a cultural evolution has also seen some evolutionary selection.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Well, of course it has, yes. In fact, one of the main problems remaining, Jim, I think, it`s tightly related to the matter of mind, you know, understanding how the brain works, is how genetic evolution, which is occurring, is linked to cultural evolution. You know, surely genetic, our genetic make-up and differences affect the cultures to some extent that we haven`t fully measured. And surely the way cultures have evolved have affected -- we know that -- has affected our genetic make-up. So how are they linked? We have scarcely begun to study that. That`s a great area.

JAMES D. WATSON: So, I think one area, you know, over the last 20,000 years, have we become less violent? And we have to be less violent in order to co-exist in cities or in nations or now in the United Nations? You know, bigger and bigger groups. So that violence is no longer very useful. And there`s some evidence that that has occurred.


JAMES D. WATSON: You know, there`s been a selection that, just like dogs aren`t as violent as wolves, that...

CHARLIE ROSE: Because they don`t need to be. It`s natural selection.

JAMES D. WATSON: Yes. The people who were violent were just shoved out of their societies and died. They didn`t live. So there can be -- this is what I`m trying to say, is that that`s something which this coming century, we`re going to get a much better idea of. And it`s going to be very exciting to find out. But I think, you know, have we been evolving to be nicer people? I think so.

CHARLIE ROSE: Are you on the same page here in terms of there is a kind of evolution taking place?

EDWARD O. WILSON: Well, of course. The evidence is pretty decisive. We`ve somehow got to bring biology and the social sciences and psychology together.


EDWARD O. WILSON: Psychologists, most of the practicing psychologists and theoretical psychologists and the vast majority of social sciences, who really determine a lot of the intellect that goes into our policies, you know, and our philosophies, our political philosophies, have no connection at all to their true nature of humanity or what human nature is at a biological level. This is still a huge gap. And I believe that we will start to fill that in a way that will be useful in years immediately ahead.

JAMES D. WATSON: I see the coming -- the past century was the coming together of chemistry and biology. This century will be the coming together of psychology and biology.


JAMES D. WATSON: But, you know, the idea that, you know, violence could, you know, be selected against, I think that`s a very exciting idea.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Yeah, the taming of the human species.

JAMES D. WATSON: The taming, which was necessary in order to form even groups of 100 people, and much more necessary when you have a group of 5 million in a city. You know, the average person can`t be violent, or just, you know, all the big cities would just, you know, they`d collapse, because everyone would be living with fear. For the most part, we don`t live with fear when we walk down the street, or those who were lucky in that -- some people do -- but it`s remarkable how much we trust each other. So I think, you know, there`s -- we have a good side as well as bad side. And you can see why you sort of need both. I mean, evolutionarily, both have existed.

But these are the questions we`re going to ask. And sometimes people won`t like the answer that, you know, what you do with violent people. You know, are we the cause of them or are they -- are their genes the cause of them? When you know the brain, it`s not surprising that some people just get into awfully bad luck, and have been born nasty. You know, it`s not society. It`s just awful bad luck. And the real problem is, how do you have a just society when genetics is unjust? Seems to me that is...

CHARLIE ROSE: A powerful question. On that, let me thank both of you. I have done at least 30,000 interviews, and this is one that I am most proud.

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