BERKELEY — A Nobel laureate’s provocative speech on sunshine and sex left some at the University of California Berkeley campus aghast.
James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, dumbfounded many at a guest lecture as he advanced his theories – complete with slides of bikini-clad women – that there is a link between skin color and sex drive.
“That’s why you have Latin lovers,” he said, according to people who were there last month. “You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”
“I realized right away that this was inappropriate,” said Susan Marqusee, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.
Watson also contended that fat people are happy and thin people more ambitious, showing a slide of waif-like model Kate Moss looking sad to illustrate that point.
Marqusee said she walked out after a comment about men finding fat women sexually attractive. “There wasn’t any science,” she said. “These aren’t issues that one can state as fact.”
Watson has been traveling and customarily does not comment on reaction to his lectures, said Jeff Picarello, spokesman for the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, in Long Island, N.Y., where Watson is president.
Picarello said Watson has given this lecture before to positive reviews and is known for mixing it up with audiences. Expounding on his theory that exposure to sunlight enhances sex drive, the mostly bald 72-year-old will announce that bald men have better sex, Picarello said.
“He says this with a twinkle in his eye. It’s fascinating, but at the same it’s amusing.”
Biology doctoral candidate Sarah Tegen said people were laughing at the beginning of Watson’s lecture. But the laughter turned nervous as he developed his theme – “There was a lot of looking at the person next to you and saying, ’I can’t believe he’s saying this.”’
The problem, says Tegen, was that Watson didn’t present the science to back up his startling presentation.
“I think there’s a really important place in science for controversy. That’s how you overturn dogmas. But it’s got to be within a context of testable hypotheses,” she said.
Watson, who shared a Nobel Prize for his role in discovering the structure of DNA in 1953, and who launched the Human Genome Project in 1990, was giving a speech called “The Pursuit of Happiness: Lessons from pom-C.”
Pom-C is a protein that helps create different hormones – melanin that determines skin color, beta endorphins that affect mood and leptin, which plays a role in metabolism of fat.
Watson talked about how these chemicals are enhanced by sunlight, leading to the supposition that people who are exposed to more sunlight have more of these hormones.
He talked about an experiment at the University of Arizona where male patients were injected with a melanin extract.
The test was designed to see if skin could be chemically darkened as a skin cancer preventive, but found that as a side effect the men became sexually aroused.
Watson went on to talk about exposure to sun and sexual drive, at one point showing slides of women in bikinis and one of veiled Muslim women.
Picarello said Watson’s theories are underpinned by biological fact.
“He approaches life as a science and puts forth his science because that’s what he loves. I don’t think he’s afraid of public opinion. I don’t think he defers to public opinion and I think we’re all a lot better of if biology isn’t politically correct,” he said.
James Allison, co-chair of the university’s department of molecular and cell biology, called the speech fallout a “tempest in a teapot. Jim’s a provocative guy. He certainly provoked people.”
But some Watson supporters were concerned he went too far.
“Doesn’t a guy like Jim Watson have the responsibility to make this not ugly?” Berkeley biologist Michael Botchan, a Watson protege who presided over the session, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Yes. But I cannot tell Jim Watson to change his ways.”