An Open Letter on Dr. James Watson
from Human Genome Database Pioneers
Pangea Systems/DoubleTwist Founders (Vancouver, BC/Oakland, CA)
Posted on allAfrica
by Joel L. Bellenson, Dexster Smith & Edward Kiruluta
Vancouver, BC & Oakland, CA
In 1999, California-based Pangea Systems/DoubleTwist assembled and annotated the first-ever draft of the human genome
, beating the version championed by Dr. Craig Venter by more than six months. Using publicly available data and computational and analytic tools they assembled themselves, co-founders Dexster Smith, Edward Kiruluta and Joel Bellenson made history. This great achievement built on earlier work at Stanford University, where this team designed and built one of the first databases to link genotype and phenotype.
At Pangea/DoubleTwist they went on to develop LifeSeq
, which was the first database linking gene expression data to tissue, disease and drug treatment specificity. They further extended their series of "firsts" by designing Rosetta
, the first-ever large-scale protein expression analysis system. In 2003, Smith and Bellenson co-founded Upstream Biosciences
, which is identifying biomarkers for personalized medicine using advanced computational tools to analyze genetic variation. The company has also applied its computational expertise to discover innovative new drugs for tropical infectious diseases, and today it is collaborating with African researchers and government organizations to develop these potentially important new drugs.
Who are these genetic pioneers and what is their provenance? Although all of us are ultimately of African descent, Edward Kiruluta was actually born in Uganda, Dexster Smith is an African-American and Joel Bellenson's forebears include Sephardic Jews from North Africa. Following is their open letter on recent remarks that ended the controversial career of Dr. James Watson .
While Nobel Laureate James Watson has claimed the mantle of co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, key aspects of his discoveries were plagiarized from pioneering woman scientist and DNA researcher Dr. Rosalind Franklin. But now James Watson has finally touched a nerve big enough to eclipse the long-standing questions about whether his place in history is rightfully his own. Watson's comments on African intelligence
tell us far more about his own biases than they do about the intelligence of Africans.
Africa is the birthplace of the human species and human civilization. African people discovered the earliest scientific inventions. The first tools, the earliest use of fire, and the first use of numbers are all from Africa. While most Europeans were living in primitive conditions, Africans had assembled the leading compilation of human knowledge of the time, the legendary Library of Alexandria.
Africans are some of the most diverse people in the world. Over 1,000 languages are spoken, and the average African speaks several languages. Africa's challenging geography and climate have required continual innovations - cultural and technological - for humans to survive and thrive.
Watson's comments are particularly hurtful because they touch on the unhealed wounds that the world still bears from centuries of colonialism, slavery and racism. These manifest today as disproportionate poverty and disempowerment for African people around the world. For this reason, neither Watson's apologies nor those of his peers embarrassed by his racial intelligence slurs are compelling, because these allegations nourish and sustain the profound social damage resulting from this long history of oppression and racism.
Science is the never-ending human quest for truth and the advancement of life and consciousness. But periodically, during times of economic and social crisis, science has been hijacked to justify racism, nationalism and aggression. Yet it is precisely at these same exact times that the world most needs scientists and engineers to transform themselves into internationalists, so that they can work together to harness the power of science to help transform the world in positive ways.
Let us hope that Watson's comments do not discourage young Africans from a career in science, fearing that science is a weapon of oppression, a tool for reducing their humanity. Instead, we who are scientists and engineers of African descent urge that these youth realize that the world needs many more African scientific minds—to unlock the genius within this continent that gave birth to humanity, for the betterment of their compatriots and of the entire world.
Sham science has been used throughout history as the basis for enslavement, genocide and the degradation of broad sections of humanity. Unlike Dr. Watson, we and countless others are using real science, including the science of genetic variation itself, for the betterment of human society . To that end, our company is discovering and developing drugs that address devastating tropical infectious diseases that disproportionately afflict Africans, including trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis, malaria, and tuberculosis.
We are proud of our African heritage. We give thanks for the gifts of insight and intelligence and for the education that allows us to put them to positive use. And we are grateful to be working with so many talented Africans to harvest the fruits of real science for the advancement of us all.
The views expressed are solely those of its authors, and do not represent the views of Upstream Biosciences Inc. or any other organization.