Freethought of the Day

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There are 2 entries for this date: James D. Watson and Robert M. Sapolsky
James D. Watson

James D. Watson

On this date in 1928, James D. Watson was born in Chicago. Watson, who co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) at age 25, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. Unfortunately, Watson’s history of making racist comments, as well as objectionable, high-profile comments about women, “Latin lovers,” obesity and homosexuality, disgraced his reputation during his last two decades.

A bird-watching hobby prompted his early interest in genetics. He earned his B.Sc. degree in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1947 and his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1950. He worked with Wilkins and Francis Crick at Cavendish Laboratory in England in 1951-53, when they discovered the structure of DNA. Watson became a member of the Harvard Biology Department in 1956, then a full professor in 1961. His book The Double Helix, which was published in 1968, became a best-seller, though Watson was widely criticized for the book’s sexist disparagement of Rosalind Franklin and her research, upon which the discovery was based. Now, Franklin, who died in 1958, is often credited with Crick and Watson as a co-discoverer.

Watson was appointed director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island in 1968 and became its president in 1994. As director of the National Center for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., in 1989, Watson launched the worldwide campaign to map and sequence the human genome.

Watson is an unbeliever who has said he considers that human progress has been shackled by the idea of divine fate, and that human beings should do their utmost to improve the future. “Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely. Only with the discovery of the double helix and the ensuing genetic revolution have we had grounds for thinking that the powers held traditionally to be the exclusive property of the gods might one day be ours. ... [As a young man ] I came to the conclusion that the church was just a bunch of fascists that supported Franco. I stopped going on Sunday mornings and watched the birds with my father instead.” (London Telegraph, March 22, 2003)

His racist comments led the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to strip him of his honorary titles in January 2019: “The Laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.” Watson had, for instance, told Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper in 2007 that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really,” among other more personal slurs against blacks. He was relieved of his administrative duties in 2007 but retained an office and honorary titles until he said in a PBS documentary, “American Masters: Decoding Watson” (January 2019), that his views had not changed.

"The biggest advantage to believing in God is you don't have to understand anything, no physics, no biology. I wanted to understand."

—Dr. James Watson, (speech at Youngstown State University, quoted in The Vindicator, Dec. 2, 2003)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Robert M. Sapolsky

Robert M. Sapolsky

On this date in 1957, biologist and neuroendocrinologist Robert Morris Sapolsky was born in Brooklyn, New York. Sapolsky, whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in the Bensonhurst neighborhood. His father was an architect. He was a precocious student, teaching himself Swahili and writing letters to primatologists as a student at John Dewey High School on Coney Island.

He graduated from Harvard University in 1978 with a B.A. in biological anthropology and received his Ph.D. in neuroendocrinology from The Rockefeller University in New York City in 1984. He did post-doctoral work at the Salk Institute and was a research associate at the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya. From 1978 until 1990 he spent three to four months a year living in a pup tent in Kenya to study the baboon population. 

Sapolsky is a professor of biology, neurological sciences and neurosurgery at Stanford University. His work as a neuroendocrinologist has addressed the issues of stress and neuronal degeneration. The latest of his nearly 300 journal publications (as of this writing) is "This Is Your Brain on Nationalism: The Biology of Us and Them" (Foreign Affairs, 2019). 

His books include Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death (1992), Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (1994), Junk Food Monkeys (1997), The Trouble with Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament (1998), the best-selling A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (2001), Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals (2005) and Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017).

Sapolsky has received numerous honors and awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant in 1987 and the 2008 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization. In 2002 he was the recipient of FFRF's Emperor Has No Clothes Award ("Belief and Biology" acceptance speech) and was named to FFRF’s Honorary Board in 2010. He is married to Lisa Sapolsky, a neuropsychologist. They have two children, Benjamin and Rachel. 

Public domain photo, 2009, National Institutes of Health

"I was raised in an Orthodox household, and I was raised devoutly religious up until around age 13 or so. In my adolescent years, one of the defining actions in my life was breaking away from all religious belief whatsoever."

—Robert Sapolsky, Emperor Has No Clothes Award acceptance speech (Nov. 23, 2003)

Compiled by Bill Dunn

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

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