Cutthroat Competition

At this point, scientific competition isn’t really all that new anymore. We started off our semester with the race to crack the genetic code, and while that competition was portrayed as being slightly more civil, nobody really knows what was going on with either group behind the scenes. But Watson’s portrayal of his actions and reactions during the competition were, besides being extremely frank, also extremely human. He presents his questionable moral decisions and allows the viewer to judge for himself – not only in relation to his schadenfreude over Pauling’s blunder, but also in relation to Rosalind Franklin.

Let’s be honest: Watson doesn’t like Rosalind. He openly mocks her by referring to her as “Rosy” the entire book, makes petty and snobbish complaints about her, and doesn’t ascribe to her the credit that she probably deserves.

But isn’t that just the nature of competition? This is a field that’s all about finishing first – crossing the line even a fraction of a second afterwards means basically nothing. This is a discipline that moves quickly, and unless you’re on top of everything, you’re sinking. And when you’re sinking, you grab onto anything that you can to get back to the surface. This is a race for survival – yes, you can live as a scientist who never really made any big discoveries, but if you’re competing on this kind of level, your name in the field and in the community as a whole is all dependant on how fast you are at finding the right answers, and acting on them accordingly.

Someone like Pauling had no reservation for acting on what he believed was correct. Unfortunately, his zeal and hastiness cost him some reputation (as well as some pride). Rosalind was on the right track – she had key information that turned out to be absolutely crucial – in fact, she could potentially have uncovered the truth about DNA herself, but she was slow to present her data and, as a result, got left in the dust. Rosalind’s reluctance to show her data is understandable: she’s a woman in the 1950s in a male-dominated field, so the less she does to draw attention to the sexist beliefs that women aren’t fit for science, the better. But in a cutthroat environment like this, being too cautious simply opens up a whole new can of worms.

So was Rosalind robbed? No, I don’t think so. Did she deserve more than she got? Yes, almost certainly, but science often times overlooks certain details until they become posthumous recognition (the first example to pop into my head is Mendel, whose findings weren’t considered or taken seriously until long after his death.) And the last question, did Watson and Crick really deserve the fame and fortune they got simply for crossing the finish line first? Yes, I believe so. Despite the resentment that Watson describes from colleagues, despite the ethical arguments one could make of how he took blatant advantage of the people and resources around him, he did not plagerize from other scientists working on the same problem, reached his own conclusion using the data made available to him, and, at least in my opinion, fought this bloody battle to be the first and came out of it, for the most part, with his integrity in-tact.

– Kievan

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~ by kievan09 on March 20, 2012.

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