Dr. James D. Watson
July 4, 2000
The Pursuit of Happiness
We have assembled here this Independence Day to reaffirm that freedom is at the heart of human existence. When in control of our individual destinies, we thrive and look forward to the future. In contrast, when our aims and actions are determined by others, we feel stifled and unable to live up to our potentials as human beings. Without life, liberty and the ability to pursue happiness, human beings have no chance to realize the great talents that let Galileo see the moons of Jupiter, or Rembrandt catch the essence of humanity in his portrayal of our faces.
In preparing our country for the war that would soon envelop us, Franklin Roosevelt spoke of four essential freedoms -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of want, and freedom from fear. That bleak January 1941 day, Roosevelt emphasized freedom from fear, knowing well the mortal potential that attainment of Hitler's ugly aspirations held for human life. But if Thomas Jefferson were then mobilizing our nation, he would have added a fifth freedom -- freedom from ignorance. The uneducated man can never be in control of his destiny. Had newspapers, the BBC, and cinema newsreels not informed the general public that Hitler was evil incarnate, the fateful Battle of Britain might very well had a different outcome.
As a product of the 18th century intellectual enlightenment, Jefferson saw truth arising from observations and experiments. So he wanted his state of Virginia to select, for special educational enrichment, youths of inherent genius who were sprinkled as liberally among the poor as the rich. He saw the knowledge so learned as the ultimate safeguard of liberty. Correspondingly tyrannies thrive when education is prevented. Cromwell's victorious march across Ireland was soon followed by abolition of education for its Catholic denizens.
Essentially a deist who saw a role for God only in the creation of the universe and its life forms, but not in events afterward, Jefferson did not see organized religions as the basis for moral virtue. Instead he accepted the idea going back to the Greeks of natural rights which arose out of the essence of the human being as created by God. To Jefferson it was self evident that all humans were created equal with inalienable rights that transcended where or in what period of history one was living.
Today, 224 years after Jefferson so eloquently expressed these ideas in the Declaration of Independence, biology is witnessing the completion of an intellectual renaissance that Charles Darwin began in the nineteenth century. Through his Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection, Darwin forever changed our view of human life. He saw ourselves as the products not of creation by a God as revealed in Genesis but as arising through a series of evolutionary events going back to a common ancestor of many eons ago.
Much more recently we have learned that the variation upon which natural selection acts reflects mutational changes in DNA, the molecule of heredity. Differences between different forms of life reflect differences in the sequences of the four letters -- A, T, G, and C -- of the DNA alphabet. When the double helix was first revealed in 1953, neither Francis Crick nor I ever thought that, within our lifetimes, the three billion letters that compose the human genetic message would ever be close to being deciphered. But just a week ago, elegant technology and innovative science, combined with much human perseverance, allowed the world of science to give to humanity this true book of human life. Already we can see the outline of some 40,000 genes, the discrete packets of DNA information that are used to determine the structure of proteins, the actors in cellular life.
The inborn equality of all humans that Jefferson so forcefully believed in, we now see arising from our common ancestor that existed in Southern Africa only some 100,000 years ago. Most likely the hunter-gatherer Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert are a direct and largely unchanged representation of human life as it then existed. On a recent trip to Botswana, I was struck by the Bushmen's quickness to learn despite speaking a language that only counts "one, two, three, and many." Underlying the close resemblance of all humans to each other is the close similarity of our books of DNA instructions. Individual variations in our DNA sequences amount to less than one letter in 1000 with most of these differences arising long before modern humans spread across Africa into the Middle East.
Modern biological thought, however, is much less compatible with Jefferson's concept of undeniable rights. Evolution has not endowed ourselves or the fox or the chicken for that matter, with the right to live or to be treated well. Instead, every successful animal form has evolved with its own individual needs, say for specific foods. In turn, we all have evolved capabilities that largely satisfy such needs. High among the needs for virtually all vertebrates is liberty; for being free to move and act unimpeded by others is an indispensable condition for evolutionary survival. At the same time, our various brains have been programmed by our genes to initiate actions that keep us alive. Animals that do not seek out food or evade fast moving objects will not likely give rise to offspring.
Jefferson's most unique insight with regard to freedom was his identification of the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental prerequisite for human advancement. Under normal circumstances, most individuals are only fleetingly happy, say, after we have solved a problem, either intellectual or personal, that then lets our brain rest for a bit. Equally important, happy moods also reward higher animals after they make behavioral decisions that increase their survivability. Successfully replenishing fat cells not only turns off appetites but leads to the appearance of pleasure-bringing natural opiates -- the endorphins. A desire for more endorphin-enriched moments may well be the primary motivation for ourselves to seek out food or to bask in Vitamin D-producing sunshine. Likewise, the happiness we feel upon strenuous exercise should be seen as a Pavlovian reward for the physical exertion needed for food gathering and sexual satisfaction.
These moments of pleasure best be short-lived. Too much contentment necessarily leads to indolence. As Shakespeare has Julius Caesar say, "Let me have men about me that are fat and sleek-headed, and such as sleep o' nights. Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much; such men are dangerous." But it is discontent with the present that leads clever minds to extend the frontiers of human imagination. During a low moment in World War II, Joseph Stalin wanted to eliminate one of Russia's most brilliant individuals, the theoretical physicist Lev Laudau. Fortunately, one of his colleagues, Peter Kapitsa, saved his life by arguing successfully that Landau was not subversive, only unpleasant.
Every successful society must possess citizens gnawing at its innards and threatening conventional wisdom -- individuals like Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine and Benjamin Franklin. Without the changes that radical ideas and actions like theirs bring about, established orders go stale and crumble before brasher peoples accepting the new. Now, more than ever, successful nations must be free societies where diversity of thought is not only tolerated but seen as the intelligent response to a constantly changing world. As long as we can see happiness ahead, the worries and faults of today are bearable. So in the perfect world we want some day to exist, humans will be born free and die almost happy.