The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

Avoid boring people

What does "Avoid boring people" mean?

Someone once asked me, right before we parted the very last time I ever saw her, who my hero was.  I had to think long and hard before answering.  I didn’t want to give obvious answers like “Darwin” or “Newton” or “Batman.”  I had in the past expressed my admiration for Leda Cosmides, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Robert L. Trivers, for their scientific work, but I wasn’t sure if they were well known enough in public to count as my “heroes.”  I racked my brain, as we walked across a foot bridge over the Thames.  The answer I finally came up with when we reached the end of the bridge was “Jim Watson.”

I have read two earlier autobiographies of the Nobel-prize winner James D. Watson (The Double Helix, and Genes, Girls, and Gamow).  Ever since I read The Double Helix more than a decade ago, I have always been a big fan of Jim Watson’s.  I like and admire him, partly because he appears to be one of the very few scientists who are fully consciously aware that scientists are driven to do creative scientific work in order to impress girls (whereas these evolutionarily given motives usually remain unconscious for most people, including scientists).

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I was therefore very excited when I learned that Watson had written a third autobiography.  Before I read it, however, I was puzzled by its title:  Avoid Boring People.  The title could be construed to mean two completely different things:

1.  Do not bore other people.

2.  Do not associate with people who are boring.

I could not tell from the book’s description which Watson meant by the title, or if he meant both.  I did not find out until I actually read the book.

What was most amazing about reading Avoid Boring People is that Watson himself doesn’t appear to be aware at all of the potential double meaning of the title.  However, the confusing nature of the title is very obvious in the book.  Watson himself actually meant the second meaning (Do not associate with people who are boring, by, for example, going to a dinner party at an academic colleague’s house, unless you know in advance that there’s going to be a babe there), but Hannah H. Gray, former President of the University of Chicago who wrote the Foreword to the book, interpreted its title to mean the first.  Apparently, she didn’t read (or even skim through) the book before she wrote the Foreword!

The book is otherwise a delight to read, even for someone (like me) who has read his earlier autobiographies (several times), as he has new anecdotes, stories, and photographs (both of people and documents) that he did not share with us before.  Unlike the two earlier autobiographies, which cover only specific periods of his life, Avoid Boring People covers his entire life (so far), from before his birth (starting with his family genealogy going back to the 17th-century Boston) through the present (the resignation of Larry Summers as President of Harvard).  As a necessary consequence, it does not describe any part of his life in as much detail as do his first two autobiographies.

The book consists of two alternating parts.  First, he tells stories from a particular phase in his life (undergraduate years at Chicago, graduate years at Indiana, years spent at Cambridge as a postdoc, years spent as an untenured assistant professor at Harvard, etc.).  Then, he gives “remembered lessons” from the particular phase of his life, before moving on to the next phase.  The remembered lessons seem completely disassociated from the stories, except probably in Watson’s own memory, but the lessons are very, very good.  They are intended for academics at various stages in their careers.  I wish someone had given me these lessons when I was younger.  I’m confident that all academics will benefit from learning these lessons from him, even though a few of them are specific to natural/biological scientists and still others to people who win the Nobel Prize.

I would recommend Avoid Boring People to all fellow scientists and scientific autobiography aficionados (I am both).  Even those who do not care about Watson or his life at all will benefit from his lessons.  All the lessons are excellent, and I will leave it up to the readers to discover their great insight.  However, here’s one lesson from the stories, not given or “remembered” by Watson himself, that young academics in any field will find illuminating and perhaps comforting.  As a self-proclaimed Watson fan, I am ashamed to admit that I did not know about this event in his life until now:

James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA, future Nobel-prize winner, and one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, was initially denied tenure by his senior colleagues in the Department of Biology at Harvard University.

 

P.S. (12 January 2008):  As it turns out, Watson was a lot smarter than me (as you'd expect) and I was completely wrong.  He did intend both meanings by the title.  First, in Chapter 5, he gives the lesson "Avoid boring people" to mean 2. above.  But then, in the last chapter (Chapter 15), he repeats the same lesson, this time to mean 1. above.  So he was clearly aware of the double meaning.  This will be the last time I'll ever second-guess a Nobel-prize winner.  Here's my remembered lesson:  Avoid writing a book review before finishing the whole book.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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