Category General

Teaching Thursday: The Original Sin of Molecular Biology

I’ve been away from blogging for awhile.

I intended to spend my summer producing and editing videos, but I wanted to do that on my own content. Instead, because of a miscommunication that wiped out wide swaths of our existing lecture content, I have been spending the last few weeks producing and editing videos to be used in our anatomy & physiology course.

Most of these are specific to the course, but this one is a general introduction to molecular biology.

Recently, my Twitter account was filled with a back-and-forth between an earnest young female scientist who had met, and was taken by the intellectual prowess of, James Watson. A number of us old hands, from many different fields, jumped on her a little more than we should have, telling her about the wrongs that he had perpetrated on science in general and molecular biology in particular.

For example, Ivan Oransky of the excellent “Retraction Watch” and “Embargo Watch” blogs had written an Op-Ed on the subject of James Watson’s crude nonsense for the Boston Globe.

No more august an authority on unpleasant behavior than E.O. Wilson called Watson

the most unpleasant human being I have ever met


which is a sentiment you will hear echoed often, from my brief personal exposure all the way to those who knew him best.

It was in the spirit of trying to pass along to a new generation the bitter lessons of the previous generation that informed me as I sat down to discuss what I call “The Original Sin of Molecular Biology”.



Welcome to Seven Deadly Synapses

I’m Jim Hutchins. You can find out more about me at the “About” page.

I’ve started this blog after a successful experience commenting at Nate Silver’s blog and, after he moved to the New York Times, on an independent site called I recommend both of those blogs if your interests tend more to politics than science or ethics. I will still comment on those sites under the username Monotreme. Like a spiny echidna, I’m a bit unclassifiable and exotic.

In the next few months, I’ll be working on a book project I call Seven Deadly Synapses. What can modern neuroscience tell us about the Seven Deadly Sins? How does neuroscience fit into the 1600-year history of the Seven Deadly Sins? Can we link Dante and Damasio?

Or, in the poetry of Rubén Darío (“Los Motivos del Lobo“),

Mas empecé a ver que en todas las casas
estaban la Envidia, la Saña, la Ira,
y en todos los rostros ardían las brasas
de odio, de lujuria, de infamia y mentira.

As the wolf exposes himself to human behavior and frailty, he laments:

But I began to see that in all the houses
There dwelled Envy, Spite, Ire,
And that in all the faces blazed the embers
Of hatred, lechery, infamy, and lies.

(Thanks to Nereyda Hesterberg for introducing me to Darío’s poetry and helping with the translation.)

If Darío’s wolf were a lupine neuroscientist, what would he see? What are the brain mechanisms — anatomy, chemistry, physiology — underlying envy, spite and ire? What is the evolutionary advantage, if any, to these invidious behaviors?