Q&A with James Watson: Renowned Scientist and Lifelong Birder

Q&A with James Watson: Renowned Scientist and Lifelong Birder

Alisa Opar
Published: 05/02/2011

James Watson. Photo: Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons

Every high school biology student knows that Nobel laureate James Watson co-discovered the structure of DNA in 1953. The renowned scientist also happens to be a lifelong birder. Watson, 83, recently joined an Audubon Nature Odyssey trip to the Galápagos Islands, where flightless cormorants and Darwin’s finches cast their spell. The trip’s leader, Graham Chisholm, Audubon California’s executive director, caught up with him aboard their boat.
Birds hold a special place for you. Why?
They led me into science. My father was an avid birder, and I would join him out on walks. At first it was just seeing as many birds as I could during spring migration in Chicago, and through this I became a scientist.

Flightless cormorant in Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island. Photo: putneymark via Wikimedia Commons

What has surprised or intrigued you most about the Galápagos?
It is the friendliness of the birds. You can get so close to them—even the finches and the hawks. You don’t even need binoculars. It’s reported that the birds were even tamer at the time of Darwin’s visit. The newest thing in evolutionary science is that evolution is seemingly occurring pretty fast. The Galápagos provide clear evidence of that. Mutation can be utilized with big effect: The finch’s beak doesn’t change in 20 steps; one can see it occur in one step. We are producing variances with fairly high frequency, so we are producing evolution rather quickly. A lot of the interesting science of birds will be studying evolution.
You are obviously a fan of Darwin. Why?
Darwin used common sense, he was curious, and he focused on what worked. He was perhaps the most important person who has ever lived. Darwin was the first person who understood man’s position on earth. I admire Darwin and try to be like him as much as I can.
Do you consider yourself a conservation advocate?
I am an advocate for a lot of diversity. You don’t know what aspect of diversity can be useful. I think that a real exposure to the wonders of evolution should really be a part of children’s education, but for political reasons people are afraid. I’ve been lucky that I have believed in evolution since age 11, and the evidence is overwhelming.
What draws you to Audubon?
It wants to protect birds—it’s that simple. People identify with birds. And by protecting birds you protect a lot of other things besides birds.
What made you want to come on this trip?

I am embarrassed I didn’t come here 40 years ago.
This interview appeared as "From One Pioneer to Another" in the May-June 2011 issue of Audubon magazine. Click here for the original story.