If they could do it all over again, two of the 20th century’s greatest biologists would study the brain and the vast, unknown world of prokaryotes — the bacteria that are all around us today and that dominated the planet before the emergence of complex life.

Edward O. Wilson, Harvard’s Pellegrino University Professor, Emeritus, and James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953, shared the stage at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre Wednesday evening (Sept. 9) to reflect on two storied careers and their own sometimes acrimonious relationship when both taught at Harvard beginning in the 1950s.

Wilson and Watson reflected on the usefulness of enemies, ambition, and competition in a scientific career, each of which drives good scientists toward greatness. The two agreed that perhaps the most critical component of an accomplished scientific life, though, is selecting lofty yet achievable goals.

“You are not a scientist and don’t deserve to be called a scientist unless you have made an original discovery, and you have to make a great discovery to be a great scientist,” Wilson said. “You only have so many opportunities, you only have so many years, you might as well choose to take on a big problem.”

The event, sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History and moderated by television and radio journalist Robert Krulwich, presented a sometimes lighthearted look at the decades-old feud between the two men, which had its roots when both were junior faculty members in biology at Harvard. Watson, whose work on the structure of DNA had been published a few years before his appointment, was a strong supporter of the growing field of molecular biology. He was vocal in his views that university resources should support that field, rather than ecology and branches of biology practiced by Wilson — an entomologist — and others.

Wilson said Wednesday that on reflection Watson was right, that molecular and cellular biology did need to grow. The two branches of biology today have grown closer and more interdependent, with organismic and evolutionary biology increasingly examining the molecular and genetic underpinnings of life on Earth, while molecular and cellular biologists take into account evolution in their studies.

Watson agreed with Wilson’s assessment, saying that since the field has become unified, there’s nothing for the two to fight over anymore.

Wilson and Watson are among the most decorated and celebrated biologists of their generation. Watson won the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA and, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, headed up the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. He also was the longtime head of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, N.Y., where he worked after leaving Harvard in 1976. Watson has received numerous awards, including the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, the National Medal of Science, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

In addition to Wilson’s work on ants, he is known for his theories of island biogeography and sociobiology. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes — for his 1979 book, “On Human Nature,” and his 1990 book, “The Ants.” Among his many other honors are the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Wilson remains an outspoken voice on the importance of conserving the world’s biodiversity.

When asked how they’d do it over again if they had the chance, Watson said he’d get training in cellular and systems biology and then embark on a study of the brain. Wilson said he’d dive into what he considers one of the great remaining problems of biology and examine the still-mysterious world of prokaryotes: simple single-celled life from which developed more complex single-celled life and then multicellular organisms.

“It’s like landing on an unknown planet,” Wilson said.

Despite Wilson’s enthusiasm for the subject, Watson’s response to the idea was lukewarm.

“I can see it’s interesting, but I wouldn’t go near it,” Watson said.

Watson said he has always favored “big heroic goals” and suggested that, if scientists are able to work diligently on the problem, cancer could be cured in as little as 10 years.

“I’ll die very happy if we can say we can cure most cancers,” Watson said.
At several points during the event, Watson’s reputation for blunt speaking was on display. He said he still believes that ecology is not a rigorous discipline and that Harvard should boost salaries for members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The two did little to discourage Krulwich’s depiction of high-level science as a contact sport, with Watson remarking at one point that “Jesus would not have succeeded.”

“You have to be assertive and want to be there first. You have to prove you’re good and how would anyone know unless you’re first?” Watson said.