BRUNO LEMAITRE, APRIL 2016Niels Jerne, the great seducer
Niels Jerne (1911–1994) was a charismatic Danish immunologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984. An interesting biography by the historian of science Thomas Söderqvist, Science as Autobiography—The Troubled Life of Niels Jerne, gives us an insight into his private and scientific life. This biography is based not only on written documents but also on a long series of interviews between Jerne and Söderqvist. Jerne did not want to accept a normal life but aimed for the sublime. He had gathered together all his personal papers in the secret hope that they would be kept for posterity. However, what he did not realize was that from these notes, his future biographer would be able to more accurately assess the development and success of this narcissist.
According to Jerne’s biographer, Jerne was not a bench scientist, could not pipette accurately and did not enjoy experimental work. Thomas Söderqvist notes that "Jerne later came to be considered very theoretical and 'extremely economical' in his experimental planning; it is said that he thought intensively before going into the laboratory, after which he carried out 'one or two critical experiments'." For Jerne, bench work was an inferior activity for a scientist of his calibre. His Nobel Prize was awarded for theories, rather than discoveries, notably the natural selection theory of immunology. Niels Jerne told his contemporaries that he had discovered the immune theory of selection while he was crossing a bridge in the middle of the night in Copenhagen. But in his article, he neglected to mention that he was strongly influenced by previous work from another immunologist Paul Ehrlich, which of course he did not quote. He transformed his discovery into a special and mythic moment, without recognizing any filiation with other scientists.
As is often the case for narcissistic scientists, he liked keywords and invented multiple innovative names such as epitope, paratope, idiotope, xenotope, pantachotope, cis- or trans-immunology, but only the word epitope is still in use. We will see later in this essay how the use of catchy keywords is often a way to increase recognition within the scientific community. Scientists high in narcissism are attracted by fields that use a special language full of jargon, as did immunology in the past, as this denotes that it is a conceptual field, whose main concepts can only be explained with difficulty to the lay public.
Interestingly, given narcissists' skill at networking, Jerne is also credited for a theory called the "idiotypic network" that was taught for many years (Jerne, 1974). It describes a speculative framework in which antibodies self-recognize each other, establishing a network paralleling the nervous system. This theory lasted for one or two decades, but now has been discredited as simply speculation based on very few empirical observations. But it did attract a lot of fans—an entire book is devoted to this network theory (Hoffmann, 2008). A significant number of prominent immunologists based their careers on this theory. While it could be imagined that past errors might cause these immunologists to become modest, this is far from being the case. In more general terms, many scientists, some being highly arrogant and dismissing other fields as minor, have built their careers on incorrect theories or papers that are completely insignificant today. In science, incorrect statements are rarely criticized openly. Eventually they simply discreetly disappear from the collective memory. Narcissistic people, as exemplified by politicians, have this capacity to impress and to appear to have the right answer at the right time, adapting all the while.
Jerne did not like to participate in communal activities such as teaching, considering it a lower-class activity. Söderqvist notes that "his duties as professor were confined to a couple of lectures per term to the medical students; furthermore, he declared that he did not want to teach microbiology, since it has nothing to do with immunology ('bacteriophages don't make antibodies')." Jerne viewed certain disciplines such as microbiology, so important for understanding the origin and function of the immune system, with contempt. This illustrates the perpetual need of narcissists to differentiate themselves from others. During his interview with his biographer Söderqvist, Jerne often referred to "the happiness of feeling superior to a lot of people" and declared that he felt himself to be "superior or more intelligent than other scientists." He asserted that many of the researchers he had met were "so stupid that the lady in the bread-shop is more intelligent than them, she has an awareness and an ability to observe and articulate her observations."
Jerne excelled in the art of conversation, exercising a real fascination around him. It was one of his great talents, at the centre of his social existence. His colleagues noticed that Jerne often took an opposing position during discussions, which is a classic way of staying at the centre of attention. While he considered himself above the base material condition of the world, money was essential to maintain his high standard of living and was an important criterion for his accepting a job.
Jerne was married three times and was regularly unfaithful to his wives. His first wife, Tjek Jerne, was somewhat neglected by Jerne and later in life committed suicide. After an initial period of excitement, his second wife rapidly became essentially a domestic servant and nanny to Jerne's children. Jerne married a third time to what could be considered a trophy partner (see Chapter 5). Jerne exhibited many features related to what could be called sexual narcissism. Studies have shown that narcissists are not particularly interested in loving and caring romantic partners who can provide them with real intimacy. Instead, they prefer partners who can enhance their image and their self-esteem: partners who have high social status or partners who are physically very attractive (Campbell, 1999). Experts in social personality used the term "trophy partner" for a physically attractive partner that brings attention to the narcissist. Reading Jerne's biography, it becomes obvious that science at the time was much less competitive and, for some scientists, consisted largely of talking and being part of a club of well-respected experts. The book also reveals periods of difficulty with alcohol in Jerne's life. Narcissistic personalities can be prone to depression in middle age, notably when they realize that their life does not fit their expectations (Debray, and Nollet, 1997). Obsessed by their own image, they are also very sensitive to their appearance and to ageing. This is due to the fact that narcissists approach human relationships based on seduction rather than empathy, and more by a need to impress rather than to affiliate.
This portrayal of Niels Jerne reveals that the art of conversation and seduction, so essential for success in science, is also a great asset for narcissistic people. Narcissistic scientists are found everywhere, but their proportion is particularly high in research fields such as immunology and neuroscience, which are in the public's focus and more sensitive to swagger and catchy wording. Narcissistic scientists (and intellectuals in general) have a capacity to attract attention and to fascinate other narcissistic persons, this fascination greatly exceeding their real achievements.
In contrast to many scientific biographies that further contribute to the idealization of their subjects, the biography of Niels Jerne by Thomas Söderqvist illustrates all of the facets of his scientific and private life, thus providing a unique opportunity to penetrate the mind of a narcissistic scientist. The reader can even sense the biographer's disappointment and disillusionment as he truly gets to know the person he had initially thought of as a great scientist.
From An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How Do High-Ego Personalities Drive Research in Life Sciences? By Bruno Lemaitre, published by Bruno Lemaitre. Copyright by Bruno Lemaitre, 2016.