DNA Nobel winner regrets racial insults
NEW YORK — James Watson, the 79-year-old scientific icon made famous by his work in DNA, has set off an international furor with comments to a London newspaper about intelligence levels among blacks.
The renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where Watson served as chancellor, suspended his administrative responsibilities last Thursday following the outcry, the laboratory said in a news release.
Watson has a history of provocative statements about social implications of science. But several friends said he is no racist.
And Watson, who won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for co-discovering the structure of DNA, apologized and says he is “mortified.”
A profile of Watson in the Sunday Times Magazine of London quoted him as saying that he’s “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.”
While he hopes everyone is equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true,” Watson is quoted as saying. He also said people should not be discriminated against on the basis of color, because “there are many people of color who are very talented.”
The comments, reprinted last Wednesday in a front-page article in another British newspaper, The Independent, provoked a sharp reaction.
London’s Science Museum canceled a scheduled — and sold-out — Oct. 19 lecture. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said his comments “represent racist propaganda masquerading as scientific fact. … That a man of such academic distinction could make such ignorant comments, which are utterly offensive and incorrect and give succor to the most backward in our society, demonstrates why racism still has to be fought.”
In the United States, the Federation of American Scientists said it was outraged that Watson “chose to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science.”
And Watson’s employer said he was not speaking for the Cold Spring Harbor research facility on Long Island, where the board and administration “vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments.”
Watson is in Britain to promote his new book, “Avoid Boring People,” and a publicist for his British publisher provided this statement:
“I am mortified about what has happened,” Watson said. “More importantly, I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said.
“I can certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have. To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
Watson’s publicist, Kate Farquhar-Thomson, would not address whether Watson was suggesting he was misquoted. “You have the statement. That’s it, I’m afraid,” she said.
A spokesman for The Sunday Times said that the interview with Watson was recorded and that the newspaper stood by the story.
Watson is no stranger to making waves with his scientific views. In 2000, in a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, he suggested that sex drive is related to skin color.
“That’s why you have Latin lovers,” he said, according to people who attended. “You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”
Years earlier he was quoted in a newspaper as saying, “If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn’t want a homosexual child, well, let her.”
“Jim has a penchant for making outrageous comments that are basically poking society in the eye,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
Collins, who has known Watson for a long time, said his latest comments “really … carried it this time to a much more hurtful level.”
In a brief telephone interview, Collins told The AP that Watson’s statements are “the wildest form of speculation in a field where such speculation ought not to be engaged in.” Genetic factors for intelligence show no difference from one part of the world to another, he said.
Several longtime friends of Watson insisted he is not a racist.
“It’s hard for me to buy the label ‘racist’ for him,” said Victor McElheny, the author of a 2003 biography of Watson, whom he’s known for 45 years. “This is someone who has encouraged so many people from so many backgrounds.”
Associated Press writers Thomas Wagner in London and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this story.