[Marxism] James Watson Won’t Stop Talking About Race

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 1 09:21:17 MST 2019

(I dealt with Watson in a review of a documentary about genetic science 
and racism here: 
The documentary is now available as VOD and I highly recommend it: 

NY Times, Jan. 1, 2019
James Watson Won’t Stop Talking About Race
By Amy Harmon

It has been more than a decade since James D. Watson, a founder of 
modern genetics, landed in a kind of professional exile by suggesting 
that black people are intrinsically less intelligent than whites.

In 2007, Dr. Watson, who shared a 1962 Nobel Prize for describing the 
double-helix structure of DNA, told a British journalist that he was 
“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.”

Moreover, he added, although he wished everyone were equal, “people who 
have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Dr. Watson’s comments reverberated around the world, and he was forced 
to retire from his job as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor 
Laboratory on Long Island, although he retains an office there.

He apologized publicly and “unreservedly,’’ and in later interviews he 
sometimes suggested that he had been playing the provocateur — his 
trademark role — or had not understood that his comments would be made 

Ever since, Dr. Watson, 90, has been largely absent from the public eye. 
His speaking invitations evaporated. In 2014, he became the first living 
Nobelist to sell his medal, citing a depleted income from having been 
designated a “nonperson.’’

But his remarks have lingered. They have been invoked to support white 
supremacist views, and scientists routinely excoriate Dr. Watson when 
his name surfaces on social media.

Eric Lander, the director of the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, 
elicited an outcry last spring with a toast he made to Dr. Watson’s 
involvement in the early days of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Lander 
quickly apologized.

“I reject his views as despicable,” Dr. Lander wrote to Broad 
scientists. “They have no place in science, which must welcome everyone. 
I was wrong to toast, and I’m sorry.’’

And yet, offered the chance recently to recast a tarnished legacy, Dr. 
Watson has chosen to reaffirm it, this time on camera. In a new 
documentary, “American Masters: Decoding Watson,’’ to be broadcast on 
P.B.S. on Wednesday night, he is asked whether his views about the 
relationship between race and intelligence have changed.

“No,’’ Dr. Watson said. “Not at all. I would like for them to have 
changed, that there be new knowledge that says that your nurture is much 
more important than nature. But I haven’t seen any knowledge. And 
there’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites on I.Q. 
tests. I would say the difference is, it’s genetic.’’

Dr. Watson adds that he takes no pleasure in “the difference between 
blacks and whites’’ and wishes it didn’t exist. “It’s awful, just like 
it’s awful for schizophrenics,’’ he says. (His son Rufus was diagnosed 
in his teens with schizophrenia.) Dr. Watson continues: “If the 
difference exists, we have to ask ourselves, how can we try and make it 

Dr. Watson’s remarks may well ignite another firestorm of criticism. At 
the very least, they will pose a challenge for historians when they take 
the measure of the man: How should such fundamentally unsound views be 
weighed against his extraordinary scientific contributions?

In response to questions from The Times, Dr. Francis Collins, the 
director of the National Institutes of Health, said that most experts on 
intelligence “consider any black-white differences in I.Q. testing to 
arise primarily from environmental, not genetic, differences.”

Dr. Collins said he was unaware of any credible research on which Dr. 
Watson’s “profoundly unfortunate’’ statement would be based.

“It is disappointing that someone who made such groundbreaking 
contributions to science,’’ Dr. Collins added, “is perpetuating such 
scientifically unsupported and hurtful beliefs.’’

Dr. Watson is unable to respond, according to family members. He made 
his latest remarks last June, during the last of six interviews with 
Mark Mannucci, the film’s producer and director.

But in October Dr. Watson was hospitalized following a car accident, and 
he has not been able to leave medical care.

Some scientists said that Dr. Watson’s recent remarks are noteworthy 
less because they are his than because they signify misconceptions that 
may be on the rise, even among scientists, as ingrained racial biases 
collide with powerful advances in genetics that are enabling researchers 
to better explore the genetic underpinnings of behavior and cognition.

“It’s not an old story of an old guy with old views,’’ said Andrea 
Morris, the director of career development at Rockefeller University, 
who served as a scientific consultant for the film. Dr. Morris said 
that, as an African-American scientist, “I would like to think that he 
has the minority view on who can do science and what a scientist should 
look like. But to me, it feels very current.’’

David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard, has argued that new techniques for 
studying DNA show that some human populations were geographically 
separated for long enough that they plausibly could have evolved average 
genetic differences in cognition and behavior.

But in his recent book, “Who We Are and How We Got Here,’’ he explicitly 
repudiates Dr. Watson’s presumption that such differences would 
“correspond to longstanding popular stereotypes’’ as “essentially 
guaranteed to be wrong.’’

Even Robert Plomin, a prominent behavioral geneticist who argues that 
nature decisively trumps nurture when it comes to individuals, rejects 
speculation about average racial differences.

“There are powerful methods for studying the genetic and environmental 
origins of individual differences, but not for studying the causes of 
average differences between groups,” Dr. Plomin he writes in an 
afterword to be published this spring in the paperback edition of his 
book, “Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are.”

Whether Dr. Watson was aware of any of this science is unclear. In the 
film, he appears to have grown increasingly isolated. He mentions 
missing Francis Crick, his collaborator in the race to decipher the 
structure of DNA.

“We liked each other,’’ Dr. Watson says of Dr. Crick. “I couldn’t get 
enough of him.’’

As history now knows, the duo was able to solve the puzzle in 1953, with 
their hallmark models of cardboard and metal only with the help of 
another scientist, Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray photograph of the DNA 
molecule was shown to Dr. Watson without her permission.

The tools of molecular biology unlocked by their discovery have since 
been used to trace humanity’s prehistory, devise lifesaving therapies, 
and develop Crispr, a gene-editing technology that was used recently, 
and unethically, to alter the DNA of twin human embryos.

And Dr. Watson became perhaps the most influential biologist of the 
second half of the 20th century. His textbook, “Molecular Biology of the 
Gene,’’ helped define the new field. First in a laboratory at Harvard 
and then at Cold Spring Harbor, he trained a new generation of molecular 
biologists and used his star power to champion such projects as the 
first sequencing of the human genome.

“You knew when you heard him that you were at the start of a revolution 
in understanding,’’ Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at the Massachusetts 
Institute of Technology who studied with Dr. Watson in the 1960s, says 
in “Decoding Watson.’’

“You felt as if you were part of this tiny group of people who had seen 
the light.’’

Mr. Mannucci, the director and producer, was drawn to his subject by a 
certain similarity to “the King Lear story’,’ he said — “that this man 
was at the height of his powers and, through his own character flaws, 
was brought down.” The film highlights Dr. Watson’s penchant for 
provocation, exemplified by his candid 1968 memoir, “The Double Helix,” 
of the race to decipher DNA’s structure.

In later years, even before his 2007 comments, Dr. Watson began making 
offensive statements about groups of people, suggesting, among other 
things, that exposure to sunlight in equatorial regions increases sexual 
urges and that fat people are less ambitious than others.

“He was a semiprofessional loose cannon,’’ said Nathaniel Comfort, a 
science historian at Johns Hopkins University. “We become prisoners of 
our own personas.” In the film, Dr. Comfort also suggests that Dr. 
Watson’s views on race are the result of the genetic filter he applies 
to the world: “There’s a risk to thinking about genes all the time.”

But Mary-Claire King, a leading geneticist at the University of 
Washington who knows Dr. Watson well and is not in the film, suggested 
that the racially homogeneous culture of science also played a role in 
shaping Dr. Watson’s misconceptions.

“If he knew African-Americans as colleagues at all levels, his present 
view would be impossible to sustain,’’ Dr. King said.

If that is the case, it may not bode well for combating prejudice in 
biomedical research, where African-Americans represent just 1.5 percent 
of grant applications to the N.I.H. Biases in hiring by medical school 
science departments are well documented.

“It’s easy to say, ‘I’m not Watson,’’’ said Kenneth Gibbs, a researcher 
at the N.I.H. who studies racial disparities in science. “But one should 
really be asking himself or herself, ‘What am I doing to ensure our 
campus environments are supporting scientists from backgrounds that are 
not there?’’’

“Decoding Watson’’ marks the first time Dr. Watson and his wife, Liz, 
have spoken publicly at length about finding out that Rufus, their older 
son, has schizophrenia. Rufus and his brother, Duncan, also appear in 
the film, but Mr. Mannucci said that other people close to Dr. Watson 
declined to participate.

In interviews with The Times, some said they believed that Dr. Watson 
was ill served by speaking publicly at this point in his life.

Still, Mr. Mannucci said that he had asked Dr. Watson about race and 
intelligence several times over the course of making the film in order 
to ascertain his real views. “I didn’t want to feel that it was a 
product of age or having caught him in a moment, trying to get a rise 
out of someone,’’ he said.

In the film, Dr. Watson sometimes seems to be grasping for explanations 
for his own views on race and intelligence. He mentions that he is a 
“product of the Roosevelt era,’’ and that he has always believed genes 
are important.

“To the extent that I’ve hurt people,’’ he said, “of course I regret it.”

Amy Harmon is a national correspondent, covering the intersection of 
science and society. She has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for her series 
“The DNA Age”, and as part of a team for the series “How Race Is Lived 
in America.”

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