Five years ago, James Watson, one of the fathers of DNA, tried to sell his Nobel Prize because people thought he was a racist.
Watson, who won the prize in 1962 for outlining the double-helix structure of DNA, wanted to offer penance for the comments that brought his reputation crashing down in 2007. That year, the scientist told Britain’s Sunday Times that he was “gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because he believed African intelligence was genetically lower than that of Europeans. Watson never lived the comments down, telling the Financial Times in 2014 that he believed the backlash had made him an “unperson.”
But if he had been trying to change his reputation on the topic of race, on Friday it became apparent that the 90-year-old scientist hasn’t done himself any favors this month. In “American Masters: Decoding Watson,” a PBS documentary released Jan. 2, he revealed that his scientifically unsupported views on race and genetics have not changed “at all” since 2007 — leading the laboratory where he spent the bulk of his career to revoke his honorary titles.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island issued the announcement Friday along with a searing rebuke of Watson, calling his beliefs “reprehensible” and “unsupported by science.”
“Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions Dr. James D. Watson expressed on the subject of ethnicity and genetics during the PBS documentary ‘American Masters: Decoding Watson’ that aired January 2, 2019,” Marilyn Simons, CSHL’s chair of the board of trustees, and Bruce Stillman, president and CEO, said in the statement.
They added: “The Laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.”
Cold Spring Harbor had removed Watson as chancellor and from all administrative duties in 2007 following his explosive comments but allowed him to maintain an office and several titles after Watson expressed regret over making them. On Friday, the lab revoked his titles of chancellor emeritus, honorary trustee and Oliver R. Grace professor emeritus. Attempts to reach Watson late Sunday night were unsuccessful.
Watson, renowned for his landmark co-discovery of the double helix in the 1950s and his ensuing research in molecular biology, also developed a reputation as an unfiltered provocateur, sometimes denigrating the reputations of colleagues or making remarks seen as sexist, homophobic or racist.
The scientific community drew a line in the sand in 2007. Watson told a British reporter with the Sunday Times that “all our social policies are based on the fact that African intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.”
He added that he hoped everyone was equal — “but people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
Days later, he said in a statement to the Associated Press: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
That was also the resounding consensus from the scientific community. Geneticist Joseph L. Graves explained in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper at the time that Watson’s beliefs stemmed from some geneticists who believed there were relationships between IQ scores and genetics. But Graves said there is no scientific basis suggesting the two are causally linked, or that IQ scores are even a reliable measure of intelligence. The most “obvious” explanation for differences in IQ tests are environmental factors affecting a person’s upbringing, he added.
In the PBS documentary, when the interviewer asked Watson whether his views on the relationship between race and intelligence have changed, Watson responded, “No, not at all.”
“I would like for them to have changed,” he said. “There would [have to be] new knowledge, which 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 IQ tests. I would say the difference is ... it’s genetic.”
“Racism suspends all rational judgment. It really does,” Graves said in the PBS documentary. “It’s one of the most insidious things that racism does. It takes people who are otherwise brilliant people and gets them down roads that are intellectually unsupportable.”
Criticism of Watson’s remarks and his treatment of others dates to his and his colleague Francis Crick’s Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double helix. A third scientist, Rosalind Franklin, whose critical X-ray photograph of a DNA molecule led to the discovery, died four years before Crick and Watson won the prize. And in Watson’s book recounting the discovery, “The Double Helix,” he dismissed Franklin as “Rosy,” criticized her clothing and makeup, and otherwise downplayed her role, critics have pointed out.
In 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, he told an audience at the University of California at Berkeley that there was a link between sunlight exposure and sex drive, saying: “That’s why you have Latin Lovers. You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.” He also suggested that thin people weren’t happy, which made them inherently more ambitious than “fat people.”
“Whenever you interview fat people,” he said, the Chronicle reported at the time, “you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.”
In 2012, he told a science conference that “having all these women around makes it more fun for the men, but they’re probably less effective.”
Perhaps his most controversial take on sexuality came in the 1997, when he suggested to the Sunday Telegraph that if a gene was discovered for homosexuality prior to a baby’s birth and a pregnant woman didn’t want the baby with this gene, she should be allowed to abort. He later said his comments were taken out of context but said in an interview with the Independent: “During an interview, I was asked about homosexuality, and I related a story about a woman who felt her life had been ruined because her son was a homosexual and she would never have grandchildren. I simply said that women in that situation should have a choice over whether or not to abort. I didn’t say that fetuses found to have a gay gene should be aborted.”
In its statement Friday, Cold Spring Harbor said that it “acknowledges and appreciates Dr. Watson’s substantial scientific legacy,” but that his statements in the PBS documentary reaffirming his belief in the relationship between race and intelligence are “utterly incompatible with our mission, values and policies.”
The statements “require the severing of any remaining vestiges of his involvement,” the lab said.