James Watson, known to many as one of the "fathers of DNA" for his scientific discoveries, is putting his Nobel prize on the auction block this Thursday with a reserve price of $2.5 million. Why part with the prestigious award now, over 50 years after winning it? After all, no living recipient of the award has ever sold it before.
In short, Watson said some racist things back in 2007, and the publication of those comments had an impact on his income. In what certainly has the appearance of the most passive aggressive gesture of all time, Watson is selling his award in the hopes it will bolster the income he receives from his academic appointments – and perhaps finance the purchase of some new artwork.
But the 86-year-old Watson, who told the Financial Times that he'd become an "unperson" after his 2007 remarks (more on those in a second), isn't getting much sympathy: Instead, the widely publicized sale is drawing attention to the very comments that got him ostracized from academia in the first place.
Watson is indeed a great scientist, and the world has much to thank him for. Along with Francis Crick, Watson revealed the structure of DNA – the double helix that forms the very nature of our being – in 1953. While the discovery would have been impossible without the work of a woman named Rosalind Franklin, who took a groundbreaking image of DNA the year before, she had died by the time the Nobel prize was awarded – leaving Watson and Crick to take majority of the credit in history's eyes. But despite the mother who's often forgotten, Watson is most certainly one of the fathers of DNA. His Nobel prize was well deserved.
But great scientists are not always great people. In a 2007 interview with the Sunday Times, Watson expressed the belief that some races are inherently less intelligent than others.
He was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa," he said, 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." He added that while he hoped everyone was truly equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."
I mean, yikes.
It wasn't Watson's first tango with controversy: In 2000, he reportedly made a link between skin color and sex drive during a lecture. "That's why you have Latin lovers," the AP reports Watson is said to have told the lecture hall. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient."
So Watson must be apologetic about the flagrant racism of his remarks, right? Yes? We hope?
Nah. Watson is proving himself to be king of the non-apology.
“I apologise . . . [the journalist] somehow wrote that I worried about the people in Africa because of their low IQ – and you’re not supposed to say that," he told the Financial Times.
Watson's auction will probably buy him the David Hockney painting he reportedly has his eye on – the awards are always interesting to collectors, and this one is for the discovery of the double-helix. But for those of us without $2.5 million to throw in Watson's pocket, the incident is a poignant reminder that scientists need not be held up on pedestals: They are human. Sometimes they can be really cool, but sometimes they can do not-cool things – and they should be held accountable.
Nature editor Adam Rutherford makes this case in a column for the Guardian:
“No one really wants to admit I exist” says Watson. That’s not it. It’s more that no one is interested in his racist, sexist views. Watson, alongside Crick, will always be the discoverer of the double helix, to my mind the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Here’s our challenge: celebrate science when it is great, and scientists when they deserve it. And when they turn out to be awful bigots, let’s be honest about that too. It turns out that just like DNA, people are messy, complex and sometimes full of hideous errors.
This is far from an isolated problem. Just weeks ago, a European Space Agency scientist received online criticism for wearing a shirt covered in scantily-clad women on an international livestream. While Matt Taylor apologized, those who'd called him out were then subject to a loud – and sometimes ugly – backlash from supporters of the scientist, many of whom cited his great accomplishments as being reason enough not to comment on any contribution he may have made to the science community's issues with sexism.
And Richard Dawkins, whose 1976 book "The Selfish Gene" helped to bring the theory of evolution into public awareness, has been known to go on occasional Twitter rants that leave his followers wondering if he's become a rape apologist, or if his anti-religion sentiments have crept into the territory of racism and islamophobia.
But despite Watson's views, his award will probably fetch a pretty penny when it goes up for auction at Christie's New York on Dec. 4: Last year, a letter written from Crick to his son outlining his recent discovery of the double helix sold for more than $6 million dollars – and that's without being made of 18-carat gold.