The legacy of James Watson — who discovered DNA along with Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin — has once again been tarnished by the American biologist’s offensive, baseless comments.
In a new PBS documentary, Watson, now 90, affirms his previously stated view that black people are intellectually inferior to white people.
“There’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites in IQ tests,” Watson said in the film American Masters: Decoding Watson, which was released January 2. “I would say the difference is genetic.”
The remarks prompted the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, where Watson was a director from 1968 to 1994, to sever its ties with the Nobel Prize winner on January 11. The private, not-for-profit lab removed Watson’s honorary titles, saying his views are “reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way represent the views of [the lab].”
One of the better explanations for why it’s unsupported by science comes from New York University philosopher of neuroscience Ned Block: “Environmental differences ... including the sort that affect Black Americans, are known to have large effects on IQ. Moreover, we currently have no way to quantify these effects. So we should draw no conclusion about the probability of any Black genetic IQ advantage or disadvantage.”
Watson hasn’t commented on the censure. Since October, he has been in medical care following a car accident, according to the New York Times.
But this is far from the first public embarrassment over comments he’s made. The famed scientist has a long history of provocation with racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and even fat-shaming remarks. When you look at them in their totality, it’s amazing it took this long for Cold Spring Harbor to fully sever ties. (I reached out to the lab for comment but haven’t yet received a response.)
Watson began to recede from public life in 2007, after he told a British reporter that he was “gloomy” about 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”.
Those remarks prompted Watson to issue a public apology, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to suspend his administrative responsibilities. In 2014, Watson became the first Nobel winner to sell his prize because, he said, the race remarks made him an “unperson,” and he lost all but his academic income after being fired from the boards of companies he sat on. He hoped the sale of the prize (for $4.1 million) would help him to “re-enter public life.”
But he wasn’t really forgiven. Last year, when MIT biologist Eric Lander toasted Watson for his role in the Human Genome Project, Lander was lambasted on Twitter and forced to issue a public apology, calling Watson’s views “abhorrent,” “sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic.”
The new documentary was a chance for Watson to redeem his public image and walk back from the offensive comments. But he instead confirmed them — which was apparently the last straw for Cold Spring Harbor.
Again, though, Watson had been making disturbing comments long before 2007. It’s a deeply troubling pattern, particularly because he’s a scientist with great influence and authority. By misrepresenting science to belittle minority groups and women, he can easily mislead people. Here’s a sampling of some of his most egregious public comments made over the decades.
A timeline of Watson’s offensive comments
1968: Watson’s book The Double Helix includes a sexist depiction of Rosalind Franklin, the British chemist whose work on X-ray crystallography enabled Watson and his DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick to actually see the structure of DNA. At Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker outlines how: Watson repeatedly refers to her as “Rosy,” a nickname Franklin didn’t use, undermines her contributions to science, and criticizes her appearance. Here’s an excerpt from the book, via Boing Boing:
I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men.
In the years since these quips were made, journalists and historians have noted that Franklin’s contributions to the discovery of DNA were initially overlooked.
The same year the book was published, Watson married his wife Elizabeth Lewis and took over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Only when his tenure as director of the lab was finished, and he was no longer running the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, did his ugly comments start to surface again.
1997: Watson reportedly argued in a Sunday Telegraph interview that women should be allowed to abort fetuses that carried a “gay gene,” should one ever be discovered.
His comments provoked a backlash from anti-abortion activists and the LGBTQ community. In response, he offered this defense of himself, according to the Independent, which didn’t help much:
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.
2000: During a guest lecture at the University of California Berkeley, Watson shared his belief that thin people are unhappier than larger people, and therefore harder-working. He also said: “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
In that same lecture, the Chronicle reported, Watson commented on the (nonexistent) link between sun exposure (and darker skin color) and sexual prowess: “That’s why you have Latin Lovers. You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”
The comments shocked the audience, upset students, and led professors at the university to state that Watson had “crossed over the line.”
2003: In a documentary interview called DNA, which aired in 2003 on Channel 4 in the UK, Watson delivered a zinger on gene editing for beauty: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.”
In the same documentary, he suggests stupidity is a disease to be abolished. “The lower 10 per cent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what’s the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, ‘Well, poverty, things like that.’ It probably isn’t. So I’d like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 per cent.”
The comments prompted a backlash from the scientific community, leading one genetics professor to call Watson’s views “daft.”
2007: Watson began making the media rounds for his newly released book Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science — and got himself into trouble again.
He told the Times of London 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.” He went on to deny he made that remark, saying it had no scientific basis.
But he also reportedly said while people might wish all humans were equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” These comments prompted the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to fire Watson’s from his post as chancellor of the institution and relieve him of his administrative duties — but stopped short of severing ties. Watson still had an office and held other titles, including professor emeritus.
2007: In an interview with Esquire, Watson said, “some anti-Semitism is justified.” He continued: “Just like some anti-Irish feeling is justified. If you can’t be criticized, that’s very dangerous.”
In the same interview, he asked, “Why isn’t everyone as intelligent as Ashkenazi Jews?” and suggested that rich people should be paid to have children because “[i]f there is any correlation between success and genes, IQ will fall if the successful people don’t have children.”
The comments again stirred outrage, and members of the scientific community expressed disgust at Watson’s remarks.
2012: Of women in science, he said at the EuroScience Open Forum in Dublin, “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective.”
2019: “There’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites in IQ tests, I would say the difference is genetic,” he said in the PBS documentary American Masters: Decoding Watson.
In other words, Watson isn’t being persecuted for unpopular scientific views; his views just aren’t scientific at all. They’re hurtful and dangerous — and are fuel for bigots and white supremacists to draw on to justify their views.