James Watson was once hailed as one of the world’s leading minds and the driving force behind the discovery of the DNA structure. Now, the lab he has led for decades has stripped the Nobel laureate of his last remaining honorary positions following his refusal to withdraw racist and unscientific statements.

Nobel laureate Dr. James D. Watson. Image credits: CSHL.

“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'”, the official announcement read, going on to call Watson’s statements in the documentary “reprehensible,” “unsupported by science,” and in no way representative of CSHL and its staff.

The issues go back to 2007, when Watson made controversial comments about the connection between race and intelligence. He said that genetically, black people have inferior IQs compared to white people. He added that while he hopes all people are equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true” and that he is “inherently gloomy” about the prospects of Africa, based on this IQ difference.

“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 was also quoted as saying.

His comments did not stop at black people. He continued stereotyping differences races, saying that Jews are inherently intelligent, Chinese are intelligent but not creative, and Indians being servile.

“Some anti-Semitism is justified,” Watson said a few years ago.

At the time, he did issue a half-hearted apology, adding that he does not consider himself as being racist.

“I have never thought of myself as a racist. I don’t see myself as a racist. I am mortified by it. It was the worst thing in my life,” he commented for the BBC. However, in a separate interview his position appeared to be less firm. “I’m not a racist in a conventional way”, he said, leaving plenty of room for interpretation.

However, in the recent documentary, which aired in January 2019, Watson re-emphasized the idea that genes cause a difference on average between blacks and whites on IQ tests.

Attempts to discredit the intelligence of black people are hardly new. Here, the authors liken the skull of African people to those of apes. Image from the 1838 book “Dictionnaire pittoresque d’histoire naturelle et des phénomènes de la nature” by Guérin-Méneville & F.-E. (Félix-Edouard).

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It should be said that Watson is currently in a nursing home following an October car crash. His son Rufus commented:

“My dad’s statements might make him out to be a bigot and discriminatory,” he said, “but that’s not true”. “They just represent his rather narrow interpretation of genetic destiny. My dad had made the lab his life, and yet now the lab considers him a liability,” Rufus Watson added.

The move is even more striking as decades ago, Watson saved the lab, transforming it from “a small facility into one of the world’s great education and research institutions,” as a previous press release conceded. But the same press release said that while Watson was allowed to keep an office at the laboratory and to live there “in a house he built on land the laboratory owns,” he would no longer have a job there. Now, CSHL stripped him of his last remaining honorary titles.

It is, by any standards, a depressing story. James Watson, one of the most famous and successful scientists in history, now aged 90, lies disgraced and shunned not only by the scientific community but also by the very lab he helped build. Yet, even so, one could hardly say this is unfair.

Watson is no stranger to controversy, and perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding him is the very discovery that led to his and Francis Crick’s monumental paper on DNA structure. The strongest evidence for the double helix structure of the DNA came from unauthorized data that Watson and Crick had from Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling, two scientists who, without their consent or knowledge, provided the backbone of Watson and Crick’s study. However, not only did they receive no recognition at the time, but Watson repeatedly criticized and insulted Franklin, saying that she “had autism,” “couldn’t do maths,” and “had to be put in her place.”

Scientific racism

Scientific racism is the pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racial superiority or inferiority. Today, the vast majority of anthropologists agree that that race is a social construction rather than a set of strong biological or genetic differences.

“Race is a socially constructed concept, not a biological one. It derives from people’s desire to classify,” a study on the matter concluded. The position of the American Anthropological Association echoed this understanding, saying that “any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations [is] both arbitrary and subjective.”

Furthermore, there is a limited consensus regarding what constitutes intelligence, and the utility of IQ tests is limited to only a general indicator, that is strongly influenced by culture. There are numerous non-genetic explanations for these disparities, although the matter is still researched. Simply put, although there does seem to be a disparity between IQ tests, there is no scientific evidence to back up Watson’s ideas, which seem to be nothing more than scientific racism.

At the end of the day, despite his remarkable contributions to science, Watson’s repeated statements are not only racist and offensive but also highly unscientific. Perhaps, as the old adage goes, we should separate the artist from the art — or in this case, the scientist from the science.

“Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory acknowledges and appreciates Dr. Watson’s substantial scientific legacy, including his role as founding director of the Human Genome Project and his critical leadership in the development of research and education at the Laboratory during his prior tenure as Director and President,” the CSHL press release concludes. “Nonetheless, the statements he made in the documentary are completely and utterly incompatible with our mission, values, and policies, and require the severing of any remaining vestiges of his involvement.”