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Nobel scientist suspended over race comments

Oct. 18, 2007
Staff and wire reports
Updated Oct. 19

A storm of criticism has en­gulfed a Nobel Prize-winn­ing genetics pio­neer af­ter he re­port­edly said Africans and Eu­ro­peans dif­fer in in­tel­li­gence. But some sci­ent­ists are de­fend­ing the state­ment and lash­ing back at the cri­tics.

The uproar started when James Wat­son, who won a No­bel in 1962 for co-dis­cover­ing DNA’s struc­ture, told Lon­don’s Sun­day Times of Oct. 14 that Africans and Eu­ro­peans aren’t equal­ly cle­ver. Lon­don’s Sci­ence Mu­seum can­celled a planned lec­ture by Wat­son amid the flap. Under pres­sure, he issued an apo­logy, but his em­plo­yer, a pres­ti­gious re­search in­sti­tu­tion, sus­pended him.

James Watson


Watson was airing ideas similar to find­ings of a range of stu­dies, al­though cri­tics call those flawed. Re­search on race and intel­li­gence has drawn fire from many circles, partly be­cause of a po­wer­ful fear that it pro­vides an ex­cuse for op­pres­sion of mi­no­ri­ties.

The Sunday Times quot­ed the 79-year-old Amer­i­can ge­net­i­cist as say­ing 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.”

The com­ments drew con­dem­na­t­ion from Brit­ish law­mak­ers, sci­ent­ists, and equal­ity cam­paign­ers. On Wed­nes­day The In­de­pend­ent news­pa­per of Lon­don listed what it said were a se­ries of con­tro­ver­sial state­ments from Wat­son, in­clud­ing one in which he re­portedly sug­gested wom­en should have the right to abort their un­born chil­dren if tests could de­ter­mine they would grow in­to ho­mo­sex­u­als.

Wat­son, who is chan­cel­lor of the Cold Spring Har­bor Lab­o­r­a­to­ry in New York, was due to speak Fri­day at a sold-out event at the Sci­ence Mu­se­um. But on Wed­nes­day night the in­sti­tu­tion said Wat­son’s com­ments had gone “beyond the point of ac­cep­table de­bate” and can­celed the lec­ture.

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Cold Spring Har­bor Lab­o­r­a­to­ry quickly distanced itself from Watson, issu­ing a state­ment on its web­site: “The Board of Trus­tees, ad­min­is­tration and fa­culty ve­he­mently dis­agree with these state­ments and are be­wil­dered and sad­dened if he in­deed made such com­ments.” The Fe­de­ra­tion of Ame­ri­can Sci­ent­ists re­leased a state­ment say­ing “Dr. Wat­son chose to use his un­ique sta­ture to pro­mote per­son­al pre­ju­dices that are ra­cist, vi­cious and un­sup­ported by sci­ence.”

But Lin­da S. Gott­fred­son, a so­cio­lo­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of De­la­ware in New­ark, Del., de­fended Wat­son Thurs­day and called the mu­seum’s can­cel­lation of his ap­pear­ance “an out­rage.”

“Prof. Wat­son’s views are actu­ally in the main­stream of know­ledge­able sci­en­tific opi­nion,” she wrote in an email. “The Museum is wrong on two counts: first, that cer­tain sci­en­tific ques­tions may not be de­bated, and, se­cond, that Prof. Wat­son is surely mis­ta­ken and alone in his sci­en­ti­fic judg­ment” on group dif­fer­ences in aver­age in­tel­li­gence.

On Thursday evening, Cold Spring Har­bor an­nounced it had sus­pended Wat­son from his job. By then, Wat­son had issued an apo­logy, though it wasn’t clear whe­ther he had backed off from the sub­stance of his re­marks. He apo­logized to those who might have in­ferred from them that “Africa, as a con­ti­nent, is some­how ge­ne­tic­ally in­fe­rior.”

In an Oct. 16 interview with The Guardian of Lon­don, Wat­son had defended his ra­cial views as hu­mane. “Ul­ti­mate­ly, we’ll help the peo­ple we dis­cri­minate against if we try to un­der­stand more about them,” he said. “Ge­ne­tics will lead to a world where there is a sym­pa­thy for the un­der­dog.”


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London’s Science Museum has canceled a planned lecture by aNobel prize-winning scientist after he reportedly claimed Africans and Europeans had different intelligence levels. James Watson,