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January 28, 2015
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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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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
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