James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for helping to discover the double-helix shape of DNA, has been suspended from his administrative duties at Cold Spring Harbor Labs over comments he made to the London Times about how blacks are genetically hardwired with lower intelligence than other races. This should come as no surprise to people who have followed Watson's career. Many claim his "discovery" of DNA's structure came from peeking at (and stealing from) colleague Rosalind Franklin's work, a pioneer of microscopic imaging techniques whom Watson derided as an ugly woman who couldn't deal with people. Franklin died before the Nobel prize was given out, so she never had a chance to protest. Watson also grossed out a crowd at UC Berkeley during a public lecture in 2000 when he claimed that "darker" women had a higher sex drive due to genetics (AP mentions this lecture in a story). But what Watson said last week in the Times was much worse.
According to Times reporter Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, who has the interview on tape:
He says that he is "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", and I know that this "hot potato" is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true". He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because "there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don't promote them when they haven't succeeded at the lower level". He writes that "there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so".
Should we let this guy's foolish remarks undermine our admiration for the science he pioneered? Yes. There has always been a strong element of racism and sexism in the study of genetics, a field whose history is deeply bound up with the eugenics movement (which was, after all, a "scientific" movement). Leaders in the field like Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson routinely make comments about how people are "hardwired" to behave in certain ways based on their genetic heritage, which is often linked to their racial backgrounds or sex. Genomics and evolutionary biology studies on the genetic inferiority of female intelligence are what motivated former Harvard President Larry Summers to claim that there are so few women in science because we just aren't smart enough. Back in 2003, I saw Harvard professor Steven Pinker give a lecture at MIT where he speculated that perhaps Jews are just genetically more intelligent than other groups.
These guys give science a bad name, and they derail good work that might get done in their fields by bringing sex and race bias into the lab. I'm glad that Watson has finally gotten a good spanking for a lifetime of asswipage. Too bad it didn't happen earlier.
Here's the article from the London Times where Watson stuck his foot in his mouth for the last time.