Watson denounced for racism

By Mischa Fierer

Prominent geneticist and U of C graduate James Dewey Watson (S.B. ’47), who, with partner Francis Crick, earned worldwide acclaim in the 1950s for the discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure, garnered widespread criticism in Britain and around the world this week for suggesting during an interview that tests have shown that black people are not as intelligent as whites.

The quote appeared in an October 14 article in the Times of London magazine and led London’s Science Museum to cancel a sold-out event at which Watson was to discuss his recently published memoirs.

The article quoted Watson as saying 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.’” The article also cited him as hoping that all people are equal but as saying that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Now one of the most influential scientists alive, Watson came to the U of C at the age of 15. After earning a graduate degree from Indiana University, he went to work at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory where he partnered with Crick and other scientists to make the DNA discovery.

“Watson has always been opinionated,” Herbert Friedmann, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, said in an e-mail interview.

Although he has made controversial comments about race in the past, this time Watson has publicly rejected the notions of race that were attributed to him. “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said,” Watson said in a written statement given to the Associated Press on Thursday.

“To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief,” Watson wrote.

Some scholars have remained unfazed by Watson’s comments, viewing them as the latest incarnations of Watson’s seat-of the-pants personality. Others have expressed grave concerns about the possible ramifications.“I know what to expect,” Eugene Goldwasser, professor emeritus of biochemistry at the University said. Goldwasser, a long-time friend of Watson’s, said that Watson is “not racist” but that he “shoots from the hip” without thinking about the consequences.

Goldwasser said it is “in his nature” to “make statements which are challenging” but that as a personal friend of Watson’s he is not taken aback by his remarks because he is used to it. “He’s done it in the past and he’ll do it in the future,” he said.

But some academics are deeply troubled by his comments.

“It’s a frightening reincarnation of a 500-year-old idea,” Ellen Scott, associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, said.

According to Scott, the idea behind Watson’s comments has never had a scientific foundation. Moreover, the genetic idea that some groups of people are physiologically better has been used in colonialism, Nazi Germany, slavery, and the exploitation of women, she said.

Watson was the recipient of the 2007 Chicago Alumni Medal, which recognizes outstanding achievements by alumni.