Nobel Winner Issues Apology for Comments About Blacks
James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for deciphering the double-helix of DNA, apologized “unreservedly” yesterday for comments reported this week suggesting that black people, over all, are not as intelligent as whites.
In an interview published Sunday in The Times of London, Dr. Watson is quoted as saying that while “there are many people of color who are very talented,” he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.”
“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 newspaper quoted him as saying.
In a statement given to The Associated Press yesterday, Dr. Watson said, “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
But his publicist, Kate Farquhar-Thomson, would not say whether Dr. Watson believed he had been misquoted. “You have the statement,” she said. “That’s it, I am afraid.”
Late yesterday, the board of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institution in New York, issued a statement saying it was suspending the administrative responsibilities of Dr. Watson as chancellor “pending further deliberation.”
On Wednesday, Bruce Stillman, president of the laboratory, had issued a statement saying the laboratory’s trustees, administration and faculty “vehemently disagree” with the sentiments of Dr. Watson, who has served as director and president of the laboratory, whose school of biological sciences is named for him.
Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor study plant and animal genetics, cancer and other diseases. Dr. Stillman said they did not “engage in any research that could even form the basis of the statements attributed to Dr. Watson.”
Dr. Watson is in England to promote his new book, “Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science” (Knopf). In a statement, Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf, said only that it was “understandable that his comments have caused upset throughout the world.”
There is wide agreement among researchers on intelligence that genetic inheritance influences mental acuity, but there is also wide agreement that life experiences, even in the womb, exert a powerful influence on brain structure. Further, there is wide disagreement about what intelligence consists of and how — or even if — it can be measured in the abstract.
For example, in “The Mismeasure of Man,” Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, dismissed “the I.Q. industry” as little more than an effort by men of European descent to maintain their prominence in the world.
Nevertheless, Dr. Watson, 79, is hardly the first eminent researcher to assert that inherited characteristics like skin color are correlated to intelligence and that people of African descent fall short. For example, William B. Shockley, a Nobel laureate for his work with transistors, in later life developed ideas of eugenics based on the supposed intellectual inferiority of blacks.
His ideas were greeted with scorn, and Dr. Watson is encountering a similar reaction. According to the BBC, the Science Museum of London canceled a speech Dr. Watson was to have given there today, saying that much as it supports robust discussion of controversial ideas, Dr. Watson’s assertions on race and intelligence are “beyond the point of acceptable debate.”
Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, a private group that works to bring science to policy making, said it was “tragic that one of the icons of modern science has cast such dishonor on the profession.”