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DNA Pioneer James Watson Loses Honorary Titles Over Racist Comments

The renowned scientist has a long history of controversial commentary on not only race, but issues spanning gender, religion and sexuality

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has severed all ties with Watson (Public domain)
smithsonian.com

Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist James Watson has been stripped of honorary titles awarded to him by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), a Long Island-based non-profit research institution long linked with the scientist. The decision follows the latest episode in Watson's decades-long pattern of racist remarks.

Watson’s accomplishments, including his role in the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, have long been overshadowed by his "unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions," as a CSHL statement describes. In 2007, he told former protégé Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe 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.” Watson later apologized for these comments. In a recent interview featured in the new PBS documentary “American Masters: Decoding Watson,” however, Watson was asked if his thinking on the relationship between race and intelligence had shifted. The now 90-year-old doubled down, replying, “No, not at all,” before adding that he attributed purported variations in “the average between blacks and whites on I.Q. tests” to genetics.

As Amy Harmon reports for The New York Times, the laboratory had previously forced Watson, then serving as chancellor, into retirement following his 2007 remarks, but continued to afford him such titles as chancellor emeritus, Oliver R. Grace professor emeritus and honorary trustee.

Now, CSHL has severed all ties with the geneticist and issued a statement declaring Watson’s comments “reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way [representative of] the views of CSHL, its trustees, faculty, staff, or students.”

Continuing, the statement explains, “The Laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.”

Watson is one of four scientists credited with the discovery of DNA’s molecular structure. According to the Science History Institute, chemist Rosalind Franklin used X-ray crystallography, an approach first suggested by Maurice Wilkins, to produce high-resolution images of DNA strands during the early 1950s. Watson and co-researcher Francis Crick later drew on this data—obtained without Franklin’s permission—to confirm their own theories on DNA’s double helix shape.

In 1953, Watson and Crick published their findings in the journal Nature; despite the fact that both Franklin and Wilkins published related articles in that very same issue, neither enjoyed the critical acclaim bestowed upon the other two researchers. Wilkins was somewhat vindicated in 1962, when he jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside Watson and Crick, but Franklin, who died of cancer at age 37 in 1958, received no such recognition.

Detailing the litany of offense-worthy remarks made by the DNA pioneer, Josh Gabbatiss of the Independent notes that Watson once said there was a link between skin color and libido, claiming, “That’s why you have Latin lovers. You’ve never heard of an English lover.”

Further playing into prejudiced stereotypes, the scientist also stated that female scientists, while making work “more fun for the men,” are “probably less effective.” Even Franklin was not immune to his acerbic diatribes. As Julia Belluz writes for Vox, Watson’s 1968 book, The Double Helix, describes Franklin as “not unattractive,” but failing to take “even a mild interest in clothes” and the accentuation of her “feminine qualities.”

In a particularly inflammatory rant, Watson said in 1997, “If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn't want a homosexual child, well, let her.” Following up on that remark, he added, “We already accept that most couples don't want a [child with Down syndrome]. You would have to be crazy to say you wanted one, because that child has no future.”

Watson’s claims have no basis in actual scientific research. Returning to Watson’s latest comments regarding race, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins tells The New York Times’ Harmon that most intelligence experts attribute differences in I.Q. testing mainly to “environmental, not genetic, differences.”

Collins echoes sentiments shared in the CSHL statement, concluding, “It is disappointing that someone who made such groundbreaking contributions to science is perpetuating such scientifically unsupported and hurtful beliefs.”

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