The Cheat Sheet

Whoa! There’s racism in James Watson’s DNA

Venky Vembu | Updated on January 16, 2019

Who’s James Watson?

He’s a pioneering geneticist who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his work on discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, which carries genetic information in humans and, indeed, all organisms.

And there’s racism in his DNA?

Not literally, but it’s hard to escape that broad-sweep conclusion going by his public pronouncements.

What’s he done now?

His comments - in a documentary that aired earlier this month – have rekindled a controversy, centred around race and intelligence, that he had triggered in 2007. Essentially, what Watson had said back then was that black people were not as intelligent as whites.


There’s more. What he said was that he was “inherently gloomy” about Africa’s prospects because social policies “are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says: not really.” Even more strikingly he said that although he wished everyone was equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

And is he still haunted by what he said in 2007?

He was roundly criticised for his views back then, and even showed signs of contrition: he “unreservedly” apologised for his comments.

It’s all good then, right?

Far from it. He was effectively declared persona non grata by the scientific community, and in 2014, he auctioned off his Nobel medal and his acceptance speech notes for over $4 million, saying that his social and scientific boycott had impoverished him.

Did it bring closure?

No, because Watson, now 90, has stoked that controversy all over again with his comments, which were recorded last June (but which were aired earlier this month). Asked if his views on race and intelligence had evolved since 2007, he said: “Not at all… There’s a difference... between blacks and whites on IQ tests. I would say the difference is… genetic.’’


Exactly. These comments have set off another round of recriminations. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, which Watson headed for many years, has revoked all the honours and titles it bestowed on him. It said that Watson’s latest comments, “which effectively reverse the written apology and retraction” he made in 2007, are “reprehensible” and “unsupported by science.”

But hasn’t there been a revival in ‘race science’ lately?

There has. For instance, in 2014, Nicholas Wade, a former science correspondent at New York Times wrote a book, A Troublesome Inheritance, wherein he advanced the theory that race and biological difference among human groups were correlated; that the evolution of human brains varied with race; and that the difference in the IQ scores across races validated this theory. Although his views were denounced by evolutionary theorists, he won acclaim among some scientists who said he had been silenced by “political correctness”. Then there’s the discredited ‘Bell Curve’ theory.

What’s that?

It’s a 1994 book by psychologist Richard Hernnstein and political scientist Charles Murray, which argued, among other things, that IQ is largely genetically determined and that the differences in IQ between ethnic groups are substantially explained by genetic factors. It set off an enormous academic furore, with vociferous defence and criticism of the authors. One sympathetic reviewer hailed it as an intellectual event on a par with Darwin’s Origin of Species.


It looks like the race science genie isn’t crawling back into the bottle from which it was released.

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Published on January 16, 2019

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