A Nobel Prize-winning geneticist has cancelled a string of speaking engagements in Britain after being suspended from a prestigious scientific laboratory for claiming that black people are less intelligent than whites.
James Watson is on his way back to the United States to “sort out” his job at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, NY. His comments caused a storm of controversy.
The scientist, who won the Nobel prize for his part in discovering the structure of DNA, was quoted in an interview in The Sunday Times saying 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.”
Although Dr Watson tried to quell the row with an apology last night, he was too late to prevent widespread condemnation of his comments.
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory board joined a throng of prominent researchers and institutions who said they found the remarks Dr Watson was quoted as saying to be offensive and scientifically incorrect.
In a statement, the laboratory said it had “decided to suspend the administrative responsibilities of Chancellor James D. Watson, Ph.D., pending further deliberation by the Board”.
The board went on: “This action follows the Board’s public statement yesterday disagreeing with the comments attributed to Dr. Watson in the October 14, 2007 edition of The Sunday Times UK.”
The newspaper also quoted Dr Watson, 79, claiming that people 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.”
Dr Watson shared the 1962 Nobel prize for medicine with Francis Crick and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins for their description of the double helix structure of DNA.
Last night Dr Watson told an audience in London that he was mortified by the public response.
At a book launch at the Royal Society, Dr Watson said: “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly.
“That is not what I meant. More importantly, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
He went on: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. I can certainly understand why people reading those words have reacted in the ways they have.”
Dr Watson has said before that there is a genetic basis for intelligence – something undisputed by other scientists. But experts deny there is any such thing as race on a genetic level.
Scientists expressed their disbelief at Dr Watson’s comments.
“They are wrong, from every point of view, not the least of which is that they are completely inconsistent with the body of research literature in this area,” Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health in the US, said in a statement.
“Scientific prestige is never a substitute for knowledge. As scientists, we are outraged and saddened when science is used to perpetuate prejudice.”
Another group of Nobel laureates also expressed revulsion.
“The Federation of American Scientists is outraged by the noxious comments made by Dr James Watson that appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine on October 14th,” said the group, founded by Manhattan Project atomic physicists.
Federation of American Scientists President Henry Kelly added: “At a time when the scientific community is feeling threatened by political forces seeking to undermine its credibility, it is tragic that one of the icons of modern science has cast such dishonour on the profession.”
Prior to Dr Watson’s departure, the Science Museum had decided to cancel a talk by the scientist, organised as part of his speaking tour to promote his new book “Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science”.
A spokeswoman for Dr Watson’s publisher said: “Dr Watson feels he needs to go home and sort things out.”