boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

DNA scientist is condemned for racial comments

Nobel laureate offers apology for remarks

Scientist James Watson, behind a model of the DNA double helix, is under fire for comments he made suggesting that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. Scientist James Watson, behind a model of the DNA double helix, is under fire for comments he made suggesting that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. (FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NEW YORK - James Watson, the 79-year-old scientific icon made famous by his work in DNA, has set off an international furor with comments to a London newspaper about intelligence levels among blacks.

Watson, who is chancellor of the renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, has a history of provocative statements about social implications of science. But several friends said yesterday that he is not a racist.

And Watson, who won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for co-discovering the structure of DNA, apologized and said he is "mortified."

A profile of Watson in the Sunday Times Magazine of London quoted him saying that he is "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."

While he hopes everyone is equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true," Watson is quoted. He also said people should not be discriminated against on the basis of color, because "there are many people of color who are very talented."

The comments, reprinted Wednesday in a front-page article in another British newspaper, The Independent, provoked a sharp reaction. London's Science Museum canceled a sold-out lecture he was to give today. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said his comments "represent racist propaganda masquerading as scientific fact. . . . That a man of such academic distinction could make such ignorant comments, which are utterly offensive and incorrect and give succor to the most backward in our society, demonstrates why racism still has to be fought."

In the United States, the Federation of American Scientists said it was outraged that Watson "chose to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science."

Watson's employer said he was not speaking for the Cold Spring Harbor research facility, where the board and administration "vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments."

Watson is in Britain to promote his new book, "Avoid Boring People," and a publicist for his British publisher provided this statement yesterday:

"I am mortified about what has happened," Watson said. "More importantly, 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. 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's publicist, Kate Farquhar-Thomson, would not address whether Watson was suggesting that he was misquoted. "You have the statement. That's it, I'm afraid," she said.

A spokesman for The Sunday Times said that the interview with Watson was recorded and that the newspaper stood by the story.

In the book, Watson raises the prospect of discovering genes that significantly affect a person's intelligence.

"There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically," Watson wrote. "Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."

Watson is no stranger to making waves with his scientific views.

"Jim has a penchant for making outrageous comments that are basically poking society in the eye," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said yesterday.

Collins, who has known Watson for a long time, said his latest comments "really . . . carried it this time to a much more hurtful level."

In a brief telephone interview, Collins said that Watson's statements are "the wildest form of speculation in a field where such speculation ought not to be engaged in." Genetic factors for intelligence show no difference from one part of the world to another, he said.

Several longtime friends of Watson insisted that he is not a racist.

"It's hard for me to buy the label 'racist' for him," said Victor McElheny, the author of a 2003 biography of Watson, whom he has known for 45 years. "This is someone who has encouraged so many people from so many backgrounds."

So why does he say things that can sound racist? "I really don't know the answer to that," McElheny said.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES