The Mortification of James Watson

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Dr James Watson

Not very long after James Watson finished his Nobel Prize–winning work on the structure of DNA in 1953, he started firing off some eyebrow-raising comments about his fellow man: that fat people don't get hired because they lack ambition; how sunlight (and darker skin) is the source of the "Latin lover" libido; what he found distasteful in the appearance of his female research collaborator, Rosalind Franklin.

But as the great geneticist slunk back to the U.S. on Friday — his sold-out U.K. tour for his new book called Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science canceled after the apparently racist remarks he made to Britain's Sunday Times Magazine last weekend — it's clear that Watson's latest provocation is not one he'll shrug off lightly. Indeed, Watson, 79, says he is "mortified" by the imbroglio, and apologizes "unreservedly" for the offending comments, in which he suggested black people are not as smart as whites: he told the Sunday Times' Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe that he is "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa," since "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas testing says not really." Watson also told Hunt-Grubbe, who lived and worked with him as a lab assistant in Long Island a decade ago, that even though he would hope all people are equal in intellectual capacity, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

Condemnation was swift. Watson arrived in the U.K. midweek to promote his new book, which will be out Oct. 22. He was scheduled to speak Friday at the Science Museum in London, but the museum announced the day before that it would cancel the event, as Watson had "gone beyond the point of acceptable debate." The University of Edinburgh then axed Watson's scheduled appearance for Monday, calling the scientist's remarks "entirely incompatible with the spirit" of the lecture series in which he was supposed to participate. And an event organizer in Bristol, which had booked the DNA pioneer for Oct. 24, dropped Watson as well, saying the Sunday Times Magazine remarks were "unacceptably provocative."

By noon on Friday, a beleaguered Watson had canceled his remaining engagements and was flying back to the U.S. "His decision to leave the country, I believe, was due to things going on at Cold Springs Harbor," says his publicist Kate Farquhar-Thomson, referring to the Long Island lab where Watson is chancellor. Though Farquhar-Thomson declined to speculate what those "things going on" might be, odds are they include the lab board's decision yesterday to suspend Watson's administrative responsibilities.

No one seems more shocked by the statements than James Watson himself. "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," Watson said in a statement he issued at the Royal Society Thursday. "That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

And on that much at least, he's right. For one thing, science has no agreed-upon definition of "race": however you slice up the population, the categories look pretty arbitrary. For another, science has no agreed-upon definition of "intelligence" either — let alone an agreed-upon method to test it. All kinds of cultural biases have been identified in IQ tests, for example. If there is something fundamental in our brains that regulates our capacity to learn, we have yet to separate its effects from the effects of everything that we experience after we're born.

Still, even with the offensive and unreasonable remarks that appeared in print, it's hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Watson. The man Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe describes in The Sunday Times Magazine is less an arrogant bigot than an enthusiastic if misguided old man, someone who does not quite understand that people won't always take his provocative remarks as innocently as he intended. Even Watson seems shocked by the comments in the magazine. "I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said," he said in yesterday's statement. (The Times Online reports today that the Sunday Times Magazine interview was recorded and the publication stands behind its story.)

But there was a time about 10 years ago, writes Hunt-Grubbe in her piece, when she, then a lab assistant, found Watson distressed over a British newspaper headline: Abort babies with gay genes, says Nobel winner. Hunt-Grubbe asked Watson about that incident again when they met for their recent interview. "It was a hypothetical thing," Watson tells her. Someone had asked a question about aborting homosexual babies, and Watson believed mothers "should have the right" to decide when they have a baby. "I was just arguing for the freedom of women to try and have the children they want, not what is right or wrong," he continues. To be sure, picking and choosing your kids' traits is controversial enough. But it's not necessarily prejudicial. Given Watson's stature in scientific circles and his complete retraction of the Sunday Times Magazine remarks, let's hope these race comments, too, have been misunderstood, and that Watson is not just an obsolete product of a bygone time.