Posted on October 19, 2007

As He Arrives in Britain, DNA Pioneer Breaks His Silence on Racism Row

Steve Connor, Cahal Milmo and Amol Rajan, Independent (London), October 19, 2007

James Watson, the Nobel laureate who shocked the world with his views on race and intelligence, has defended his position in an exclusive article for The Independent today in which he seeks to justify his theory that there is a genetic basis behind differences in IQ.

Dr Watson, who helped to unravel the structure of DNA more than 50 years ago, apologises for any offence that he caused when he suggested in an interview at the weekend that black Africans were less intelligent than Westerners.

But he restates his position that studying genes may help to understand variations in intelligence. In his interview with a Sunday newspaper, Dr Watson said 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”. He was quoted as saying his hope is that everyone is equal but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true”.

Dr Watson says in his article today that he has never been one to shy away from stating what he believes to be true, however unpalatable that may be.

“This has, at times, got me in hot water,” he says. “Rarely more so than right now, where I find myself at the centre of a storm of criticism.

“I can understand much of this reaction. For if I said what I was quoted as saying, then I can only admit that I am bewildered by it. To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. This is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

However, Dr Watson goes on to suggest that genes may account for many behavioural traits, including intelligence and even criminality. “The thought that some people are innately wicked disturbs me,” he says. “But science is not here to make us feel good.”

Without referring directly to the subject of racial differences, Dr Watson once more invokes the idea that Darwinian natural selection has led to differences in behavioural ability between people from different geographical regions of the world. “We do not yet adequately understand the way in which the different environments in the world have selected over time the genes which determine our capacity to do different things,” he says. “The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity.

“It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science. To question this is not to give in to racism. This is not a discussion about superiority or inferiority, it is about seeking to understand differences, about why some of us are great musicians and others great engineers.”

Dr Watson, a former president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, arrived in the UK this week as part of a book tour but his speaking engagements are in disarray after the Science Museum cancelled a lecture by him planned for today.

The controversy spread to America yesterday, as the board of trustees at Cold Spring issued a statement saying they were “bewildered and saddened” by his comments. “Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory does not engage in any research that could even form the basis of the statements attributed to Dr Watson,” it said.

Dr Watson is due to appear at the Centre for Life in Newcastle this weekend. Organisers distanced themselves from his views but insisted that it would still go ahead. Linda Conlon, chief executive of the centre, said: “It promises to be a robust and unmissable discussion and many people have expressed interest in it.”

Meanwhile, the organisers of the Festival of Ideas in Bristol, where Dr Watson is due to give a speech next week, said they were waiting for an explanation from the Nobel Prize-winner for his remarks before deciding whether to go ahead with the sell-out booking.

Andrew Kelly, co-ordinator of the festival, which is a series of discussions with leading intellectuals, said: “A review of the event is pending a statement from Dr Watson. Once he has made his statement we will decide about the event.”

Dr Watson’s comments provoked a furious reaction from students at Cambridge University and led to a heated row between student groups who disagree over whether he should retain his platform at the Cambridge Union on Tuesday.

“His comments are part of an overtly political campaign which tries to justify and excuse the plight of black people in the world today,” said Junior Penge Juma, a Black Student Campaigns officer.

Mr Juma is planning a protest to mark Dr Watson’s entry into the Union building on Tuesday. He will be joined by members of other minority student groups, including women’s groups and the Jewish Society.

Meanwhile, organisers at Edinburgh University, where Dr Watson is scheduled to appear on Monday evening alongside Dr Ian Wilmut, the scientist behind Dolly the Sheep, refused yesterday to rule out cancelling his appearance. A spokesman said the organisers were “consideringthe issues raised as a result of this matter” and would make a decision in due course.

Dr Watson’s remarks in The Sunday Times have also sparked a political furore. David Lammy, the Skills minister, said his comments were deeply offensive and would provide oxygen to the British National Party.