Posted on June 3, 2008

Color, Controversy and DNA

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Newsweek, June 2, 2008

Below are excerpts from the Q&A with Nobel laureate and DNA pioneer James Watson.

James Watson: I’ve thought about these things a lot over the last couple of months, because those who know me well, you know, I’m mortified by those three sentences in the Sunday Times article. I’m not a monster, and yet, if you took them at their face value, I seem to be nasty.


JW: One sentence was just taken out of my book. It was [that] we shouldn’t expect that people in different parts of the world have equal intelligence, because we don’t know that. [Some] people say that they should be the same. I think the answer is we don’t know. . . . With the other two sentences, I talked to [the Times reporter] for eight hours. When I read the [quotes], I had no memory whatsoever of ever saying them. Because if I’d said anything like that, it was so inappropriate!

HLG: Well, are you gloomy about the future of Africa?

JW: Not if we educate them. I think we’ve got to focus on education.



HLG: You were quoted [in the Times of London article ] as saying you thought there was a relationship between color and libido, or sex drive.

JW: The remark I was telling was a joke. There was a poem by Byron, the sun makes you frisky. It was the link between the sun and sexuality. Well, if you get out in the sun, you will be more sexual. Ten years ago, someone was trying to produce a product that would turn your skin dark. He was making a chemical derivative of a stimulating hormone, which is turned out when your skin tans. He injected it into himself and he got a 10-hour erection.



JW: The Jewish people are terrified of [discovering the] genes behind Jewish success, because it will lead to—

HLG: Do you think that’s possible?

JW: I know it’s not Jewish food.


JW: Oh, Jewish intelligence, ah, the Irish will do all right. So I’m not particularly worried about the fact that we’re not all the same. I’m really much more concerned with social justice, that everyone has a place in society. That’s really what I’m concerned with. … If they find genes for all kinds of Jewish intelligence, I don’t think it’s going to affect me in the slightest.


HLG: Do you think it is even remotely possible that we will find that there are genetic bases for the different performance of ethnic groups on these standardized tests?

JW: There was a difference between the Scotch and Irish, and it suddenly disappeared. . .nbsp;. A 10-point difference can disappear pretty fast.

JW: We could change things through better schools, or we could change things through medicines. We certainly know if you had very poor nutrition and you don’t have enough iodine, that’s going to stamp a whole people. And to what extent poverty in Africa is related to this—nutrition or no nutrition—we don’t know.


JW: I was watching the basketball games yesterday. And I’m just trying to say, you dominate.

HLG: Oh, you mean black people?


JW: I don’t know what it’s due to. Because we haven’t found genes. You know, genes depending on what sort of types of muscles, slow twitch, fast twitch. I don’t think it’s going to change things much. White runners will still try to beat black runners. And they’ll largely lose. But they’re gonna try. If you’re a sprinter, you’re going to try to run as fast as you can.



HLG: Imagine if you were an African or an African-American intellectual. And it’s 10 years from now. And you pick up The New York Times and some geneticist says, A) that intelligence is genetic, and B) the difference as measured on standardized tests between black people and white people, is traceable to a genetic basis. What would you, as a black intellectual, do, do you think?

JW: I don’t think I can answer, because I don’t think it will change things much


JW: No, no, no. Because in my lifetime, I’ve seen less and less discrimination. And I think it’ll continue that way.


JW: I am convinced that the movement towards personalized genetics is going to improve their lives. Black people and white people, we’re going to both be better because of this knowledge. Everyone should be judged [as] individuals. No one should be judged by a term like “black.” So I’m optimistic about where we’re going. I don’t think it’s going to lead to people being just discriminated. I see them being helped by knowing what genes might affect your health, and also in understanding when you don’t fit in.


HLG: It’s just that racists are determined to use biology to re-enslave black people, to delimit black people.

JW: Yeah, but it’s not the historic norm. I don’t think it’s going to go that way. . . . I don’t think genetics is going to make that much of a difference.



HLG: Let me ask a moral question. If we found out 10 years from now, I come back and I interview you, and geneticists have found a biological basis of intelligence. And the worst of all nightmares is that some people in the human community are genetically different in terms of their intelligence and thoughts. Should we prevent that kind of discovery, given it’s—

JW: I don’t think we can prevent the discoveries. [That would] prevent any possibility of using knowledge to make people’s lives better, so I don’t think that’s the way to go. I do think we have a moral question, a very serious moral question. . . . To what extent do you help people, at the bottom? What is called social Darwinism, you know, let them go extinct, I find repulsive.


Read an unedited transcript of this conversation.