Amy Harmon, New York Times, January 1, 2019
It has been more than a decade since James D. Watson, a founder of modern genetics, landed in a kind of professional exile by suggesting that black people are intrinsically less intelligent than whites.
In 2007, Dr. Watson, who shared a 1962 Nobel Prize for describing the double-helix structure of DNA, told a British journalist that 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.”
Moreover, he added, although he wished everyone were equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
Dr. Watson’s comments reverberated around the world, and he was forced to retire from his job as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, although he retains an office there.
He apologized publicly and “unreservedly,’’ and in later interviews he sometimes suggested that he had been playing the provocateur — his trademark role — or had not understood that his comments would be made public.
Ever since, Dr. Watson, 90, has been largely absent from the public eye. His speaking invitations evaporated. In 2014, he became the first living Nobelist to sell his medal, citing a depleted income from having been designated a “nonperson.’’
But his remarks have lingered. They have been invoked to support white supremacist views, and scientists routinely excoriate Dr. Watson when his name surfaces on social media.
Eric Lander, the director of the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, elicited an outcry last spring with a toast he made to Dr. Watson’s involvement in the early days of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Lander quickly apologized.
And yet, offered the chance recently to recast a tarnished legacy, Dr. Watson has chosen to reaffirm it, this time on camera. In a new documentary, “American Masters: Decoding Watson,’’ to be broadcast on P.B.S. on Wednesday night, he is asked whether his views about the relationship between race and intelligence have changed.
“No,’’ Dr. Watson said. “Not at all. I would like for them to have changed, that there be new knowledge that says that your nurture is much more important than nature. But I haven’t seen any knowledge. And there’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites on I.Q. tests. I would say the difference is, it’s genetic.’’
Dr. Watson adds that he takes no pleasure in “the difference between blacks and whites’’ and wishes it didn’t exist. “It’s awful, just like it’s awful for schizophrenics,’’ he says. (His son Rufus was diagnosed in his teens with schizophrenia.) Dr. Watson continues: “If the difference exists, we have to ask ourselves, how can we try and make it better?”
Dr. Watson’s remarks may well ignite another firestorm of criticism. At the very least, they will pose a challenge for historians when they take the measure of the man: How should such fundamentally unsound views be weighed against his extraordinary scientific contributions?
Some scientists said that Dr. Watson’s recent remarks are noteworthy less because they are his than because they signify misconceptions that may be on the rise, even among scientists, as ingrained racial biases collide with powerful advances in genetics that are enabling researchers to better explore the genetic underpinnings of behavior and cognition.
David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard, has argued that new techniques for studying DNA show that some human populations were geographically separated for long enough that they plausibly could have evolved average genetic differences in cognition and behavior.
Whether Dr. Watson was aware of any of this science is unclear. In the film, he appears to have grown increasingly isolated. He mentions missing Francis Crick, his collaborator in the race to decipher the structure of DNA.
But Mary-Claire King, a leading geneticist at the University of Washington who knows Dr. Watson well and is not in the film, suggested that the racially homogeneous culture of science also played a role in shaping Dr. Watson’s misconceptions.
“If he knew African-Americans as colleagues at all levels, his present view would be impossible to sustain,’’ Dr. King said.