Pioneering molecular biologist, geneticist and Nobel Prize winner Dr James Dewey Watson was stripped of all honorary titles by his former laboratory for repeating his controversial remarks from 2007 on the alleged relationship between race and genetics.
Watson, who received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering DNA’s double helical structure with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1953, had said that IQ test results differ between blacks and whites because of racially unique genetic differences. He made these remarks in a 2018 PBS documentary called “American Masters: Decoding Watson.”
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York that Watson once led said that it “unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions”, further calling his comments “completely and utterly incompatible” with its mission.
In a statement, the leaders of the laboratory labelled his most recent remarks as “reprehensible, unsupported by science,” drawing attention to the growing consensus among scientists about race, a purely social construct, and the lack of evidence to prove its relation to genetic differences among different populations.
Watson’s history of scientific racism
Watson has courted controversy among geneticists for his racist beliefs
In the latest interview, the 90-year-old held on to the same view, irking the scientific community at large.
CSHL had relieved Watson of his duties as the Chancellor Emeritus in 2007. On Friday, the laboratory revoked his other honorary titles including Oliver R. Grace Professor Emeritus and Honorary Trustee, calling his opinions “unsubstantiated and reckless”. His comments in the documentary “effectively reverse the written apology and retraction Dr. Watson made in 2007,” the lab’s statement read.
His career and legacy are now tainted with many such sexist, racist and homophobic remarks, including beliefs as preposterous as links between weight and ambition, and that women should abort pregnancies if a gene for homosexuality is found in the
During a lecture tour in 2000, he suggested thata person’s skin color can determine his/her sexual prowess. “That’s why you have Latin lovers,” he said, according to the Associated Press. In another 2003 British TV documentary, Watson had suggested stupidity was a genetic disease that should be treated.
Watson’s career and fall from grace
Watson had long been associated with the lab, serving as its director from 1968 to 1993, becoming its president in 1994, and its chancellor 10 years later. CSHL also has a school named after him.
Watson won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1962 along with Crick and Wilkins for their pathbreaking discovery of the DNA’s double helical structure. They were responsible for ascertaining its long, gently twisting ladder-like shape.
However, this discovery is also tainted by the lack of credit given to Rosalind Franklin, the woman whose contributions to their study include the now iconic X-ray photograph, Photo 51, which was the final clue in the double-helical puzzle.
Watson also became the first person to sell his Nobel Prize in 2014 in an attempt to restore his reputation, the New York Times reported.
The nonagenarian is reportedly recovering from a car accident and has very minimal awareness of his surroundings, according to his son, who acknowledged Watson’s bigoted comments on race. Speaking to AP, he said, “They just represent his [Watson’s] rather narrow interpretation of genetic destiny.”
Using (pseudo)science to justify racial supremacy
The idea that there was a link between race and intelligence was widespread in the early half of the twentieth century. The culmination of this misguided belief system, disguised in the garb of science, culminated in Holocaust. However, after advances in genetics, modern-day scientific consensus rejects any such link.
Those who continue to float the idea of a connection between race and intelligence are accused by the scientific community of indulging in pseudoscience and “scientific racism”. “The Laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice,” CSHL’s statement added, underlining the significance of revoking Watson’s titles — to discredit his damaging opinions.
In fact, a study was conducted in 2009 to disprove his theory that white people are more genetically similar to each other than with non-whites. His own genetic data and that of his colleague Craig Venter were compared to samples from Korean scientist, Seong-Jin Kim. The test revealed that both Watson and Venter had more genetic similarities with Seong than they had with each other.
These bigoted views highlight a significant problem within the Western scientific community — lack of diversity. When people of colour and other minority groups are systemically denied opportunities to access and enter the upper echelons of academia, such discrimnatory views become rampant. Furthermore, it is necessary to not divorce science from society. When scientific process discoveries are siloed within laboratories, the chasm between social realities and scientific biases widens. Thus, a more rounded and socially conscious methodology of science needs to be developed.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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