The Science of Racism

Last fall, James Watson, the father of DNA, spoke the unspeakable, saying that blacks are intellectually inferior. In a conversation with The Root Editor-in-Chief Henry Louis Gates Jr., Watson clarified his views about race and genetics. Read what he says now — and why Gates regards him as "a racialist."

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James Watson has long assumed a certain special status among American scientists. The molecular biologist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, for, as the Swedish Academy put it in its announcement for the prize, "their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material." Watson and his British colleague Crick are remembered popularly for identifying the elegant and unexpected "double helix" three-dimensional structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, commonly known as DNA. Watson's important contribution to this uncanny discovery was to define how the four nucleotide bases that make up DNA—guanine (G), cytosine (C), adenine (A) and thymine (T)—combine in pairs to form its structure. These base pairs turn out to be the key to both the structure of DNA and its various functions. In other words, Watson identified the language and the code by which we understand and talk about our genetic makeup.

I have been among those who have long held Watson in high regard for several reasons. First of all, the discovery of DNA's three-dimensional structure was counterintuitive; it was an ingenious act of deduction, using models made of cardboard and paste with an exacto knife and a straight edge. How Watson and Crick, working at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, became the first scientists to identify this elusive structure is the stuff of drama, especially when we recall that Watson was just 25 years old when he and Crick published their findings in the journal Nature on April 25, 1953.

Though Watson would tell me during our recent interview that he had a rather low IQ, as proof that IQ tests aren't really that important, he enrolled at the University of Chicago when he was merely 15 and earned his B.S. in zoology there in 1947 at the age of 19 and a Ph.D. in zoology from Indiana University at age 22. He was 34 when he won the Nobel Prize. Not too shabby for a guy with a "low" IQ.

Watson's youth and a certain absent-minded professorial quirkiness made him an American hero, the symbol of American enterprise and intelligence. What's more, unlike Crick, or Einstein, say, Watson was an American born and bred: His discovery, coming at the height of the Cold War, would be hailed as attesting to American genius and the unrivaled potential of the free market system versus communism. The intrigue over allegations that Watson and Crick made unauthorized use of the seminal work on X-ray diffraction by Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant scientist who died before the Nobel Prize committee made its decision, only made Watson's story all the more titillating.

And Watson—never camera shy or publicity averse—contributed to the power of his own myth first by writing "Molecular Biology of the Gene," a 1965 textbook that, updated, remains enormously popular today, and, three years later, "The Double Helix," an account of the dramatic story of his discovery that also contained startling and scandalous revelations of petty tensions, jealousies and rivalries among scientists whom we all had assumed were motivated primarily by the pursuit of truth. Watson's book did nothing less than deconstruct the myth of the scientist as secular saint, laboring away in a laboratory for knowledge's sake at the service of mankind. (One scientist summed up Watson's view of the scientific profession as "with malice toward most and charity toward none.") But Watson's account also made his quest to determine the structure of DNA gripping and exciting, one of science's greatest and most compelling triumphs. Though he was a professor at Harvard University at the time—he taught there from 1956 to 1976—the Harvard University Press refused to publish the book because of its tell-all nature. A commercial press published it instead, it became a best-seller and Watson's celebrity only grew.

In 1989, such was the power and force of Watson's reputation and his place in the history of science that he was named the head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, a position he held until 1992, when he resigned because of what he said was his opposition to NIH's intention to patent gene sequences; others suggested his ownership of stock in biotechnology companies posed a possible conflict of interest. In 1994, Watson became president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (he had been its director since 1968), a lavishly funded and idyllic center on Long Island for the advanced study of genomics and cancer that in 1998 created the Watson School of Biological Sciences. In 2004, he became Cold Spring's chancellor.

 

Watson in 2007.

 

On Oct. 14, 2007, one of Watson's former assistants, Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, wrote an article  about him in London's Sunday Times   that quoted him making racist comments about black people by suggesting there are inherent, unalterable biological differences in intelligence between black people and everyone else. The response was swift and impressively devastating. The father of DNA had spoken the unspeakable. Echoing racist remarks that have been used to justify the enslavement and colonization of black people since the Enlightenment (think Hume, Kant, Jefferson, Hegel), Watson's comments implied that he believed that nature had created a primal distinction in intelligence and innate mental capacity between blacks and whites, which no amount of social intervention could ever change.

He had uttered the unutterable, the most ardent fantasy of white racists (David Duke would wax poetic on his Web site that the truth had at last been revealed, and by no less than the discoverer of the structure of DNA). His words caused a ripple effect of shock, dismay and disgust among those of us who embrace the range of biological diversity and potential within the human community. It was as if one of the smartest white men in the world had confirmed what so many racists believe already: that the gap between blacks and whites in, say, IQ test scores and SAT results has a biological basis and that environmental factors such as centuries of slavery, colonization, Jim Crow segregation and race-based discrimination—all contributing to uneven economic development—don't amount to a hill of beans. Nature has given us an extra basketball gene, as it were, in lieu of native intelligence.