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.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. : But Dr. Watson, on behalf of the African Americans who admired you, studied your work, and read The Root.com, where in the world did those words come from?
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: As soon as you were quoted in The Times, David Duke posted on his Web site. He said, at last, the smartest white man in the world, the man who identified DNA, has confirmed what we've known all the time. …
JW: I [am appalled by] the fact that that remark was associated with me because I don't believe it. You can't tell me that Ethiopians are stupid. Jesus. So they test very low on IQ, but I know enough of them—they're bright.
A LINK BETWEEN COLOR AND SEX DRIVE?
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.
HLG: Is that true? A 10-hour erection from this?
JW: He was scared it would never go down. But it had to be injected. Then Viagra came out, and the whole market disappeared. Anyways, I thought it was a great theory. It could have all been totally wrong. Poets write about the sun, and you associate sexuality with the Mediterranean—not the North Sea. I'm a biologist. I'm just interested in different things. But you know, I really am a very un-frivolous person, but I like to explain. If the sun makes you sexy, you know, it would be a useful fact for people to know.
ON JEWISH INTELLIGENCE
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.
HLG: Gefilte fish doesn't lead to …
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: But would it affect me?
JW: Well, it shouldn't affect you. You're very successful.
HLG: I mean me, collectively. My people. I'm doing OK.
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. … 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?
HLG: In case you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly a basketball kind of type. But could that be genetic, the dominance that you described in the NBA yesterday?
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: I can't run. It's a good thing I was a good student because I wouldn't have made it. … My father, though, will be 95, June 8th, God willing. And my father, every time he passes a basketball court of black boys, young black men, he will say, "If we study calculus like we study basketball, we would be running MIT." So to him, it's not genetic. It's the fact that we're in basketball laboratories instead of math laboratories, all of our lives.
JW: Yes, and that's bad. Black kids have got to get different aspirations.
HLG: Right. But even you said, "You dominate us." You see what I mean? We have this image of being dominant as natural athletes.
JW: Well, one of my rules in my books is, take courses where you can get good grades.
ON HUMAN NATURE
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
HLG: You don't think that all those people [who] want to see black people subjected, wouldn't use that as …
JW: No, no, no. Because in my lifetime, I've seen less and less discrimination. And I think it'll continue that way.
HLG: But some people would argue, particularly my friends in the university, that one of the reasons we've seen less is that we've gotten rid of biology, that we've started talking about race as a social construct. And now, biology is back, bigger and badder than ever.
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: Well I'm terrified that it will lead to more discrimination.
JW: Most people never live up to their true potential. Sometimes you don't have the potential to do everything. Most of us accept that at some phase of our life, as long as you find something else to do that gives you a meaningful life.
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: But you know people misuse the results of standardized tests. And that's what we're all worried about. We're worried about the decoding of the genome in relationship to intelligence, and then the question of, how do you measure intelligence? It's a can of worms for us.
JW: Well, it's a can of worms, but … I've always been an optimist, and I think that's why I've succeeded. I think all this knowledge will actually lead to better lives by different people in the world. Not worse. Because we'll understand each other better.
FUTURE IMPLICATIONS OF DNA RESEARCH
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.
HLG: Have your earlier views, say, when you and Crick first discovered the structure of DNA, been largely confirmed, or have you been surprised by subsequent results?
JW: What excites me now is my genome. You know, this ability to understand. You know, some people are social and some aren't. As any mother will tell you, when there are two children [being completely] different is just a common thing. Genes, they determine some things, the environment, a lot else. I mean, you know, all my values came from my parents. They didn't come from my genes.
ON DISCOVERING WATSON'S AFRICAN ROOTS
HLG: What do you think of deCODE's recent estimate of your percentage of recent African ancestry?
JW: I haven't seen the paper … [but] if I'm 16 percent African, then I'm 16 percent African. That's … a fact; I don't care. You don't judge people by, quote, race, you judge them as individuals. So it's the individual that counts, and no one should be discriminated by what they look like.
HLG: Do you trust admixture tests—I mean, tests that can say you're 16 percent African, or 20 percent Native American?
JW: Well, the African one I can believe, but I just can't see where that 7 percent Asian came from.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root and is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University.