Last week the Sunday Times published a fascinating profile of a man who made one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century. James Watson is the surviving member of the most famous scientific duo of the twentieth century. In the 55 years since he and Francis Crick won a Nobel prize for discovering the double helix structure of DNA, mircobiology and genetics have become two of the most competitive fields of scientific endeavour. After it was successfully sequenced a few years ago, the human genome has probably become the most intensely analysed artifact in history. Geneticists in search of a grant routinely make bold claims for their new science: the chance to cure cancer, to anticipate a wide range of congenital defects, or the barely imaginable new medicines which could be derived from the blueprints of complex organisms. Watson is no exception, he hopes to find genetic clues for autism and schizophrenia at his laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island.
For most of the article Watson came across as an avuncular figure, a charming man who had unlocked one of science’s great mysteries with a mischievously contrarian spirit. Then, in a few casual remarks, a different Watson appeared. After mentioning some of the old man’s more provocative opinions-that darker-skinned people might have higher libidos; that if it were possible to read genetic evidence for homosexuality, mothers who wished to have grandchildren could be offered a chance to get rid of problematic embryos-the interviewer reported that Watson felt “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.” He worried that “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”. Then, after saying he hoped that all men were equal, Watson added that “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true”.
The remarks provoked such widespread outrage and condemnation that Watson quickly made an uncharacteristically contrite public statement. At the launch of his new book Avoid Boring People, Watson told the Royal Society that he could “certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have,” adding that he wished to make an unreserved apology to everyone who had “drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.” Although he did not indicate what he thought Africa’s genetic status might actually be, Watson was politic enough to say that “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said.”
This apology is not likely to make much of a difference. Setting aside the obvious slur on an entire continent, the idea that Africa is racially homogeneous, and the strange use of ‘our’ (who exactly? the West? America? non-black people?) suggest a surprisingly crude view of the world for such an eminent mind. Then there is the problem of what would amount to an objective measure of intelligence- how the capacity to, say, solve a difficult science problem, would help one understand the mysteries of human diversity and creativity. But even if these difficulties could be cleared up, Watson should still issue a further apology to his fellow scientists, for his remarks have deepened the taboos which surround some of the most intriguing questions that geneticists may one day help to answer.