For Dr. James Watson, 79-year-old co-winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for medicine for his discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, October marked the nadir of a brilliant career.
The month began with Watson headed to London to promote his new book, “Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science,” and to lecture to a sold-out audience at the prestigious Science Museum. An author’s dream tour.
Last week, his lecture was canceled, his tour terminated, his 40-year tenure as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island came to an end. Across Britain, he was being denounced as a racist.
What had the wicked Dr. Watson done?
Did he defend the chattel slavery in which five of our first seven presidents engaged? No. Did he agree with Abraham Lincoln that blacks did not deserve equal social and political rights and should be sent back to the continent whence their ancestors came? No. Did he argue for the segregation that was the law in the nation’s capital in which this writer grew up? No. Did he utter the “N-word” used by Harry Truman, who integrated the armed forces, and Lyndon Johnson, who enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965? No.
Watson neither endorsed segregation nor expressed any animus toward people of color. He had simply told the Sunday Times he was “inherently gloomy about the prospects 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.”
While there is a natural desire to believe all people are equal, Watson said, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
In his new book, Watson adds, “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
What Watson was saying was: From a long life and his own reading of IQ test scores, he believes that intelligence is not distributed equally among the races. That conclusion was also reached by social scientists Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in the 1990s best-seller “The Bell Curve.” The SAT scores seem to bear them out.
When Watson’s remarks hit print, however, a new London blitz began.
The Labor Party chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee charged Watson with “baseless, unscientific and extremely offensive comments” and urged his colleagues to “reject what appear to be Dr. Watson’s personal prejudices.”
“Anti-racism campaigners called for Dr. Watson’s remarks to be looked at in the context of racial hatred laws,” said the Independent. Said Steven Rose, a founder of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science, “This is Watson at his most scandalous.”
The Telegraph quoted Koku Adomdza, director of the black pressure group The 1990 Trust, as calling Watson a “complete dinosaur” and demanding he apologize to “Africa and all people of African origin.”
Added Adomdza: “Dr. Watson is really a relic of the oldest stock and deserves to be made to account for his extremely offensive and ignorant remarks. … His very poisonously racist opinions put students and the unsuspecting public at serious risk.”
Of these thought police, almost all, it may be fairly said, are academic mediocrities or political hacks who could not carry Watson’s microscope. Yet as the scrub stock piled on, the Nobel Prize winner appeared to buckle.
I am “mortified,” Watson said, burbling this recantation.
“To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly, from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
Sad. Why, with all his honors, prestige and security, did Dr. Watson feel the necessity to apologize for what he wrote, said and believes? Why did he not play the man by flipping off the censors? If they were going to take away his chancellorship, why not go down fighting?
In the England of Henry VIII, heretics were beheaded and their heads put on spikes. Many men, like Thomas More, did not recant.
From the time of Tiberias to the 17th century, men gave up their lives rather than renounce a belief in God. Others gave up their lives rather than renounce a disbelief in the Church. Why could Watson not stand up for his disbelief in the ideological myth of the inherent equality of all men, cultures, creeds and civilizations?
In 1990, the respected journal Science wrote, “To many in the scientific community, Watson has been something of a wild man. … Colleagues tend to hold their collective breath when he speaks out.”
Too bad the wild man was denatured and domesticated.