My seventh-grade science teacher used to (and probably still does) refer to James Watson and Frances Crick as “Watson and Prick.” Her comments were in reference to Watson and Crick’s…appropriation of Rosalind Franklin’s experimental data on DNA, which allowed them, in effect, to skip ahead several steps and piece together the double helix structure.
But my teacher was willing to be fair: Crick, she told us, actually had the reputation of being a nice guy, despite his involvement in underhanded lab maneuvering. Watson was the real jerk.
Well, it appears that her comments didn’t exactly come out of left field. Far from it, in fact. Watson has a long history of horribly offensive remarks on the subject of genetic traits (which the CNN article recounts). He seems to think that his and Crick’s discovery offers a possible explanation for gross stereotypes: Must be genetic.
This particular round of controversy stems from remarks made to London’s Sunday Times (article available here) in an interview—in Arts and Entertainment—for his latest memoir. (He also makes comments in the interview about Rosalind Franklin’s alleged horrible awkwardness and hostility, speculating that she had Asperger’s.) A sample of the most offensive comments from the interview:
He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect 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”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “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’s really sad about this remark is how much it looks like the nineteenth-century’s pseudo-scientific justifications for racial oppression and slavery. This comment is probably already prominently displayed on racist messageboards and white supremacist pamphlets.
Watson thinks that his words are merely speculations in the spirit of scientific inquiry, and the right to consider all possibilities is essential to science. But Watson isn’t working for better understanding or good science with these remarks. Their destructiveness, to science and to society, far outweighs their merit. Plenty of people are already convinced that those of African descent are inferior, and they won’t treat Watson’s comments as possibilities, but as confirmation of what they already know—the very antithesis of the scientific method.
Simply put, with remarks like these, Watson is destroying his own legacy, encouraging the proliferation of preconceptions and stereotypes. He’s spouting very old, very wrong ideas about the differences between peoples and with no evidence beyond a horrible kind of “conventional wisdom”—the enemy of the rational, skeptical inquirer.