Alex Constantine - October 21, 2007
A Nobel prize winner has entered the race debate, with explosive results, writes Jacqueline Maley.
PROFESSOR James D. Watson, the man who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for physiology and medicine for discovering the structure of DNA, is "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa".
But to him, the root cause of the continent's problems doesn't lie with the crippling levels of national debt, the endemic corruption or the AIDS crisis. To him, the real cause of Africa's woes is that black people are inherently less intelligent than other races.
"All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really," Watson told a journalist from Britain's Sunday Times last Sunday.
He hoped that everyone was equal, he continued, but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".
"There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically," he argued.
"Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."
The comments by the American scientist, who has been described as wielding "something approaching a papal influence over molecular biology", have caused a furore in Britain, where over 2 per cent of the population is black.
The black population, a mix of people of African and West Indian backgrounds, is even higher in the cities — in some boroughs of London, the percentage leaps to 30 per cent.
In Britain to promote his new book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science, Watson is suddenly being shunned where he expected to be embraced.
His comments were deemed so offensive that a sold-out talk he was to give at the Science Museum in London was cancelled.
A spokesman for the museum said: "We know that eminent scientists can sometimes say things that cause controversy and the Science Museum does not shy away from debating controversial topics.
"However, we feel Watson has gone beyond the point of acceptable debate."
Watson has since been suspendedby the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York. He has made no further comment since the scandal broke, but it is fair to say that he has never observed any boundaries of acceptable debate — a trait that is his great strength as a scientist and also his greatest failing as a social commentator.
It is not the first time the 79-year-old has got into trouble for controversial comments. In 2000, the eminent professor shocked a scientific audience at the University of California at Berkeley by making connections between skin colour and sex drive.
He said that a chemical called pom-C, which produces melanin, also affected other factors including sex drive and weight, and made a correlation between sun exposure and libido. This was why black people and Latinos had reputations as lovers — something, he said, of which the English could not be accused. Bizarrely, he also came to the conclusion that fat people were less ambitious than thin ones. "Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad because you know you're not going to hire them," he said.
He is also an advocate of abortion where genetic screening reveals undesirable traits.
In 1997, he even said a woman should be allowed to abort a foetus if tests had shown it would be a homosexual and the mother deemed this undesirable.
It is fitting that a scientist with such controversial views has worked in the most controversial science of our time — genetics.
As a child, Watson was passionate about bird-watching and he thought he would be an ornithologist. He changed his mind on reading What is Life by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger.
"Schrodinger said the essence of life was information," Watson said during a lecture in July this year.
"He said it has to be stable information so it must be in a molecule … this molecule must have unique properties such that the information could be exactly copied."
Watson was determined to unlock that information. After studying at the universities of Chicago (his home town), Indiana and Copenhagen, he moved to Cambridge University where he met fellow scientist Francis Crick.
The men studied the structure of DNA, in fierce competition with other scientists, and were the first to discover the delicately curved double helix structure which is now such a well-known image. Together with New Zealand-born molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins, they won their Nobel prize.
Forty years on, Watson's attitude towards genetic manipulation, be it of plants or of people, is very laissez-faire.
"People get hysterical about work with genes," he observed in 2000. "You have to wait for something wrong to occur before you know how dangerous something is going to be: you have to invent the bicycle before someone can fall off it. You can't just ban the idea."
To that end, Watson has said that once the technology is available, we should be free to manipulate DNA to eradicate undesirable genetic traits such as asthma.
He has also said DNA manipulation should work in a positive sense — namely, to create a world with more pretty women and more blondes. He was probably joking.
At the heart of his beliefs is the conviction that nature is malignant, and often gets it wrong. Where that occurs, humans should be able to intervene.
"Nature to me is a destroyer: think of locusts destroying crops, snakes, infectious diseases. Why do so many people live in cities? So that when it rains they can go inside," he argued to a reporter in 2000. "It sounds appealing to return to nature, but most people now don't know what it means."
Watson argues passionately that genetically inherited conditions, from diabetes to autism and cystic fibrosis, destroy the lives of those who inherit them, as well as their carers. "It's all very well believing in survival of the fittest — but it's not much fun if you happen to be the weakest," he says.
He freely admits his views on this subject come from bitter personal experience. One of his two sons, Rufus, was born severely autistic and later institutionalised as a schizophrenic.
At age 37, he is unable to cope independently and still lives at home with Watson and his wife. "This is why I have such strong views on the use of genetics," he has admitted. "Everyone should have the chance to have two healthy children."
He has even gone so far as to say that had he and his wife known his son would be born so afflicted, they would not have had him.
Sydney Brenner, a molecular biologist of comparable standing to Watson, once said of his contemporary: "If you discover the structure of DNA, you're allowed to say just about anything." But as Watson has now discovered, such freedom of speech comes at a cost.
On Wednesday, he is due to speak in Bristol at the annual Festival of Ideas. The talk will be hosted by the vice-chancellor of Bristol University, Eric Thomas.
A spokesman for the university confirmed the talk would go ahead and said the university respected "freedom of speech and the right of people to express their views". But they expected "some robust questioning of Watson on his ideas," he said.