Academy Chronicle

A Look into Watson’s Views on Race and Intelligence

American geneticist James Dewey Watson in front of a drawing of DNA, which he aided in the discovery of.

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American geneticist James Dewey Watson in front of a drawing of DNA, which he aided in the discovery of.

Michelle Kim

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James Dewey Watson is known to the BCA community as one of the pioneers in describing the double-helix structure of DNA, but he is also known for his white supremacist sentiments. Due to his controversial statements that imply that black people are biologically less intelligent than whites, Watson is often shunned by the scientific community.

Dr. Watson first suggested that black people were genetically less intelligent than whites in  2007. While on a tour to promote his book, “Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science,” Watson suggested that unlike populations that left Africa, there was no evolution that took place within the populations in Africa.

In the same year, Watson told a British journalist that he was “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.”

He later apologized to the public for his harsh statements. In later interviews, he hinted that he had been playing his infamous role as the instigator. Watson also apologized by expressing that he did not understand that his comments would be made public.

Nevertheless, in 2007, he was forced to retire from his job as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. Thereafter, Dr. Watson has been absent from the public eye.

However, despite the newfound opportunity to repair his marred legacy through a new documentary shown on PBS, Dr. Watson has chosen to reaffirm his contentious opinions. His opinions are the subject of the PBS series, “American Masters” on the episode, “Decoding Watson.” As Watson’s discovery is an essential part of the science curriculum at Bergen County Academies, the opinions and comments of BCA students regarding this topic are more relevant in the discussion about racism in science.

All of the BCA students who were interviewed for this article expressed their utter disbelief with regards to Watson’s racist comments. “My first reaction is that this is definitely quite harsh,” says AMST sophomore Hannah Park. “As one of the first people to decode the foundation of genetics, people look up to him as a role model. His own research showed that all people are made up of the same fundamental building blocks. The fact that the made such a comment boggles my mind.”

To this day, in spite of the numerous criticisms similar to Park’s, Watson remains stubborn in regard to his viewpoint on race. When asked whether his opinion about the correlation between race and intelligence had changed, he was quick to respond “Not at all.”

“I would like for them to have changed, that there be new knowledge that says that your nurture is much more important than nature.” Dr. Watson added, “But I haven’t seen any knowledge. And there’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites on I.Q. tests. I would say the difference, it’s genetic.”

Considering the growing progressiveness of many developed nations, Watson’s views are both surprising and dated to many. Ergo, there is confusion as to why a man of science would make these statements without an obvious basis in fact.

AAST sophomore Laurence Lu offers his opinion as to why Watson’s beliefs have not evolved over the years: “Watson’s views come from confusion between characteristics arising from historical circumstances and [a] genetic predisposition towards certain traits.”

Lu added, “The refutation of acquired trait places a hard distinction between historical versus genetic predispositions. It would seem to me that it can lead to a complete mental bias towards categorizing historical influences as genetic ones instead. Regardless of today’s zeitgeist, Watson’s racism likely lingers due to the extreme ambiguity of the nature versus nature dilemma as well.”

Interestingly enough, former friends and colleagues of James Watson offered a different set of reasons to explain Watson’s odious perspectives. They said that Watson’s single, notable achievement for the co-discovery of the structure of DNA way back in 1953 boosted his belief in his high intelligence and mode of success. Stated very simply, Watson found success by following his instincts, by opposing the majority opinion, and by rarely relying on the plethora of facts that the scientific community offers. Therefore, Dr. Watson may have come to believe his intuition with regards to intellectual superiority is related to race despite the lack of factual scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, Watson’s decision to follow through on his intuition on controversial topics has clearly done more harm than good to his career. Furthermore, Watson as the subject of this PBS documentary series has produced more criticism rather than support for his unpopular opinions.

AMST sophomore Aaron Thammavongxay summarizes the thoughts for the large majority of BCA students regarding the documentary and Watson’s insensitive comments: “I feel like his remarks have no place in the scientific community. Science is about using knowledge to better all of humanity and his remarks go completely against that.”

 

Sources

Begley, Sharon. “Friends Ask Where James Watson’s Attitudes about Race Came From.” STAT, STAT, 3 Jan. 2019, www.statnews.com/2019/01/03/where-james-watsons-racial-attitudes-came-from/.

Charlton, Lauretta. “White Supremacy, Genetics and Dr. James Watson.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Jan. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/05/us/james-watson-racism-pbs.html.

Harmon, Amy. “James Watson Had a Chance to Salvage His Reputation on Race. He Made Things Worse.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Jan. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/01/science/watson-dna-genetics-race.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.

 

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