Lab Severs Ties With James Watson, Citing ‘Unsubstantiated and Reckless’ Remarks
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory revoked the honorary titles held by its longtime leader James D. Watson on Friday, describing as “unsubstantiated and reckless” his recent remarks about genetic differences in intelligence among racial groups.
Dr. Watson, one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, had apologized after making similar comments to a British newspaper in 2007. At the time, he was forced to retire from his job as chancellor at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, but he has retained his office there, as well as the titles of chancellor emeritus, Oliver R. Grace professor emeritus and honorary trustee. The graduate school of biological sciences at the research center is named for Dr. Watson, and the laboratory held a 90th birthday party for him last spring.
For the past decade the laboratory, like much of the scientific community, has engaged in a delicate balancing act with regard to Dr. Watson: holding him at arm’s length for reinforcing unfounded racial stereotypes, while still honoring him for his contributions to science. Dr. Watson, with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, helped discover the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953, and he went on to help to shape the subsequent revolution in molecular biology.
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But his recent comments “effectively reverse the written apology and retraction Dr. Watson made in 2007,” and “require the severing of any remaining vestiges of his involvement,” Cold Spring Harbor’s chief executive, Bruce Stillman, and its board of trustees chairwoman, Marilyn Simons, said in a statement.
Dr. Watson’s new comments came in an on-camera interview with Mark Mannucci, the producer of a documentary that aired last week on PBS as part of its “American Masters” series, which profiles individuals who have made a major contribution to American culture. In the film, Dr. Watson references a view that average I.Q. differences between blacks and whites reflect underlying genetic differences shaped by natural selection.
But leading geneticists say that even modern DNA studies are currently unable to validate such hypotheses about differences between human populations.
Mr. Mannucci said he had made it clear to Dr. Watson from the outset that the film would address the controversy over his 2007 remarks. Dr. Watson is recovering from a car accident, and his family members did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Dr. Watson’s statements are reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way represent the views of C.S.H.L., its trustees, faculty, staff, or students,” the laboratory’s statement said.
Michael Wigler, a veteran molecular biologist at the laboratory, said that Dr. Watson’s views on race were not newsworthy in the first place.
“It is not news when a ninety year old man who has lost cognitive inhibition, and has drifted that way for decades as he aged, speaks from his present mind,” Dr. Wigler wrote in an email. “It is not a moment for reflection. It is merely a peek into a corner of this nation’s subconscious, and a strong whiff of its not-well-shrouded past secrets.”
Amy Harmon is a national correspondent, covering the intersection of science and society. She has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for her series “The DNA Age”, and as part of a team for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”
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