18 October 2007

Nobel laureate banned over racist claims

James D. Watson, born in 1928 in Chicago Illinois (USA), is a molecular biologist renown for the discovery of the structure of DNA (together with his colleagues Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, based on the work by Rosalind Franklin), which revolutionised modern biology and genetics.

In 1953, they published their work in the journal Nature, revealing the double helix structure of the DNA. In 1962 they received the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material". In 1968, Watson wrote the book "The Double Helix", on which he wrote not only about the scientific discovery itself, but also about the personalities, conflicts and controversy surrounding their work. The book changed the way the public viewed scientists and the way they work.

Nevertheless, he has never been shy of controversy, his public utterances leading to him being accused of sexism, racism, homophobia, sizeism and, occasionally, of being simply mad.

In 1997, he told a British newspaper that a woman should have the right to abort her unborn child if tests could determine it would be homosexual. He later insisted he was talking about a "hypothetical" choice which could never be applied. He has also suggested a link between skin colour and sex drive, positing the theory that black people have higher libidos, and argued in favour of genetic screening and engineering on the basis that " stupidity" could one day be cured. He has claimed that beauty could be genetically manufactured, saying: "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would great."

In 2000, he delivered a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley. Its intensely racist content surprised the academic establishment. Watson proposed that "blacks are genetically prone to laziness, obesity, and have more active sex drives than do whites". Watson's presentation was considered so sexist and racist that many people in the audience walked out.

Today he was banned from speaking at London's Science Museum after saying black people were less intelligent than whites. Dr Watson told The Sunday Times 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 said there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".

Critics of Dr Watson said there should be a robust response to his views across the spheres of politics and science. Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: "It is sad to see a scientist of such achievement making such baseless, unscientific and extremely offensive comments. I am sure the scientific community will roundly 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. A spokesman for the 1990 Trust, a black human rights group, said: "It is astonishing that a man of such distinction should make comments that seem to perpetuate racism in this way. It amounts to fuelling bigotry and we would like it to be looked at for grounds of legal complaint."

The newly formed Equality and Human Rights Commission, successor to the Commission for Racial Equality, said it was studying Dr Watson's remarks "in full".

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962
James D. Watson, Wikipedia
Black people 'less intelligent' scientist claims, The Sunday Times
Fury at DNA pioneer's theory: Africans are less intelligent than Westerners, The Independent
Science museum bans DNA genius at centre of race row, Daily Mail
A Rogue's Gallery of Academic Racialists, JBHE, No. 31. (2001), pp. 108-111

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