DNA scientist James Watson stripped of honors over views on race

By Erin Durkin in New York

A New York laboratory has cut its ties with James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA, over “reprehensible” comments in which he said race and intelligence are connected.

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory said it was revoking all titles and honors conferred on Watson, 90, who led the lab for many years.

The lab “unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions Dr James D Watson expressed on the subject of ethnicity and genetics”, its president, Bruce Stillman, and chair of the board of trustees, Marilyn Simons, said in a statement.

“Dr Watson’s statements are reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way represent the views of CSHL, its trustees, faculty, staff, or students. The laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.”

With Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, the scientist was one of the researchers who discovered the double helix structure of DNA in 1953.

In 2007, the lab removed him as chancellor after he told the Sunday Times 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”.

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He also said that while he wished the races were equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Watson apologized at the time but in a recent documentary he said his views have not changed.

“Not at all,” he said in the PBS documentary American Masters: Decoding Watson, the New York Times reported.

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

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory said it was revoking Watson’s honorary titles, which include chancellor emeritus, Oliver R Grace professor emeritus, and honorary trustee.

The latest comments “effectively reverse the written apology and retraction Dr Watson made in 2007”, the lab said, adding it appreciated his legacy of scientific discoveries and leadership of the institution but could no longer be associated with him.

“The statements he made in the documentary are completely and utterly incompatible with our mission, values, and policies, and require the severing of any remaining vestiges of his involvement,” Simons and Stillman said.

The Times reported that Watson’s family said he was unable to respond, having been in medical care since a car accident in October. The PBS interview was filmed last summer.

This article was amended on 14 January 2019 because an earlier version said James Watson helped discover DNA. Watson helped discover the structure of DNA. This has been corrected, and the name of Maurice Wilkins, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize with Watson and Crick, has been added. (Franklin died in 1958.)