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James Watson’s race row

dnagreygetty.jpgDNA pioneer James Watson has been busily lighting fires while touring to promote his latest book. So far he had ignited conflagrations over race, sex, and fellow scientists, to name but a few.

It is the race aspect of his comments in interviews that has so far generated most heat. Regarding Africa he said “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really” (The Times, Daily Mail, Independent). The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has wide powers to combat racism, is now studying Watson’s remarks. As far as we know Watson has not publicly responded to this.

Watson has previously courted controversy with his views on women and his musing on the fact it might be possible to abort homosexual babies. In a recent interview with the Guardian, where he also makes unflattering remarks about fellow DNA-scientist Rosalind Franklin, he said “Unfair discrimination exists whether we like it or not; I wouldn’t have married a gum-chewing vegetarian. Ultimately, we’ll help the people we discriminate against if we try to understand more about them; genetics will lead to a world where there is a sympathy for the underdog.”

Watson’s former ‘protégé’ Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe has written an extended essay on the man she calls an “immensely powerful and revered force in science”. It’s well worth a read.

Image: Getty

UPDATE: Watson has apologised for and clarified his statement: see Great Beyond entry

SEE ALSO: ‘I have been much blessed’ – Watson retires


  1. Report this comment

    Patrick McKerrow said:

    How sad that a man like James Watson with all that he has achieved as an eminent scientist, and a Nobel Prize winner for medicine, is now emerging as a village fool speaking about an important area in which he has no real strengths. Despite the excuses this is a racist at heart. There is no scientific basis for his remarks. Arrogance, stupidity and racism seem to form a dangerous cocktail here.

  2. Report this comment

    steve said:

    Every single bit of IQ research shows that those of African ethnicity are significally less intelligent than other races.

    Africa isn’t impoverished because of a lack of money, Africa is impoverished because of a lack of intelligence.

    Africans will always be poor.

  3. Report this comment

    Jason Frank said:

    This guy sure kicked over a hornets nest. I am in the middle of his book DNA The Secret of Life which is a fantastic summary of biotech. It’s probably being pulled of book shelves already.

  4. Report this comment

    JT vass said:

    Mr. Watson is very correct in his recent controversial statement. Africans have not evolved at the same levels as other ethnic groups around the world. I refer to the book THE BELL CURVE where it is a documented fact that on average africans have a 10 point lower IQ score then caucasian. The truth hurts and we are not all created equal though it is not politically correct to say that. Refer back to Charles Darwin and access African’s current state around the world!

  5. Report this comment

    John said:

    The notion that Watson is a great scientist to be revered scientist is a joke. If it hadn’t been for Crick- and the data they essentially ‘stole’ from Franklin- he’d be a nobody. He’s a one trick pony. His sexism, egotism, homophobic comments, and blantant racism over the years says it all about him as a human being. He should be removed immediately from any affiliation with Cold Springs Harbor.

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    James said:

    Watsongate has opened my eyes to the reluctance of the UK’s scientific community to speak out and stand up for justice, and indeed, for science. I applaud Professor Steven Rose and others who had the guts to reject the Nobel Laureate’s bigotry immediately and unequivocally.

  7. Report this comment

    Amira said:

    This is in response to Steve and JT vass. I’m an african and I’m appalled to see such comments on the Nature blog. I suggest you to read some history books. The reason why Africa’s prospects are poor is thanks to centuries of colonialism during which we were robbed, exploited and killed. Africa’s rape continues even today with neocolonialism. As long as people such as Watson use their celebrity status to propagate their ignorance, unfortunately history will keep repeating itself. This is the truth that hurts.

  8. Report this comment

    Greenberg said:

    The usual white lies and white comments made in order to deceive and to claim supremacy here we go again.

    What are all your tests and experiments on?? What’s the order of the day in the creation of these tests? Is it White man made? Or are these tests natural in and undeniably scientific just like 1 + 1 = 2 and what is this so called scientific tests based on? If not the continuous caucasian White Lies and theories of deception and supremacy.

    I wonder how you commentators and bigots would fair on a culturally biased Intelligence Test.

    Your lies are white lies; they hold no truth and never will. Let the truth be told.

    PS Most of you so called “Intelligent caucasians commentators posting here cant even speak English or comment in what you call your own language. This is laughable; you so called “intelligent people”.

    Arrogance based on ignorance with foundations on lies and deceptions is what bests I see works everyday with the caucasian man.

  9. Report this comment

    Kusuma Martins said:

    Watson has just revealed what is happening whithin the scientific community. It is out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speak’s. This are the reason’s why black’s dont get PhD positions,Postdoc’s,faculty positions and even when a black race attends a scientific conference,him or her is being looked upon on how did this one happens to be here. Nature should truly investigate “The race issue whithin the scientific World”.

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    Ben Richards said:

    Asians on average do best on IQ tests. The Chinese researcher Dr Bruce Lahn reported a genetic evolution that occurred in human beings about 6,000 years ago and is believed to be an important contributing factor in intelligence.

    Scientists who have researched this mutation have found evidence that it was geographically dispersed in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Sub-saharan Africa was geographically isolated by comparison, so the mutation occured there at a much lower incidence. This is not simple IQ sampling on racial lines – it’s statistical data examining for the presence of a precise genetic trait that scientists believe to be connected to the brain’s size and function.

    This research appeared in one of the leading peer reviewed journals a year ago:

    “Ongoing adaptive evolution of ASPM, a brain size determinant in Homo sapiens. Science, 309:1720 (2005).


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    Kyeorda said:

    Ben, are you inferring that there was one specific mutation that allowed for the development of higher intelligence. Furthermore, do you really believe that because people in sub-Saharan Africa lack this mutation they are less intelligent? Is it possible that they developed a different mutation that allowed for increased intelligence? Furthermore, those quoting that Africans obtain lower scores on the IQ test as a way to support the belief that whites are inherently superior are not taking in account the fact that the test are culturally biased, the test were designed to determine if a person is below average intelligence and should not be used for anything other than this, and stress can effect scores dramatically (war, poverty, oppression, hunger, etc). I guess my real question is why are some people desperately trying to assert that there “race” has supposed higher innate intelligence? Also, we have shown “race” is a social construct. I’m categorized as black, but I am of African descent, German, Scottish, Cherokee, and Seminole. In fact, my black mother is paler than most whites, has red hair, freckles, and hazel eyes. So, since “race” is a social construct and not a category based on ancestral groupings, how can we say one race is more intelligent than another?

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    Danladi Dele Agbeyo said:

    I am a Nigerian. A black African and proud to be one. However, when someone reads and understands the evolution theory deep enough you will have no alternative but to agree with Watsons conclusions. It may sound cruel or racist, but the truth is that the black race is genetically lower in the rung of human development. This is not to say there are no smart blacks, but when you take it on the average there seems to be a margin. Evolution is a natural phenomenon and not the creation of Watson or some devilish scientists. Watson happened to be one of those that decoded the principles behind evolution. We do not need to sacrifice him for being bold or brave. Evolution is about “the survival of the fittest”, and my plea is, what can the international community do such that the black race does not become extinct like the dodo before the next millenium.

  13. Report this comment

    Kamau said:

    Brother Agbeyo, I am sorry that you feel this way about yourself, but I believe it stems from miseducation and not your heroic ability to see evolutionary principles manifest.

    I am livid by the suggestion that black africans have inferior intelligence to other races, when the socioeconomic cards have been so stacked against them. But, more pointedly, it is my understanding, that history has a very different story to tell, which quickly rights the perspective of those blind to these momentary injustices.

    I don’t think it is to be disputed the early age at which civilisation reached incredible heights on the African Continent, which cannot be mistaken for anything but intelligence. I know race is not well defined, and the one drop rule degrades this definition even further, but a cursory look at the monuments of the ancient civilisations of Africa and the near east would quell any attempt to say black people are inferior genetically in regard to intelligence.

    I could go on forever on the Greek Dark Ages, and the more popular medieval Dark ages, as well as the paucity of ancient monuments beyond the Mediterranean coast. We could talk about Minoan Crete, the Egyptian influence on Greece,via Alexandria, and Moorish Spain; but I believe this ia all common knowledge. Forgive me for being defensive, if you can call it that, but some comments on this blog are so skewed that a little history was in order.

    I guess one final point, the “barbarian” invasions of Rome give just one of many historical examples of less intelligent groups gaining the upper hand over those with culture, education, and technology on their side. So the socioeconomic pecking order, or "rung in human development, at any given snapshot of human civlisation does little for explicating the genetic distribution of intelligence if at all.

    My friend, we have much to be proud of. Don’t let anybody tell you that you are born stupid.

  14. Report this comment

    jdwren said:

    Regardless of whether Watson was correct or not about race and IQ (and to be fair, this is outside the research area he is most famous for), what appals me the most is the pseudo-religious reaction to his comments. A large portion of this negative public reaction needs to be recognized for what it is: Retaliation. Some of it is perfectly appropriate (e.g. expressing indignation, bewilderment or disagreement) some of it is not (e.g. launching investigations, suspending him from CSHL, proposals to boycott his book). The latter are merely ways offended people exact revenge.

    When will people realize that you can bat anything you want down with political intimidation but not even the dumbest person is fooled into believing that’s the same thing as proving it wrong. Regardless of whether we know anything or not about the facts, we do all recognize when the nature of the response is inappropriate. For example, if a boxer walks over to his opponents corner, hands him a wad of money, whispers in his ear and then suddenly his opponent falls to the ground without a blow, would we praise him as a superior fighter? He won, yes, but we’re not fooled about how.

    The best way to settle the matter, IMHO, is scientifically. Quite simply, he has proposed a hypothesis that is either supported by data or not. Why don’t we all just stick to arguing about the data rather than attack the man?

  15. Report this comment

    Hal Lawrence said:

    Are there recent scientific writings that address the issues raised by “The Bell Curve”?

    The Bell Curve argues that:

    “Intelligence exists and is accurately measurable across racial, language, and national boundaries.

    Intelligence is one, if not the most, important correlative factor in economic, social, and overall success in America, and is becoming more important.

    Intelligence is largely (40% to 80%) genetically heritable.

    No one has so far been able to manipulate IQ long term to any significant degree through changes in environmental factors – except for child adoption – and in light of their failure such approaches are becoming less promising.

    The USA has been in denial regarding these facts, and in light of these findings a better public understanding of the nature of intelligence and its social correlates is necessary to guide future policy decisions in America."

  16. Report this comment

    Kyle Langford said:

    Thank you Danladi. Watson’s ability to speak his mind is to be admired, whether it offends or not. If one believes that every human race is the same except for skin color, you are the small minded one. The truth is every race has its differences and intelligence happens to be just one of those factors. Watson never stated that peoples of African descent can not be intelligent.

    On a side note to all of you who immediately ran for your proverbial torches when he said this, Would you be as offended if Watson said that Caucasian race wasn’t as intelligend as the Asian race? This whole uproar has to do with people looking for a reason to be angry.

  17. Report this comment

    david said:

    Obviously, the man is very ignorant, he is one of those westerners who have never been to Africa before, they just stay in their comfortable homes in the west and pore over data, as if stats can explain life. If he got out of his chair and lived in Africa for a while he would discover the enormous potential of the people. How can you say a continent of more than 840 million are not smart as there other counterparts simply because of skin color. Does this guy not know that the only reason why Africa is poor is because of the brutal millitary dictators it has had, the civil wars and economic exploitation by westerners. Why does he not blame the plight of the people on the egomaniacs and corrupt rulers of there country who supress there peoples potential. Good, accountable governance knows no color. I hope Watson lives long enough to see his theories proven false (and it eventually will), when African govts become democratic and accountable to there govt, when they begin to spend billions of dollars on education and economic development instead of sending it to the swiss bank or spending it on civil wars. Only then would you see the latest scientific and technological advancement come from the continent and overall standard of living in the continent would increase dramatically.

  18. Report this comment

    Massimo Sandal said:

    It is sad to see this thread becoming a “blacks are more/less/equally intelligent than whites” embarrassing flamewar.

    I’d like to put forward three points.

    1) Intelligence is not only but surely also determined by genetics. After all, human evolution is for a significant part, evolution of human intelligence. What our brain is and what our brain does has been shaped by evolution, and evolution acts on nothing else than genomes.

    This means that there are probably a lot of alleles that are somehow correlated with intelligence. We of course cannot expect to find a “smartness gene”. We however can expect allele combinations that, all else being equal, correlate with intelligence.

    Of course there are two underlying problems: Intelligence is a tremendously hard thing to quantify, and it is equally hard to find experimental subjects grown in the same environmental conditions.

    If those two problems will be overcome, it is still scientifically possible that different ethnic groups will show different distributions of intelligence-related alleles that are significantly skewed towards lower or higher intelligence. However there is also, as far as I know, no strong scientific reason to think this should be necessarily the case (unless maybe in the case of isolated and/or highly inbred populations, founder effects etc.).

    (Of course, if there is literature showing the contrary, I’d like to know about it)

    2)The research on the genetic roots of human intelligence, like all fundamental research, is however of the utmost importance, both philosophical and technological. We should not be scared of it or abandon it fo fear of what we could find.

    3)Whatever the results of this research will be, will not undermine the basic fact that all human ethnic groups should be considered equally. Little statistical differences on the distribution of intelligence(s), if they will ever be found, cannot be an excuse for racism. We, everyday, do not deal with populations: we deal with single human beings. Each human being has its own merits, and only on those individual merits a judgment can be done, not on those of the population he or she belongs to.

  19. Report this comment

    Matt Weber said:

    A recent letter to Nature says: “… humanity should not waste good thinking on hateful, immoral ideas.”

    I don’t have any patience with Watson’s remark, but how are we supposed to tell what ideas are wrong if we don’t think about them? (“Wrong” isn’t what the original author said, of course, but that’s telling. Nobody actually knows whether what Watson said is true.) In science, “settled” questions have to be revisited; results have to be replicated. Scientists view this as normal and salutary in principle, although of course we often recoil in practice, especially when it’s our ideas on the chopping block.

    I’m not saying we’re likely to discover the hidden “truth” that Africans are less intelligent; as I said, I doubt that’s true. But we do need to keep rehearsing the reasons why we believe these things. It’s not a waste of thinking — which is, in any event, a renewable resource. We need to acknowledge our assumptions and our ignorance, and give ourselves new opportunities to recognize flawed inferences; and, if the matter really is closed, nothing will satisfy us of that better than figuring it out anew.

  20. Report this comment

    Tim Wesson said:

    This is such a complex issue that it has to be approached with great care. The issue is fraught with both ideology and real concern for human rights.

    One thing that has been ignored, presumably because comments by those on “the left” are rarely compared for similarity with those on “the right” is that what Watson said is identical by implication to the late Steven J Gould’s contention in his book attacking the IQ test, “The Mismeasure of Man”.

    Gould argued that the IQ test was culturally biased, in that it tested for skills valued and taught within western cultures. It is notable that neither Watson, nor Gould attributed whatever caused them to make their respective statements to either genetic, nor to cultural factors. Gould’s observation about what culture values could equally be the result of adaption. Obviously, the fact that IQ increases with learning will be a factor regardless.

    I also notice that in Nature’s editorial, “Watson’s Folly”, Watson is supposed to have claimed that black people are less intelligent than whites. He did not; he claimed that the intelligence of Africans was /different/, and so the same political solutions wouldn’t work. It is natural of us to consider “different” to mean “inferior” if we consider ourselves to be at the top of the pile, but isn’t this a projection of our own racism?

    Famously, there is a Linux distribution called “Ubuntu”; an African word meaning something like “goodness unto others”. We don’t appear to have an equivalent word. Isn’t this a small demonstration of a different intelligence? Would we score so well in tests if we didn’t have universal education?

    James Watson said what he said motivated by a desire to help Africa; he wished for a better politics. In this whole debate, the simple and direct motive for what he said have been lost.

  21. Report this comment

    Zak said:

    On the topic of biased measures, and particularly on a Nature blog, let us recall that the majority of regularly consumed music is of greater or lesser influence by African ‘researchers.’ I, as many, offer that the IQ test must be seen in the light of much broader context before anyone can suggest it be held with the dominance that it has today. Begging pardon that I am responding here without reading Watson’s analysis.

  22. Report this comment

    Felipe Rudge said:

    Watson´s folly was indeed to touch a touchy issue in an inconsequent way. We all in this planet know that even in the large well-developed countries, there are foci of poverty and unacceptable living conditions. The human beings on these locations perform intellectually rather badly on the average. The ones who manage to break through, perform better than the overall average outside. Indians in the back forests of Brazil perform very badly according to modern culture standards, but find their ways very well within the jungle environment, as very few white men/women would. As a matter of fact, what´s the use of high IQs for building powerful weapons for mass destruction ??

  23. Report this comment

    Shannon Belton said:

    Watson, a very gifted man, a slip of the tongue and hes just horrible? I think hes misquoted and misunderstood. I dont think hes racist, but per history different races score differently on IQ tests. BUT!!!! we all know the IQ tests are written by fellows named schnitenburg and chumney somewhere in connecticut…. The point of this is, no race is superior to the other. Take analytical statistics of scores of all ratios of intelligence and it shows no one is superior over the other, it all comes down to culture, environment and whoever makes those damn tests…..intelligence comes in all variety of flavors…..

  24. Report this comment

    Anon_ymous said:

    Any research that includes IQ scores or surveying is inconclusive, its all about how you word the question…there is no such thing as PROOF. Stop wasting your time with this supposed intellectual hierarchy and live your lives to their fullest, with joy and happiness, not ignorance and jealousy!!!

  25. Report this comment

    Robert Smith said:

    Regardless of his faults , mostly caused by aging, Watson is right on the mark with regard to cancer. Last night on Charlie Rose he spoke the cancer battle, the fact that nobody was looking at the unique metabolism of cancer cells. They run on fermentation, just like a fetus. It’s the only energy supply method that will provide the energy they need to meet their programmed rate of growth, which, as Otto Warburg pointed out in the late 1920’s, the same growth rate as a fetus. This fact is true across human cancer types. Where in the hell is the research now this 80 years after Warburg? At the moment telomerase is activated in a cancer cell, glycolysis is activated, Mohammed Kashani-Sabet et al. Turn your research and/or drug development facility on this tragic and ignored elephant in the room.

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