James D. Watson: Another Gadfly Swatted

James D. Watson: Another Gadfly Swatted

8 Mins
January 28, 2011

"To many in the scientific community,” the journal Science editorialized in 1990, “Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script.”

Last October, James D. Watson, the Nobel Prize–winning co-discoverer of DNA’s double-helix structure, apparently “veered from the script” for the last time. His colleagues need hold their breath no longer, for it appears that he must hold his. In a casual newspaper interview, Watson suggested that the plight of Africa may be due in part to a lower average level of intelligence among the Sub-Saharan population, genetically transmitted from generation to generation. Predictably, the forces of political correctness destroyed him, driving him from the leadership of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a job that he had held for thirty-nine years.

As I followed the unfolding news, I could not help but think of a similar case I had read about. It involved another “wild man” whose friends “held their collective breath” as time and again he “veered from the script.” I did not agree with everything, indeed I did not agree much, that the man believed. Yet as I read the account of that other wild man’s travails, he (like Watson) had my entire sympathy, facing his persecutors there in Athens, twenty-four hundred years ago.


The last chapter of James Watson’s story began as he was preparing to launch a book tour through Britain to promote his latest and (as he was approaching 80) presumably his last memoir: Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. The kick-off was scheduled for October 18, when he would deliver a lecture at the Science Museum in London. On October 14, in conjunction with these events, the Sunday Times of London ran a four-thousand-word story by Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, a former member of Watson’s laboratory and someone whom Watson himself had recruited to work there.

The immediate reaction to Watson’s interview was that the Science Museum cancelled his sold-out lecture and said in a statement: “We know that eminent scientists can sometimes say things that cause controversy and the Science Museum does not shy away from debating controversial topics. However, the Science Museum feels [good word choice for a Science Museum: feels] that Nobel Prize–winner James Watson’s recent comments have gone beyond the point of acceptable debate, and we are as a result cancelling his talk at the Museum this Friday.” Edinburgh University also withdrew its invitation for Watson to speak.

On the political front, Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, declared (drawing upon his deep knowledge of genetics): “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.” The left-wing Guardian asked Steven Rose, a neurobiologist who is long-time foe of Watson, to respond to his remarks. Rose (whose Guardian biography says he “initiated the call for a moratorium on European research with Israel”) warned independent thinkers: “As for freedom of speech, these freedoms are and must be constrained. We don’t have the right to casually cry fire in a crowded theatre, or to use hate speech—at least in Europe, as opposed to the US.” A spokesman for a British black lobby, The 1990 Trust, said of Watson’s interview: “It amounts to fuelling bigotry and we would like it to be looked at for ground of legal complaint.” Apparently, it was. The Daily Mail reported that Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission was studying Watson’s remarks “in full.”

Back in the United States, the Federation of American Scientists stated that it was “outraged by the noxious comments made by Dr James Watson” and said that he was promoting “personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science.” Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, declared that: “As scientists, we are outraged and saddened when science is used to perpetuate prejudice.”

On October 18, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory announced that it was suspending Watson as chancellor “pending further deliberation,” and the lab’s president, Bruce Stillman, declared that the board of trustees “vehemently disagree with [Watson’s] statements.”

Watson’s connection with the lab, it should be noted, was not that of a great scientist who casually lends his name to an organization. He had actively led the lab for thirty-nine years. According to Nicholas Wade of the New York Times:“The laboratory . . . was slipping into decay when Dr. Watson became its director in 1968. He proved a skillful fund-raiser. . . He hired many biologists of distinction, and exerted his influence beyond Cold Spring Harbor by convening conferences on emerging new topics and setting up training courses in critical new techniques. . . . If the world’s molecular biologists acknowledge any particular home, it is the little hillside village that Dr. Watson has so carefully rebuilt.”

In response to his suspension, Watson cancelled his speaking tour to fly back to the United States. On October 25, he announced his resignation as chancellor of Cold Spring.


Anyone who has ever been involved in a news event knows that the media coverage of it is essentially false. If it is not literally false to the facts of the matter, then it is false to the spirit of the matter. People involved will protest that they have been “quoted out of context,” but no one will believe them because, well, everyone says that. Usually, however, they are correct.

So what was the context of Watson’s remarks? What transpired in that four-thousand-word story in the Sunday Times that led to James Watson’s destruction? To put the matter simply: He was sand-bagged by someone he trusted.

The journalist/ex-colleague/friend who wrote the story, Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, clearly felt ambiguously toward her subject. She tells us toward the end of the article that she was reluctant to interview Watson. “I remember that while I was thrilled when a sheet of familiar laboratory paper landed on my desk a few months ago, asking if I would like to interview him for his new book, I was wary of the ethical content.” Wary of the ethical content? Clearly, she did not share Watson’s beliefs regarding genes and groups (genes and women, for instance). But an objective description would call that a disagreement about the anthropological content of Watson’s views. Such a neutral description, though, was evidently not sufficient for the would-be author. She wanted her readers to know without doubt that she disapproved morally of her subject’s un-PC beliefs.

And so she wrote a story highlighting James Watson’s “controversial” ideas, with a tone that invited PC disapproval. She told of his “disdain for women turning men into ‘girly men,’ which means ‘men who don’t have the courage to say anything.’” Of course she raised the topic of Harvard president Larry Summers’s “infamous lecture” (her description), saying that “one former pupil—an eminent biologist and staunch feminist, is outraged at [Watson’s] account of her in his book.”

Finally, Hunt-Grubbe turned to what she clearly knew would be her bombshell, drawing Watson out about remarks made in his book’s epilogue. Most of that epilogue deals with the Larry Summers case and Watson’s belief that the remarks Summers made about genetically based mental-aptitude differences between the sexes constituted “an unpopular, though by no means unfounded, hypothesis.” The epilogue ends with these observations:

Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so. Rather than face up to facts that will likely change the way we look at ourselves, many persons of goodwill may see only harm in our looking too closely at individual genetic essences. So I was not surprised when Derek [Bok, the acting president of Harvard following the dismissal of Summers] asked apprehensively how many years would pass before the key genes affecting differences in human intelligence would be found. My back-of-the-envelope answer of “fifteen years” meant Summers’s then undetermined successor would not necessarily need to handle this very hot potato. Upon returning to the Yard, however, I was not sure that even ten years would pass.

To me, Watson’s epilogue seems merely commonsensical. But Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe considered it to be “an inflammatory epilogue with eye-popping theories that will, undoubtedly, leave ethicists choking with disbelief.” So why, if she expected that even her mentor’s general and precisely stated views on intelligence would lead ethicists into choking with disbelief, did she draw him into (and then publish) his spontaneous chattering about the inflammatory issue of race? That is a question she must answer for herself. But in the end, she did:

He says that he is “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,” and I know that this hot potato is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they have succeeded at the lowest level.”

As best one can judge from this salad of snippets, what Watson casually uttered to his supposed friend was some rambling combination of ideas drawn from genetic science, intelligence testing, geopolitical theory, personal experience, and social policy—which his erstwhile friend managed to summarize in one inflammatory paragraph. How well the paragraph put in proper context his actual views on intelligence and groups may be judged from Watson’s first reaction: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said.”


Not many have come to the defense of James Watson in his hour of need. Those who, like Steve Sailer, believe that Watson’s assertions are essentially true have, of course, been staunch. A few others have taken the position that his views are dubious, but he should not be ostracized for them. Professor Richard Morris, a neuroscientist at Edinburgh University who had been scheduled to chair the talk there, said of Watson’s remarks: “They are not explicitly racist and do not incite racial hatred, even if they do differ from received opinion on these matters.” Professor Lewis Wolpert, a biologist at University College London declared: “You may not like what he is saying, and it may seem outrageous, but people can cope with it and they should be able to go along and disagree.” Richard Dawkins, God bless him, said: “What is ethically wrong is the hounding, by what can only be described as an illiberal and intolerant “thought police,” of one of the most distinguished scientists of our time, out of the Science Museum, and maybe out of the laboratory that he has devoted much of his life to, building up a world-class reputation.”

But perhaps the most pitiable defender has been Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe herself. She now has the unenviable reputation of having ruined the reputation and last days of a great mentor she admired. In a Sunday Times article published exactly one week after she dynamited her hero, she pled helplessly against the wreckage she had created: “Science has always been open to debate. Why shackle it? What are we so afraid of? Why gag and shame on the basis of fear?” Why, indeed? But then why present a man’s unfashionable views on genetics, intelligence, and race in a single muddled paragraph, except to bring down upon them fashionable censure? You cannot let slip the dogs of culture war and then micro-manage their ferocity.

On October 19, Watson published a statement in the British newspaper The Independent, which some have called a retraction. But even a cursory reading reveals that it is not. He said: “To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly, from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.” Of course, Africa “as a continent” has no genes. So that supposed statement of contrition counts for nothing.

Much more significantly, Watson went on to repeat what he had said in his book’s epilogue: “We do not adequately understand the way in which the different environments in the world have selected over time the genes which determine our capacity to do different things. The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science.” In effect, Watson was saying what Galileo is supposed to have remarked under his breath when forced by the Church to recant his belief that the Earth is not stationary: E pur si muove. And yet it moves.


Quite apart from the difficulty of deducing Watson’s ideas from Hunt-Grubbe’s one confused paragraph recounting his remarks on intelligence, I do not pretend to know how much truth there may be in what he seems to be implying. Is there a general faculty called “intelligence”? Is it measurable without cultural bias? Is it heritable? Do groups differ in their average intelligence? Does intelligence affect worldly success? Though I have no deep knowledge of this subject, I am inclined to say yes to all five questions. See “Pretending that Intelligence Doesn’t Matter,” by Linda S. Gottfredson, in Cerebrum, Summer 2000. (Full disclosure: My brother, Walter, was then editor of the journal.)

Could it be that differences in the average intelligence of groups are partially responsible for differences in the success of nations? There, I have no opinion at all. I do know that the case has been argued in a book called IQ and the Wealth of Nations, by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen. But until I have read their book, and their critics, I shall withhold judgment. Personally, I believe that culture and institutions are what most directly affect a nation’s wealth.

But perhaps culture and institutions are (in the very long-term) affected by the average intelligence of the populace. It is a matter capable of doubt.

Not capable of doubt—since Socrates—is the need of healthy societies to permit their geniuses frank and open speech, even if that means indulging them in unfashionable speech, and even if that means indulging them in foolish speech.

Those who have brought about James Watson’s destruction may think that they are defending the foundational beliefs of democracy. The persecutors of Socrates thought exactly the same. But because his persecutors sought to defend democracy by murdering debate, they are remembered quite differently. “You are going to earn the reputation . . . of having put Socrates to death,” the wild man of Athens told them. And so it has proved.

So may it prove for those who have destroyed James Watson.


REVIEW: A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, by J. Craig Venter