James Watson recently created a stir by auctioning off his Nobel medal. The 86-year-old co-discoverer of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA received the Nobel for Physiology in 1962, along with Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick. Tragically, Rosalind Franklin, who also made a major contribution, died in 1958.
Watson’s achievements are gigantic. He has held positions at Harvard, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and headed the Human Genome Project. His personal account, The Double Helix, remains a best-seller, and so do his textbooks on molecular biology.
But his career has also been tainted by recurrent accusations of racism and sexism. He has a talent, if it may be so described, for making quotable statements on charged subjects. For example, he once said a pregnant woman should “hypothetically” have the right to abort if tests showed the foetus “may have a tendency to become homosexual”.
He has also famously speculated on links between libido and skin colour: “That’s why you have Latin lovers. You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English Patient.” He has argued in favour of eugenics and genetic screening to “cure stupidity”.
In 2007, Watson was on tour promoting his book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science (an extremely readable and irreverent tome), when he spoke to Sunday Times. He said “I am inherently gloomy about Africa. 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 continued that “people who have to deal with black employees find this (equal intelligence) is not true”. Those remarks (which he subsequently withdrew) led to the cancellation of the tour and enforced retirement from Cold Harbor.
Although not in financial need, Watson felt ostracised by the scientific community and decided to auction his medal. Alisher Usmanov, billionaire co-owner of Arsenal FC, bought the medal for $ 4.8 million and promptly returned it. Watson is said to have donated a large part of the money to Cold Harbor, the University of Chicago, Indiana University and Cambridge.
Watson’s racism, and his advocacy of eugenics reflect attitudes that were mainstream when he was a young man. Given the colonial history of the 19th and 20th centuries, the racism may have been historically inevitable.
Francis Galton (1822-1911), who was Charles Darwin’s cousin and a pioneering statistician, coined “eugenics”. Galton did studies on the inheritable nature of intelligence and the environmental effect on it. He advocated giving intelligent people incentives to marry each other and thus, produce bright progeny.
The darker side is forbidding marriage and procreation rights to “unsuitable” people with lower intelligence, criminal tendencies and so on. Nazism indulged in the extermination of “undesirables”. Apartheid in South Africa and Segregation in southern American states created highly discriminatory environments and punished “miscegenation”. India’s sterilisation programmes during the Emergency also disproportionately targeted specific socio-economic classes.
Among other Nobel Prize winners, Winston Churchill (unsurprisingly) and William Shockley were pro-eugenicists. Shockley was a co-developer of the transistor and one of the pioneers of Silicon Valley. He was an abrasive, paranoid man who alienated subordinates and eventually, his children. Shockley believed that the “less intelligent” should be prevented from having children in order to prevent the spreading of bad genes.
Shockley also felt intelligence correlated to colour, a suggestion that is often backed by allusions to racial differences in American IQ scores. (Blacks and Hispanics score lower than non-Hispanic whites, who score lower than Indians and Koreans). A controversial book, The Bell curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994) discussed some of those racial differences. But other studies show that if statistical controls are used for school-teaching standards, socio-economic strata, family environment and so on, racial differences tend to disappear.
This debate will continue to rage around the world though it may be ranged around correlations of intelligence with colour, caste, religion, or “racial purity” in various places. The nature of intelligence and how it can be measured, is in itself contentious. It will take more than scientific counter-factuals to make racists change ingrained attitudes.