Lab strips DNA pioneer James Watson of honours for racist views

James Watson won a Nobel for his work on DNA, but held debunked ideas on the relationship between race and genetics.

James Watson
Watson's claim that there is a genetic link between race and intelligence is rejected by most scientists [Ivan Sekretarev/AP Photo]

Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson has been stripped of his honours by his former laboratory after doubling down on controversial remarks he made on the relationship between race and genetics in 2007.

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York said Watson’s most recent comments in a 2018 documentary were “completely and utterly incompatible” with its mission.

Watson has courted controversy among geneticists for his belief that there was a genetic link between race and intelligence. 

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In 2007, he said he was “inherently gloomy” about Africa’s prospects because Western policies towards the continent assumed Africans were as intelligent as Europeans. 

The scientist, who helped identify the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule, stated in the documentary that he still held on to that view.

CSHL relieved Watson of his duties after the 2007 episode and stripped him of his honorary titles on Friday, calling his opinions “unsubstantiated and reckless”.

The titles include Chancellor Emeritus, Oliver R Grace Professor Emeritus, and Honorary Trustee.

Watson had long been associated with the lab, becoming its director in 1968, its president in 1994 and its chancellor 10 years later. A school at the lab is named after him.

Watson won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1962 along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for discovering in 1953 that DNA was a double helix, shaped like a long, gently twisting ladder.

‘Scientific racism’

The idea that there was a link between race and intelligence was widespread in the early half of the twentieth century, but after advances in genetics, modern-day scientific consensus rejects any link.

Those that continue to float the idea of a connection between race and intelligence are accused by the scientific community of indulging in pseudoscience and “scientific racism”.


Today, there is a consensus among scientists that race is a purely social construct, with no evidence to suggest distinct genetic differences between individuals from different populations.

In a 2009 study, Watson’s own genetic data was used to disprove the idea that there was a genetic connection between two people who were white, as compared with a person of East Asian descent.

Samples from Watson and scientist Craig Venter were compared with that of Korean scientist, Seong-Jin Kim. Both Watson and Venter were found to have more genetic similarities to Seong than they had with each other. 

Source: Al Jazeera