Controversial comments taint Watson's legacy

ByABC News
November 20, 2007, 8:01 PM

— -- Inflammatory remarks on race and intelligence that led to the fall of one of the world's most pre-eminent scientists have stirred memories of a disturbing era in American history.

The lives of Nobel Prize-winning biologist James Watson and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a prestigious research and education institute in New York, have been linked for nearly 40 years, the histories of both laced with triumphs and controversy.

Watson, one of the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA, told The Sunday Times of London in October that he is "inherently gloomy" about Africa's future 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." While expressing the hope that everyone is created equal, he added, "People who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

The scientist, 79, also talked in a January 2007 Esquire interview about how "some anti-Semitism is justified. Just like some anti-Irish feeling is justified."

Cold Spring Harbor has repudiated Watson's Africa comments and released a statement in January calling the Esquire comments "disturbing." Watson publicly apologized and resigned as lab chancellor Oct. 25.

Watson has a history of making controversial statements. In the past, for example, he has linked skinniness to ambition and skin color to libido.

But Steven Selden, an education historian at the University of Maryland, says Watson's recent remarks carry troubling historical baggage. He and other historians say Watson is echoing statements made by those involved decades ago in eugenics, the "science" of improving humanity that found a haven at Cold Spring Harbor.

Watson did not respond to requests for comment made via the lab and his publisher. One of his predecessors, Charles Davenport, a leader in the eugenics movement, stirred discord in 1929 for asserting that interracial marriage degrades the population.

Historians and ethicists say they fear that the greater effect of such statements may be the draining of public confidence in scientists.