One of the world's most eminent scientists has created a racial firestorm in Britain.
James D. Watson, 79, co-discoverer of the DNA helix and winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine, told the Sunday Times of London that he was "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."
He recognized that the prevailing belief was that all human groups are equal, but that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."
Acknowledging that the issue was a "hot potato," the lifelong Democrat and avowed secular humanist nonetheless said his beliefs were not an excuse to discriminate against blacks.
"There are many people of color who are very talented," said Watson, "but don't promote them when they haven't succeeded at the lower level."
He told the interviewer, a former student of his, that he had recently inaugurated a DNA learning center near Harlem, and would like to have more black researchers at his lab, "but there's no one to recruit."
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Steven Rose, a professor of biological sciences at the Open University in Britain, was quick to dismiss Watson's comments.
"This is Watson at his most scandalous, " Rose told the Times of London. "If he knew the literature in the subject, he would know he was out of his depth scientifically, quite apart from socially and politically."
Watson is the former director and current chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory biological-research institution on New York's Long Island, and both admired and infamous for bluntly speaking his mind.
In a British television documentary in 2003, Watson advised eliminating low intelligence through gene therapy.
"If you are really stupid, I would call that a disease," said Watson, according to New Scientist magazine. "The lower 10 percent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what's the cause of it?
"A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.' It probably isn't," he added. "So I'd like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 percent."
He also touched upon sexual attraction in the same TV program.
"People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty," Watson said. "I think it would be great."
In 2000, he told a lecture audience at U.C. Berkeley that there was a correlation between a population's exposure to sunlight and its sex drive.
"That's why you have Latin lovers," Watson said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient."
The notion that intelligence tests and other scientific evidence shows that racial groups differ in intelligence, at least statistically, is not a new one.
It last gained popular attention in 1994 with "The Bell Curve," a best-selling book written by Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein (who died before publication) and political scientist Charles Murray, which argued that intelligence was more important than socio-economic background or education in achieving success in American life.
The book does not explicitly ascribe a genetic, racial connection to intelligence, but Murray in his publicity tour to promote the book cited studies that human intelligence could be ranked by ancestry, with East Asians and European Jews leading the way.
That view was more clearly stated in 1995 by British-Canadian psychologist J. Philippe Rushton, whose "Race, Evolution and Behavior: A Life History Perspective" quantified dozens of differences between blacks, whites and Asians.
In the 1970s, electronics pioneer William Shockley, who won the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics, said that the human race would suffer as less intelligent people outbred more intelligent ones, with the greatest damage to occur in the black American population.
Most sociologists, geneticists and psychologists reject the notion of racial differences in intelligence, pointing out that economic and social factors clearly influence IQ test scores.
The issue of race itself is scientifically controversial, with some arguing that it is a meaningless term and others saying that consistent traits occur among individuals of shared ancestry.
Watson is currently in Britain promoting his just-published new volume of memoirs, "Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science."
"There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically," he writes. "Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."