NEW YORK – James Watson, the 79-year-old scientific icon and Nobel laureate made famous by his work on DNA, apologized Thursday for comments attributed to him that black are less intelligent than whites.
"I am mortified about what has happened," Watson said through his British publisher's publicist. "More importantly, I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said.
"I can certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have. To all 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."
In long profile that ran in the Sunday Times of London over the weekend, Watson, who won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for co-discovering the structure of DNA, was quoted as saying that he's "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 went on to say in the profile that it would be nice if all groups were equal, but that "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true."
Despite that, he also ruled out racial discrimination, because "there are many people of color who are very talented."
Watson's publicist, Kate Farquhar-Thomson, would not address whether Watson was suggesting on Thursday that he had been misquoted in the Sunday Times profile.
"You have the statement. That's it, I'm afraid," she said.
A spokesman for The Sunday Times said that the interview with Watson had been recorded and that the newspaper stood by the story.
Watson is in Britain to promote his new book, "Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science."
At a book launch party Thursday at the Royal Society, Britain's most esteemed scientific fellowship, Watson again disavowed the comments in the Sunday Times.
"To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly," he said, according to the Times of London. "That is not what I meant. More importantly, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."
Watson said he was baffled by the words attributed to him by the Sunday Times.
"I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. I can certainly understand why people reading those words have reacted in the ways they have," he added.
The comments, reprinted Wednesday in front-page articles in another British newspaper, The Independent, as well as in the Times of London, provoked a sharp reaction in Britain.
London's Science Museum canceled a sold-out lecture he was to give there Friday.
The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said his comments "represent racist propaganda masquerading as scientific fact. ... That a man of such academic distinction could make such ignorant comments, which are utterly offensive and incorrect and give succor to the most backward in our society, demonstrates why racism still has to be fought."
In the U.S., the Federation of American Scientists said it was outraged that Watson "chose to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science."
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on New York's Long Island, where Watson serves as chancellor, suspended his administrative responsibilities Thursday following the outcry, the laboratory said in a news release.
The board and administration of the renowned, privately run research facility said he wasn't speaking for the lab and commented that they "vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments."
Watson's new book touches on possible racial differences in IQ, though it doesn't go as far as the Sunday Times profile.
In the book, Watson more delicately raises the same issues.
"There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically," Watson wrote in a discussion of hypothetical genes that significantly affect a person's intelligence. "Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."
The idea that scientific tests show that racial and ancestral groups differ in intelligence has popped up with some regularity over the past few decades.
It last appeared in "The Bell Curve," a 1994 bestseller that argued that intelligence, rather than socioeconomics or education, was the dominant factor in both individual and group success in American life.
Around the same time, Canadian psychologist Philippe Rushton made waves with a book that argued that blacks, whites and Asians differed in many physical and psychological ways, with Asians being most intelligent and blacks least.
Most psychologists, statisticians, geneticists and sociologists counter that any gaps in average IQ scores demonstrated by different ancestral groups are easily explained by the tests' bias toward certain cultural and educational standards.
Watson has never before linked race and intelligence, but is famous for being blunt about his opinions.
In 2000, in a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, he suggested that sex drive might be related to exposure to the sun, and hence to skin color.
"That's why you have Latin lovers," he said, according to people who attended. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient."
Some years earlier he was quoted in a newspaper as saying, "If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn't want a homosexual child, well, let her."
"Jim has a penchant for making outrageous comments that are basically poking society in the eye," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said Thursday.
Collins, who has known Watson for a long time, said his latest comments "really ... carried it this time to a much more hurtful level."
In a brief telephone interview, Collins told The AP that Watson's statements are "the wildest form of speculation in a field where such speculation ought not to be engaged in."
Genetic factors for intelligence show no difference from one part of the world to another, Collins said.
Several longtime friends of Watson, a self-identified Democrat and secular humanist, insisted he's not a racist.
"It's hard for me to buy the label 'racist' for him," said Victor McElheny, the author of a 2003 biography of Watson, whom he's known for 45 years. "This is someone who has encouraged so many people from so many backgrounds."
So why does he say things that can sound racist?
"I really don't know the answer to that," McElheny said.
Biologist and Nobel laureate Phil Sharp at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who's known Watson since 1971, said, "I've never considered Jim a racist. However, Jim likes to use statistics and observations to provoke people, and it is possible that he is provoking people by these comments."
Calling Watson "one of the great historical scientific figures of our time," Sharp said, "I don't understand why he takes it upon himself to make these statements."
Mike Botchan, co-chair of the molecular and cell biology department at the University of California, Berkeley, who's known Watson since 1970, said the Nobel laureate's personal beliefs are less important than the impact of what he says.
"Is he someone who's going to prejudge a person in front of him on the basis of his skin color? I would have to say, no. Is he someone, though, that has these beliefs? I don't know any more. And the important thing is I don't really care," Botchan said.
"I think Jim Watson is now essentially a disgrace to his own legacy. And it's very sad for me to say this, because he's one of the great figures of 20th century biology."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.