Watson Apologizes Amid Uproar Over His Comments on Race

Nobel Prize winner, co-discoverer of DNA, and former Harvard researcher James D. Watson apologized Thursday for suggesting earlier this week that blacks tend to be less intelligent than whites.

“I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said,” Watson said in a statement to The Associated Press. “There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

Watson, one of the most famous biologists of the 20th century, shook the scientific community this week after his comments on race were published in The Sunday Times Magazine of London. “All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really,” the newspaper quoted him as saying in reference to blacks.

A onetime colleague of Watson at Harvard, Cabot Professor of Biology Richard M. Losick, said on Friday that he was “personally devastated by the reports of what he said.”

“He has gotten increasingly eccentric over the last 10 to 15 years,” Losick told The Crimson. “It seems like he enjoys to shock people, but he went way too far this time.”

Losick, who has known Watson for 35 years, addressed his biology lecture course on Friday and expressed disappointment over Watson’s comments that were published Sunday. He suggested that the name of the Watson-Crick base pairing process, which leads to the formation of DNA, might be renamed the Franklin-Crick process in light of the uproar. Rosalind Franklin was the researcher whose X-ray crystalography image of the double helix helped lead Watson and Francis Crick to their discovery of the structure of DNA.

On Thursday, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the Long Island research institution that Watson has led to international prominence, announced it was suspending Watson as its chancellor pending further review by its board.

That move amounted to devastating punishment for Watson, said Harvard biologist Andrew Berry, who co-wrote the 2003 book "DNA: The Secret of Life" with Watson.

"He turned a sleepy Long Island research institute into, arguably, the greatest biological powerhouse in the world," Berry said in an interview Friday. "It's his greatest legacy."

Berry, a lecturer in organismic and evolutionary biology, said he felt "it was part of my job...to rein him in" while writing the book with Watson. "He always has edgy views and he prides himself on jousting at political correctness."

Biodun Jeyifo, an African and African American studies professor at Harvard, said Friday that although he was vehemently against Watson's comments,  he was not surprised by them. 

“It’s not new,” Jeyifo said in an interview. “It’s a very small group of scientists who use their eminence to advance the most regressive views on race and intelligence.” 

"He is using his scientific eminence to advance his own political and social views as a citizen,"  he added . 

Jeyifo said that the public should forgive Watson if his apology is genuine.

“If his complete renunciation of what he said is true, then he should be forgiven. It’s a distraction,” Jeyifo said.

Jeyifo likened Watson's comment to that of the late Alabama governor George C. Wallace, who infamously said, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," in 1962, only to become a staunch supporter of Civil Rights and anti-segregation. 

"Maybe Watson's views have actually changed," said Jeyifo. 

Now the question of Watson's historical legacy lingers.

"He's going to be remembered as a racist, which is sad because he's infinitely more than that," said Berry, emphasizing that he condemned Watson's comments. "He has done a lot of important work for the scientific community, and arguably for humanity."

—Check thecrimson.com throughout the weekend for updates.

—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at abcohn@fas.harvard.edu.