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James Watson and eugenics

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Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory issued a statement from its board of trustees that addressed remarks by James Watson that were reported in The Sunday Times U.K. in which he claims that blacks are inferior in intelligence to whites: The statement reads, in part:
The comments attributed to Dr. James Watson that first appeared in the October 14, 2007 edition of The Sunday Times U.K. are his own personal statements and in no way reflect the mission, goals, or principles of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Board, administration or faculty. Dr. Watson is not the President of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and was not speaking on behalf of the institution. The Board of Trustees, administration and faculty vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory does not engage in any research that could even form the basis of the statements attributed to Dr. Watson.
All of the above is true. But it's not the whole story. The 79-year-old Watson is listed under laboratory administration on its Web site as "chancellor," right below Bruce W. Stillman, the president. (Watson was lab director from 1968 until 1994 and president from that year until 2003.) Watson deserves his larger-than-life reputation around Cold Spring Harbor as co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, as a dynamic former laboratory president and as a leader in the Human Genome Project. [A few hours after this blog entry was posted, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory issued a press release that stated the board's decision to suspend Watson from his duties as chancellor.] But there are other reasons, for the sake of the laboratory he did so much for as an administrator, that the man should keep his mouth shut about the social implications of genetics. What is today known as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was once at the center of the American eugenics movement, when it was home to the Eugenics Record Office from 1910 to 1939, at first under the tutelage of the infamous eugenicists Charles Benedict Davenport and Harry Laughlin. The Eugenics Record Office gathered "pedigrees" of families, noting traits such as allergies, feeble-mindedness, civic leadership and immoral behavior. The University of Virginia Health System's eugenics historical collection gives this description of Davenport and Laughlin's perspective: "Both men were members of the American Breeders Association. Their view of eugenics, as applied to human populations, drew from the agricultural model of breeding the strongest and most capable members of a species while making certain that the weakest members do no reproduce." Laughlin drafted model legislation in 1914 that was adopted by nearly 20 states that led to the forced sterilization of thousands of men and women thought to be mentally or physically unfit. The Laughlin model law even influenced the framing of the Nazis' 1933 sterilization laws. It is unfortunate that Watson, one of the most famous scientists of the twentieth century, should end his career by tacitly invoking a tawdry side of the stellar institution he helped to build.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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