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World-renowned geneticist draws fire for claims that Africans are intellectually inferior

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Nothing like stirring the pot--not to mention selling books--with an incendiary claim, in this case that one race is intellectually superior to another. Dr. Watson, we presume? Bingo. World-renowned geneticist James Watson, 79, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his role in helping break the DNA code, is being widely criticized after telling The Sunday Times of London 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, reports the newspaper, to say that "people who have to deal with black employees find...it is not true" that all humans are equal. The Independent reports today that Watson is currently on a swing through Britain to publicize his latest book Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science due out next week in which he apparently makes similar such claims. "There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically," the London newspaper quotes from the upcoming book. "Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so." The comments and ensuing firestorm are reminiscent of the explosive debate whipped up a decade or so ago by the 1994 book The Bell Curve in which Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray suggested that IQ is genetic and that some races are inherently brighter. That claim, like this one, was roundly denounced as "scientific racism" by the science community. (Another Nobel example: 1956 physics Laureate William Shockley, who shared his prize as a co-inventor of the transistor. Considered a founding father of Silicon Valley, he later applied his genius to other fields, namely developing various eugenic theories. These included the idea that higher rates of reproduction among the less intelligent were lowering the quality of the human race and that this was happening to a greater degree among blacks. He even recommended that individuals having IQs below 100 should be paid to undergo voluntary sterilization.) Watson is recognized for his research at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s and 1960s and as part of the team that discovered DNA's structure. But the prestigious scientist, who for 50 years has served as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, is no stranger to controversy. In a 1990 profile, Science wrote: "To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script." In 1997, reports The Independent, Watson reportedly told a newspaper that a woman should have the right to abort her unborn child if tests could determine it would be homosexual. He has also reportedly argued for genetic screening and engineering as a potential cure for "stupidity" (if only) and once was quoted as saying that "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great." "This is Watson at his most scandalous," Steven Rose, a professor of biological sciences at the Open University and a founding member of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science, told The Independent about the scientist's most recent comments. "If he knew the literature in the subject, he would know he was out of his depth scientifically, quite apart from socially and politically." UPDATE (10/18/07): In the wake of the controversy, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) today issued a searing statement denouncing Watson's comments: "At a time when the scientific community is feeling threatened by political forces seeking to undermine its credibility, it is tragic that one of the icons of modern science has cast such dishonor on the profession," FAS president Henry Kelly said in the statement. The scientific enterprise is based on the promotion and proof of new ideas through evidence, however controversial, but Dr. Watson chose to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science. "While we honor the extraordinary contributions that Dr. Watson has made to science in the past, his comments show that he has lost his way. He has failed us in the worst possible way," said Kelly. "It is a sad and revolting way to end a remarkable career."

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

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