Nobel Prize winner James Watson lost his post at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island in 2007 after claiming that Africans were intellectually inferior to whites. “Our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours,” he said, “whereas all the testing says not really.”

And now Anna Deavere Smith, an African-American actress and playwright, will try to capture his essence at the World Science Festival in New York City on June 11.

Smith, whose approach blends journalism with performance, says she will be focusing on Watson’s contentious relationship with naturalist Edward O. Wilson rather than on Watson’s forays into social policy. “No, I’m not going to cover that in my presentation,” she says, “To take on that subject would be to take on a whole history.”

In the 1950s Watson and Wilson were colleagues at Harvard University although they never saw eye to eye. “Wilson called him one of the most unpleasant men he ever met,” Smith says, “They didn’t have an amicable relationship.” Watson believed that Harvard should be devoting its resources to molecular biology and demeaned Wilson, the world’s best known entomologist, as a “stamp collector.” 

(Of course, entomologists and Africans are not the only groups Watson has disparaged: in February, the curmudgeonly geneticist said that schoolteachers aren’t as bright as they used to be.) 

Watson left Harvard for Cold Spring Lab in 1976. Since then, the two have apparently made amends, and Watson was excited to take part in a celebration of Wilson’s 80th birthday. “Watson would say ‘Hats off to Wilson!’” Smith says, “Maybe that would be instructive to many of us.”

Photo of Anna Deavere Smith courtesy of cliff1066 on Flickr