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Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory strips titles of genetic pioneer over race remarks

James Watson, the lab's former director and Nobel Prize-winning pioneer in DNA research, recently publicly repeated his belief that blacks are genetically inferior to whites in intelligence.

James Watson in his office at his Cold

James Watson in his office at his Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on June 10, 2015.  Photo Credit: J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Friday revoked several honorary titles from its former director and Nobel Prize-winning pioneer in DNA research, after he repeated his belief that blacks are genetically inferior to whites in intelligence.

James Watson, 90, had first publicly made those remarks in a 2007 magazine interview and repeated them on PBS’ “American Masters: Decoding Watson,” which aired Jan. 2.

In a statement announcing the withdrawal of the titles, the laboratory’s board chairwoman, Marilyn Simons, and its president and CEO, Bruce Stillman, said the laboratory “unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions Dr. James D. Watson expressed on the subject of ethnicity and genetics during the PBS documentary . . .Watson’s statements are reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way represent the views of CSHL, its trustees, faculty, staff, or students. The Laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.”

In 2007, Watson told The Sunday Times Magazine of London that he was "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 also said he hoped that everyone was equal, but that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

When “Decoding Watson” producer and director Mark Mannucci asked Watson if his views on race and intelligence had changed, Watson responded, “No, not at all. I would like for them to have changed, that there be new knowledge which says your nurture is much more important than nature. But I haven’t seen any knowledge. And there’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites on I.Q. tests. I would say the difference is, it’s genetic.”

Laboratory spokeswoman Dagnia Zeidlickis said Saturday: “As an institution it’s a sad moment."

“It’s sad when you’re confronted with such a dichotomy,” she said, contrasting Watson’s long list of scientific accomplishments and his leadership of the laboratory with “the comments that are unsupported by science.”

Watson was the laboratory’s director from 1968 to 1994 and, after that, served as president and then chancellor. The laboratory suspended him as chancellor following his 2007 remarks, and a few days later, after apologizing for the comments, Watson resigned. Among the titles the institution stripped from him on Friday is chancellor emeritus.

The laboratory’s school of biological sciences is named after Watson. Asked if the laboratory will remove his name from the school, Zeidlickis said, “I can’t tell you what the future looks like. But we’re always evolving.”

Watson shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for a breakthrough discovery on the structure of DNA.

Nancy Hopkins, an emeriti professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Watson had been a mentor to her when he was a professor at Harvard University and she was a student at Radcliffe College.

Yet last year, Watson told her the reason for the paucity of prominent female scientists is genetic differences, Hopkins said Saturday. “It’s just what he’s saying about race.”

Hopkins is perplexed how a brilliant scientist who once was ahead of his time in promoting women in the sciences and never uttered a racist word to her would now say women and black people are genetically inferior.

Hopkins supports the laboratory’s decision to take away the honorary titles. “It’s like he’s a different person,” she said.

One of Watson’s sons, Duncan Watson, declined to comment Saturday.

Another son, Rufus Watson, who is schizophrenic, told The Associated Press on Friday that his father, who is in a nursing home after an October car crash near the laboratory, has a “very minimal” awareness of his surroundings. He said his father was not a bigot.

The remarks in the documentary “just represent his rather narrow interpretation of genetic destiny,” he told the AP.

Mannucci said Saturday that he gave Watson two opportunities over six months to clarify his 2007 remarks, and each time he defended them.

“It wasn’t to nail him or get him,” Mannucci said. “It wasn’t a gotcha question. It was to be fair to him.”

Said Michael Wigler, a cancer researcher at Cold Spring and former colleague of Watson: "For those of us who have had the honor of knowing the man and his deeds there is only anguish over the present situation."

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