Nobel-winning scientist’s claims linking race and intelligence have been ‘debunked over and over’: expert

Click to play video: 'Man who discovered double helix under fire for comments made in PBS documentary'
Man who discovered double helix under fire for comments made in PBS documentary
James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist behind the double helix, has been stripped of his honorary titles following comments he made to PBS reiterating his controversial position that people of colour are genetically predisposed to score lower on IQ tests – Jan 14, 2019

Nobel-winning scientist James Watson, who helped to discover the double-helix structure of DNA, has had many of his honorary titles revoked after he expressed views linking race to performance on intelligence tests.

In a PBS documentary, Watson said his views about intelligence and race had not changed since 2007, when he told a magazine 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 — where all the testing says not really.”

In the 2007 interview, Watson said that while he hopes everyone is equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”

In this month’s documentary, he said there is a difference on average between blacks and whites on IQ tests. “I would say the difference is, it’s genetic.”

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Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, the lab Watson once headed, called the latest remarks “reprehensible” and “unsupported by science.” It said it had revoked three honorary titles, including chancellor emeritus and honorary trustee.

Watson’s son Rufus told the Associated Press in a telephone interview that his father, who’s 90, was in a nursing home following an October car crash, and that his awareness of his surroundings is “very minimal.”

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“My dad’s statements might make him out to be a bigot and discriminatory,” he said, but that’s not true. “They just represent his rather narrow interpretation of genetic destiny.”

Dr. Raymond Kim, a medical geneticist at the University Health Network in Toronto, said he found Watson’s latest remarks “concerning,” partly because of Watson’s fame and scientific stature.

“So the first question is, what is he basing this on? Is it on scientific evidence? And if so, what is that scientific evidence? I’m not aware of any.”

“Watson isn’t the first to make this claim,” said Michael Yudell, an associate professor at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University. “It’s been debunked over and over.”

Yudell, who wrote a book examining the links between biologists and race in the 20th century, believes that race isn’t even a useful group for genetic research, as it’s a broad, socially constructed category. “Races are generally fixed categories that do not reflect the heterogeneity or the diversity of peoples within them.”

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According to a statement by the American Society of Human Genetics, “genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories.” Populations have mixed so much throughout history, it said, that it’s difficult to draw distinct boundaries between groups.

“Although a person’s genetics influences their phenotypic characteristics, and self-identified race might be influenced by physical appearance, race itself is a social construct.”

Intelligence also isn’t purely genetic, said Yudell. “Health disparities and disparities in intelligence relate primarily to social, environmental and economic differences that drive us in a variety of ways in our lives.”

“In everything in genetics, the environment plays a significant role,” Kim said. Intelligence is a complex human characteristic and “to make such a sweeping statement in something that’s so complex without quoting any scientific hard data is a little bit concerning from my end.”

Yudell and others have called upon geneticists to abandon the use of race as a category in their research and come up with measures of ancestry to better understand the relative risks of different groups to certain diseases and other scientific questions. This, he thinks, would help to stop people from using genetics to justify racism.

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“I think we also need to pay attention not just to the racism of one man but to the way in which our fields of study, intentionally or not, may reinforce those ideas,” he said. “So it’s great to call out Watson, but we need to do more.”

–With files from the Associated Press

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