Francis Crick once described his fellow Nobel laureate James Watson’s second book, The Double Helix, as “the history of science as gossip.” According to the October issue of Nature, Watson’s latest opus, Avoid Boring People, goes one better in that it “might be viewed as the history of gossip presented as science.”
Indeed. In recent weeks Watson has created much furor with his assertion in the 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,” and that while he really, really wishes Africans were up to snuff, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”
Most of the ensuing attention has focused on that particular quote, but Watson has a long and well-documented history of baselessly biologizing social stereotypes. In his view “stupidity” and “ugliness” are biological diseases that one day will be cured by altering the human gene line. Skin color and lots of sunshine are related to sexual potency, which is “why you have Latin lovers. You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.” Women don’t have the same genetic hunger for science as men. Rich people should be paid to have babies.
It seems pretty obvious that Watson has a social problem. Unfortunately, he is remarkably seductive in projecting his personal anxieties onto the population at large. He is dead wrong about the science, but just try arguing that to the average person. The blogosphere is ablaze with credulous exuberance at Inferiority Unmasked: racial difference is obvious but no one wants to talk about it. Racial sensitivity and political correctness are holding empiricism back. The worst part is how James Watson’s position of authority substitutes for science. After all, isn’t he Mr. Genome? Father of the genetic revolution? And who are you, Mad Law Professor und ilk, but self-interested avatars of the genetically malapropic, African-descended lesser orders intent upon silencing the great man with steadfast unwillingness to “debate” what Watson himself calls–brace yourself for crashing irony–“unarguable truths without the support of evidence.”
“Either he hasn’t paid attention to his own field for the last decade or he’s lying,” says my colleague Dr. Robert Pollack, quietly and matter-of-factly. “I’m not sure which is worse.” Pollack is a former dean of Columbia College. He has been a professor of biology since 1978 and teaches a required course that covers DNA-based evolution to 500 first-year students each year. He spent the early part of his career at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory–from which Watson, its head for forty years, was recently dismissed. Pollack was a senior scientist there, and one of Watson’s first independent researchers. He remains one of his most distinguished mentees.