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Nobel Prize Winner Issues Apology for Racist Comments

October 19, 2007

James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for deciphering the double-helix of DNA, apologized “unreservedly” yesterday for comments reported this week suggesting that black people, over all, are not as intelligent as whites.

In an interview published Sunday in The Times of London, Dr. Watson is quoted as saying that while “there are many people of color who are very talented,” he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.”

“All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

In a statement given to The Associated Press yesterday, Dr. Watson said, “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

But his publicist, Kate Farquhar-Thomson, would not say whether Dr. Watson believed he had been misquoted. “You have the statement,” she said. “That’s it, I am afraid.”

Late yesterday, the board of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institution in New York, issued a statement saying it was suspending the administrative responsibilities of Dr. Watson as chancellor “pending further deliberation.”

On Wednesday, Bruce Stillman, president of the laboratory, had issued a statement saying the laboratory’s trustees, administration and faculty “vehemently disagree” with the sentiments of Dr. Watson, who has served as director and president of the laboratory, whose school of biological sciences is named for him.

Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor study plant and animal genetics, cancer and other diseases. Dr. Stillman said they did not “engage in any research that could even form the basis of the statements attributed to Dr. Watson.”

Dr. Watson is in England to promote his new book, “Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science” (Knopf). In a statement, Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf, said only that it was “understandable that his comments have caused upset throughout the world.”

There is wide agreement among researchers on intelligence that genetic inheritance influences mental acuity, but there is also wide agreement that life experiences, even in the womb, exert a powerful influence on brain structure. Further, there is wide disagreement about what intelligence consists of and how — or even if — it can be measured in the abstract.

You can see the rest of the article here.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2007 12:07 am

    Not related to this, but congrats – enjoyed reading you at BlackCommentator.

  2. gmoore permalink
    October 22, 2007 1:36 am

    Et tu Watson? Et tu!? The comments which geneticist James Watson made last week suggesting that blacks were not as intelligent as whites begs the question; when will this nonsense end? When I encountered the opinions or “studies” of folks like Watson or Charles Murray, the author of The Bell Curve, it prompts me to examine why certain empiricists harbor such a fixation with the idea of white intellectual superiority. I liken them to the guy who’s always bragging about their sexual prowess or accumulated wealth. In most cases such folks often overstate their case in an effort to conceal deep insecurities related to the same characteristics that are the subject of their exaggerated boasts. So again, what’s going on here?

    Unfortunately, to the degree that the quantification of “intelligence” has, and at least in the foreseeable future will continue to serve as a primary basis by which employment, educational, economic and other opportunities are distributed, it would be pure folly to assume that academic discussions relating to traditional notions of intelligence would not be tainted by the stain of racism that permeates so much of our society.

    In any debate, the side that defines the rules and the terms governing an exchange of ideas enjoy a significant advantage. Remember the time an effort devoted to negotiating the thirty-two pages of tedious rules governing the presidential debates of 2004 between John Kerry and George W. Bush? In short, defining the rules and terms really do matter, which is why in my view, the comments and ideas of Watson and Murray represent an concentrated effort on the part of some to shape the framework of a debate regarding the relationship between race and intelligence to advance white supremacist notions of genetic superiority. In addition to being fundamentally racist, the structural flaws of their arguments also relates to the narrow linear manner in which Watson, Murray and other “scholars” of their ilk go about defining “intelligence”.

    In my view, a compelling argument could be advanced that intellectual achievement in its highest manifestation, is not the byproduct of linear thinking but abstract thought. Many of the most significant scientific breakthroughs in human history do not represent the logical next step in connection with the evolution of a particular school of thought but rather resulted from a dramatic departure from prevailing orthodoxy governing particular scientific principles.

    Consider the example of Albert Einstein, who coincidentally was not the best linear thinker or standardized test taker as evidenced by his failure to pass his entrance exam at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and the mediocre assessments which he earned from professors at the Institute after he was finally able to earn admission. Yet, Einstein’s work with respect to the gravitational deflection of light not only forced the scientific community to rethink and ultimately disavow previous scientific conclusions on the subject, but represented an abstract breakthrough – not a linear improvement – upon the work of phycisists such as Isaac Newton.

    In this regard, black intellectual achievement has historically manifest in a manner consistent with the highest and most abstract notions of intelligence. Take for example the art form of Jazz, the only music genre to originate in the United States. In addition to being created by African-Americans, conceptually and technically it is generally regarded the most of the most complicated forms of music. Compositions by Jazz masters such as pianist Earl Tatum are so complex that only a few musicians today have the ability to play them. Like Einstein’s thought processes, a defining characteristic of Jazz is its abstraction and it’s ability to be at once improvisational and orchestrated. Have you ever read the liner notes of a Prince album which state that “all songs and instruments and vocals were written, performed and arranged by Prince.” I’m not sure what Duke Ellington or John Coltrane earned on their SAT’s but in my view their core genius is indistinguishable from Mozart’s or Einstein’s for that matter.

    However, beyond the musical arts, black intellectual achievement in other realms are also distinguished by abstract intellectual characteristics. Writers such as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright have all produced works that are not only regarded as masterpieces by any objective measure, but they all to one degree or another employed abstraction as a effective literary tool. And in the realm of the sciences, the scientific contributions of Louis Latimer (inventor of light bulb filament), Charles Drew (blood plasma), and Emmett Chappelle (luminescence), Percy Lavon Julian (synthesis of medicinal drugs) Lloyd Augustus Hall (food preservation scientist who amassed over 50 patents) Frederick McKinley Jones (first African American to be awarded with the American National Medal of Technology) were marked by their breathtaking departures from the conventional science of their day.

    It bears mentioning that my emphasis on the tradition of abstract intellectual thought in black community is not meant to suggest that blacks lack the ability to participate in linear intellectual activities or that black folks are intellectually superior to whites- such notions are as absurd as the ideas propagated by “empiricists” like Watson and Murray, I merely wish to make the point that in a very fundamental sense, intelligence exists in a variety of forms, shapes, sizes and yes, colors.

  3. October 24, 2007 9:07 pm

    I’m checking back everyday and no new posts!!

    Come on, Thought Merchant. Where are you?

  4. February 18, 2008 8:04 pm

    I walked seemingly the road, chomping onlly my joining singles and sandals.

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