Thus Spake Zuska

Watson to Africa: You’re All Dumb

Spitting on Rosalind Franklin’s grave is apparently not satisfying enough for Jim Watson. When you are a largemouth ass, you have to do much, much more. So now he’s maligned all of Africa and everyone of African descent. Here’s a quote:

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”.


His views are also reflected in a book published next week, in which he writes: “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

That book would be “Avoid Boring People” which, you may recall, Technology Review fawningly excerpted in its September/October issue, including the sections wherein he bashes Rosalind Franklin. How pleased am I to know that a publication of my alma mater offered up print space to let a racist misogynist ass spew forth his bile? I am so not pleased that I am considering a special trip to Boston just to do some shoe-puking. Check this out from their statement of principles:

Integrity is our foundation. We are committed to being honest, accurate, and fair in our reporting and writing and in our dealings with readers, sources, advertisers, customers, visitors, and staff.

What kind of “integrity” leads you to print excerpts from a book by a man with known racist and sexist views, that includes outright racist and sexist lies about women in science and about a whole continent of people? And to present this to your readers as if this would be a great book for young scientists to read?

Now, hold your fingers still over your keyboards, and don’t bother typing your comments about what a great scientist Jim Watson is and how you have to respect his science and separate it from his political views and no matter what, he still discovered DNA, and blah blah blah blah. Jim Watson is a consummate ass. I don’t care if he discovered the secret of life, the universe, and everything, he’s still a misogynistic racist miserable S.O.B. So he and Crick figured out the structure of DNA – like that gives him a free pass to go around spouting off racist and misogynistic shit?

It’s arguably even worse coming out of the mouth of someone of his stature precisely because he wields such influence in the scientific community at large. He gives support and comfort to all the closeted racists and misogynists – he’s their hero! He helps make it okay for all the little daily nasty acts that go on, that women and non-whites have to put up with in the scientific workplace.

It is appalling that someone who continues to be as open about his racism and sexism as he is, continues to be showered with attention, honors, book contracts, plum positions, invitations to be on boards of directors (ahem…Seed…), and so on. It’s a slap in the face to everyone who gives a damn about making the profession of science welcoming to more than just white males.

I will say one thing for Watson. He’s made public the fact that virulent, entrenched racism and sexism still exists in the scientific community – and is tolerated – at the highest levels.

You can read the reactions of other Sciencebloggers on Watson’s venomous views:

PZ Myers at Pharyngula

Selva at The Scientific Indian

Mo at Neurophilosophy

Mark Hoofnagle at Denialism Blog

Chad at Uncertain Principles

If I’ve missed some others, I’m sorry.

UPDATE: Reader Ed Yong pointed out the latest Watson debacle in a comment on my last Watson post.


  1. #1 blah
    October 17, 2007

    Oh. My. God.
    “whereas all the testing says not really” WTF?? Yeah I’d like to see some evidence of that. Not to mention, how many racists are now going to start quoting the eminent Watson on this? Horrible.

    I think we are finally getting to the crux of the matter. Watson basically believes that anyone who isn’t an old white straight male asshole of the genus Homo sapiens watson dickheadsonius, is a piece of garbage.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    October 17, 2007

    And it was Francis Crick who — legend has it — was experimenting with LSD while he and Watson were trying to beat Pauling to the DNA structure. Logical conclusion: LSD makes you a nicer person!

  3. #3 Ed
    October 17, 2007

    Hey, has anyone ever seen James Watson and Prince Philip in the same room at the same time?


  4. #4 Tom Maguire
    October 17, 2007

    In a recent NY Times magazine article about affirmative action, Times reporter David Leonhardt wrote this:

    Other recent studies have looked at intelligence testing. There have long been two uncomfortable facts in this area: Intelligence, indisputably, is in part genetic; and every intelligence test shows a gap between black Americans and others. For a long time, scientific research wasn�t very good at explaining this gap. But it has gotten better lately.

    I didn’t realize that the notion that blacks don’t test well was even controversial. As Leonhardt goes on to explain, scientists (evidently excluding Watson) are diligently attempting to explain this result away. In fact, his next few sentences are pretty funny:

    For one thing, the gap between white and black adults has narrowed significantly since 1970, according to work by the noted researchers William Dickens and James Flynn. Four decades is too short a time period for the gene pool to change, but it�s not too short for environment to improve. Most intriguing, Roland Fryer and Steven D. Levitt, two economists (the latter is one of this magazine�s Freakonomics columnists), have found there to be essentially no gap between 1-year-old white and black children of the same socioeconomic status.

    There are still vigorous debates about all this work � intelligence tests of 1-year-olds are iffy, for instance � but it points in one direction. Innate intelligence may be partly genetic, but it doesn�t seem to vary by race.

    Actually, based on his initial sentences, intelligence very much does seem to vary by race. I hope, as do most of us, that those result scan be explained/reversed/invalidated, but I don’t see how Leonhardt can possibly get to “race doesn’t matter” given his intro.

  5. #5 Zuska
    October 17, 2007

    Tom, you aren’t being very logical. There’s no question that some portion of intelligence is affected by genetics. After all, our brains are actually constructed out of matter, are they not? But it doesn’t follow that one would see genetic differences between races – which are themselves a dubious construct, that do not have a true biological basis. One might, for instance, see differences between socioeconomic classes in the U.S., and one might note that one race tends to be found more in one socioeconomic class than another. The differences due to socioeconomic class would appear as a difference between races but this would be a spurious result. It appears to me that the quotes you’ve cited above are getting at just such a point.

    I’m sorry, but people who are “hoping” that it will be “proved” that blacks are not actually dumber than whites are harboring a prejudice.

  6. #6 blah
    October 17, 2007

    Naturally, in the same way that certain white male scientists come up with, “but WHY are females so DIFFERENT and unsuited for science”, we also get, but “but WHY are black people DUMBER than white people”. The fact that anyone’s asking this question already indicates the bias, because the ‘default’ is white.

    And considering that the average ‘black’ person in the US is anywhere from 10-40% ‘white’, is that going to make them 10-40% smarter than their ‘african’ counterparts? And what is ‘african’ since there is more genetic diversity in africa, it being the cradle of human origins. The whole thing is hogwash. See Pharyngula’s blog for an excellent hammering out of how meaningless ‘race’ is to begin with.

  7. #7 brtkrbzhnv
    October 17, 2007

    blah wrote:

    And considering that the average ‘black’ person in the US is anywhere from 10-40% ‘white’, is that going to make them 10-40% smarter than their ‘african’ counterparts?

    First of all, that’s a nonsensical question: “10-40% smarter” doesn’t mean anything. Second, American mulattoes are indeed significantly (a difference of about σ [on a standard white scale]) more intelligent than African Negroes. (Who the hell decided these words are capitalized this way‽ It makes no sense at all!)

    I think it would be better for you to actually study the subject of intelligence, rather than just commenting ignorantly. Wikipedia is a good place to start.

  8. #8 Eric
    October 17, 2007

    The Intelligent Design creationists over at Uncommon Descent then used Watson’s vile words to condemn all evolutionary biologists. I recently flayed them for their rank hypocrisy in also endorsing the bigoted commentator Ann Coulter repeatedly on their site.

  9. #9 gimpy
    October 18, 2007

    You might want to take interviews as reported in newspapers with a pinch of salt when it comes to presenting remarks in context. It is also worth pointing out that there while Watson’s interpretations may be (rightfully?) construed as being racist they are based on evidence.
    Take the comment about intelligence being lower in Africa. Now based on IQ tests, an admittedly dodgy marker of ‘intelligence’, this is true when compared with North American or European populations. Of course this could be due to many factors including, education, diet, culture and so on and the evidence for a genetic link is shaky at best (IQ of North American people of West African descent is higher than that of current West Africans). Nevertheless it is factually correct to say that intelligence as measured by IQ shows significant differences between African and European or North American populations.
    Also this quote is quite correct too:
    “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
    There really is no reason not to consider this a valid hypothesis. Many physiological features vary significantly between populations. Why should intelligence be ruled out as one such feature?
    Instead of shrieking about racism and sexism wouldn’t it be better to argue that the facts, as espoused by Watson, may be true but they do not imply that his interpretations are right.

    Also, like it or not James Watson the right to say what he likes and the reputation to make other people listen. Attack his ideas by all means but don’t suggest that he should be silenced. Prove him wrong with logic and evidence. Not with ad hominem attacks.

  10. #10 M
    October 18, 2007

    MIT has a major crush on James Watson. Seriously, the man can do no wrong there. It bugged me a lot while I was working on my graduate degree, and bugged me again when I saw the Tech Review article. But (sad to say) if you’ve actually been through MIT, you can’t say you’re surprised. They’ve been practically bowing in his direction for as long as I can remember.

  11. #11 mrswhatsit
    October 18, 2007

    I believe there already is an answer to the life, the universe, and everything (no thanks to Watson). It’s 42.

  12. #12 sf
    October 18, 2007
  13. #13 Carpenter
    October 18, 2007

    “Prove him wrong with logic and evidence. Not with ad hominem attacks.”

    This has already been done. People who insist on clinging to disproven theories that benefit one race at the expense of others are not making arguments in good faith, rather they are biggots. The end. There is no shrieking here, and I believe Zuska already stated that there is a non genetic explanation for IQ variance across races, everyone has said it in fact for long enough that people should know better.

    I don’t see why anyone would be put off by calling a white supremacist a white supremacist(and Watson is one by exact definition). I realize it is an ugly term that makes people uncomfortable, but we are not scientists becuase we believe in watering down the truth to make everyone feel happy, we are scientists because are not cowards and we have the moral convition to call the truth the truth no matter how nasty it is.

  14. #14 Tom Maguire
    October 18, 2007

    Tom, you aren’t being very logical.

    A Black Irish thing? Anyway, I am having trouble following your “logic”, which can be summarized as “the results might have been confounded by other factors; therefore the results might be wrong; therefore the results are wrong.”

    It appears to me that the quotes you’ve cited above are getting at just such a point.

    Is that how it appears? What did you think after you followed the link to validate your assumption?

    The fact that anyone’s asking this question already indicates the bias, because the ‘default’ is white.

    Do tell – actually, as a class it is East Asians that do best on the culturally biased tests devised by white Europeans.

    Let’s give Watson some intellectual company – here are J. Philippe Rushton of The University of Western Ontario and Arthur R. Jensen of University of California, Berkeley writing (2005) on race and cognitive ability:

    The new evidence reviewed here points to some genetic component in BlackWhite differences in mean IQ. The implication for public policy is that the discrimination model (i.e., BlackWhite differences in socially valued outcomes will be equal barring discrimination) must be tempered by a distributional model (i.e., BlackWhite outcomes reflect underlying group characteristics).

    That appears to be what Watson was saying. And I have no idea whether Jensen and Rushton are still allowed to speak on college campuses.

  15. #15 poser
    October 18, 2007

    I would like to know what “tests” he says proves this. Maybe if the test makers where of African decent than us whites would appear less intelligent at “tests”

    Watson = Douche bag

  16. #16 Carpenter
    October 18, 2007

    Theories have to have good motivation. I can sit here and claim that outside of our range of observation the universe is filled with pea soup. But this is a theory without any goos scientific motivation.

    The historical motivation for assuming variation in “intellegence” by race was colonialism – to ligitimize taking resources and people from Africa and paying workers of african decent nothing(slavery) or very little. NOT a good motivation for testing this theory. The historical motivation of these theories had nothing at all to do with a disinterested quest for knowledge about human variation.

    Nonetheless-despite the dismal motivation- tests have been carried out. There is no proof that ppl of african decent are genetically less intellegent than whites. Mean score differences can be explained by other factors and this theory fits the data better.

    Lastly expounding the (wrong) belief that blacks are innately less “intellegent” than whites, reinforces a system that still had real economic and social privelages for whites at the expense of people african descent.

    So what have we got? A terribly motivated theory, without the science to back it up that happens to socially privelage the proponent of the theory over the class of people he is deriding. That doesn’t sound like good science at all it sounds it fails every test of a good theory from the ground up.

  17. #17 biogrrl
    October 18, 2007

    I recently saw Watson speak in NYC at the 92nd St Y. In the course of his interview – with Eric Kandel who I am still figuring out how he kept a straight face – he said that Rosalind Franklin was probably “autistic” or at the very least had “Asperger’s syndrome”. He also went on to say that the reason that Linus Pauling failed to figure out the structure of DNA and put forth an incorrect model was because he “was manic depressive and must have been depressed at the time because his brain was not working properly”. Also when a young female scientist asked for advice as a young scientist he came up with this gem “Avoid feminists. One of my best students became one and embarrassed me greatly”. I won’t include the anti-semitic comment he personally made to me after the talk. I am done with Watson. He should be fired. He can go on writing but Cold Spring should think seriously about letting him go.

  18. #18 jeffk
    October 18, 2007

    I agree with the whole post except the last line:

    “I will say one thing for Watson. He’s made public the fact that virulent, entrenched racism and sexism still exists in the scientific community – and is tolerated – at the highest levels.

    You can read the reactions of other Sciencebloggers on Watson’s venomous views:”

    Judging from the reactions of sciencebloggers, it would appear they are most certainly not tolerated.

  19. #19 gimpy
    October 19, 2007

    Come on Carpenter, referring to Watson as a white supremacist is a bit melodramatic. The guy offered an old-fashioned and inaccurate analysis of real measurable phenomena, he’s not exactly burning crosses or advocating apartheid is he? The type of racism, and yes I will concede it is racism, that Watson seems to hold is no different from that found in many people of his generation. I don’t offer that as an excuse but merely as an observation. However the shrill denunciations of him are strikingly reminiscent of political witch-hunts where anybody who deviates from the party line is subjected to a torrent of hysterical abuse rather than have their ideas discussed on their own merits.

    Lighten up people, he is an old man with unfashionable views who has a tendency for mischievous comments. Either ignore him or criticise his views on scientific grounds. This holier-than-thou ‘we have the moral convition [sic] to call the truth the truth no matter how nasty it is” is a load of crap. Scientists are just like other people. Some are nice, some not, some in between, some are left-wing, some are right-wing, some in between. Morality and politics have no part to play in the development of scientific theories. Scientists can be (im)moral but science is amoral.

  20. #20 Mike
    October 19, 2007

    I’m still not convinced that we can excuse Watson for debating controversial science, as his quotes, as reported, didn’t appear to be actually scientific so much as pseudo-science. No specific studies mentioned, any of these supposed studies that do exist are certainly being taken in an over-simplified form, adding in anecdotal prejudice and handwave to a conclusion? It’s woo, not science.

    There’s no scientific proof that I’ve seen, whatever some who have posted repeatedly may claim (not that they’ve provided any references) that there is any genetically originated difference in intelligence (of any form) that can be measured in a large ethnic group without being completely swamped by social background.

    Even if you did that for one gene, you’d then have to prove before asserting superiority that one ethnic group had more genes assisting “intelligence” than another group. Except these would probably all assist intelligence in different ways, and then you’d be arguing what the best form of intelligence is. And then, having found these genes, they’d be the point that if ethnic group A had good gene A, and ethnic group B had good gene B, then perhaps someone with both A and B would be better than either?

    To put it another way, if you look at dogs, people often say the mongrels are smarter than the pure breeds.

    Re: a 1 year old’s levels of intelligence – I wouldn’t be surprised if nutrition levels of the mother while pregnant didn’t have an effect.

  21. #21 Luna_the_cat
    October 19, 2007

    Tom Maguire:
    Did you actually READ the article you linked to?

    In light of other current research (like ), one thing has become quite clear since the 90s. Unfortunately the Times article didn’t quite emphasise this explicitly, so maybe you missed it, but it is clearly still there.

    Genetic differences in intelligence only come into play when the environment is generally good and the people being tested are on a level playing field. Children who grow up in poverty, with issues of nutrition, access to medical care, family stability issues, issues of access to resources, and encouragement, are overwhelmingly influenced by THAT, to the point that the genetic signal does not come through.

    Also, there is absolutely no science, genetic or otherwise, which indicates that there is a consistent gene type or haplotype which maps to the stupendously large and varied stereotype “black race” which keeps cropping up in racist language.

    Figure it out, and quit being a racist apologist. It’s ugly.

    Watson’s comments are “mischievous” in the same way that leaving out antifreeze for dogs to drink is “mischievous”. First, there is no reason evident for observers to think that this is not a truly meant and truly believed statement, given the absolute consistency he has displayed over a period of many years. Second, he repeats false information in a climate which already has a problem with racism, and a media in love — no, lust really– with genetic determinism. This isn’t “mischief”, with the implications of kids TPing a house; this is vandalism and destruction, with the implication of bridges being sapped.

  22. #22 gimpy
    October 19, 2007

    Luna_the_cat, I suspect we are on different continents if you talk of the media being enthralled by genetic determinism. Here in the UK it is very much theories of social determinism that influence the media.
    Lets not get bogged down in the semantics of ‘mischief’ though, my argument is that Watson has a reputation for, often ignorant, outspokenness so unless he presents a coherent argument there is no need to take him seriously.

  23. #23 Luna_the_cat
    October 19, 2007

    No, I live near Aberdeen. However, I did grow up in the US, and perhaps was thinking more of the US media. Having said that, I do see an awful lot of “pop science” reporting quoting things like “gay gene” and “fat gene” and the “genetic basis for anorexia” so on.

    Also, having a prominent scientist spout racist myth does not help anything, anything at all. The vast non-science public are actually in danger of coming away with the impression that people in Africa actually HAVE demonstrated lower intelligence in testing, and that there IS a demonstrable difference in actual intelligence between “black” and “white” which predicates to race rather than social conditions. That is definitely something to be taken seriously, I would personally have thought, given how high racial tensions run in many areas.

  24. #24 gimpy
    October 19, 2007

    Do I know you Luna_the_cat? I did my PhD at Aberdeen Uni.

    I accept that the non-science public were in danger of coming away with erroneous views however the reaction in the press has made it abundantly clear that he was talking nonsense so I think this has been avoided (at least here in the UK). Perhaps we should all be arguing for greater science education so the non-science public can see why and how his views are wrong.

  25. #25 Luna_the_cat
    October 19, 2007

    Gimpy, I think you are right about the media reaction in the UK, and we should DEFINITELY be going for the “greater science education” aspect of the reputation…absoLUTEly.

    As for Aberdeen Uni — we may have met? When were you here? May I ask what subject?

    I studied at the University of Aberdeen for only a year, 1991-92, but I’ve been peripherally associated with the university for a long time, and far more closely associated with it for the last few years.

  26. #26 Tab
    October 19, 2007

    I agree with your assessment of Watson, but you would display more credibility if you posted some of the scientific rebuttals of his claims – such as those by Flynn and Dickens mentioned above – rather than just labelling him a racist. For what it’s worth, I think Watson is a verbally incontinent fool, who can’t open his mouth without jamming his foot squarely in it, but I don’t think he’s a racist. Shrill cries of ‘racism’ and attempts to silence these views actually protect Watson by making him appear a martyr, and prevent him from having to defend his nutty ideas.

  27. #27 Zuska
    October 19, 2007

    I think I am going to declare by fiat that the word “shrill” may never, ever, ever, ever, ever be used in the comments on my blog again.

  28. #28 Luna_the_cat
    October 19, 2007

    At the risk of incurring Zuska’s wrath by defying the fiat, how about the observation that simply by declaring a protest “shrill”, it becomes somehow robbed of validity and removed from the realm of objections which must be answered. Handy, that, eh? Never have to answer critics again; merely declare them “shrill”. Works for the Republicans, I guess.

  29. #29 blah
    October 19, 2007

    @brtkrbzhnv: the comment in question was made tongue in cheek, precisely to point out how ridiculous statements of this ilk are.

    i’d like to see a reference for those studies you refer to which claim mulattos to be ‘smarter’.

    fyi, one would hardly think Wikipedia is a great source for anything.

  30. #30 PhysioProf
    October 21, 2007

    “I think I am going to declare by fiat that the word ‘shrill’ may never, ever, ever, ever, ever be used in the comments on my blog again.”

    Stop being so shrill!

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