James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, has made many controversial remarks over the years. But telling a British newspaper that, in effect, blacks are intellectually inferior to whites seems to have landed him in unprecedented trouble. Last evening, as public criticism of those remarks swelled to a crescendo, the Board of Trustees of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in Long Island, New York, stripped Watson of his title as chancellor of the 117-year-old institution.
Watson has been at CSHL for nearly 4 decades, having become its director in 1968. He became president of the lab in 1994 and chancellor in 2004. Although not involved in the lab's day-to-day administration, Watson undoubtedly remains its most celebrated public face--so much so that its fledgling graduate school bears his name.
But now the institution is trying hard to distance itself from the 79-year-old Nobelist. In an article that ran in The Sunday Times magazine on 14 October, Watson explained that he is "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." In a statement issued yesterday, CSHL President Bruce Stillman said Watson's comments in "no way reflect the mission, goals, or principles of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Board, administration or faculty. ... Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory does not engage in any research that could even form the basis of the statements attributed to Dr. Watson." In a second statement released last night, the lab's Board of Trustees went a step further by firing Watson from his post "pending further deliberation."
Watson himself seems keen to disavow his controversial remarks, which also prompted London's Science Museum to cancel a talk he was scheduled to deliver there today. In a statement to The Associated Press, Watson said, "I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly."
The apology may fail to quell the controversy. "While we honor the extraordinary contributions that Dr. Watson has made to science in the past, his comments show that he has lost his way," Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, said yesterday in a statement. "He has failed us in the worst possible way. It is a sad and revolting way to end a remarkable career."