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Mistaking genetics for destiny

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Watson.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Watson.

James Watson has long assumed a certain special status among American scientists. And I have been among those who have long held him in high regard.

Watson shared the Nobel in 1962 for identifying the elegant and unexpected "double helix" three-dimensional structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, commonly known as DNA. On Oct. 14, 2007, one of his former assistants, Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, wrote about him in London's Sunday Times that quoted him making racist comments about black people by suggesting there are inherent, unalterable biological differences in intelligence between black people and everyone else. The response was swift and impressively devastating. The father of DNA had spoken the unspeakable.

Echoing racist remarks that have been used to justify the enslavement and colonization of black people since the Enlightenment (think Hume, Kant, Jefferson, Hegel), Watson's comments implied that he believed that nature had created a primal distinction in intelligence and innate mental capacity between blacks and whites, which no amount of social intervention could ever change. It was as if one of the smartest white men in the world had confirmed what so many racists believe: that the gap between blacks and whites in, say, IQ test scores and SAT results has a biological basis and that environmental factors such as centuries of slavery, colonization, Jim Crow and race-based discrimination — all contributing to uneven economic development — don't amount to a hill of beans.

Five days after the article was published, he profusely apologized in a statement to the press; on Oct. 25, he abruptly retired from his position at Cold Spring Harbor, a lavishly funded and idyllic center on Long Island for the advanced study of genomics and cancer, after 40 years of service there.

When I read about Watson's remarks, I was astonished, not to mention angered and saddened. I was also determined to ask him about these comments directly. I sent him a letter, offering him a platform in the black world through which he could explain, defend and perhaps clarify the remarks attributed to him. He accepted my invitation to give The Root his first major interview since the Hunt-Grubbe article appeared.

I had read, with the admiring avidity of a high school senior hellbent on medical school, his bestselling book, The Double Helix, back in 1968. But it was not until December 2006 that I met the scientist I had so admired. I was in New York, delivering a lecture. As I rose to the podium, an official whispered to me that James Watson was in the audience. I was astonished; I had no idea that he was still alive. Afterward, I was seated next to Dr. Watson at dinner. I found him friendly, but a bit awkward in conversation; generous and thoughtful, funny, but quirky-funny. A week later, unsolicited, a signed copy of The Double Helix arrived at my home.

I thought of all that as I arrived at his offices at Cold Spring Harbor for our interview. We talked for well over an hour, with no holds barred.

"Well?" one of my friends asked later. "Is he a racist?"

I don't think James Watson is a racist. But I do think that he is a racialist — that is, he believes that certain observable traits or forms of behavior among groups of human beings might, indeed, have a biological basis in the code that scientists, eventually, may be able to ascertain, that the "gene" is some mythically neutral space and what it purportedly "measures" or "determines" is independent of environmental factors, variables and influences.

The distinction between being a racist and a racialist is crucial. James Watson is not the garden-variety racist as he has been caricatured by the press and bloggers, and he seemed genuinely chagrined, embarrassed and remorseful that David Duke and other racists had claimed him as their champion, as one of their own, because of his remarks as quoted in the London Sunday Times. And, as we might expect, he apologized profusely for those remarks, contending that he had been misquoted, at worst, and his remarks taken out of context, at best.

But I did leave Cold Spring Harbor convinced that Dr. Watson believes that many forms of behavior — such as "Jewish intelligence" (his phrase) and the basketball prowess of black men in the NBA (his example) — could, possibly, be traced to genetic differences among human beings, although no such connection has been made, and will probably never be made on any firm scientific basis, it seems to me.

And I have to say that it was ultimately chilling to me when he remarked, with what seemed monumental naivete, "if they find genes for all kinds of Jewish intelligence, I don't think it's going to affect me in the slightest," especially when we couple that sort of remark with his passionate belief that "everyone should be judged as individuals. No one should be judged by a term like 'black.' "

Yet precisely because of the misuses of science and pseudoscience since the 18th century, which put into place fixed categories of four or five "races" to justify an economic order dependent upon the exploitation of blacks (and other people of color) as cheap sources of labor, starting with slavery and continuing through Jim Crow and beyond, it has never been possible for a person of African descent to function in American society simply and purely as an "individual."

And if the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama has taught him, and us, anything, it is that this perhaps ideal state — to function as an individual and to be judged on your individual merits — still remains a most elusive and somewhat naive dream.

Watson's error is that he associates individual genetic differences (which, of course, do in fact exist) with ethnic variation (which is sociocultural and highly malleable). Character traits — abilities and behaviors, such as intelligence or basketball skills, that are popularly attributed to groups and are defined as "genetic" — will, in fact, continue to delimit the freedom of choice and expression of individuals who fall into those "racial" categories, regardless of our individual attainments and achievements. In the end, visions that are racialist may end up doing the same work of those that are racist. This is a lesson Watson has lived, and it is one from which we all might learn.

Having spent the past three decades studying racist discourse in the West (starting with my dissertation on the Enlightenment), I know such conclusions — say, about an entity called "Jewish intelligence" — would deleteriously affect me as a black person because it would reinforce stereotypes about Jewish people being genetically superior, and that such a conclusion would reinforce stereotypes about black people being inherently less intelligent than others in the human community.

If such differences in intelligence were purported to have a genetic basis, as David Duke proclaimed on his Web site with such naked glee, all of the social intervention in the world could have only so much effect. (Head Start? Why bother, when nature is to blame.) Sooner or later, in a time of increasing economic scarcity, members of these supposedly "different" or "lesser" ethnic groups or genetic populations could very well find their life possibilities limited and perhaps even regulated. Who among us can doubt that this would be true?

As I drove away from Cold Harbor, I realized that my conversation with Dr. Watson only confirmed something I already, with great trepidation, have come to believe: That the last great battle over racism will be fought not over access to a lunch counter, or a hotel room, or to the right to vote, or even the right to occupy the White House; it will be fought in a laboratory, in a test tube, under a microscope, in our genome, on the battleground of our DNA. It is here where we, as a society, will rank and interpret our genetic difference.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor in chief of The Root and is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University.


DNA and the NBA

Here is an excerpt of a conversation between The Root editor in chief Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nobel laureate and DNA pioneer James Watson. Read the full interview and see video at, a Web site of analysis and essays about African-American issues.

James Watson: I was watching the basketball games yesterday. And I'm just trying to say, you dominate.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Oh, you mean black people?

JW: Yes.

HLG: In case you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly a basketball kind of type. But could that be genetic, the dominance that you described in the NBA yesterday?

JW: I don't know what it's due to. Because we haven't found genes. You know, genes depending on what sort of types of muscles, slow twitch, fast twitch. I don't think it's going to change things much. White runners will still try to beat black runners. And they'll largely lose. But they're gonna try. If you're a sprinter, you're going to try to run as fast as you can.

HLG: I can't run. It's a good thing I was a good student because I wouldn't have made it. … My father, though, will be 95, June 8th, God willing. And my father, every time he passes a basketball court of black boys, young black men, he will say, "If we study calculus like we study basketball, we would be running MIT." So to him, it's not genetic. It's the fact that we're in basketball laboratories instead of math laboratories, all of our lives.

JW: Yes, and that's bad. Black kids have got to get different aspirations.

HLG: Right. But even you said, "You dominate us." You see what I mean? We have this image of being dominant as natural athletes.

JW: Well, one of my rules in my books is, take courses where you can get good grades.

Mistaking genetics for destiny 06/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 10:38am]
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