The double helix: racism and gender discrimination


Coincidentally, this post is about the not-so-noble laureate James Watson, widely known, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, for the double-helix model of DNA, for which they won the Nobel in 1962.

The Indian Express runs an article saying that Dr Watson has been suspended from his New York based scientific laboratory for allegedly saying, in a Sunday Times interview on October 14, that 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.” Reuters also reported that he has cut short his book tour – for Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science (how apt) – and returned home to the United States.

While there has been understandable furore over his remarks, his own apology in a statement he issued at the Royal Society on Thursday, adds to the utter ridiculousness of his previous comment, though he does say it has no scientific basis: “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 […] That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

His scientific peers are horrified. The trustees of his lab have said they “vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments” while Robert Sternberg, a prominent researcher on race and IQ at Tufts University, called Watson’s statement “racist and most regrettable.”

In the Chicago Tribune, Sternberg, a critic of traditional intelligence testing, comments that intelligence can mean something different for different cultures. In parts of Africa, a good gauge of intelligence might be how well someone avoids infection with malaria — a test of cleverness that most Americans likely would flunk. In the same way, for many Africans who take Western IQ tests, “our problems aren’t relevant to them,” Sternberg said.

Watson has made other extraordinary comments in the past, as this article in the Independent reports.

In 1997, he told a British newspaper that a woman should have the right to abort her unborn child if tests could determine it would be homosexual. He later insisted he was talking about a “hypothetical” choice which could never be applied. He has also suggested a link between skin colour and sex drive, positing the theory that black people have higher libidos, and argued in favour of genetic screening and engineering on the basis that ” stupidity” could one day be cured. He has claimed that beauty could be genetically manufactured, saying: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would great.”

This sort of prejudice is not new, but when it is demonstrated by someone of Watson’s stature, it gains currency in exceedingly dangerous ways, not least by the way it is portrayed in the media. Cameron Duodo comments in the Guardian about the front page headline in the Independent of October 17, ‘Africans are less intelligent than Westerners, says DNA pioneer’:

[I]n emphasising Professor James Watson’s proficiency with regard to DNA research, without making it sufficiently clear that his work on DNA does not necessarily make him an expert in the determination of human intelligence, Milmo elevated Watson’s racist rant into the semblance of authoritative scientific opinion.

My surprise is at those commentators who see Watson as being ‘an obsolete product of a bygone time’ (Laura Blue in and others in the blogosphere who are dismissing his remarks as being ‘senile‘. Watson’s prejudices are not new, and certainly, they can’t be excused as the possible ramblings of old age.

For me, the story that has always been told far too little is that of Rosalind Franklin, thefranklin.gif woman who, if she had been alive in 1962, should have also won the Nobel for her work on DNA. One account tells of how the race was on between the teams of Wilkins and Franklin, working at King’s College, London and Crick and Watson, at Cambridge. Watson attended a lecture of Franklin’s and based on a rather unclear recollection of the facts she presented – while ‘critical of her lecture style and personal appearance’ – created a failed model. Franklin worked mostly alone (another story talks of how even when there was conversation amongst them, it was so patronising that she didn’t take it further), and didn’t want to publish her findings until more confident about her theory that DNA was helical. Wilkins grew frustrated and in January 1953, showed her results to Watson, without apparently her knowledge or consent. This account also quotes Wilkins as admitting, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt – let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”

When Watson and Crick published their paper on DNA in Nature in 1953, they made no acknowledgment beyond the statement: “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished results and ideas of Dr. M.H.F. Wilkins, Dr. R.E. Franklin, and their co-workers at King’s College London.”

In 1962 Watson, Crick and Wilkins together received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In their Nobel lectures they cite 98 references, none are Franklin’s. Only Wilkins included her in his acknowledgments. Franklin died in 1958 at the age of 37 of cancer. The Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, only to living persons.

Much after her death (and presumably, the Nobel), Watson and Crick made it abundantly clear in public lectures that they could not have discovered the structure of DNA without her work. But how much of this was too little, too late, and carefully so? Franklin’s name is hardly associated with work on the DNA model, certainly not in the way Watson’s and Crick’s are, to any school child in most parts of the world. What is even more upsetting is the counter-factual possibilities of her having been acknowledged for her work; would the resulting fame (and some fortune) have helped her in her battle against cancer? Worse still, she never knew that Watson and Crick had accessed her results; she communicated with them till she died.

Even those at Stockholm wonder. Since all archives related to nominees are closed for fifty years after it is awarded, we will know in 2008 – next year – whether Rosalind Franklin was even a nominee for the Nobel prize that her three colleagues – without her knowledge – won based upon her work.

Dr James Watson may still be in our textbooks, but he has been a scientist and a human being of bias and prejudice, and certainly, in Rosalind Franklin’s case, all these and more: a man with tragic, unethical, lack of generosity towards a fellow scientist.

The image of the DNA helix is of a sculpture at the Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkeley, taken by Hsien-Hsien Lei. The image of Rosalind Franklin is from the article by David Ardell.