Prominent geneticist Eric Lander apologized on Monday for toasting James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix who in his later years has become known for racist and misogynist views. Social media tore into the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard after his remarks on Watson’s 90th birthday.

“I was asked to toast James Watson last week … for his role in the Human Genome Project, on the occasion of his 90th birthday,” Lander said in an email to “fellow Broadies” sent just before noon. “People who have called this out are correct. I was wrong to toast, and I’m sorry.”

The toast came on Friday afternoon, at the Biology of Genomes meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where Watson served as director before being forced to step down in 2007 after suggesting to a British newspaper that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. “I was conflicted about whether to do it,” Lander said in his email, which he sent after Twitter exploded with criticism of him the day before. “I ultimately agreed to accommodate the request. But it was the wrong decision.”

advertisement

Lander, co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former leader of the Human Genome Project, called Watson’s views “abhorrent,” characterizing them as “sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic.”

Watson has long been vilified for the work that made him a scientific icon: discovering the double helical structure of DNA. That discovery relied on X-ray diffraction patterns obtained by English chemist Rosalind Franklin of Kings College London, who did not share in the Nobel Prize awarded to Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins in 1962. Although Franklin died in 1958 and Nobels are never awarded posthumously, Watson has long come under fire for minimizing her contributions.

In his later years Watson began spouting offensive views, including saying that exposure to sunlight as in equatorial regions increases sexual urges, that thin people are more ambitious than others, and that the intelligence of people in Africa is “not really” “the same as ours.” In the interview that caused CSHL to fire him, Watson said that people “who have to deal with black employees find this not true,” referring to the fact that there is no biologically based racial disparity in intelligence.

Lander’s mea culpa included the revelation that his own knowledge of Watson’s views “is not secondhand. In addition to hearing him espouse these views, I have been the personal target of some of his anti-Semitic remarks.”

Although in his remarks at CSHL Lander focused on Watson’s role as the first director of the Human Genome Project, and “included a brief comment about his being ‘flawed,’” that aside “did not go nearly far enough,” Lander said in his email. “I’d like to do that now: I reject his views as despicable. They have no place in science, which must welcome everyone. In retrospect, I should have followed my first instinct, which was to decline the invitation. As someone who has been on the receiving end of his abhorrent remarks, I should have been sensitive to the damage caused by recognizing him in any way.”

Biologist Jonathan Eisen of the University of California, Davis, who called Lander’s tribute to Watson “disgusting,” posted video of the group toast.

Much of the vitriol aimed at Lander was reminiscent of that after he wrote a controversial account of the discovery of the CRISPR system of genome editing, which minimized the contributions of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in favor of the Broad’s Feng Zhang. The criticism revealed the pent-up animosity toward him held by some biologists and others.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Emmanuelle Charpentier and gave an incorrect day for when the toast occurred; it was Friday, not Saturday.

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • Funny remark about “the discovery of the CRISPR system of genome editing, which minimized the contributions of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in favor of the Broad’s Feng Zhang”. As always, no mention to the scientist who actually discovered (and named) CRISPR. Sad.

    • True. Everybody is here crying about the unfair treatment to Rosalind Franklin, which was indeed a bad page in the history of science, when we are doing exactly the same in our days. The scientist who actually discovered, baptized and used for the first time the CRISPR technique is never mentioned in articles like this. Maybe because English is not his mother tongue?

    • Good news: The million-dollar Kavli Prize in Nanoscience has gone to two biochemists widely credited with co-inventing CRISPR, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and Jennifer Doudna.

  • Nobel laureates may acquire a sense of infallibility and start believing that any idea that pops up in their minds are necessarily true.

    • @Joseph More, or could it be, that they actually know more and don’t have the need to be politically correct?

  • @Sharon Begley, thank you for your article, especially since we all know, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

  • Apparently it is no longer possible to both celebrate a person for a significant achievement and explain to him why his ideas about race and intelligence do not meet contemporary politically correct standards and are not to be voiced.

    • @DNA ..not true at all. The thought experiments and construction models of Watson and Francis Crick were an achievement without which a large step forward would not have occurred in a timely fashion. Rosalind Franklin’s superb, tedious and tenacious work on X-ray crystallography (accessed by Maurice Wilkes without permission) was the key to the puzzle. It was all good science and bad behavior.
      Watson’s subsequent musings suggest he still prefers the thought experiments in lieu of obtaining data himself.

  • As expected, there is the usual flurry from apologists who, guess what?, are Caucasian males.

    Watson shouldn’t have said the things that he said, let alone thought them. Lander should have kept his distance and his mouth shut. Those men deserve any criticism that they receive. They brought it upon themselves.

    I can only hope that our country will be a better place when the anachronistic racists and their defenders are gone.

    I’ve said enough. Good luck to all.

  • discovery benifits all mankind. remarks by sanders are not scientifically correct and are reprehensible. we are a complicated species.

  • Isn’t this a little bit scary? STAT is hereby helping to reprimand a prominent scholar who toasted an elder prominent scholar, but because that elder scholar has expressed alleged wrongthink in the past, the media now demand that the younger scholar publicly distance himself from that wrongthink. That’s how things used to work in the Soviet Union, and it wasn’t pretty. Just listen to Lander’s panicked self-flagellation, who now has to quickly triple down on his apologia before his own career derails. “I am sorry that I was not initially more sorry, but I will continue my efforts to express more and more sorrow until such point that my sorrow is convincingly complete.” Sad.

    • I agree. Margret Sanger said some pretty nasty things about people of color as well but nobody is calling for the head of people who laud her. Humans are flawed and while we need to eliminate the flaws, we shouldn’t destroy people who see and recognize good in the offenders.

  • You know Watson, despite his despicable remarks from over a decade ago, did make what is arguably the biggest scientific breakthrough of the 20th Century. I fail to see a problem with wishing him well on his 90th birthday. The perpetually offended crowd really needs to get a grip. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.”

  • How terribly sad for everyone. I’ve enjoyed Dr. Lander’s recorded lectures greatly, but I’ll never have the same fondness for him.

    I don’t see how a person of such intelligence wouldn’t foresee the outrage that would follow. Is he secretly in agreement with Dr. Watson or is he just naive and insensitive? In either case, Dr. Lander is no longer on my list of admired people.

A roundup of STAT’s top stories of the day in science and medicine

Privacy Policy