Even before a documentary on biologist James Watson aired on Wednesday night as part of PBS’s “American Masters” series, social media was aflame with protests from scientists and others about its very existence: After Watson’s many statements denigrating blacks, women, and others, it is more than time for the media to “move on,” one biologist tweeted. Another protested giving oxygen to Watson’s “infuriating” and “unfounded comments about race,” while a biologist at the institution Watson ran for nearly 40 years decried his “racist bull—-” and “the harm it does to our science.”
Watson’s many odious comments over the decades might be blamed on age (he is 90), or irascibility, or a privileged white man’s raging at a world that no longer winks at remarks like “some anti-Semitism is justified.” But in interviews with STAT, longtime friends offered another explanation for how Watson can believe something refuted by rigorous research, and how someone who cares deeply about history’s verdict can hold so tenaciously and publicly to unrepentant racism and sexism.
The answer, they say, lies in Watson’s historic achievements — most notably, co-discovering the structure of DNA in 1953 — and the way he accomplished them. They inflated his belief not only in his genius but also in how to succeed: by listening to his gut, by opposing the establishment consensus, and by barely glancing at the edifice of facts on which a scientific field is built.
In 2007, Watson told a British newspaper that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.” Moreover, he continued, although one might wish that all humans had an equal genetic endowment of intelligence, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” In the ensuing uproar, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which he had led since 1968, forced him to retire as chancellor. (He kept an office and an assistant, however, and the lab continues to trot him out for fundraising and ceremonial occasions.)
Watson had not been misquoted. He had not misspoken. He had made the same claim in his 2007 memoir “Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science”: “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically,” Watson wrote. “Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.” As for women, “Anyone sincerely interested in understanding the imbalance in the representation of men and women in science must reasonably be prepared at least to consider the extent to which nature may figure, even with the clear evidence that nurture is strongly implicated.” There was more like that, and worse, in private conversations, friends said.
Museums, universities, and others cancelled speaking invitations. Friends were left shaking their heads.
“I really don’t know what happened to Jim,” biologist Nancy Hopkins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who in the 1990s led the campaign to get MIT to recognize its discrimination against women faculty, told STAT. “At a time when almost no men supported women, he insisted I get a Ph.D. and made it possible for me to do so,” she said. But after 40 years of friendship, Watson turned on her after she blasted the claim by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers in 2005 that innate, biological factors kept women from reaching the pinnacle of science.
“He demanded I apologize to Summers,” Hopkins said of Watson. (She declined.) “Jim now holds the view that women can’t be great at anything,” and certainly not science. In 2014, he told a magazine that while women are “fun” to have around a lab, they’re “probably less effective” than men. Watson, Hopkins said, “has adopted these outrageous positions as a new badge of honor, [embracing] political incorrectness.”
Another factor was at work, friends told STAT. Watson made his one and only important scientific discovery when he was only 25. He discovered nothing of importance afterward, even as colleagues were cracking the genetic code or deciphering how DNA is translated into the molecules that make cells (and life) work. Yet Watson viewed himself “as the greatest scientist since Newton or Darwin,” said a longtime colleague at CSHL (who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the lab). To remain on the stage and keep receiving what he viewed as his due, he needed a new act to retain a few photons of the public spotlight.
“In the old days, Jim actually had power and could satisfy himself by getting things done the way he saw fit,” said the colleague. “The current Jim has no power.” Added Hopkins, “He built the field of modern biology, but he didn’t know when to get off the stage.” The outrageous statements kept him on it.
In the 1990s, Watson became smitten with “The Bell Curve,” the 1994 book that argued for a genetics-based theory of intelligence (with African-Americans, it contended, having less of it) and spoke often with its co-author, conservative political scholar Charles Murray. The man who co-discovered the double helix, perhaps not surprisingly, regarded DNA as the ultimate puppet master, immeasurably more powerful than the social and other forces that lesser (much lesser, in his view) scientists studied. Then his hubris painted him into a corner.
Although the book’s central thesis has been largely discredited, Watson embraced its arguments and repeated them to anyone who would listen. When friends urged him to at least acknowledge that the science in “The Bell Curve” was shaky (or worse), Watson wouldn’t hear of it.
“He loved getting a rise out of people,” the lab colleague said. “And when you think of yourself as a master of the universe, you think you can, or should, get away with things.”
When the colleague proposed that Watson debate the genes/IQ/race hypothesis with a leading scientist in that field, for the PBS documentary, Watson rejected the idea out of hand. “No, he’s not good enough” to be in the same camera frame as me, Watson replied, according to the colleague. “He saw himself as smarter than anyone who ever actually studied this” — which Watson had not.
Friends traced Watson’s smartest-guy-in-the-room attitude, and his disdain for experts, to 1953. When he joined Francis Crick at England’s Cavendish Laboratory, Watson knew virtually nothing about molecular structures or “the basic fundamentals of the field,” Jerry Adams, also one of Watson’s graduate students, told a Cold Spring Harbor oral history project; Watson was “self-taught.” He saw his double-helix discovery as proof that outsiders, unburdened by establishment thinking, could see and achieve what insiders couldn’t.
That belief became cemented in the 1960s, when Watson dragged Harvard’s biology department kicking and screaming into the molecular era. Disdaining the establishment, he seemed to conclude, pays off.
Scientists who have known and observed Watson for decades say he believed in finding truths in his gut. “Jim is intuitive,” MIT biologist H. Robert Horvitz told the oral history project. His gut gave him “an uncanny sense of science.”
Perhaps that’s why Watson came to believe that his intuition about race and IQ and genetics was a stronger guide to truth than empirical research. “He believed what he believed and wasn’t going to change his view,” the lab colleague said. “As the scientific environment became even less hospitable to [the “Bell Curve” thesis], he became even more adamant. He loved trashing the establishment, whatever it is.”
Watson has told friends he cares deeply how history will see him. He cares what his obituaries will say. But not enough, apparently. Toward the end of the documentary, called “Decoding Watson,” director Mark Mannucci asked if his views on race and intelligence have changed. “No,” came the reply.
“To the extent that I’ve hurt people, of course I regret it,” Watson added. “I like black people, so why would I want to hurt them?” But “there is a difference, on average, between blacks and whites on IQ tests,” he said. And much as he “would like there to be new knowledge” showing that environment and experiences have a greater influence on intelligence than genes, “I haven’t seen any.” He squints into the camera, unseeing.