Jim Watson needs to retire to a nice, remote beach somewhere far from everyone else


Dr. James Watson, Cold Spring Harbor, NY, 7.23.06

It’s long past due. He’s been shooting himself in the foot and then stuffing it in his mouth to gnaw on it for decades. He was in the news for his racist, sexist views ten years ago.

The article is like a summary of Watson’s greatest gaffes.

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.”

Zuska has another one.

He smiles. “Rosalind is my cross,” he says slowly. “I’ll bear it. I think she was partially autistic.” He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. “I’d never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind’s behaviour.

At that time I thought he was a horrible old man but I argued that he ought to have the right to speak freely…and he does. He speaks very freely. But what he says is neither intelligent nor insightful, and he doesn’t deserve respect for his stupid opinions. Especially when tolerance just means he never learns and keeps doing the same thing over and over again.

Now the Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois has cancelled an invitation to speak.

A research institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign agreed to host James Watson, a Nobel laureate whose work is credited with discovering the structure of DNA, to give a lecture there. But the event was quickly called off amid faculty concerns about whether it was appropriate to host someone like Watson, whose statements have been widely condemned as racist.

Watson has made numerous controversial comments over the years and also has been condemned for sexist and homophobic statements.

But his comments on race have led many to say he should be shunned.

In a 2007 interview, he said 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.” Further, he said that while people hope that all groups are equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” (He also said that some black people are smart, and has apologized, although many question the sincerity of his apology.)

I had dinner with Watson at a small restaurant in New York several years ago. It was the most uncomfortable two hours of my life. All he wanted to talk about was race, and the conversation was all about our geneaology. He asked what my ancestry was, and when I told him half Scandinavian, half Scot/English/Irish he immediately judged me acceptable company, and started explaining my personality to me. Scandinavians are intelligent but cold and aloof, and share the same problems that the Japanese have: they are among the smartest people in the world, but they lack the passion and drive to accomplish great things. You know who may not be as intrinsically intelligent, but make up for it with their aggressive need to get things done? The Scots/Irish! Best people on the planet! The perfect combination of ambition and smarts!

I think he thought he was flattering me, but I just wanted to sink into my chair and down through the floor and drop into a subway tube. Heck, dropping into a sewer line would be preferable.

It was difficult to get a word in edgewise with this guy, but after that pronouncement he looked at me expectantly — I could tell there was a question he wanted me to ask. So I obliged, knowing exactly what the answer would be. “So, Jim, what’s your ancestry?”

“Scots/Irish!” he cackled.

And then he regaled the table with tales of brave explorers and pioneers and soldiers, all his people. I tried to strike up a conversation with his wife, instead, who seemed very nice and a little distressed at her husband’s mania.

So, yes, I’ve heard more than enough of Jim Watson. I think we all ought to be a bit Watsoned out at this point, and I don’t see any purpose in inviting him to give public lectures anymore. You never know: he might launch into a fact-free fairy tale about having dark skin, being fat, and being over-sexed as linked properties caused by exposure to the sun and living in tropical countries, illustrated with a slide show of women in bikinis.

He really did that.

I’m just surprised that any professional organization would be so unaware of his reputation that they’d invite him in the first place.

Comments

  1. Siobhan says

    I look forward to all the articles condemning the “rabid identitarians” and “SJW witch-hunters” over this cancellation.

  2. says

    This is someone who was part of the process of the discovery of DNA.

    No fucking wonder Rosalind Franklin was denied the Nobel Prize, despite being the main person to figure it out…

  3. says

    He asked what my ancestry was

    Next time someone does that, smile and say “you tell me!”

    Scandinavians are intelligent but cold and aloof

    He needs to meet a viking berserker. That’d cure him of that impression.

  4. Rich Woods says

    I met Jim Watson — very briefly — a few years ago. I asked him what he thought about the talk we were at, and he brushed past me (which was fair enough) saying, “Very interesting, very interesting”. The talk we were at was an interview with Peter Higgs, who was undoubtedly going to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics later that year, and who struck me as being the most modest, unassuming man you could ever imagine. Higgs could be seen wandering around the festival smiling bashfully whenever he realised someone (usually a kid!) had recognised him. One commentator said about him, “The man doesn’t realise that this year he’s a rock god.”

    I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that Jim Watson didn’t behave like that in 1969.

  5. vucodlak says

    This is a man who was a teenager during WWII, and he thinks that the Japanese are lacking in “passion and drive?”

    I’d hate to hear what he thinks about my ancestry. He’d probably approve of my ancestors who stayed in the “Fatherland.”

  6. Becca Stareyes says

    Nathan @ 2

    No fucking wonder Rosalind Franklin was denied the Nobel Prize, despite being the main person to figure it out…

    Technically, even if Franklin had been given proper credit, she wouldn’t have shared the Prize with Watson and Crick, because she died several years before Watson and Crick won the Prize (the Nobel won’t make posthumous awards). But I suspect that had Franklin lived, she still wouldn’t have won, given how much her work was downplayed.

  7. robro says

    I told him half Scandinavian, half Scot/English/Irish

    You could tell him that, or you could pull from the xkcd cartoon you posted the other day: “part of an unbroken lineage stretching back billions of years to the early earth.” That seems more accurate. We don’t know what Scandinavian, Scot, English, or Irish mean beyond a few hundred years into the past, and if you go to a thousand years or 10,000 years…all bets are off. Even the whitest white guy’s ancestry that far back could be much more diverse than he might admit.

  8. says

    robro@#7:
    Even the whitest white guy’s ancestry that far back could be much more diverse than he might admit.

    It’s inevitable. Any territory that was conquered, will have experienced population mixing going way back. In the case of the English/Scot/Irish, among eachother and of course the various French, Danish/Norwegian and Romans thrown in for good measure. All the europeans who think they have pure blood have a good chance of being part Mongol. etc.

    He’s obviously not stupid, but he’s not using his intelligence very well regarding this issue; he’s stuck thinking like a eugenicist from the 1900s.

  9. says

    So, what you are really saying is, you do not believe in free speech.
    Free speech is anyone saying whatever they want to say.
    To say a person gives a speech and it causes a riot is simply ludicrous.
    The problem is not the speaker, the problem is the listeners.
    I agree with you that some of Jim’s statements are outlandish, out of style, and ridiculous, but the man has a right to say what he wants to say, if you truly believe in free speech, as I do.

  10. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    right to say what he wants to say, if you truly believe in free speech, as I do.

    Yes, Watson has the right to speak. We do to, and we have criticism of his speech when it involves bigotry and unscientific bullshit. Why are we wrong to say so, which is what you seem to imply? There is no such thing as “freeze peach”, which is being able to say anything without criticism of the content of ones speech.

  11. gijoel says

    The Scots/Irish! Best people on the planet! The perfect combination of ambition and smarts!

    Really? I thought popular misconception scientific evidence proved that they’re all violent drunks.

  12. chigau (違う) says

    Free speech is anyone saying whatever they want to say.
    No it’s not.

  13. archangelospumoni says

    Speaking of numbskulls, jerks, and other clowns, this is copied from a Krugman column in the NYT. The commenter always replies in limerick and this one is a true gem:

    A minority brought in the Clown
    A dodo who’ll bring us all down
    And equally dense
    In the wings there waits Pence
    A Governor of ill renown.

    T’wixt Scylla/Charybdis we stand
    With no Repub raising a hand,
    Is this how t’will end
    As down we descend
    On a course that the dimwits demand?

  14. says

    Phil Robeson:

    I agree with you that some of Jim’s statements are outlandish, out of style, and ridiculous, but the man has a right to say what he wants to say, if you truly believe in free speech, as I do.

    “Outlandish, out of style, and ridiculous” is quite the fucking understatement. Mr. Watson is free to rant all he likes. He is not owed, in any way, an audience or a platform. Let him stand on a street corner; give him a cheap soapbox for the square. Not one person is obliged to listen to a single word.

    If he wasn’t such an offensive, obnoxious asshole steeped in bigotry and hate, he’d probably find people more on the willing side to offer a platform. As it is, the only person to blame for a lack of platform and requisite audience is Mr. Watson himself.

  15. lotharloo says

    So they invited Watson. Was the time cube guy unavailable? Because he could cover the same level of fact-free bullshit but at much lower cost and possibly without the sexist parts.

  16. woozy says

    @9

    Actually no where in this post does PZ say Watson should have been disinvited. He simply says he shouldn’t have been invited in the first place.

    Ok, in the past PZ has indicated he doesn’t have problem with asshats being disinvited and PZ probably does agree with the rescinded invitation so far as I know, but part of debate and disagreement is *listening* and not projecting your own impression when it doesn’t apply simply because it fits your narrative.

    And this post *is* simply about the embarassing and continuing racism that is Watson and that he really doesn’t seem to have anything to add in any discussion. Wait for an *actual* post about why we should rescind invitations or filter speakers based on ideology for such anti-free speech accusations.

  17. says

    Free speech is anyone saying whatever they want to say.

    Yes. Jim Watson can say whatever he wants to say. My experience with him is that he’ll say it no matter how much you tell him you aren’t interested.

    He does not have a right to be invited to a conference to say what he wants to say in a microphone.

  18. says

    Reminds me of Gilbert & Sullivan’s character Poo-Bah in The Mikado:

    I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable. I can’t help it. I was born sneering.

  19. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    So, what you are really saying is, you do not believe in free speech. Free speech is anyone saying

    “Free speech” does not mean “free from consequences” you dumb shit.

    Did PZ say Watson should be jailed? Then “freedom of speech” doesn’t apply here.

  20. specialffrog says

    Has anyone come up with a version of the, “but what about his free speech?” argument that is at least less boring?

  21. says

    If Watson hadn’t been in on the discovery of DNA no one would have any reason to consider him anything but a racist looney.

  22. microraptor says

    specialfrog @22: That depends on how exciting you find invocations of Godwin’s Law and inaccurate accusations of gulags.

  23. Larry says

    but the man has a right to say what he wants to say, if you truly believe in free speech, as I do.

    You may believe in it but you clearly don’t understand what it means. You demand everyone be given a platform on which to make their pronouncements but don’t offer everyone else their rights to not have to listen or criticize. Further, you lack the understanding that the First Amendent of the US Constitution applies to the Government, not to private parties or organizations. A organization like this institute is in no way obligated to allow anyone to speak except with their express permission. They did not prevent Watson from expressing his opinions and thoughts through force or any physical means. They simply denied him their platform on which to do it.

    Really, it isn’t that hard to understand.

  24. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Becca Stareyes:

    Technically, even if Franklin had been given proper credit, she wouldn’t have shared the Prize with Watson and Crick, because she died several years before Watson and Crick won the Prize (the Nobel won’t make posthumous awards).

    Technically, I have long suspected that the Nobel committee was aware of their own long-standing rule and felt more comfortable giving the prize to W&C after her death.

    Technically, I don’t believe it is necessary to know whether there was overt discussion of delaying the award to W&C over the possible bad press of not including Franklin or of including Franklin, given that that would highlight the distorted and even dishonest picture of what had happened by people including W&C themselves.

    Technically I believe they thought themselves in a difficult place and whether they consciously conspired or merely uncomfortably deferred, the committee felt relief at Franklin’s death because they then had a facially-neutral justification for exclusion that would not inevitably lead to public discussion of the ethics of two quite notable researchers.

    Technically I have no proof, but technically I think they were sexist jerks, and I don’t give three fucks about the awards they gave to women scientists named Curie.

  25. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Phil Robeson, #9:

    So, what you are really saying is, you do not believe in free speech.
    Free speech is anyone saying whatever they want to say.
    To say a person gives a speech and it causes a riot is simply ludicrous.
    The problem is not the speaker, the problem is the listeners.
    I agree with you that some of Jim’s statements are outlandish, out of style, and ridiculous, but the man has a right to say what he wants to say, if you truly believe in free speech, as I do.

    I run a small blog here on FtB. It’s nothing major, but there are people who read it. Would you be interested in having a discussion that permits you to flesh out your ideas about free speech in more detail, while I provide critique and counterpoint? You would, of course, be welcome to critique my own ideas about free speech.

    Do let me know and we can arrange something. Perhaps your example can be used to enlighten some folks.

  26. Saad says

    I deliberately scrolled past the comments. Are 27 comments enough time for a “point out exactly what he said that’s racist” asshat to appear? Or the “you snowflakes just don’t have the courage to face what my prejudice science tells us”?

    The Harrisites appear quickly. In that Murray topic, the Murrayionettes didn’t take too long. Are there such creatures as Watsonites?

    Or how about frozen peacher?

  27. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    we were delivered a freezer full of peaches in comment #9.

    No Murrayonette types so far.

  28. chigau (違う) says

    Saad #28

    I deliberately scrolled past the comments. Are 27 comments enough time for … ?

    ( racism, Harris, freespeech …)
    This has potential as a dringo game.
    Skip to the bottom of a still-short thread on one of Those™Topics and see if you can GuessTheTropes.
    extra points for also guessing the comment number

  29. Rob Grigjanis says

    Crip Dyke @26: Sexist jerks? Probably. But…

    I believe they thought themselves in a difficult place and whether they consciously conspired or merely uncomfortably deferred, the committee felt relief at Franklin’s death…

    It would seem that the committee wouldn’t have had to worry about Franklin at all;

    The earliest nomination mentioning the DNA structure was from British virologist Michael Stoker, who recommended Crick and Watson for the 1960 physiology or medicine prize.

  30. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Rob Grigjanis:

    Interesting. Thanks for that.

  31. says

    “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.”
    Since a woman has the right to abort her unborn child for whatever reason she wishes, that is perfectly logical.

  32. Tethys says

    There was no rule about not awarding Noble’s post-humous before 1974. From their website

    Posthumous Nobel Prizes
    From 1974, the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation stipulate that a Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, unless death has occurred after the announcement of the Nobel Prize. Before 1974, the Nobel Prize has only been awarded posthumously twice: to Dag Hammarskjöld (Nobel Peace Prize 1961) and Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Nobel Prize in Literature 1931).

    The only mention of Franklin’s contribution is a letter from Crick to Monad. It would have been nice if the accolades she deserved were acknowleged in memorium. It only seems right to at least honor the work of a dead colleague that made your work possible.

  33. Rob Grigjanis says

    Tethys @36:

    Prior to 1974, a person could be awarded a prize posthumously if they had already been nominated before February of the same year.

    Hammarskjöld died in September 1961, Karlfeldt in April 1931.

  34. says

    @Tetjus #36. “There was no rule about not awarding [Nobels] post-humous before 1974” assumes that the information you find on their website gives a complete history of the Nobel Statutes.
    Nobel: the man and his prizes, 1962 edition, edited by The Nobel Foundation, gives the text in the Statutes § 4 as
    “Work produced by a person since deceased cannot be rewarded with a prize; if, however, his death occurred subsequently to a proposal having been submitted, in the manner stipulated, that the work should be rewarded, then a prize may be awarded.”
    Thus under the Statutes at the time Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize, it would not have been possible to also award it to Rosalind Franklin. (As Rob Grigjanis points out #32, there was no proposal for a Nobel for the DNA structure prior to 1960. And Rosalind Franklin was never nominated for a Nobel Prize at all, according to the Nomination Database https://www.nobelprize.org/nomination/archive/search.php)

  35. Tethys says

    How does blockquoting the actual rule from the Nobel website assume anything? I don’t need to know any more history about the rule than when it became the rule. My comment about Franklin isn’t even about nominating her for a Nobel.

  36. Derek Vandivere says

    #34 / Bob: Sure, but the point was that he chose that example as a reason a woman would want to terminate.

  37. John Morales says

    Bob Michaelson @34:

    “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.”
    Since a woman has the right to abort her unborn child for whatever reason she wishes, that is perfectly logical.

    Actually, it’s a perfect example of an exception that proves the rule.

    (Logical, but not plausible)

  38. John Morales says

    Bob Michaelson @38:

    Thus under the Statutes at the time Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize, it would not have been possible to also award it to Rosalind Franklin.

    You appeal to its legality, not to its merit.

    (And you leave its significance unstated)

  39. snuffcurry says

    @Phil Robeson, 9

    The problem is not the speaker, the problem is the listeners.

    Talk about an own goal. Were you listening to The DudeMyers’s story, Donny?

    Bravo to Crip Dyke @26

    @Rob Grigjanis, 32

    It would seem that the committee wouldn’t have had to worry about Franklin at all;

    The earliest nomination mentioning the DNA structure was from British virologist Michael Stoker, who recommended Crick and Watson for the 1960 physiology or medicine prize.

    But there again is a discrepancy about how closely this followed standard medicine and science Nobel guidelines governing the time lag between publication and acceptance and application by a consensus of peers (prizes in other fields generally awarded for work published during the previous year). From at least 1958, if not 1953, onwards, their findings were being tested, confirmed, and used to discover additional structural features. That they were nominated in 1960, 1961, and twice in 1962 is not entirely compatible with the traditional delay.

  40. Rob Grigjanis says

    snuffcurry @43: I’m not sure what your point is: that the people chosen to submit nominations were instructed to avoid the subject of DNA until a couple of years after Franklin died?

    At any rate, the “preceding year” stipulated in Nobel’s will was reinterpreted due to some awards for work that was later discredited.

    According to Ralf Pettersson, former chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee for Physiology or Medicine, “the criterion ‘the previous year’ is interpreted by the Nobel Assembly as the year when the full impact of the discovery has become evident.”

    Higgs et al had to wait nearly fifty years for convincing experimental evidence to get their prize, even though the Higgs mechanism had been widely accepted since at least the early 1970s, and had in fact been a major factor in the work which got Glashow, Salam and Weinberg their Nobel in 1979.

  41. pacal says

    This quote about Watson is priceless:

    ” He smiles. “Rosalind is my cross,” he says slowly. “I’ll bear it. I think she was partially autistic.” He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. “I’d never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind’s behaviour.”

    Rosalind Franklin has been dead more than 50 years yet Watson cannot stop being an ass in regards to her. In University I read for a class Crick and Watson’s The Double Helix. The condescending, belittling and sexist crap about Rosalind Franklin were truly breath taking and so was the whining about her in the book. In the edition of The Double Helix I read the introduction by Watson / Crick had an half ass apology about Rosalind Franklin but the insulting, denigrating drivel still remained in the main text of the book. Watson even after all these years just can’t resist denigrating her. All of which Watson does in my opinion to down grade Rosalind Franklin’s scientific contributions, especially her contribution to the discovery of the Helix structure of DNA.

    It is generally accepted now that Watson and Crick deliberately down played Rosalind Franklin’s contribution in a way that can only be described has shameful. “Nice” to see that after all these years Watson just must insult Rosalind Franklin.

  42. says

    I don’t think you need to invoke any grand conspiracy to cheat Franklin out of a Nobel.

    She provided key data (unknowingly) in her crystallography. But the key thing was putting together the information, and that was the Watson/Crick team. They were the primary recipients.

    But that crystallography data was essential. Two people were working on that, Franklin and Wilkins. Wilkins basically handed over the info to Watson/Crick, which made him an essential part of the story. Underhandedly. Franklin probably would not have teamed up with an obvious asshole like Watson, so she’s not part of the story. Except for doing the work.

    All you need to know is that Nobels (or other big prizes) are usually not given to the people who actually did all the hard work, but to the people who organized the people who did the work, and then barreled up to get prominence in authorship of the paper (this is not to say that is undeserved).

    Watson and Crick are authors on the 1953 Nature paper. They acknowledge Wilkins first, Franklin second, then all the little people who were their co-workers. Franklin was dead. That’s how the award was decided.

    If Franklin were still alive, and then she was snubbed, you could maybe make this case.

  43. says

    Although, I should add, that Wilkins was a co-recipient says the Nobel committee certainly did think the contribution of the crystallography data was significant enough to earn the prize, so if she had lived, she should have gotten it.

    It also doesn’t change the fact that Lucky Jim was and is a sexist/racist snot of the worst kind.

  44. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Giliell:

    I’m in dire need of some amusement.

    So was I. :sigh:

  45. blf says

    Wilkins was a co-recipient [so] the Nobel committee certainly did think the contribution of the crystallography data was significant enough to earn the prize, so if she had lived, she should have gotten it.

    The key word there being should. Whether or not she would have is difficult to answer, with one problem being a Nobel cannot be awarded to more than three people.

    (As Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge points out, the Peace Prize can be awarded to organisations, which is sort-of more than three people.)

  46. The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says

    If Rosalind Franklin had been alive in 1962, I’m not sure that Wilkins wouldn’t still have shared the Nobel, just on the basis of academic hierarchy–he was Franklin’s boss.

    Anthony Hewish won the Nobel for Jocelyn Bell’s work, too–and she was still alive. Bell and Franklin had the double-whammy of sexism and academic hierarchy working against them, but either one would probably have denied them the Nobel regardless.

  47. efedora says

    Watson grew up in my old neighborhood in Chicago. When I lived there it was a nice place but only if you were white. The local country club closed in 1972 having never admitted any blacks or Jews and they were proud of it. Bigotry and prejudice was the common mindset among the population. I’ve always thought that Watson absorbed the local bigotry as a kid and never managed to get rid of it.

  48. microraptor says

    efedora @52:

    From the sounds of things, Watson never tried to get rid of the bigotry he learned as a child.

Leave a Reply