Controversial Topics in Anthropology in 2008

James Watson and Francis Crick did amazing and groundbreaking work in the anthropological field as co discoverers of the detailed structure of the DNA molecule in 1953. This work earned Watson a Nobel Prize and has further enabled the field of science to grow leaps and bounds in our understanding of genetics.

Watson’s claim to fame since last year, however, is overshadowed with his controversial remarks about the intelligence of African Americans and his hasty retirement from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

The original quote from his book “Avoid Boring People” says this: ” there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of people geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

Without specifics, that general statement by Watson does not invite a hailstorm of controversy but Watson elaborated on it to the London Times.

Quite unsuspecting of the resulting controversy, Watson explained his statement in detail while he was on tour and promoting his book. He told the London Times that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa since our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all testing says not really.”

The prelude to his controversial statement in his book states: “The relative extents to which genetic factors determine human intellectual abilities will also soon become much better known…” We can deduce from his prior statement that the genetic gene that differentiates intelligence in different populations is not yet known and therefore no valid conclusions are available.

The statement about the African community started a controversy that was followed with Watson’s suspension from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and soon after, his announced retirement. It is important to note that Watson back tracked from his inflammatory statement and said, “I’m mortified at what has happened-there is no basis for such a belief.”

Debate continues across publications on the Internet concerning this controversial topic.

James Watson is 79 years old and retirement may be the appropriate response to the controversy. Did his age or his personal philosophy play a bigger role in his remarks than his scientific knowledge? His publication and personal life gives some clues.

This incident was not the first time Watson has made racial, sexist, and anti-gay remarks in his previous publications, and that leads me to another question. If a scientist has a racial or sexist slant, how much of that is balanced in his philosophy versus his scientific work?

From my perspective, it appears that James Watson and his remarks offer anthropologists a fertile ground to study this aspect of humans in their field of anthropology.

Watson believes that within ten years scientists will be able to diagnose mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia supported by studies in DNA. He has mentioned cures for “stupidity” and a gene to make all “pretty girls.” While his genius cannot be denied, his commitment to scientific judgment appears to be impaired.

It’s unfortunate that James Watson cornered himself with remarks that led to his unplanned retirement and whose remarks will cast a shadow over his personal life. No one can deny the important co discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 and the important progress that’s come about with the Human Genome Project.

What shall we say of James Watson? His human tendencies appear to overcome his resolve to stick with scientific facts and not allow personal conjecture to rule. He appears to be a model subject in the study in anthropology.