Watson's words disowned by own institute

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James Watson was disavowed by his own research institute last night over the suggestion that Africans were less intelligent than white people. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, which the DNA pioneer headed for more than 35 years, led a chorus of disapproval on the other side of the Atlantic saying it vehemently disagreed with his remarks and felt "bewildered and saddened".

"Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory does not engage in any research that could even form the basis of the statements attributed to Dr Watson," the institute's president, Bruce Stillman, said. Dr Watson's comments were entirely his own and "in no way reflect the mission, goals, or principles of [the laboratory's] board, administration or faculty".

Similar condemnation followed from other parts of the US scientific establishment, where the incendiary issue of race and science is intimately bound up in the history of slavery and segregation. "We have enough problems in this country without Nobel laureate American scientists pontificating in error about fields of science outside their own expertise," said the editor of ScienceWeek, Dan Agin, "especially when the issues are vital to public policy and when what they say rips the American social fabric into pieces."

Dr Agin, a molecular biologist at the University of Chicago specialising in genetics, laid out a powerful case against Dr Watson in a blog entry at the online Huffington Post, arguing that intelligence is not a solid scientific concept to start with, and that the literature shows far greater differences in intelligence levels within groups than between groups.

In the mainstream media, the sense was Dr Watson had exposed himself as a political reactionary in scientific clothing. Angela Gunn, a technology specialist, said: "One decade you're accepting the Nobel for discovering something astonishing, a couple of decades later you're a doddering crank whose family probably hesitates before letting him play with the TV remote. The passage of time is a cruel thing."

The debate in the US came to a head once before, in the 1990s, in the wake of Murray and Herrnstein's notorious book The Bell Curve, which made a similar argument about the racial superiority of whites and Asians over blacks.

A report subsequently commissioned by the American Psychological Association confirmed that black students registered lower IQs, as a whole, than the general population but the APA gave very short shrift to the notion that the gap was genetic.