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Last Updated: Friday, 19 October 2007, 10:41 GMT 11:41 UK
Lab suspends DNA pioneer Watson
James Watson (AP)
His comments led event organisers to cancel his appearances
The Nobel Prize-winning DNA pioneer James Watson has been suspended by his research institution in the US.

Dr Watson has drawn severe criticism over remarks he made in a British newspaper at the weekend.

In the interview, he was quoted as saying Africans were less intelligent than Europeans.

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory had already distanced itself from the scientist's comments but its trustee board has now suspended him.

A statement from the Long Island, New York, institution said the action was being taken "pending further deliberation by the board".

Unreserved apology

Dr Watson was due to give a lecture at the Science Museum in London on Friday as part of a book tour. But the museum cancelled the event, saying the scientist had gone beyond the point of acceptable debate.

The Bristol Festival of Ideas has also cancelled an appearance by Dr Watson.

And further critical comment of Dr Watson's views has come from Dr Craig Venter, the scientist/businessman who led the private effort to decode the human genome, and who, by coincidence, is also visiting the UK to promote a book.

"Skin colour as a surrogate for race is a social concept not a scientific one," Dr Venter said. "There is no basis in scientific fact or in the human genetic code for the notion that skin colour will be predictive of intelligence."

Crick and Watson's DNA model (Science Museum/BBC)
Dr Watson helped unravel the structure of DNA

In his Sunday Times interview, Dr Watson was quoted as saying 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".

He was further quoted as saying that his hope was that everyone was equal but that "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true".

The scientist has since said that the way the words were presented did not reflect properly his position.

"I can certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have," he said.

"To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly.

"That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

Scientific endeavour

And in comments published in The Independent newspaper on Friday, Dr Watson tries to clarify his position.

"We do not yet adequately understand the way in which the different environments in the world have selected over time the genes which determine our capacity to do different things," he is quoted as saying. "The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity.

"It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science. To question this is not to give in to racism. This is not a discussion about superiority or inferiority, it is about seeking to understand differences, about why some of us are great musicians and others great engineers."

Dr Watson was a joint winner in 1962 of the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, the molecule that lies at the heart of heredity in living organisms.

When, some 40 years later, Dr Venter and colleagues were finally able to read all of the DNA in our cells, they concluded the concept of race could not easily be described by our genetics.

Venter and his team pointed to the fact that people from different racial groups could be more genetically similar than individuals within the same group. Genetic studies show that there is more variability in the gene pool in Africa, than outside.

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Profile: Dr James Watson
18 Oct 07 |  UK


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