James Watson Throws a Fit

The disgraced co-discoverer of DNA is selling his Nobel Prize.

Photo by Daniel Mordzinski/AFP/Getty Images

James Watson in 1993. 


Photo by Daniel Mordzinski/AFP/Getty Images

Jim Watson is one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He is also a peevish bigot. History will remember him for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA, in 1953. This week, Watson is ensuring that history, or at least the introduction to every obituary, will also remember him for being a jerk.

In a fit of pique and self-pity, Watson is selling his Nobel Prize medallion. He will become the first Nobel laureate in history to do so. He gave the Financial Times several reasons why, this Thursday, he will auction off the gold disk, symbol of the highest honor in science (expected price: up to $3.5 million). He claims that, even though he ran major research institutions and served on corporate boards until the age of 79, he needs the money. He might donate it to universities, he said, or buy a David Hockney painting. Oh, and he also mentioned to the FT that he’s selling the medal because he has become an “unperson,” and “no one really wants to admit I exist.”

This is not about the Hockney. Selling the medal is Watson’s way of sticking his tongue out at the scientific establishment, which has largely shunned him since 2007. Watson had been making racist and sexist remarks throughout his career, but he really outdid himself seven years ago when he told the Sunday Times 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.” He further said that while we may wish intelligence to be equal across races, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Finally, for once in his life, Watson didn’t get away with making ignorant, prejudiced statements. The board of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which he had led for almost 40 years, fired him (although he’s still chancellor emeritus). The president of the Federation of American Scientists said, “He has failed us in the worst possible way. It is a sad and revolting way to end a remarkable career.” The director of the National Institutes of Health, where Watson ran the Human Genome Project for many years, released a statement saying Watson’s comments “are wrong, from every point of view—not the least of which is that they are completely inconsistent with the body of research literature in this area.”

Watson was 79 at the time, and people familiar with his field knew that he was genetics’ embarrassing, cranky old uncle. But this wasn’t the ranting of someone who was losing his grasp on reality. He has always been a horrible human being.

One of his earliest sins: Watson didn’t credit Rosalind Franklin, a chemist also working on DNA at the time, for her crucial research on X-ray diffraction images, without which he and Francis Crick would not have been the first to discover the double helix structure. (Linus Pauling and others were right behind them and would have figured it out.) In Watson’s The Double Helix memoir, he calls Franklin “Rosy” (not a nickname she used), critiques her clothing and makeup, and characterizes her incorrectly as another scientist’s assistant.

Watson was also famously insulting and arrogant as a professor at Harvard, even for a professor at Harvard. Fellow faculty member E.O. Wilson described Watson in the 1950s and ’60s as the “Caligula of biology” for his contempt of scientists who studied anything other than molecules. Wilson wrote that, unfortunately, due to Watson’s stroke of genius at age 25, “He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously.”

In 2000, Watson told an audience at Berkeley that there was a link between sunlight exposure and libido, and therefore “That’s why you have Latin lovers.” In the same speech, reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, he said that thin people are ambitious. “Whenever you interview fat people,” Watson said, “you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.”

He just wouldn’t stop dismissing whole groups of people, even after his disgrace in 2007. At a science conference in 2012, for instance, he said of women in science, “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective.”

Watson is also famous among science journalists for mouthing off about things he doesn’t really understand. This makes him an interesting dinner table companion but a lousy source, as when he told a New York Times reporter 16 years ago that a researcher was “going to cure cancer in two years.” He files self-promoting amicus briefs in gene patenting lawsuits but “fundamentally misunderstands” the relevant legal points.

And, of course, Watson fundamentally misunderstands research on race, genes, and intelligence. Scientists have been debunking ideas like his since well before The Bell Curve made a mockery of statistical analysis. The latest for-crying-out-loud-do-we have-to-do-this-again moment came this year with the publication of Nicholas Wade’s book Troublesome Inheritance, which Watson blurbed as “a masterful overview of how changes in our respective lineages let us begin to understand how human beings have evolved.” Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and pretty much anybody with real expertise explained why the book’s assumptions about race-based traits were wrong—and Wade is much more sophisticated in his thinking than Watson is.

Watson had a major insight 61 years ago about the physical structure of DNA. He is one of the founders of a very important but very specific subset of modern biology, and he devoted most of the rest of his career to the study of cancer biology. But he knows fuck all about history, human evolution, anthropology, sociology, psychology, or any rigorous study of intelligence or race. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works for him to think that his expertise at one level of analysis—a molecular level—predicts anything at a higher level of analysis. The structure of DNA does not predict the workings of a cell, which does not predict the shape of a body, which does not predict the characteristics of a culture. It’s not as if the idea that people with dark skin are genetically inferior to people with light skin is some horrible secret that scientists had been trying to hide from the world until Jim Watson came along and revealed the truth. It’s simply incorrect.

It’s a slight comfort to know that Nobel Prizes in science are awarded for a specific piece of research. They are not lifetime achievement awards, and they are not given simply to a scientist; they are always given to a scientist for something, in this case, to Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.

The auction of Watson’s Nobel Prize, a recognition of one of the biggest triumphs in the history of science, has presumably been in the works for a long time. Watson told the Financial Times that selling it is a way to “re-enter public life,” and he “insisted he was ‘not a racist in a conventional way,’ ” according to FT. Watson couldn’t have known that the auction would be announced while people all over the country are protesting police brutality against blacks—people too many police officers see as subhuman. But these protests are a reminder that racist ignorance is pervasive and dangerous, and that Jim Watson’s bid for attention isn’t just about him tarnishing his own legacy.