James Watson, DNA pioneer and Nobel laureate, is most definitely a distinguished scientist. However, he has courted controversy throughout his life, mainly from a tendency to shoot from the lip when expressing opinions. His final remarks which suggested that black people were genetically less intelligent that whites generated a backlash which forced him to retire as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory on Long Island NY.
It was ironic to see an article in today’s Sunday Times which states that an analysis of his genome shows that 16% of his genes are likely to have come from a black ancestor of African descent. (This compares with 1% in most people of European descent. “This level is what you would expect in someone who had a great-grandparent who was African,” said Kari Stefansson of deCODE Genetics, whose company carried out the analysis. “It was very surprising to get this result for Jim.” The analysis also shows a further 9% of Watson’s genes are likely to have come from an ancestor of Asian descent
Sir John Sulston, the Nobel laureate who helped lead the consortium that decoded the human genome, said the discovery was ironic in view of Watson’s opinions on race. “I never did agree with Watson’s remarks,” he said. “We do not understand enough about intelligence to generalise about race.”
The great work done by Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and of course Rosalind Franklin (who died in 1958 and was thus ineligible for a Nobel prize nomination) laid the foundations for all subsequent DNA research. If it wasn’t for their work it would not be possible to decode his genome and find that he has more African genes than usual for a person of European descent. To be honest there is so much we don’t know about our genome, or how it may determine intelligence. That said, the 16 % of African genes did not put a crimp on Watson’s abilities and that says a lot to me.