James Watson, a Nobel laureate who in 1953 co-discovered the double-helix structure of DNA with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, has been disinvited from speaking at the University of Illinois over decade-old comments he made about Africa.
The university’s Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology canceled the talk after several professors complained about Mr. Watson’s 2007 comments suggesting that genetic intelligence can vary geographically, The News-Gazette first reported.
Mr. Watson had planned to give a “narrowly focused scientific talk” about his cancer research, but no date had yet been set, institute Director Gene Robinson told The News-Gazette last week.
“We tried to consider this very carefully in going forward, and different perspectives on the possibilities of him giving a science-based lecture,” he said. “With respect to his past, the email that I sent out stated very clearly that we didn’t condone any of his past comments, racist comments and sexist comments. And we noted that he had apologized and thought about all those very carefully.
“In hearing the faculty’s concerns, we decided that the right thing to do was not to have the lecture,” he added.
UI Professor Kate Clancy, who studies biological anthropology, tweeted outrage at the prospect of Mr. Watson speaking at the college.
“So James ‘not a racist in a conventional way’ Watson invited himself to give a talk at @IGBIllinois,” she tweeted. “If #safe13, #astroSH, and #ripplesofdoubt has taught us anything, it should be that moral character and ethics matter more than science.”
“I am ashamed to be faculty at @Illinois_Alma if they support @IGBIllinois’s upcoming talk, and plan to organize against it,” she added.
The institute responded in a tweet: “Thank you for making your concerns known. IGB takes these matters very seriously, and in light we have cancelled the lecture.”
Student Jacqueline Moffat told Campus Reform that she supports the decision to cancel the speech.
“The school should not be promoting someone like that,” she said. “There are plenty of other smart people that we can hear from.”
Mr. Watson, an 89-year-old molecular biologist and geneticist, sparked a wave of controversy in 2007 after he said during an interview that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.”
“There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically,” he said at the time. “Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
Mr. Watson apologized, but the backlash was unforgiving. He ended up auctioning off his Nobel prize in 2014, reportedly because of his diminished income following the 2007 incident. A Russian billionaire who bought the medal for $4.75 million at auction reportedly returned it to Mr. Watson, saying he “deserved” it most.
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