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Friday, October 19, 2007

DNA pioneer James Watson says he is 'mortified' by race comments : black people are less intelligent than whites.

24HOURS LONDON: The DNA pioneer James Watson today apologised "unreservedly" for his apparent claim that black people are less intelligent than whites.

"I am mortified about what has happened," he told a group of scientists and journalists at the launch of his new book, Avoid Boring People, at the Royal Society in London.

The American scientist at the center of a media storm over comments suggesting that black people were not as intelligent as whites said Thursday he never meant to imply that the African continent was genetically inferior, adding that he was mortified over the attention his words had drawn.

James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for co-discovering the molecular structure of DNA, has been sharply criticized in Britain for reportedly saying tests showed Africans did not have the same level of intelligence as whites.

In its profile of Watson, The Sunday Times Magazine quoted him 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."

Watson's interview in the magazine received wide play, touching off a furious reaction in Britain. The Independent newspaper put Watson on its front page Wednesday, and on Thursday the Daily Mail devoted a column to criticism of his "incendiary claim."

Watson, who arrived in Britain on Thursday to promote his new book, "Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science," appeared at a reception Thursday night at the Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific academy.The Associated Press was refused entry to the event, described by his publicist as a private gathering with friends. But in a written statement given to the AP, Watson said he was "mortified by what had happened."

"I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said," 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 apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

Kate Farquhar-Thomson, his publicist, refused to say whether Watson believed The Sunday Times had quoted him accurately. "You have the statement. That's it, I'm afraid," she said.

Watson, 79, is a molecular biologist who serves as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, a world leader in research into cancer and neurological diseases. The laboratory issued a statement saying its board of trustees vehemently disagreed with his remarks and that they were "bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments."

The author of several books, Watson has been well-known in Britain since his days at Cambridge University in the 1950s and 1960s on the trail of DNA's molecular structure. Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the 1962 Nobel Prize for their work on the subject.

In the magazine interview, Watson was quoted as saying he opposes discrimination and believes that "there are many people of color who are very talented." But he also was quoted as saying that while he hopes that everyone is equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." Watson's statement did not directly address those remarks.

The interview caused outrage in Britain.

David Lammy, the government's skills minister, said Thursday that Watson's remarks were "deeply offensive" and would "succeed only in providing oxygen" for the British National Party, a small, far-right political party that has been accused of being racist.

"It is a shame that a man with a record of scientific distinction should see his work overshadowed by his own irrational prejudices," Lammy said. "It is no surprise to me that the scientific community has condemned this outburst, and I think people will recognize these comments for what they are."

Watson has caused controversy in the past, reportedly saying that a woman should have the right to abort her unborn child if tests could determine it would be homosexual.

He also suggested a link between skin color and sex drive, proposing a theory that black people have higher libidos.

Jan Schnupp, a lecturer in neurophysiology at Oxford University, said Watson's remarks "make it very clear that he is an expert on genetics, not on intelligence."

Schnupp said undernourished and undereducated people often perform worse on intelligence tests than the well off.

"Race has nothing to do with it, and there is no fundamental obstacle to black people becoming exceptionally bright," Schnupp said.

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