Human Exceptionalism

Watson Out at Cold Spring Harbor

Cold Spring Harbor, the very name should bring chills. It was the home of the notorious Eugenics Record Office, operated for decades in the early 20th Century by the world’s most influential eugenicist Charles Davenport–one of the great villains in American history–through whose work involuntary sterilization, anti-miscegenation laws, and other bigotry policies were justified. His assistant and eventual successor, Harry Laughlin, justified anti-Semitism as part of his work in eugenics and was awarded by the Nazis for his work in promoting racial hygiene.

CSH went out of the eugenics business and continues today as a research center into the science of genetics and other strictly medical pursuits. But its close association with James Watson–and appointing him as its head of the research center–has always seemed to me a disturbing echo of those odious days of old, as Watson often publicly promoted the values of eugenics, promoted eugenic enhancements, justified anti-Semitism, and otherwise spoke in ways that Davenport would clearly have approved.

Until now, none of this mattered, and most in the science community merely chuckled about Watson’s ravings as if he were the brusque uncle home for Thanksgiving dinner who spoke aloud what others just thought. But now, with the cultural Left–which cared nothing about his denigration of the disabled–up in arms about his racist remarks, Davenport is out at Cold Spring Harbor. From the story:

James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, has made many controversial remarks over the years. But telling a British newspaper that, in effect, blacks are intellectually inferior to whites seems to have landed him in unprecedented trouble. Last evening, as public criticism of those remarks swelled to a crescendo, the Board of Trustees of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in Long Island, New York, stripped Watson of his title as chancellor of the 117-year-old institution…

The [Watson’s] apology may fail to quell the controversy. “While we honor the extraordinary contributions that Dr. Watson has made to science in the past, his comments show that he has lost his way,” Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, said yesterday in a statement. “He has failed us in the worst possible way. It is a sad and revolting way to end a remarkable career.”

The lesson here is that there are some odious things you can say–promote explicitly eugenic thinking–and some things you can’t say, e.g. racist comments. Watson should have been long gone way before this. The media should follow up on this, illustrate his other demeaning comments, and pose the question to Cold Spring Harbor and his buddies among “the scientists,” What took you so long?”

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