Mainstream Media Asks "Is James Watson Black?"
Print Friendly and PDF

From the Times of London:

JAMES WATSON, the DNA pioneer who claimed Africans are less intelligent than whites, has been found to have 16 times more genes of black origin than the average white European.

An analysis of his genome shows that 16% of his genes are likely to have come from a black ancestor of African descent. By contrast, most people of European descent would have no more than 1%.

The study was made possible when he allowed his genome - the map of all his genes - to be published on the internet in the interests of science.

”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. Watson won the Nobel prize, with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, after working out the structure of DNA in 1953. However, he provoked an outcry earlier this year when he suggested black people were genetically less intelligent than whites.

This weekend his critics savoured the wry twist of fate. 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 backlash against Watson forced him to step down as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York state, after 39 years at the helm. He had said he was ”inherently gloomy about the prospects for 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”.

The analysis by deCODE Genetics, an Icelandic company, also shows a further 9% of Watson’s genes are likely to have come from an ancestor of Asian descent.

Newsday of Long Island "reports:"

"News that geneticist James Watson inherited 16 percent of his DNA from an African ancestor may provide the Nobel Prize winner with a new perspective on his ancestry. But experts Monday said the percentage of Watson's DNA possibly contributed by someone of African descent illustrates that race is a counterfeit concept, having more to do with social notions than biological ones."

And the NYT leaps in here.

It could be true that Watson is 25% nonwhite (although the graph in the Times says 27%), but it sounds unlikely to me, based on simple genealogical arithmetic that nobody else seems to have done. The only evidence I can see for this claim is that Watson has wavy or curly hair and that his father spent a year at Oberlin, the most racially liberal American college of the 19th Century. Otherwise, this claim fails most reality checks.

Watson's new autobiography, Avoid Boring People, has a fair amount of information about his ancestors, including several old photos. His mother's side of the family were recent immigrants from the British Isles:

"Mother was the only child of Lauchlin Alexander Mitchell, a Scottish-born tailor, and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Gleason, the daughter of an Irish immigrant couple (Michael Gleason and Mary Curtin) who had emigrated from Tipperary during the potato famine of the late 1840s."

So, if his mother was 100% white, as this family history suggests, then his father would have to be 50% nonwhite, which sounds extremely improbable. There's a picture of James D. Watson Sr. on p. 5, and he looks like your average white guy. (Granted, old black and white pictures can be somewhat misleading, but still ...).

Further, his father's upper middle class family history suggests that his father's side of the family sure didn't suffer from racial discrimination. If his father was 50% nonwhite, then his paternal grandparents had to average 50% nonwhite (e.g., one was 100% nonwhite, and the other 100% white). Yet, if one or both were significantly nonwhite, nobody in late 19th Century America seemed to notice! His paternal grandparents were both Episcopalians. His grandfather was a stockbroker, his grandmother was an heiress from wealthy Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The odds that two individuals who were, on average, one-third black could have thrived in such an anti-black social environment seems absurd.

Further, Watson's father had three brothers. Did any of them displays signs of being part black? For a mulatto attempting to pass into white society, there are many fraugh passages, such as what to do with their loved ones. Today, we hear about how Race doe not exist, but for those who passed from black to white it was terribly traumatic, generally leaving behind your family and and taking on a new identity. Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain gives a strong picture of what it is like to pass from black to white. It's based on the literary critic Anatole Broyard.

I don't see any more of a such a troubled passage of the Watsons

This reminds me of this great article I wrote in 2001 about a population geneticist doing a pioneering racial admixture study, who noticed that one of his subjects was determined to be 22% black. So, he looked into it more and discovered it was him! This came as a big surprise to him and all his relatives. I wrote it up and it was a wonderful human interest story. The only problem was that it wasn't true. As a reader pointed out to me, 22% means that, say, one grandparent was 7/8ths black, which somebody would have likely noticed. Later, the population geneticist took a look at his DNA again with better methodology and found he had been way, way off originally.

I hate being wrong ...

Racial admixture analyses are reasonably good for groups, but for individuals, at present, they can throw off some funny results. For example, one commercial firm often reports that Jewish customers are a little bit American Indian. Brent Staples, a black editorial writer for the NYT, took a racial admixture test and was told he was 18% Asian, which is another unlikely finding.

I don't doubt that the paternal side of Watson's family tree, which in the case of Watson's paternal grandmother goes back to a Thomas Dewey who landed in Boston in 1633, could include some blacks and American Indians. Yet, simple arithmetic shows that the chance of him being 25% nonwhite is vanishingly small.

Print Friendly and PDF