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Leading Scientist Stirs Controversy by Invoking Darwin’s Theory to Argue for Inferiority of Blacks

John G. West

Eminent evolutionist James Watson, winner of the Nobel Prize for co-discovering the structure of DNA, is sparking controversy in Great Britain for suggesting that blacks are inferior to whites due to evolution. But there is nothing particularly extraordinary about Watson’s views. As I document in chapter 7 of my forthcoming book Darwin Day in America, there is a long history of evolutionists using Darwinism to justify racism—including Darwin himself.

Watson is past director and current Chancellor of the prestigious biological research lab at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. Ironically, that lab has deep connections to Darwinian racism of years gone by. Early in the twentieth century it was the headquarters for one of the most virulent American eugenics groups, the Eugenics Record Office, which promoted forced sterilization and opposed immigration to America by ethnic groups considered lower on the evolutionary scale than Anglo-Saxon whites. Back then the lab was directed by Harvard-trained geneticist Charles Davenport. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Davenport held views about blacks and evolution hauntingly similar to Watson’s.

The current flap started with a profile of Watson in the Sunday Times in England, where Watson’s views were described thus:

He says that he is “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”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”. [Emphasis added.]

Watson’s comments are inspiring a furor in England, where he has just arrived for a speaking tour.

What is truly remarkable is how similar Watson’s current views are to Charles Davenport’s. I discuss Davenport’s use of evolution to justify racism in my new book Darwin Day in America (coming out in early November). Here is part of what I say there:

Biologist Charles Davenport claimed that racial differences arose as evolutionary adaptations: “Each race of man that has long persisted in a distinct environment has gained, by preservation of useful mutations, certain adaptations to that environment. The useful phaenotypical adaptations have enabled their possessors to survive and the genotype that produced them continues the characters of the race.” For example, “the high intelligence and the ambition of the European races” could be regarded “as an adaptation to the competition and crowding arising in a life largely devoted to barter and commerce.” Similarly, “the fear of darkness, in the negro race,” could be explained as an adaptation to “a country where lions and other predaceous animals prowl at night.” As the latter example suggests, not all evolutionary adaptations remained beneficial in civilized society, according to eugenists. As a result, some races were better equipped by evolution to deal with the challenges of modern life than others. “We have abundant evidence today of an innate difference in capacity of learning, of forming judgments, of profiting by experience in different strains of humans,” wrote Davenport. “In fact it seems probable that in the same country we have, living side by side, persons of advanced mentality, persons who have inherited the mentality of their ancestors of the early Stone Age, and persons of intermediate evolutionary stages.”…

Charles Davenport explained that the reason “a smaller proportion” of blacks than whites exhibited “self control,” a “special regard for property rights,” and an “appreciation of cause and effect” was that “the Negro from Africa . . . had not evolved in the direction of these traits.” Davenport further implied that blacks brought to America on slave ships had been fitted by nature for slavery. “Scores of thousands of black men from the interior of Africa . . . had been kidnapped by the more enterprising natives that lived along the coast. These negroes represented some of the mentally feeblest races of the globe, with an inborn docility and fidelity which made them good slaves.”

To substantiate their claims of Negro mental inferiority, Davenport, East, and others cited the results of Army intelligence tests of recruits during World War I. After those tests were discredited, Davenport trumpeted new research in Jamaica purporting to show that “in tests involving some organization, foresight and planning . . . the negroes seem to be inferior to the whites.”

You can find more information about the connections between Darwinism and racism in my book, which can be pre-ordered here.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.