Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the New York City Department of Education announced Tuesday the opening of a new DNA lab in Harlem. According to a press release on Cold Spring Harbor’s website, the Lab is a “‘state-of-the-art education facility that will provide students and teachers throughout the five boroughs with a program of laboratory-based study designed to bring the curriculum fully into ‘the genome age.'”
Ah, the irony: The Harlem lab was conceived by a man who has been condemned as an academic racist, and built by an organization with a past life as research center for eugenics, the science of breeding “better” human beings.
Just last year, Dr. James Watson — a Nobel Prize winning scientist, discoverer of the double helix, and then-Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor — stirred up controversy by implying that Africans are genetically less intelligent than whites. It began with an October 2007 profile of Watson in the UK’s Times Online:
[Watson] 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”… 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”…
In his mission to make children more DNA-literate, the geneticist explains that he has opened a DNA learning centre on the borders of Harlem in New York. He is also recruiting minorities at the lab and, he tells me, has just accepted a black girl “but,” he comments, “there’s no one to recruit.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center called this “academic racism,” the Science Museum of London said Watson’s remarks had “gone beyond the point of acceptable debate,” and British Undersecretary for Innovation, Universities and Skills David Lammy called them “deeply offensive.”
Watson apologized and retired soon afterward, but he wasn’t the first person at Cold Spring Harbor Lab to wax poetic about the inferiority of black and brown people.
Decades before, the lab had been the center for the racist Eugenics Records Office, which actively promoted the idea that people of Asian and African backgrounds were inferior. The research that came out of the Eugenics Records Office encouraged forced sterilization programs and the 1924 law that reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. from eastern and southern Europe. The eugenics office was shut down in the 1940s, and these days Cold Spring Harbor has an online exhibit that chronicles the harm caused by eugenicists, including its own.
These days, Cold Spring Harbor scientists are onto much greener pastures. Its scientists study molecular biology and genetics in their efforts to find “treatments for cancer, neurological diseases and other major causes of human suffering,” according to its website.
image via jurvetson (cc)