One of the world's most eminent scientists was embroiled in an extraordinary row last night after he claimed that black people were less intelligent than white people and the idea that "equal powers of reason" were shared across racial groups was a delusion.
James Watson, a Nobel Prize winner for his part in the unravelling of DNA who now runs one of America's leading scientific research institutions, drew widespread condemnation for comments he made before his arrival in Britain for a speaking tour at venues including the Science Museum in London.
The 79-year-old geneticist reopened the explosive debate about race and science in a newspaper interview in which he said Western policies towards African countries were wrongly based on an assumption that black people were as clever as their white counterparts when "testing" suggested the contrary. He claimed genes responsible for creating differences in human intelligence could be found within a decade.
The newly formed Equality and Human Rights Commission, successor to the Commission for Racial Equality, said it was studying Dr Watson's remarks "in full". Dr Watson told the Sunday Times that 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".
He said there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".
His views are also reflected in a book published next week, in which he writes: "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."
Dr Watson arrives in Britain this week for a speaking tour to publicise his latest book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Among his first engagements is a speech to an audience at the Science Museum organised by the Dana Centre, which held a discussion last night on the history of scientific racism.
Critics of Dr Watson said there should be a robust response to his views across the spheres of politics and science.
Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: "It is sad to see a scientist of such achievement making such baseless, unscientific and extremely offensive comments. I am sure the scientific community will roundly reject what appear to be Dr Watson's personal prejudices.
"These comments serve as a reminder of the attitudes which can still exist at the highest professional levels."
The American scientist earned a place in the history of great scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century when he worked at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s and 1960s and formed part of the team which discovered the structure of DNA.
He shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for medicine with his British colleague Francis Crick and New Zealand-born Maurice Wilkins.
Anti-racism campaigners called for Dr Watson's remarks to be looked at in the context of racial hatred laws. A spokesman for the 1990 Trust, a black human rights group, said: "It is astonishing that a man of such distinction should make comments that seem to perpetuate racism in this way."
A QUESTION OF INTELLIGENCE
Efforts to prove the superiority or inferiority of different races have a long and undistinguished history, from the justifications of slavery to the eugenic policies of Nazi Germany.
Modern studies on race and intelligence have continued to create controversy.
In 1994, a dispute erupted over the best-selling book The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard Hermstein, which argued that there were IQ differences between races that were at least partly genetic and that welfare and other polices were diluting the intelligence of the population by inadvertently encouraging the "wrong" women (with low IQs) to have babies.
In 2002, Richard Lynn, a professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, stoked the fire with the publication of his book IQ and the Wealth of Nations, written with Tatu Vanhanen, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Tampere, Finland.
Arthur Jensen, a former professor of educational psychology at the University of Berkeley, California, published The g Factor: The Science of Mental Ability in 1998 suggesting that a "genetic component" lay behind the difference between whites and blacks in intelligence.
He was accused of "scientific racism", couching racial differences in IQ in a theory drawn from evolutionary biology, and of practising "social, value-laden science".
In Britain, the dispute erupted at Edinburgh University in 1996 when the psychologist Christopher Brand declared he was a "race realist".
"The way in which I would try to explain higher levels of crime and out-of-wedlock births would not be by referring to blackness or race but to IQ," he said.