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Shades of grey

india Updated: Dec 11, 2007 20:28 IST

As far as ironies go, it can’t get any starker than this. It turns out that James Watson, the iconic co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix, actually inherited 16 per cent of his DNA from an African ancestor. And to think that Dr Watson was in the news recently for making racial remarks that scientific evidence suggested “the Africans were an intelligently inferior lot”. Never mind if the flap that followed prompted him to hastily backtrack and sheepishly admit that his belief actually “lacked scientific proof”.

In hindsight, maybe the good doctor is thinking it wasn’t such a great idea after all to have posted his genome online, where scientists from deCode Genetics, a leading gene tracking laboratory in Iceland, reportedly picked it up to plumb his ancestral roots. Or maybe he doesn’t. After all, the human genome does offer clear enough evidence of mankind’s remarkable similarity. The DNA of any two humans is at least 99 per cent identical. At the same time, the remaining fraction reveals dramatic differences between people of different continental origins. Small changes in DNA, for instance, give Europeans their pale skin, make Asians sweat less, and West Africans more resistant to certain diseases.

Not that this absolves Dr Watson of insulting the intelligence of, er, his forefathers the way he did. Unless, of course, he admits to being a eugeneticist and goes around claiming that certain racial stocks are superior to others in traits like intelligence and good looks.