Its always sad to see an eminent scientist getting himself into strife with what appears, at first sight, to be a few injudicious and controversial remarks.
It’s even worse to find that those remarks have been used to construct an unfair and rather misleading hose job on the front page of the Independent.
Fury at DNA pioneer’s theory: Africans are less intelligent than Westerners
Celebrated scientist attacked for race comments: “All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”
By Cahal Milmo
Published: 17 October 2007
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 ahead of his arrival in Britain today 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.”
Now here’s what Watson actually said, as reported by The Sunday Times:
Back in 1990, the journal Science commented: “To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script.” When, in 2000, he left an audience reeling by suggesting a link between skin colour and sex drive – hypothesising that dark-skinned people have stronger libidos – some journalists suggested he had “opened a transatlantic rift”. American scientists accused him of “trading on past successes to promote opinions that have little scientific basis”. British academics countered that subjects should not be off limits because they are politically incorrect. Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, said that “nothing should stop you ascertaining the scientific truth; science must be free of concerns about gender and race”.
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”.
When asked how long it might take for the key genes in affecting differences in human intelligence to be found, his “back-of-the-envelope answer” is 15 years. However, he wonders if even 10 years will pass. 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.”
Watson will no doubt enthusiastically counter the inevitable criticisms that will arise. He once commented to a fellow scientist – perhaps optimistically – that “the time was surely not far off when academia would have no choice but to hand political correctness back to the politicians”. Even after a year at the lab, I am still unnerved by his devil-may-care compulsion to say what he believes. Critics may see his acceptance of “softer-science” studies – that attempt to link IQ with specific genes, but remove society and other factors from the equation – as a dangerously flippant approach to a complex issue. His comments, however, although seemingly unguarded, are always calculated. Not maliciously, but with the mischievous air of a great mind hoping to be challenged. I ask him how he placates those he offends. “I try to use humour or whatever I can to indicate that I understand other people having other views,” he explains.
Notice that the one statement that doesn’t make the Indy’s second-hand report of Watson’s comments, in full, is this one:
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”.
While I cannot vouch for the basis of his comments as to the experiences of people who ‘have to deal with black employees’, the proposition that employees should be promoted on their merits and ability and not out of secondary, tokenistic, considerations based on abstract notions of equality is, of course, fundamentally sound.
As you might expect, the Indy has rounded up the usual ‘talking heads’ to put in their often uneducated and unqualified twopennorth, starting with the inevitable Keith Vaz:
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.”
Vaz, a lawyer and career politician is, I very strongly suspect, in no position to comment on whether Watson’s remarks are either baseless or unscientific, lacking, as he appears to, either the qualifications or experience to make such judgements.
Personally, I disagree with Watson’s remarks, but have to concede that from a scientific standpoint the jury is still very much out on the subject of the link, or otherwise, between genetics and intelligence. It is an extremely complex field of study and one in which there is considerable contention and doubt as to the validity of current mechanisms for testing and evaluating intelligence.
Watson’s basic proposition, outlined here:
“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”
…is, in scientific terms, fundamentally sound.
What Watson is referring to is nothing more than genetic drift (or more correctly allelic drift) which has no preferred direction, and he is quite correct to point out that it should not be assumed or presupposed that any of the characteristics of any group of humans geographically separated in their evolution should automatically have evolved in an identical fashion to those of another group.
The difficulty that arises in dealing the question of human intelligence lies in the mechanics of testing and scoring intelligence, which is unreliable and subject, when applied to comparisons of what are alleged to be racial characteristics, to considerable confounding effects arising from differences in culture, environment and education. As James R Flynn (of the Flynn effect) correctly, in my opinion, noted, what current ‘intelligence tests’ actually test is not intelligence itself but only a minor variety of abstract problem solving reasoning of a kind that is of little practical significance – other than, perhaps, to the retailers of so-called ‘brain-training’ software for popular game consoles.
Flynn’s work does, however, point towards the welcome probability that Watson’s hope that everyone is [statistically] equal will turn out to be the case. Where, in the most advantaged communities and developed societies, the Flynn effect – a recorded rise in the average intelligence quotient over time – appears to have topped out during the 1990s, in the developing world and in socially disadvantaged minority communities in developed societies the effect is still operating and acting to level out the statistical gap that has been recorded between different ethnic groups.
The existence of such a gap is NOT in doubt, what is – rightly – the subject of much contention is its cause(s) and overall long-term significance. Likewise, genetic drift (and natural selection) can and does operate on a much smaller scale than that of a notional ‘race’ as defined by relatively crude external physical characteristics such that one may easily find marked genetic differences between populations (Saxons and Celts, West Africans and South Africans) that would otherwise be generally classed as belonging to the same ‘race’. If the study of genetics has demonstrated anything of genuine social significance over the last 50 years its that conventional notions of ‘race’ are massively fallacious to the point of absurdity. Allelic drift, itself, is subject to the law of large numbers such that one will find a greater degree of genetic drift in smaller populations than in larger one to the extent that, given sufficient time, one could find a greater degree of genetic difference between two distinct but neighbouring tribal groups in Africa who consistently marry only within their own tribe than one would in the entire African-American population of the United States of America.
In his 2006 paper (with Dickens), entitled “Black Americans Reduce the Racial IQ Gap: Evidence from Standardization Samples” (pdf), Flynn notes that over the period from 1972 to 2002, Black Americans made a statistical gain of between 4 and 7 point on the IQ scale over and above that exhibited by non-Hispanic White Americans, gains which have been shown to be fairly uniform across all four main tests of cognitive ability. While such trends do not offer an absolutely guarantee that average IQ scores for non-white communities will eventually level out at the same level as those for white communities, the trend is promising and, indeed it remains a possibility that it could even level out above that of white communities – it really is too early to make any definite predictions although not unreasonable to expect that, all other things being equal, what will eventually emerge will be a position of relative parity.
Vaz concludes his comments with the typically snide observation that:
“These comments serve as a reminder of the attitudes which can still exists at the highest professional levels.”
Actually, they seem to serve – to me, at least – as a reminder that we are still some considerable way from a full understanding of the full genetic, social, cultural and environmental dimensions of intelligence as well as reminding why it is that politicians should keep their mouths shut when they lack sufficient understanding of a subject to fully comprehend what is actually being said.
As ever, the one person from whom the Indy sought a comment who is qualified to discuss Watson’s comment in detail is barely given space to draw breath:
Steven Rose, a professor of biological sciences at the Open University and a founder member of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science, said: ” This is Watson at his most scandalous. He has said similar things about women before but I have never heard him get into this racist terrain. If he knew the literature in the subject he would know he was out of his depth scientifically, quite apart from socially and politically.”
That said, Rose is hardly a stranger to controversy himself, as this 2001 profile from the Guardian demonstrates and his explicit reference to Watson getting ‘into this racist terrain’ hardly does justice to what is a complex, contentious and, importantly, ongoing scientific debate – and perhaps I should note for the record that my own position is one that accepts that genetics can and does provide some of the core foundations for things like human behaviour and intelligence – the raw materials, if you will – upon which environmental, social and cultural factors then build to produce the finished article, a functioning human being. The extent to which each of these factors is significant and, particularly, is capable of acting to override other factors is variable and often difficult to quantify but when it comes to arguing about nature vs nurture, my view is that its both that matter.
Rose is undoubtedly a good scientist and his work has considerable merit – much as I tend to prefer the more moderate tone of his late colleague, Stephen J Gould – but in approaching some of his remarks one has to be careful to distinguish between those occasions on which he is operating politically rather from those where he functions in purely scientific terms, particularly on occasions such as this where it is pretty clear that Watson is acting up to his well-deserved reputation as an iconoclast and deliberately stirring the pot.
The Indy’s piece concludes with something that has, depressingly, become all too common:
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. It amounts to fuelling bigotry and we would like it to be looked at for grounds of legal complaint.”
The correct – and valid – response to Watson’s comments is to do precisely what Watson suggests should be done, tackle them scientifically, do the research and produce the evidence that supports his hope that we are all, ultimately [and statistically], equal.
Science – good science – is not without its risks as there is always the possibility, however slim, that it may turn up answers you weren’t expecting and don’t like but if we are to make progress and develop a greater understanding of the world and our place within it then science has to be given the freedom to take just those kinds of risks.
Waving around racial-hatred laws just because someone proposes an idea that you find uncomfortable and which subjects your preferred political orthodoxy to scrutiny is not only absurd but the very worst kind of anti-intellectualism and a refusal to engage in a matter of -like it or not – legitimate academic debate.
My personal view is Watson is wrong in his unevidenced observations, although the underlying theoretical position and the questions that stem from it are perfectly sound and he is not wrong to pose the question in the hope/expectation of stimulating further intellectual inquiry. What Watson has done here – quite knowingly and in a calculated manner, I suspect – is put up to others the challenge of proving him wrong, and its on that basis that he should be answered, not with spurious legal complaints and trite political rhetoric but with evidence that demonstrates, conclusively, that that the genetic components that contribute towards human intelligence are an inheritance common to all groups in modern human society and that they did evolve in parallel to provide a uniform statistical capacity for intelligence across all such groups.
Indeed, as any good scientist should, Watson even outlines the evidence that will conclusively falsify the notion of ‘racially-linked’ genetic differences operating on human intelligence:
When asked how long it might take for the key genes in affecting differences in human intelligence to be found, his “back-of-the-envelope answer” is 15 years. However, he wonders if even 10 years will pass.
One of key predictions of the theory of allelic drift is that, given a long enough period of time, a neutral gene will either die out completely in a given population or become ubiquitous across the entire population – the discovery of genes linked to intelligence together with evidence to show that those genes are ubiquitous across the human population is all that it will take to prove Watson’s fears to be have been without foundation.
If there is anything is all this that actually fuels bigotry its the stance of those who reflexively attempt to resort to the law to close down academic debate and inquiry, a debate that, ironically, could – if permitted to proceed without interference – end up settling the question of whether and to what extent genetics does, or does not, influence intelligence and if so to what extent that influence may operate within defined human populations – and as I’ve said, my own view is that such research will ultimately show that genetics is merely one factor amongst many, that the relevant genes are ubiquitous amongst most of, if not the entire human population and that if there is evidence of allelic drift effect relating to intelligence then the picture that emerges will be much more complex than any of the crude, conventional notions of race and ethnicity.