The shameful vilification of James Watson

In a recent post about the Nobel ceremony I observed that James Watson who had sold his Nobel medal had it returned to him by the purchaser. Apart from his recognition along with Crick and Wilkins for their DNA work, he has been and still is one of the most important evolutionary biologists of our time. But he has become persona non grata now with the self-appointed guardians of public morality and the prevailing “political correctness” which disallows “intelligence” – however it may be defined – from being in any way dependent upon the genetic variations between different human populations. His vilification and downfall was a rapid business in 2007, even though, everything Watson got in trouble for saying was entirely correct” as Gene Expression pointed out in October 2007:

It’s difficult to name many more important living figures in 20th century biology than James Watson. He ushered in the current age of molecular biology with his achievements in 1953, he built up one of the world’s greatest biological research facilities from damn near scratch, and he is a former head of the Human Genome Project.
Given such an august curriculum vitae, you would think that this man perhaps understands just a few things about genetics. But given only the condescending media coverage, you’d think this eminent geneticist was somehow “out of his depth” on this one.
In his interview with the Times on Oct. 14th, we learned that:

… [Watson] 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.

These thoughts were a continuation of an important theme in his book Avoid Boring People:

… 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.

Although Watson’s book had already been out for a month with these more euphemistic, but still obvious, comments on race and intelligence, no one expressed any outrage. In fact the reviews were reverential and universally positive.
The explicit reference to intelligence and people of African heritage in his interview was clearly a violation of a much more formidable taboo. Still I am not aware of there being much noise about it until Oct. 17th when the Independent caused an immediate stir by calling attention to the remarks: Africans are less intelligent than Westerners says DNA pioneer.
There’s no point in rehashing the rapid sequence of events in detail: several of Watson’s sold-out speaking engagements were cancelled, many critical articles appeared in the British press, trailed by the American press a few days later, hundreds of blogs were fuming with negative commentary, including ones by the editors of Scientific American and Wired Magazine, a number of associations issued statements condemning his words, and soon he was suspended from his chancellorship at Cold Spring Harbor. Watson cancelled his already ruined book tour and flew home to tend to the destruction. It was too late; the eminent biologist retired in disgrace on Oct. 26th. 
One thing, though, was conspicuously missing from this whole irritating denouement: any semblance of factual refutation. There is good reason for this: everything Watson got in trouble for saying was entirely correct!

Gene Expression goes on to show that the data support what James Watson said.

Unfortunately our esteemed band of sputtering media scientists forgot to provide, in all of these instances, any of their allegedly voluminous citations to the contrary. Allow me, then, to take a different position, with the added benefit of evidence: ………

………. 65 psychometric intelligence study citations for sub-Saharan Africa, collected in IQ & Global Inequality, Race Differences in Intelligence, and IQ & the Wealth of Nations. The citations cover 47% of SS African countries or 78% of the people by national population numbers. The studies vary in quality, sample size, and representativeness, but broadly agree in their findings. Representative studies of the school age population with large sample sizes do not exhibit higher scores, much less scores that approach anything like European norms. …..

….. Thus typical African IQ scores of 70 and below can still be taken as a reliable finding. It is not simply the manufactured data of racialist researchers, or a byproduct of inadequate testing procedures. And, more importantly from the standpoint of the Watson controversy, certainly no reliable body of evidence has shown anything like parity with typical European scores.

The entire episode and shameful treatment meted out to Watson by an unscrupulous and sensationalist media and by politically correct but cowardly members of the scientific community was based, I think, on

  • the intellectual laziness in defining what “race” is, and the sloppy way in which the term is used, and 
  • a fear of confronting the ideological notion that some meaningless, diffuse “equality” of all humans transcends and overrides the real genetic variations due to ancestry

We use the term “race” colloquially and loosely and for convenience. There is no firm scientific definition of what constitutes a “race”. Often it is taken – wrongly – to be just a difference of skin colour. The politically correct brigade claim that race is a “social construct” but this is just nonsense. An “African-American” carries genes from his African ancestry and not any particular social behaviour from his ancestors. But “race” is also a dynamic term and shifts with the generations of man. The races we recognise and classify humans into today, is based on the prevailing groupings of populations that are convenient today. Fifty generations ago the “races” of that time would have been quite different. And fifty generations from now they will be quite different to the “races” we recognise today. The classification is about ancestry and is based on (or should be based on) the separate packages of genetic characteristics (some visible and some not) which are discernible and allow the grouping and classification of populations.

It seems perfectly logical, and is highly probable, that humans, though they may have originated from just a few relatively small populations out of Africarabia, have then over the next 5,000 generations, continued evolving in situ, giving the genetic diversity and the consequent physical diversity that we see today. The geographical populations we observe today are the result both of evolution in situ and a plethora of admixtures as people have migrated and mixed over the last 100,000 years. There were no “African-Americans” 50 generations ago. But already “African-Americans” today are different to “Africans” and both continue to evolve and develop in situ. It is quite unlikely that “African-American” or “Asian-British” or “Turkish-Germans” or “Chinese-Indonesian” will be classifications of race or ethnicity that will be used 50 generations from now. This geographically evolved and still evolving diversity, already shows up as genetic differences not only of skin, eye and hair colour but also as differences in disease resistance, physical characteristics, athletic capabilities, behaviour and surely many more invisible (including mental) characteristics.

We have no difficulty in accepting that different populations (effectively different races in colloquial usage) have differences of physical characteristics due to their genetic ancestry. There is no great outrage now that recent studies point to some genetic differences that Tibetans have which may give them an advantage in absorbing oxygen at high altitudes. Similarly there are no screams when other genetic studies suggest that East Africans (Kenyans and Ethiopians in the main) have some genes – or combination of genes – which give them better endurance and therefore – given good nourishment – lead to better performance as long distance runners. West Africans, or those of West African descent, it seems may have some genetic advantages which make them the fastest sprinters over short distances. African genes also seem to give a lower fat content in body mass – which is genetic – and may be one explanation why their performance as swimmers is less than exceptional. That Indians are more prone to Type 2 diabetes than other “races” is not indignantly opposed but just taken for the observation it is. Indian-Americans (3 generations) are already exhibiting lower rates than their Indian ancestry would indicate. Japanese have very low rates of heart disease but already (in less than 6 generations) Japanese-Hawaiians have heart disease rates that are 2 -3 times higher.

It is illogical to assume that these genetic variations between different geographic populations ( colloquially “races”) have only manifested themselves as physical variations. It is highly probable and probably inevitable that these genetic developments will also have affected the brain, its functioning and behaviour. And intelligence.

“Intelligence” is many things to many people and – by most definitions – more than just an IQ test. The IQ test only really measures the ability to do the test. Nevertheless the IQ test results do seem to correlate well to whatever we may choose to call intelligence. There is without doubt a genetic component to both intelligence and IQ test results. IQ test measurements do show that results are significantly lower – for whatever reason –  among sub-Saharan African populations – on average. If intelligence has a genetic component and the colloquial use of the term “race” refers to an identifiable population exhibiting a certain package of genetic characteristics, then it is quite likely that the different genetic packages lead to some differences of intelligence.

If it is acceptable – and not racist – to observe that there are genetic differences in physical characteristics between the “races” of today, then it is just as acceptable and no more racist to observe that there are genetic differences of intelligence between the “races” of today.

That is all that Watson said.

(What “intelligence” actually is or may be is another story for another day).


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