Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I have been meaning to say something about James Watson's comments about black people and his subsequent banishment by both the London Science Museum and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

In a Sunday Times interview, Dr Watson was quoted as saying 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 was further quoted as saying that his hope was that everyone was equal but that "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true".

In comments published in The Independent newspaper Dr Watson tried to clarify his position. "We do not yet adequately understand the way in which the different environments in the world have selected over time the genes which determine our capacity to do different things," he is quoted as saying. "The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science. To question this is not to give in to racism. This is not a discussion about superiority or inferiority, it is about seeking to understand differences, about why some of us are great musicians and others."

As a general point, I am against restrictions on free speech. It is far better that all views should be open to debate and contradiction, rather than that they develop covertly and secretly among small cohorts who may then react violently and unacceptably. For example extreme Islamist views are being secretly preached in British prisons in a language that few English speakers understand. Again there has to be some restriction on how these views are expressed. Incitement to violence cannot be admitted. However, even though Dr Watson won't be heard in London, the hare has been raised and needs chasing.

There are several things that need saying. One was neatly articulated by Craig Venter, "Skin colour as a surrogate for race is a social concept not a scientific one. There is no basis in scientific fact or in the human genetic code for the notion that skin colour will be predictive of intelligence."

Nevertheless, putting aside stereotyping the question of the relative intelligence of different racial groups remains a question to be debated. The problem with the answers provided by IQ tests is that the tests themselves may be culturally biased. Attempts have been made to make them less so, but I am insufficiently expert to know how successful these have been.

For readers who want to explore this topic further I suggest reading these two reviews of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Readers will find that people have very polarized views on the subject which tend to correlate with whether they are on the left or right of the political spectrum. I am almost certain that both are wrong (and right).

There is some good evidence that intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) contains a large inherited component, though attempts to prove it so by separated twin studies by British psychologist Cyril Burt were later generally thought to have been fraudulent. There is also good evidence that intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) correlates well with 'success' in Western society (larger salaries, greater longevity, nicer places to live, better schools for their children). However, this is not always the case.

I went to a very academic school. I was close to the top of the class, but never top. There were two boys who always surpassed me and I was interested to discover what became of them. One of them turned out to be the inventor of an important anti-cancer drug and has pursued a stellar career in academia. He currently holds an important Chair at an Ivy League University. But he usually came second; the guy who came first every term bar one is working as the editor of an obscure magazine for wireless anoraks. He lives alone on $30K a year. He is probably happy, but not what the world would call a success.

On the other hand there are many actors, sports stars, TV celebrities, dancers and rock stars who are about as bright as a forty-watt light bulb and many successful entrepreneurs couldn't hack it academically.

Another characteristic of very clever people is that they are often supremely silly.

One example of extreme silliness was the attempt by Robert Klark Graham to set up a "genius sperm bank", from which nearly 230 children were conceived. he tried to recruit Nobel Prize winners as donors. William Shockley and James Watson were believed to be donors and Watson's DNA colleague Francis Crick is also believed to have contributed. Other Laureates including Crick and Watson's co-winner for the structure of DNA, Maurice Wilkins tore up their invitation letters in disgust.

The 'science' of Eugenics (it means good genes) was invented by Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, though the basic idea goes back to Plato. After Hitler, most people downplayed their interest in eugenics. However, it should be remembered that the opposite view - that if you change the environment you change the child - can have equally disastrous consequences. Stalin was very much of the opinion that environment is everything.

I tend to take my ideas on sociology from the Bible, which says, "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully."

When we say that are men are born equal, we are not talking about their abilities or their position in society, we are talking about their worth before God. So the death or suffering of a child in Africa or Iraq should concern us as much as the death or suffering of a child in America or Britain. That it does not is a measure of how much we fall short.

Even on a strictly utilitarian basis, the idea that intelligence is everything is a busted flush. If you don't believe me, try getting an intellectual to fix your toilet.


Anonymous said...

The only people who keep harping on race are those whose business it is to make money from donations, lawsuits, and the like.

This means Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson and the like.

A color-blind society will never exist as long as they, and the liberals, can whip up frenzy over supposed insults, etc.

If you look long and hard enough, you might conjure up a supposed example of what you are looking for.

It would be silly except for the lives damaged and the money lost to these charlatans.

Terry Hamblin said...

Stereotyping people by their color or racial appearance is clearly silly. Most African Americans have as much of Europe in their blood as they do Africa, and why should that matter?

There may be cultural factors that apply to people in certain communities that may militate against success in Western economies, but there are not confined to people of a certain color.

We must learn to avoid judging people by their ability to pass examinations. We should value people for what they can do. I am inordinately grateful to the people who keep my fresh water and sewage separate. They have made a greater contribution to the health of the community than any number of doctors.