Dr Watson and the new race/IQ controversy

Fury at DNA pioneer’s theory: Africans are less intelligent than Westerners - Independent Online Edition

To be honest, I’m a bit shocked that this “news” appeared on the front of the Independent, and that it was represented in the way it was on this front page. The story is that Dr James Watson, one of the team which discovered DNA and won the Nobel prize for it, is in the UK to promote a new book of his (although his talk, at the Science Museum, has been cancelled), which repeats his opinion that, despite people’s wish to believe that all people are equal, the reality is otherwise:

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.”

To be fair on the Independent, they do also print another article about the history of such theories about race and intelligence, which you can find here. The problem is that the Independent is clearly obsessed with making stories out of its own headlines, rather than out of the news. The idea that some scientist believes some such thing is not news. This guy is 79, and the news that he has opinions which might have been fashionable in the 1950s but aren’t now is hardly surprising.

The story has been heavily discussed on the BBC London radio station, both on Jumoke Fashola’s show on Tuesday night and on Vanessa Feltz’s yesterday morning. I didn’t catch most of the late night discussion as it was my “bedtime listening” to which I fell asleep as was my intention, but Vanessa Feltz brought up the issue of whether his speech should be the subject of protests, or should be cancelled outright. I wrote to her about this issue, although she didn’t read my email out (and she often does, by the way), expressing the view that his speech shouldn’t be cancelled because censorship often raises the profile of, and imparts a sort of “victim’s licence” to, the person censored. A recent example was the speech which was to be given by Matthias Kuentzel, advancing the idea that Muslim attitudes to Israel have their roots in anti-Semitic Nazi wartime propaganda - as if the Arabs, and Muslims generally, have welcomed with open arms any other invaders like the Crusaders and the Spanish who retook Andalucia. However, since the speech was not given, it was left to bloggers like me to refute him, and his fans, like Melanie Phillips, are still blowing his trumpet months later. It is a common complaint of racists that they are victims of censorship and that people do not want to hear their views or admit that they are true.

Unsurprisingly, none of the callers to Feltz’s show that I heard supported Watson’s views. One of them, who said he had taught adults in a number of countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, said he had noticed that they were all as intelligent as each other, although some had more commitment to learning what they were supposed to be learning than others. The reason such views cause such offence may well be less to do with whether they are or are not true, but with why people advance them and what the consequences are if they are true.

A few years ago I came across a racist pamphlet by one Roger Roots, entitled A Hundred Facts and One Lie, which contains 100 so-called facts, with an impressive array of footnotes. The pamphlet can be found on a number of websites including this one. It alleges that among the White race’s luminaries are “Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Homer, Tacitus, Julius Ceaser, Napoleon, William the Conqueror, Marco Polo, Washington, Jefferson, Hitler, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Magellan, Columbus, Cabot, Edison, GrahamBell, Pasteur, Leeuwenhoek, Mendel, Darwin, Newton, Galileo, Watt, Ford, Luther, Devinci (this spelling mistake is in all the online editions I found), Poe, Tennyson, and thousands upon thousands of other notable achievers”, while the “pure-blooded Negro” never produced anything and in terms of shelter, “he never progressed beyond the common mud hut, the construction of which a beaver or muskrat is capable”. It’s notable that the pamphlet names Hitler among our race’s notable achievers when his actions led to the deaths of millions and the ruin and truncation of his country (and unlike Napoleon, whose mistake of invading Russia he repeated, he did not bequeath anything such as a system of law). Roots assures us that his “motivations are not of insult or hatred, but of the deepest love for mankind and the truest concern for its future generations”, and doesn’t use the “N word” once but repeatedly likens Black people to apes.

The message of the pamphlet was plain: intermarriage was a bad thing and leads to decline in intelligence and civilisation; white people are smarter, more beautiful and better in everything that makes people human than black people. However, the dozens of footnotes mostly lead to racist pamphlets rather than to peer-reviewed scientific journals, and many of the facts cited as evidence have other explanations. For example, the decline of Portugal from a distinguished centre of European civilisation to the backwater it had become by the time that pamphlet was written doubtless has more to do with the policies of the Salazar dictatorship than with the supposed homogenisation of the White Portuguese with those who had come in from the African colonies. And most Portuguese are not mixed-race, particularly in the rural areas.

Watson’s opinions are not expressed in quite the same tone of veiled contempt as Roots’s pamphlet, although it was said in the Science journal in 1990 that “his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script”; among the other controversial views he has aired was that a woman should have a right to an abortion if genetic tests could prove the child would be homosexual, that there is a correlation between skin colour and high libidos, that “stupidity” could one day be cured through genetic screening, and that beauty could also be genetically manufactured. However, anyone who advances such ideas should be asked to consider the consequences, which is what those advancing the theory have usually had in mind anyway. They oppose, for example, affirmative action and any other scheme designed to widen academic and career opportunities for Black people, including children. In some countries they have outlawed interracial marriage.

Their arguments can be countered, and in some cases met part-way. For example, they gloss over the facts of slavery and decades of discrimination, asserting that Black people are generally less well-paid and do less well in academia simply because they are less intelligent. They should be asked the question of where, even if their theory is true, does its effect begin and the effects of racism and discrimination end. When they argue about Black crime, they ignore the fact that the problems of inner-city Black youth crime in cities like London is not repeated in most of West Africa, for example, which is overwhelmingly Black. The fact of poor school achievement in western inner cities is real, but so is the practice of some Black parents in the UK of taking their children to Africa or the Carribean for an education, where methods are more old-fashioned, standards are higher and there are more Black role models; the doctors and teachers one encounters there are mostly Black. This rather blows a hole in the idea that Blacks have achieved more in the west due to the White blood they carry. Indeed, whether or not the “Negro race” has produced a Homer or a Martin Luther, it certainly produced plenty of Muslim scholars and poets who wrote in both Arabic and in the native languages of West Africa.

Regarding the issue of interracial marriage, which is an issue of importance to me due to the likelihood of my conducting one in the future (and of another in my family probably sooner), these scientists give us too little credit if they think we might marry someone who might well produce inferior children for us. In our society at least, people tend to marry those who are personally suitable, which in the case of an intelligent and literate man means an intelligent and literate woman with whom he can have an adult conversation. We may not be thinking consciously of the gene pool in this situation, but I think it unlikely that a family could go from being intelligent and cultured to lumpen-proletariat in a couple of generations simply because of interracial marriages. This does, of course, leave out all the other virtues someone might look for in a partner, and want their children to have, besides intelligence. Intelligence is only a virtue if it is accompanied by good character.

What Watson has achieved cannot be taken away from him, of course - many innocent people are free today because DNA technology proved that they could not have committed the crime for which they were convicted - but it also demonstrates the danger of knowing too much. Just the past week we heard the story of the two babies in the Czech Republic who were swapped at birth, a fact revealed when one of the fathers took a DNA test after his drinking pals teased him that the baby girl his wife had been breast-feeding for several months looked nothing like him. In the past, of course, this would not have been an option, and both families would have continued raising the children as if they really were theirs. A few years ago, there was a case in the UK of a test-tube baby being injected into the wrong woman, and when discussing this with work colleagues, I found that my opinion that the woman who received the wrong embryo was still the child’s mother got short shrift. “DNA!” was the response, as if carrying for nine months, giving birth to and then breast-feeding a child for several months more counts for nothing. The DNA maketh the mother.

It should also be remembered, when trumpeting “our” supposed achievements as a “race”, that none of these so-called geniuses did what they did alone. They all built on the work of those who went before them, and often did not work alone but in teams (Watson, for example, shared his Nobel Prize with two other scientists, and a fourth died of cancer before she could share in it). There is no reason for us to take pride in these people’s achievements, not least because a number of these “geniuses” were also rather unbalanced, some even more so than Watson with the prejudicial drivel quoted from him in today’s Independent (“people who have to deal with black employees …” - that’s not very scientific, is it?). Tariq Nelson has in the past made good points about the role of culture, rather than genetics, in the differing levels of achievement among different ethnic groups; the book Race and IQ, edited by Ashley Montagu, makes the point about the “history of novel complex experiences which lead to the development of technological abilities and group achievement”. We might also note that the present pre-eminence of White Europeans and Americans in world intellectual life is a relatively recent phenomenon; if the explanation for Black underachievement now is genetic, perhaps the same can be said for the Dark Ages and the tumult of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe.

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