Race, Genetics, and Intelligence

I changed my mind about James Watson yesterday.

The Double Helix highlighted for our class many of James Watson’s character flaws. In the book Watson seems to poke at himself in a way that shows a matured self-awareness: It was obvious in his reflection of another scientist facetiously calling him “Honest Abe,” a clear jab at his own integrity. It was also seen in his sexist tone throughout the book in all matters concerning Rosalind Franklin. As you might remember, he refers to her as “Rosy,” framing her as a hindering and emotional woman.

After completing our study of the novel, I had the impression that Watson had learned from his youth. I saw Watson’s personality critique throughout the book as evidence of his self-awareness and maturity. I came away from our discussion with a positive impression of the great scientist.

However, Friday’s discussion of race and genetics inspired the Google search that revealed Watson’s lack of character development at the age of 79. The Google search Evolution and Race results in an article that describes a series of racist comments made by James Watson last year concerning the intelligence of black people. Although it may be old news to some, it was a shock to me.

Last October The Times Magazine of London quoted him as saying that he’s “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.” His comments were addressing U.S. social policy decisions concerning Africa. The Times went on to report that he wished that everyone was equal but, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true,” Watson was quoted as saying.

Universities, book-stores, and museums canceled Watson’s scheduled appearances as a result of the comments. Many professionals decried his remarks as a racist propaganda that shadowed solid scientific findings concerning race and genetics.

If nothing else, James Watson is good at raising the awareness of scientific debates. International magazines and university classrooms like ours are now discussing the genetic evidence discerning race. James Watson and American political scientist Charles Murray (author of the Bell Curve) have suggested differences in IQ were genetic.

However, our class and most of the scientific community are in agreement: There are no separate classifiable subspecies (races) that exist within humans. No one can argue that there are phenotypic consistencies among groups commonly known as “races.” Black people do have darker skin, and white people do have genes that code for lighter skin. However there also is no genetic basis for divisions of human ethnicity. As explained in class and by the Human Genome Project, “no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another.” Race is something that was constructed from societal pressures not evolutionary pressures.

In Watson’s defense, he is currently making an attempt to reconcile his unfounded comments. Maybe Watson should write another book to explore the flaws in his character. I’ve heard from you English majors that it can be therapeutic.

-Alec Petersen


~ by anonymous on April 14, 2008.

3 Responses to “Race, Genetics, and Intelligence”

  1. The truth is in the peer-reviewed literture summarized (and cited extensively) in Hart, “Understanding Human History” and Lyn, “Race Differences in Intelligence.” Watson is dead on, and it is amazing he wasn’t more vocal about it…

  2. Try this one:

    “In March 2003, investigators turned to Tony Frudakis, a molecular biologist who said he could determine the suspect’s race by analyzing his DNA. Uncertain about the science, the police asked Frudakis to take a blind test: They sent him DNA swabs from 20 people to see if he could identify their races. He nailed every one…”

  3. 1. Watson observed that research showed group differences. The existence of average group differences isn’t in dispute, what is in dispute is to what extent they are due to environmental variation as opposed to genetic variation.

    2. In terms of your comment about whether racial groups exist, this can become a bit of a semantic debate. Population geneticist and 2004 winner of the Curt Stern award, Neil Risch, has pointed out that studies over the past 20 years consistently show group clusters that correspond to traditional continental racial groups. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC139378/

    4. As genes tend to occur in different frequencies across groups, and there has been considerable genetic change over the past 40,000 years, it is quite possible that groups in different environments (eg. female farming economies vs more labor intensive agriculture) selected for different average traits. Professor Steve Hsu discusses research by UC Davis economist Greg Clark and the recent book ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’ in these posts. http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2011/08/clark-cowen-delong-discuss-genetics-and.html


    5. If you look at what academics privately polled think about the cause of average differences on psychometric testing, the results are quite different to what people are prepared to say in public (not surprising!). However, the study by Stanley Rothman & Mark Snyderman of 661 academic members of associations like the APA, Behavioural Genetics Association & Cognitive Science Society indicated far more consider group differences to be attributable to genetic and environmental variation rather than environmental variation alone.


    6. I doubt these debates will be resolved any time soon, but if they are the answers will likely be from China where studies on the genes associated with cognitive ability are getting a lot of funding.


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