Pondering Watson

James Watson, the Nobel Laureate, recently made headlines for his controversial remarks on race. While he is known in the scientific community for his generally controversial and inflammatory nature, he may be remembered for these words and not for his role in the discovery of the structure of DNA:

A profile 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.” He said that while he hopes everyone is equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”

After apologizing, he did try to clarify his words:

“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 great engineers.”

Many scientists and groups hastily distanced themselves from Watson, who has now retired from his position as the Chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after nearly 40 years of service to the organization.

Similarly, the American Society for Human Genetics, of which I am a member, is preparing a rebuttal of Watson’s controversial claims. Their statement, still in draft form, reads,

The American Society of Human Genetics is committed to scientific integrity, and values the contributions of researchers and clinicians to the advancement of human genetics.

We consider the recent statements attributed to James Watson in the London times to be tragically misguided because there is no scientific evidence for differences in intellectual ability among racial groups.

Our organization promotes accurate reporting and rigorous interpretation of all scientific data to insure benefit to all people.”

I started reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies by Jared Diamond today. So far, it is fascinating reading, a brief history of the world from about 13,000 BC to present. Why did human populations around the globe develop and utilize technologies at different rates? The goal of this work, and I do not yet know the answer, is why some societies became “civilized” while others did not. With Watson’s bias on my mind, these two paragraphs of Diamond’s really stood out in stark contrast. How differently these two scientists approach the same question, the same set of “facts.”

It seems logical to suppose that history’s pattern reflects innate differences among people themselves. Of course, we’re taught that it’s not polite to say so in public. We read of technical studies claiming to demonstrate inborn differences, and we also read rebuttals claiming that those studies suffer from technical flaws. We see in our daily lives that some of the conquered peoples continue to form an underclass, centuries after the conquests or slave imports took place. We’re told that this too is to be attributed not to any biological shortcomings but to social disadvantages and limited opportunities.

Nevertheless, we have to wonder. We keep seeing all those glaring, persistent differences in people’s status. We’re assured that the seemingly transparent biological explanation for the world’s inequalities as of AD 1500 is wrong, but we’re not told what the correct explanation is. Until we have some convincing, detailed, agreed-upon explanation for the broad pattern of history, most people will continue to suspect that the racist biological explanation is correct after all. That seems to me the strongest argument for writing this book.

I have another 400 pages to go, but I suspect it will be fascinating reading. If nothing else, it will serve as a reminder that perhaps the most important quality a scientist can have is an open mind.

2 comments on “Pondering Watson
  1. Mel Starrs says:

    As I read the first paragraph of this post, I thought “I must recommend Guns, Germs and Steel” – he he – too late! It’s an excellent book and I zoomed through it while sunning myself in Thailand (not typical beach reading). I’ll be buying a copy for reference when I get home. I also loved his newer book “Collapse” which I read first. Many of the ideas from GGS are revisited in Collapse.

  2. Cathy says:

    I swear you are my long lost sister or something. I hope you make it to Colorado on your journey. I can offer you two hot showers, laundry facilities, and a guest room. After your car living, my home will seem posh…