“If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself, if it be a lie, laugh at it.”
In mid-January, 2019, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) formally severed all ties with ex-Chancellor Emeritus, James D. Watson. Mr. Watson is a American, Nobel-prize winning scientist, best known as the co-discoverer of the double helix of DNA, alongside his late partner, Francis Crick. It is no exaggeration to say that Dr. Watson is one of the single greatest intellects of the century and yet, curiously, he is also one of the most reviled.
The response from the media-culture complex upon learning of Watson’s fall was unadulterated Schadenfreude. Grand-standing checkmarks began to circle on Twitter like sharks smelling blood. Media vultures congregated about the desiccated husk of a once lauded career to squawk and sneer at the scientist’s misfortune. Incessant commentaries began to spring-up, most unfavorable, others still, straightforwardly defamatory.
Gizmodo, Vox and NYT Science all rushed forth to write up brisk and relatively banal pieces concerning the affair. One of the more egregious pieces on the topic was published by ScienceAlert, melodramatically titled, ‘Father of DNA’ James Watson Stripped Of Honors Over More Ugly Racist Comments.
To the uninitiated, this begs the question: what were these “ugly racist comments?” What prompted such seething animosity and societal derision?
Mr. Watson first came under withering scrutiny for a short passage in his 2007 book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons From A Life In Science, wherein the author wrote,
“There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically.”
One might disagree with the conclusion, but one could hardly say it is a wild or illogical induction, as it follows formally from the theory of evolution and from all that is known about the modern field of genetics. All capacities are evolved, shaped by differential environmental pressures (predation, resource scarcity, etc), ergo, those capacities which a given organism evolves will be particular to its site of development and to what it does within and with its environment and will, given sufficient geographic separation and time, vary from other organisms, even of the same species, and, provided a sufficient period of time, will become another species entirely.
As a simple, theoretical example, let us say that, in the far off future, an AI-piloted colony ship forged for deep-space exploration, carrying a cargo of cryo-preserved humans, makes passage to an exo-moon with conditions similar to that of Earth’s. Despite the similarity, there will be differences (in terrain, temperature, resources, biota, etc) and those differences will inform the development of that future colony. After one billion years, the morphology of the colony would be markedly different from recognizable human morphology and, as a consequence, they would no longer be able to interbreed with their distant, earth-bound ancestors, given that the last universal common ancestor, or LUCA, existed approximately 3.4 to 3.8 billion years ago, meaning that they (the colonists) would (barring some anomaly which suspended selection pressure) be a different species.
A present day example of marked evolutionary wrought human biodiversity can be found in the extraordinary abilities of the Indonesian Sama-Bajau. The Bajau are a homogeneous group of sea nomads who occupy the waters southwest of the Philippines and are remarkable for their morphological distinctiveness due centuries of living in and on and under the sea which allows them to hold their breath underwater for extremely long periods of time (some Bajau have been known to hold their breath for 13+ minutes) and to be able to dive to depths of 230+ feet (70+ meters). The Bajau are able to accomplish these astounding feats due, in part, their unique spleens, which are fifty per cent larger than their land dwelling neighbors, the Saluan of Sulawesi Island, Borneo. Diving animals, such as the weddell seal, tend to have comparatively larger spleens than similar organisms with different, less aquatic environments and proclivities. Just like the weddell seal, the Sama have adapted to their environment, to aquatic living and to deep diving, indeed, so much so, that just as some land-lubbers get seasick if they spend too much time on the water, the Sama become land-sick if they spend too much time away from it.
In 2007, the same year Watson published his aforementioned book, he stated in an interview that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospects 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.” A predictable outcry went up and Mr. Watson was forced to retire from his job at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Long Island.
In 2014 Mr. Watson sold his 1962 nobel prize and stated that he had been socially ostracized (“unpersoned” in his own words) and needed the funds. Watson donated a significant portion of the 4.8 million he acquired from the sale to charities and scientific research organizations. He was the first living nobel prize recipient in history to auction off a medal.
In 2019, a PBS documentary was created called Decoding Watson wherein the scientist was asked if his opinions on race and IQ had changed. He replied that they had not, adding that he would have liked it if some new research had emerged which proved him wrong, but that he had not seen any such research. It was this remark which prompted the media firestorm which then saw yet another anti-Watson campaign crop-up that caused all titles and honors to be stripped from the innovator and his ties with his old lab to be formally severed.
Social activists swiftly declared Watson a racist and urged the scientific community to, not only further denounce and distance themselves from him but to also consider how they would hand his legacy in light of his wrong-think (a school at Cold Spring is named after him and many wish for it to be scrubbed). For example: Jan 13, a one Patrick Chukwumah wrote, “Naked racism & bigotry masquerading as pseudo science. Social Darwinism evidently back in fashion.” Jan 14, ASAPScience, writing on their Twitter account, declared, “James Watson is out here being racist — but he’s been kinda terrible from jump.” The (I’m not making this up) Khemetic Church Anpu responded indignantly to the affair, writing, “James Watson was stripped of several honorary titles Friday by the New York lab he once headed. He has lied and falsified the data of black people’s IQ and the race of specific tribes all across America and Africa. Hes not the only one.” The fairly sizable “feminism and social justice” account, Karen James wrote, “-defenses of James Watson are unfounded and harmful.” Kayleigh Donaldson, co-host of the Hollywood Read podcast wrote of the affair, “James Watson has long been a racist creep who used science as justification for his bigotry. I’m surprised action like this took as long as it did to happen.” Media Diversified took up the falsification angle (as did many others), writing, “DNA ‘pioneer’ James Watson stripped of honours after he falsified data on race intelligence data suggesting black inferiority.”
Defamation in place of argumentation begets the degradation of the critical faculties. A loss which is, in the long-run, always greater than the political wins made in the short-term.
Mr. Watson’s comments may well have been articulated poorly and certainly too briskly, but to say they are based on “falsified data” is really quite extraordinary. There is and has been a difference between native black Americans, native white Americans and recent white and black arrivals from other countries on IQ tests. The descriptors “black” and “white” are, whilst useful as a everyday heuristics, considerably less useful as pertains to endeavors concerning genetics and intelligence due to their lack of precision. For example, simply saying merely “blacks” or “whites” tells you only whether or not a person is European-descended or African-descended (with some exceptions, such as certain Semitic peoples who are sometimes classed as “white”) and where they currently reside, but it does not factor in how long the population group to which they bare the most genetic similarity has occupied a certain area nor what the specific average differentials are between recently-arrived and multi-generational groups of the same racial categorization. Further, it should be noted that IQ is not a total measure of human intelligence, it is merely the best measure (the one from which the best predictions can be made), and, as a consequence, IQ fetishization should be guarded against (as it tends to lead people to believe that the average IQ of a given population is totally fixed which is, itself, a anti-evolutionary view; ie. given a sufficient period of time, the intellectual capabilities of a given population will always change in accordance with that which best allows them adapt, which will then change their aggregate IQ).
The Brookings Institute (an extremely milquetoast organization) in 1998 published a article titled The Black-White Test Score Gap:Why It Persists & What Can Be Done by Christopher Jencks & Meredith Phillips, wherein they wrote,
“African Americans score lower than European Americans on vocabulary, reading, and math tests, as well as on tests that claim to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. The gap appears before children enter kindergarten and it persists into adulthood. It has narrowed since 1970, but the typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on almost every standardized test. This statistic does not imply, of course, that all blacks score below all whites. There is a lot of overlap between the two groups. Nonetheless, the test score gap is large enough to have significant social and economic consequences.”
What is interesting is that the narrowing of the test score gap noted by Jencks and Phillips occurred as a consequence of black test scores rising, not white test scores falling. IQ was doubtless a factor and it is important to note that general IQ, worldwide, has been increasing (on average) since the 1930s. For example, in the US, eighty-two per cent of those who took the Stanford-Binet (a IQ test measuring knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual-spatial processing, working memory, and fluid reasoning, now in its fifth edition) in 1978 scored higher than the average who took it in 1932. In terms of racial difference, blacks on average scored the same in 1978 as whites did in 1932.
This disparity in academic achievement and average IQ would seem to support Dr. Watson’s argument, that is, until one factors in the differences between native American blacks and recent black migrant arrivals (Caribbeans, Africans, etc) which have achieved parity with native American whites and surpassed native American blacks. That is to say that, in relation to Watson’s commentary on certain features of intelligence being hereditary and unevenly distributed, he is correct, but on his point concerning the intelligence differentials between blacks and whites, the evidence suggests he is incorrect as pertains to Caribbean and African blacks (and certain other non-American polities), but still generally correct as pertains to native American blacks.
One of the central problems concerning a sanguine discussion of the issue of IQ is the hysteria it engenders; a measured caution is certainly warranted (as there are some who would use such information irresponsibly to prop up unsupported, self-serving narratives) but outright hysteria and moral chest-pounding helps no one but those indignant, wailing few to whom such activity is a soothing catharsis. Cathartic expulsions may well feel good but they have no place in rigorous scholarship. That science has been politicized is obvious, as it has always been, it is the degree of politicization where is here different. Even Dr. Watson’s old lab did not go into any detail as to how, precisely, he was wrong, but merely asserted that he was, which is a curious thing for a education and research institute to do; shouldn’t they wish to correct his error? Why not explain to the public that Dr. Watson’s statements on IQ differences do not take into consideration the differences between native and immigrant blacks? The answer is simple. Truthful interrogation of reality is no longer the premium by which science is conducted, particularly as pertains to biological matters.
One does not take offense to the fact that the Sama have greater aquatic aptitude, on average, then Americans or Chinese, so why take offense when it is realized that certain human populations possess marked and objectively verifiable differences in intellectual aptitude, especially when a recognition of those differences is the only way that those portions of the population who wish to can collectively acquire some intellectual capacity which they lack?
To throw out anything anyone says on the issue of race and IQ (as Watson’s most vociferous critics have done) is to implicitly given license to those who, like John Horgan would bar research into the subject altogether, who wrote in 2013, “-research on race and intelligence – no matter what its conclusions are – seems to me to have no redeeming value.” Such developments not only portend the curtailing of intellectual freedom and development, they, as the disgraceful treatment of Dr. Watson teaches us, encourage, in no uncertain terms, a culture of ceaseless defamation.
I object to that, how about you?
- Amy Harmon. (2019) James Watson Had A Chance To Salvage His Reputation On Race. He Made Things Worse. The New York Times.
- BBC staff. (2014) James Watson’s DNA Nobel Prize Sells For $4.8m. BBC News.
- BBC staff. (2019) James Watson: Scientist Loses Titles After Claims Over Race. BBC News.
- Bruce Stillman & Marilyn Simons. (2019) Statement By Cold Springs Harbor Lab. Addressing Remarks By Dr. James D. Watson In “American Masters: Decoding Watson”. CSHL.
- Chanda Chisala. (2015) The IQ Gap Is No Longer A Black & White Issue. The Unz Review.
- Christopher Jencks & Meredith Phillips. (1998) The Black-White Test Score Gap: Why It Persists & What Can Be Done.
- Cornelia Dean. (2007) James Watson Quits Post After Remarks On Race. The New York Times.
- Keith Perry. (2014) James Watson Selling Nobel Prize ‘Because No-One Wants To Admit I Exist’. The Telegraph.
- Robert Plomin. (2018) Educational Achievement & Intelligence. Serious Science.