Dr. James Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on the structure of DNA, has fallen into a thermal pool with his comments, made in an interview with the Sunday Times of London, 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.”
The BBC reported that the Science Museum where he was to speak canceled the event. And today the BBC is reporting that he has been suspended from his job as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York.
The message is unmistakable: “You can’t say that!” And never mind whether it might be true and what such an inconvenient truth might mean for wise policy decisions.
Watson has also written, “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.”
“No firm reason” indeed, and substantial empirical evidence that it is false. And globally, the issue concerns not just Africans and “Westerners” — which means people largely of European descent, although nobody is allowed to say that, either — but Africa and Asia. The same kind of evidence suggests that East Asians on average are smarter than both the other groups (but it’s apparently all right to mention that).
The news stories, as is only to be expected, are not familiar with the science, and get it wrong. The BBC wrote, “When, some 40 years later, scientists were finally able to read all of the DNA in our cells they were able to show that there was no genetic basis for the concept of race.”
No, that’s not what they showed. On the contrary, genetic markers are very effective at identifying an individual’s geographic ancestry, and getting better all the time. That’s not identical to race, which does have social aspects in addition to biological ones, but the match is pretty close.
And the BBC continues, “People from different racial groups can be more genetically similar than individuals within the same group. Genetic studies show that there is more variability in the gene pool in Africa, than outside.”
That’s true, but it is entirely irrelevant. Men and women can be more genetically similar (differing only in the few genes on the Y-chromosome) than two males or two females, but that does not imply there is no distinction between males and females.
The evolution blog Gene Expression links to the original articles.