Here we go again. James Watson talking nonsense…

This is the Bell Curve all over again, except that this time, heavy weight scientist of note, Dr. James Watson (he of the Watson and Crick double helix fame) is stepping into the furor. In essense, he’s been making some highly contentious comments on genetics, race and intelligence. The Independent has a good piece that describes the story”

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”.

Anyway, anyone who follows Dr. Watson’s career knows that he can be quite the shit disturber, although often way out of his element when making such claims, so this is not that surprising – in fact, his name has come up before as a speaker invite, but there was always hesitation because on one hand, he can give a great inspiring talks, yet on the other, when he’s fired up, he can come up with all sorts of nonsense like this.

As an aside, I remember when we had David Suzuki out to UBC, he threw in a little anecdote about James in his talk. I won’t give it away, but if you go here and watch the video, you’ll see what I mean.

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terryman

David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and boingboing.net. He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at popperfont.net.

13 Responses to “Here we go again. James Watson talking nonsense…”

  1. Anthropology PhD student

    The problem with Dr James Watson’s statement is two fold:

    1) There is no genetic basis for ‘race’ (Dr James Watson should know this). Race is a social construction, having no genetic/biological basis. Rather, race is a fiction, a fantasy. But, I guess ‘race’ as a reality suits fantasists. In this sense, Dr James Watson is a relic from a bygone age.

    2) Studies have shown that Orientals (e.g. Chinese, Koreans, Japanese etc) have higher IQs/intelligence scores than Whites. Another study showed Blacks from northern USA scored higher IQ points than Whites from southern USA. Here in Britain, in exams, Indian and Chinese students regularly out perform White students. Dr James Watson is basically arguing that Whites are racially superior to Blacks. But, are then, based on IQ scores, Whites inferior to Orientals and Indians? Dr James Watson has yet to comment upon this.

  2. howard scott

    I enjoyed the comment by the PhD anthro research student on Dr James Watson re race and intelligence.

    If Dr James Watson chooses to stake a scientific peg in the ground regarding a hierarchy of intelligence based on race – then it is time that he completed the job and published a COMPLETE LIST from A to Z.

    I also want to know where the Indians, Chinese and Arabs stand in relation to Europeans and I want to know where the Eskimos and Pygmys stand too.

    I would also like to see the Burmese military generals listed. Are they above or below Afro Americans or Japanese ‘checkout girls’?

    And while he is at it – am I above or below him – on his ‘scientifically researched’ list? Afterall – I do have an element of Scandinavian blood in my Scotish viens.

    Dr Howard Scott
    Photographer – currently traveling

  3. howard scott

    ………. and Bottle Nosed Dolphins. How much higher than Europeans – are they on the list?

    Dr Howard Scott

  4. dbshawn

    Here’s the interesting thing; the black people of Africa are NOT a monolithic group ethnically or otherwise. So there’s no way that Mr. Watson can make any assertion about Africans as a whole. He would need to first acknowledge all of the varied ethnic groups and then conduct comparable I.Q. tests among all of them and then compare these tests with all of the varied ethnic groups of so-called Western countries. But alas! There’s been so much ethnic mixing since the beginning of time, that he would also need to consider the genetic makeup of each individual and the percentage that their ethnic past contributes to their I.Q.

    What I’m really trying to say is: Mr. Watson has proven himself to be a world class Nobel prize winning racist.

  5. Anthropology PhD student is an idiot

    I don’t even know what you’re arguing for or against. BTW, it’s “twofold”, not “two fold”, it’s not Orientals, but Asians, or more specifically East Asians (which only include KR, CN, JP, and not “etc”, as in “all those people over there”). Idiot.

    1) “Race is a social construction, having no genetic/biological basis”. I think what you mean to say is, the idea of race itself, and actual divisions of persons into groups based on selected hereditary features, are social constructs, but the features on which racial categorizations are made ARE based on genetic factors, so i would not be so quick as to argue that there are NO genetic basis at all. So please make sure that you define that correctly in your pursuit of your PhD.

    So are you saying that Race does not matter in determining intelligence and intelligence is purely genetic based, regardless of race? I would argue that yes, Intelligence is genetically/naturally based, and these genetic traits can lead to racial categorizations.

    2) Your whole point here supports Watson’s argument, idiot. You’re saying that studies show that the Asian race is more intelligent than the White race, without qualifying that statement according to age, region, social status, etc. What Watson is saying is that Africans in African countries, and not all blacks or those of African decent around the world, are less clever than their White counterparts, and here you are talking about how Blacks in Northern US are more intelligent than Whites in Southern US. You sure you want to pursue your PhD in Anthro? Also note that intelligence is not the same as “smart” or “educated”.

    It’s simple. The HUMAN race has intelligent and not so intelligent people all over the place, and their intelligence is not based on any racial definitions or even social circumstances. It’s just as wrong to say “blacks are dumb” as it is to say “asians are smart”. However, you may find comparatively different concentration of intelligent people in different geographical regions, and those may be tied to categorizations such as race.

    Now i haven’t fully read up on Watson’s statements, but if i may argue FOR what he was trying to say (in the best of light, not thinking he’s a whack job); i do believe there is some media assasination here. Watson is refering to Africans in Africa; of course the majority of Africans in Africa are “Black”. I for one do believe that people in a given region may evolve differently depending on evolutionary circumstances. For example, if intelligence or physical strength better suited for survival, you will find higher concentration of one characteristic or the other, and mating and procreation of those that possess such traits. So is it wrong to say that human beings in African countries (which majority are black) are less intelligent than human beings in, say Germany (which majority are white)? It’s definitely wrong to say that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites, or vice versa, in general, but i can’t argue against the notion that human beings develope differently due to evolutionary pressures.

    The fault with Watson is that he is too much of a genetic scientist and not a whole lot of a socially (or politically) intelligent being. He has also stated that women should have the right to terminate a pregnancy if that child carried a gay gene. Socially this is reprehensible, but in the scientific community, homosexuality is a stastical occurence in any given animal population, and is seen as an abnormally (if survival of the human race is procreation, homosexual beings cannot procreate, and hence are genetic abnormallies); so in essence what he is saying “makes logical sense” but socially unacceptable.

  6. Bobby Bluetooth

    Anthropology Ph.D student must be studying cultural anthropology and is likely imbibing too deeply in the dogma that permeates the field otherwise Anthropology Ph.D. student wouldn’t be trying to present as a person of authority and would have, as a serious student of race, been aware of:

    What makes the current study, published in the February issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, more conclusive is its size. The study is by far the largest, consisting of 3,636 people who all identified themselves as either white, African-American, East Asian or Hispanic. Of these, only five individuals had DNA that matched an ethnic group different than the box they checked at the beginning of the study. That’s an error rate of 0.14 percent.

    For each person in the study, the researchers examined 326 DNA regions that tend to vary between people. These regions are not necessarily within genes, but are simply genetic signposts on chromosomes that come in a variety of different forms at the same location.

    Without knowing how the participants had identified themselves, Risch and his team ran the results through a computer program that grouped individuals according to patterns of the 326 signposts. This analysis could have resulted in any number of different clusters, but only four clear groups turned up. And in each case the individuals within those clusters all fell within the same self-identified racial group.

    “This shows that people’s self-identified race/ethnicity is a nearly perfect indicator of their genetic background,” Risch said.

    As for the issue of the genetic basis of intelligence and how it varies across populations, let’s take a look under the hood and see what we find when we look at catecho-O-methyltransferase (locus: COMT VAL158MET) which is associated with cognition.

    See here:

    COMT genotype was related in allele dosage fashion to performance on the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test of executive cognition and explained 4% of variance (P = 0.001) in frequency of perseverative errors. Consistent with other evidence that dopamine enhances prefrontal neuronal function, the load of the low-activity Met allele predicted enhanced cognitive performance. We then examined the effect of COMT genotype on prefrontal physiology during a working memory task in three separate subgroups (n = 11–16) assayed with functional MRI. Met allele load consistently predicted a more efficient physiological response in prefrontal cortex. Finally, in a family-based association analysis of 104 trios, we found a significant increase in transmission of the Val allele to the schizophrenic offspring. These data suggest that the COMT Val allele, because it increases prefrontal dopamine catabolism, impairs prefrontal cognition and physiology, and by this mechanism slightly increases risk for schizophrenia.

    How does COMT VAL158MET vary across populations:[quote]The frequency of low activity alleles was 0.54 in Caucasians, 0.49 in South-west Asians, and 0.32 in Kenyans. There was a much lower frequency of individuals with homozygous low activity allele in the Kenyan population (9%) than in Caucasians (31%) or South-west Asians (27%). Erythrocyte COMT activity was lower and less thermostable in individuals with homozygous low activity alleles. The data provide molecular evidence that low COMT is less common in African individuals than the Caucasian population.

    I find it so disheartening to realize that creationist thinking (evolution cannot work on human brains and is stopped from doing so by some mystical force) has so permeated the dogma of anthropology.

  7. nosmokes

    First,I think it’s worth noting that Dr Watson is a big promoter and cheerleader of GMO and Ag biotech. Second, while the man is clearly a genius of epic proportion, he is also a shining example that genius does not always translate into wisdom like say an Einstein or a Sagan.

  8. Steve Allen

    Oh goodness. The PC crowd is upset because someone stated something that was not PC. Tell me, if the good Dr had said that the Black race was smarter, would he still be a racist idiot? Of course not. You would embrace it and shout it from the rooftops. But no. He stated something that “offends” minorities. Can’t have that so we better attack him and shut him up. PC=censorship By the way, have you heard? The US has 4 White guys running the 440 relay in the Games! What? You don’t believe me? Does that make you a racist? MMMM? You say Blacks are faster than Whites? Funny, I thought we were all equal. Oh, I get it. We are equal mentally but not phisically and as long as the White is shown to be inferior
    it’s true. If it’s told the other way, that person is a lying racist. Got it! Wow, this PC thing is hard, especially with all the lies and stuff. Please.

  9. Kerrie

    Bobbie Bluetooth, as a “European” person, I am very excited about this COMT VAL158MET. According to some neuroscience website, it “is thought to functionally modulate dopamine neurons, thus likely influencing frontal-executive functioning.” My, what a far more valid explanation than colonial privilege for equality gaps between Africa and Europe. After all, who could be better trusted than white male scientists to construct elaborate, tenuous explanations for white male superiority?
    /sarcasm

    Guys, please. I read this website to pretend I’m not in racist Calgary. Y’all are ruining my fun. James Watson may be a hell of a geneticist but he ain’t a social scientist, that’s for damn sure. Maybe if he spent less time taking credit for Rosalind Franklin’s photograph and more time reading his history books I wouldn’t have to read your bigoted comments. While we’re categorizing on the shaky basis of race, however, I would like to add that I am categorically embarrassed by my race’s “superior” ability to point to scientifically unsound explanations for privileges gained through brutal force.

    I’m going to stop typing now, because I am getting dangerously close to bringing up the Holocaust.

  10. Kerrie

    Incidentally, I don’t care for political correctness. But I’m a big fan of historical accuracy.

  11. margaret

    Jeez-I’m so glad my ancestors came from all over the globe. I can be equally offended and proud. Actually, folks, IQ tests are constructs. They are limited in scope and accuracy, especially when the abilities and functioning vary greatly within one individual, ie., you may have a brilliant creative verbal mind that has some issues with executive functioning and decoding skills. Or you may have a brilliant, let’s say Asperger type; superb at acquiring knowledge , facts, calculating, but with little ability in pragmatic language, and perhaps a psychopath. While IQ test can measure some of these things, they are simply limited tools, unable say, to measure what would be at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs; three levels above the “need to know and understand” level, sitting atop self-actualization. Transcendence.

  12. Steve Allen is a raving idiot

    You’re totally right, Steve. I mean, God forbid minorities get offended at someone spouting pseudo-scientific bullshit about race & intelligence. We should just shut up and sit the fuck down for the sake of poor widdle Dr. Watson.

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