Watson In The Dock

A couple of days ago the Nobel laureate James Watson was all over the news: he had expressed, in an interview for the London Times, his opinion that scientific results indicated that black Africans were, on average, less intelligent than white Northerners. In a subsequent article, we read:

Dr Watson, who runs one of America’s leading scientific research institutions, made the controversial remarks in an interview in The Sunday Times.

The 79-year-old geneticist said 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 he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “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”.

It’s not surprising that this has caused quite a stir. From the Left, we hear cries of racism. And from the Right, we hear that Dr. Watson is being unfairly vilified for refusing to put political correctness before impartial scientific inquiry.

There are so many angles here that one hardly knows where to begin. First of all, I have no idea what research he is basing his remarks upon. The scientific community has fled from him in all directions (he’s even tried to do the same himself!), but that is most likely due at least in part to his suddenly having become lethally radioactive.

It seems to me there are several questions that something like this raises:

  1. Are there, in fact, legitimate scientific studies that support his opinion?
  2. If so, they are measuring something he refers to as “intelligence”. How was it defined? How was it measured?
  3. If it is in fact possible to make objective comparisons of intelligence, is it reasonable to assume that intelligence is to some extent heritable, and that various human populations might vary as to its distribution?
  4. If it is indeed the case that average “intelligence” might differ among human populations, should we even to try to find out? Is this sort of research something we ought to be doing?
  5. What effect, if any, should such a fact, if true, have upon public policy?

As for 1): As mentioned above, I have no idea. I also have to wonder a bit about what one seeks to accomplish when making a study of average cognitive skill-levels between ethnic groups; either one finds that on average they are all the same under the hood, which in fact I doubt very much, or that they aren’t, which still says nothing about individuals.

Regarding 2): So what is “intelligence”, anyway? This has been the topic of raucous debate for ages, although I think most of us have roughly the same idea what the word means. In Wikipedia’s article on intelligence we find a good summing-up:

… a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings — “catching on”, “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.

Psychometricians have attempted to refine the notion of intelligence to take into account the biases introduced by various types of tests; to that end they have introduced the concept of a “General Intelligence Factor”, usually called g, which you can read about here.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that there is indeed a quantifiable trait that we can coherently and consistently refer to as “intelligence” (and although I believe this assumption to be true, there are many who will not agree, though I think everyone has some notion of what the word means, and the feeling that it points to some attribute that is not entirely imaginary).

That brings us to 3): Might intelligence be to some extent heritable? Well, why not? So many other things appear to be, and not just gross physiological attributes like height or hair color. Nobody seems particularly upset when someone suggests that musical talent, for example, “runs in the family”; why not intelligence? Studies of separated twins have shown that a great many aspects of behavior and personality seem to be genetically influenced, and I think the onus of proof could reasonably be laid upon those who would insist that intelligence must have no genetic component.

So if there is such a thing as intelligence, and it can be assumed to be at least partially heritable, is it reasonable to suppose that it may vary quantitatively between human populations? Here the question becomes more difficult.

Imagine a multidimensional “space”, with a great number of axes representing quantifiable human traits: height, skin color, eye shape, and so on. We can then say that human groups consist of populations clustered around various places on these axes. For example, if we start with a simple two-dimensional space with height as one axis and skin color as another, we would find Swedes in one corner (tall, pale), Dinka people of the Nile Valley in another (tall, dark), Pygmies in another (short, dark), and so on. As we add more dimensions, we create a complex space, and we will notice that groups that share much of their genome, due to historical reproductive isolation — what we call “ethnic groups”, or “races” — are going to be clustered around various loci in this multidimensional “trait space”.

The question, then, is whether, once we have a suitable definition of a group, based upon its position in trait space and a shared genetic history, is it reasonable then to look at other trait-axes in the space to see what the distribution of the group is? Nobody seems to object when epidemiological studies do exactly this to determine, say, that some ethnic groups are more prone to hypertension than others, or to lactose intolerance.

So far, then, it seems that if there is such a thing as quantifiable intelligence, it is reasonable to imagine it might be heritable, and that therefore it may indeed vary among reproductively isolated groups. But we aren’t done yet.

If all humans, as seems quite clearly and uncontroversially to be the case, are descended from common ancestors (in fact the entire human species may have passed through a very narrow population bottleneck about 75,000 years ago), then why do we see so much racial and ethnic variety? We must assume that many of the various divergences we see today between human groups are the result of local adaptations. Dark skin is protective against the brutal tropical sun, for example, whereas fair skin is better suited for vitamin D synthesis in the sun-starved North. But what about intelligence? Would it not be reasonable to imagine that high intelligence would be so universally adaptive that it would always confer a selective advantage? I should certainly think so. Is there, though, some extra cost a human organism must pay for higher intelligence? Larger brain size, perhaps, meaning more difficult births, and more need for nutrients? Are there regional dietary variations that might play a role? I just don’t know. Some have suggested that the selection pressure is greater upon populations living at higher latitudes than in the food-rich tropics, driving them to be more inventive. But there are harsh environments in Africa and other warm places as well, and one would imagine that a local population that had evolved an advantage in intelligence might soon dominate its neighbors.

So — is intelligence like ordinary morphological traits, and likely to vary from group to group? Or is it so universally adaptive that we should expect to see little variation? I have no idea whatsoever. The point here is that this is a reasonable, empirical question, one that is well within the purview of scientific inquiry. One thing that I think seems very likely, however, is that intelligence varies so widely between individuals that any variations that exist between groups are likely to be utterly drowned out by variations within groups. Also, cultural factors, such as poverty, war, and their effect on education in early childhood, must surely play an important role, and any study must control for these influences as well.

The questions are getting harder. Now we come to 4): Should scientific research of this sort even be undertaken in the first place?

This is difficult indeed. Given that the results might well be put to ethically questionable use, many will be tempted to say no. Others, and I lean in this direction myself, feel that truth is simply truth, and what we do with it is another matter altogether. As the human program of scientific inquiry matures, it is unrealistic to think that there are areas of inquiry that can be forever marked out-of-bounds. As I have argued in this post, it is, rather, our responsibility — and an urgent one — to work as hard on these ethical questions, and on building a mature and humane global culture, as we do on the study of the natural world.

Here’s a hypothetical example of how such studies might be relevant, however: let’s say that Scotsmen are grossly under-represented in the woodwind sections of the nation’s orchestras. This is humiliating, of course, and the obvious explanation is deeply entrenched racism. So Scottish groups pressure the government in various ways, and are given various costly assistance programs; they get affirmative action policies enacted at the music schools, thereby denying talented clarinetists from other segments of society the college acceptances they deserve. The orchestras, facing boycotts, go out of their way to hire Caledonian-American oboists, though the talent pool is thin, and quality suffers. Meanwhile, tartan-clad activists take every opportunity to get on camera and denounce our society’s inequalities. Scottish-woodwind-player cultural studies programs spring up on college campuses, and divert the attention of many bright and idealistic students, the ones who really want to make a difference in the world.

Then it turns out that Scotsmen generally have a gene that affects the lip muscles, making it difficult to form the correct embouchure required for playing woodwinds. There was never any racism; it just turned out that Scotsmen with this gene are lousy players.

Now this doesn’t mean that Scotsmen shouldn’t be given a chance to vie for chairs in the orchestra, because there may be many of them who either aren’t hampered by the gene, or have learned to play well in spite of it. Everyone deserves a chance. But it does mean that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for their low representation in the woodwind section — and that all the social brouhaha, and the forceful un-leveling of the playing field (based as it was upon the erroneous assumptions that everyone is exactly the same and that the whole issue was just racism), was totally uncalled for.

So a costly and unproductive insistence upon equality of outcomes may in fact motivate some of this sort of inquiry, I think. If we are squandering valuable resources just to make sure that Scotsmen appear in the nation’s woodwind sections at a rate equal to their percentage of the population, when in fact they are simply, through no fault of their own, just not built to play woodwinds, then it benefits us not to continue to waste our efforts, to the detriment of many, and not to remain in the dark about the truth.

So, finally, 5:) The answer is simple. We need to move beyond the politics of groups. We need to treat every human being as an individual, rather than as a member of this or that racial or ethnic group (and the other side of this coin is that we need to stop identifying ourselves so emotionally, and so pridefully, as members of these groups). We must focus on equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. And we still have a long way to go.

So, back to Dr. Watson. Should he have been pilloried as he was for his remarks? It’s getting late, so I’ll leave that one up to you. Discuss.

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  1. Malcolm, thanks for a clear and interesting meditation on the question of IQ and its implications, a meditation that I, of course, found offensive because we shouldn’t even be raising such issues, not even in our own minds. We should immediately squelch any impulse to consider such issues. In fact, we should squelch the impulse even to consider squelching such impulses because that would first require us to recognize that an issue is offensive enough to need squelching, which puts us in a problematic situation indeed! Dammit, Malcolm, see what you’ve started! I should delete this comment before I even post it because I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. It’s so wrong of me…

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted October 21, 2007 at 11:41 pm | Permalink
  2. Sorry for the late appearance but Charles Moore in ‘The Spectator’ made a shrewd point concerning Watson’s remarks. If you are a believer in Darwins theory of evolution there can be nothing surprising about one ethnicity possessing greater abilities at this, that or the other aspect of being human. Also, as I added, less eloquently in my blog, if a black man lives in a sunny land with plentiful fruit and wild animals he would have to be exceedingly dumb to try and invent the Spinning Jenny! The ‘intelligent’ man would lie in his hammock and wait for the coconut to fall off the tree.

    Posted October 26, 2007 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Quite all right, David; appear anytime!

    If you are a believer in Darwins theory of evolution there can be nothing surprising about one ethnicity possessing greater abilities at this, that or the other aspect of being human.

    Well, there you are. Obviously, I agree.

    Posted October 26, 2007 at 3:37 pm | Permalink