James Watson: To question genetic intelligence is not racism

Science is no stranger to controversy. The pursuit of discovery, of knowledge, is often uncomfortable and disconcerting. I have never been one to shy away from stating what I believe to be the truth, however difficult it might prove to be. This has, at times, got me in hot water.

Rarely more so than right now, where I find myself at the centre of a storm of criticism. I can understand much of this reaction. For if I said what I was quoted as saying, then I can only admit that I am bewildered by it. To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.

I have always fiercely defended the position that we should base our view of the world on the state of our knowledge, on fact, and not on what we would like it to be. This is why genetics is so important. For it will lead us to answers to many of the big and difficult questions that have troubled people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But those answers may not be easy, for, as I know all too well, genetics can be cruel. My own son may be one of its victims. Warm and perceptive at the age of 37, Rufus cannot lead an independent life because of schizophrenia, lacking the ability to engage in day-to-day activities. For all too long, my wife Ruth and I hoped that what Rufus needed was an appropriate challenge on which to focus. But as he passed into adolescence, I feared the origin of his diminished life lay in his genes. It was this realisation that led me to help to bring the human genome project into existence.

In doing so, I knew that many new moral dilemmas would arise as a consequence and would early on establish the ethical, legal and societal components of the genome project. Since 1978, when a pail of water was dumped over my Harvard friend E O Wilson for saying that genes influence human behaviour, the assault against human behavioural genetics by wishful thinking has remained vigorous.

But irrationality must soon recede. It will soon be possible to read individual genetic messages at costs which will not bankrupt our health systems. In so doing, I hope we see whether changes in DNA sequence, not environmental influences, result in behaviour differences. Finally, we should be able to establish the relative importance of nature as opposed to nurture.

One in three people looking for a job in temporary employment bureaux in Los Angeles is a psychopath or a sociopath. Is this a consequence of their environment or their genetic components? DNA sequencing should give us the answer. The thought that some people are innately wicked disturbs me. But science is not here to make us feel good. It is to answer questions in the service of knowledge and greater understanding.

In finding out the extent to which genes influence moral behaviour, we shall also be able to understand how genes influence intellectual capacities. Right now, at my institute in the US we are working on gene-caused failures in brain development that frequently lead to autism and schizophrenia. We may also find that differences in these respective brain development genes also lead to differences in our abilities to carry out different mental tasks.

In some cases, how these genes function may help us to understand variations in IQ, or why some people excel at poetry but are terrible at mathematics. All too often people with high mathematical abilities have autistic traits. The same gene that gives some people such great mathematical abilities may also lead to autistic behaviour. This is why, in studying autism and schizophrenia, we believe that we shall come very close to a better understanding of intelligence and, therefore, of the differences in intelligence.

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. 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. It is very likely that at least some 10 to 15 years will pass before we get an adequate understanding for the relative importance of nature versus nurture in the achievement of important human objectives. Until then, we as scientists, wherever we wish to place ourselves in this great debate, should take care in claiming what are unarguable truths without the support of evidence.

* The writer, a Nobel prizewinner for his part in unraveling DNA, is chairman of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the United States
* © The Independent
* http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article3075642.ece

2 Comments

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2 responses to “James Watson: To question genetic intelligence is not racism

  1. Jorge Majfud: Breve historia de la idiotez ajena
    La semana pasada el biólogo James Watson volvió a insistir sobre la antigua teoría de la inferioridad intelectual de los negros. Esta antigua teoría fue apoyada por un estudio en los ’90 de Charles Murray y Herrnstein sobre “ethnic differences in cognitive ability” que mostraban gráficas de coeficientes intelectuales claramente desfavorables a la raza negra. Ahora Watson, de paso, ha propuesto la manipulación genética para curar la estupidez, pero no menciona si es conveniente curar la estupidez antes de realizar cualquier manipulación genética. También los nazis -y quizás Michael Jackson- eran de la misma idea que Watson. Ni Hitler ni los nazis carecían de inteligencia ni de una alta moral de criminales. Como recordó un personaje del novelista Erico Veríssimo, “durante a era hitlerista os humanistas alemães emigraram. Os tecnocratas ficaram com as mãos e as patas livres”.

    Veamos dos breves aproximaciones al mismo problema, uno filológico y otro biológico. Ambos ideológicos.

    Por sus denuncias a la opresión de los indígenas americanos, Bartolomé de las Casas fue acusado de enfermo mental y sus indios de idiotas que merecían la esclavitud. Es cierto que sus crónicas y denuncias fueron aprovechadas para acusar a un imperio en decadencia por parte de la maquinaria publicitaria de otro imperio en ascenso, el británico. Pero esto es tema para otra reflexión.

    El erudito español Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo en 1895 calificó a de las Casas de “fanático intolerante” y a Brevísima Historia, de “monstruoso delirio”. Su más célebre alumno y miembro de la Real Academia Española, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, fue de la misma opinión. En su publicitado y extenso libro, El padre Las Casas (1963) desarrolló la tesis de la enfermedad mental del sacerdote denunciante al mismo tiempo que justificó la acción de los conquistadores, como la muerte de tres mil indios en Cholula a manos de Hernán Cortés porque era una “matanza necesaria a fin de desbaratar una peligrosísima conjura que para acabar con los españoles tramaba Moctezuma”. Según Menéndez Pidal, Bartolomé de las Casas “era una víctima inconsciente de su delirio incriminatorio, de su regla de depravación inexceptuable”. Pero al regresar a España para denunciar las supuestas injusticias contra los indios, “se encontró con la gravísima sorpresa de que su opinión extrema sobre la evangelización del Nuevo Mundo tenía enfrente otra opinión, extrema también, en defensa de la esclavitud y la encomienda. Esa opinión estaba sostenida muy sabiamente por el Doctor Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda [a través de] un opúsculo escrito en elegante latín y titulado Democrates alter, sirve de justis belli causis apud Indos”. Una nota al pié dice: “Publicado con una hermosa traducción, por Menéndez Pelayo en Boletín de la Real Acad. De la Historia, XXI, 1891”. Ginés de Sepúlveda, basándose en la Biblia (Proverbios), afirmaba que “la guerra justa es causa de justa esclavitud […] siendo este principio y concentrándose al caso del Nuevo Mundo, los indios ‘son inferiores a los españoles como los niños son a los adultos, las mujeres a los hombres, los fieros y crueles a los clementísimos, […] y en fin casi diría como los simios a los hombres’”. Con frecuencia, Pidal confunde su voz narrativa con la de Sepúlveda. “Bien podemos creer que Dios ha dado clarísimos indicios para el exterminio de estos bárbaros, y no faltan doctísimos teólogos que traen a comparación los idólatras Cananeos y Amorreos, exterminados por el pueblo de Israel”. Según Fray Domingo de Soto, teólogo imperial, “por la rudeza de sus ingenios, gente servil y bárbara están obligados a servir a los de ingenio más elegante”. Menéndez Pidal insistía en su tesis de la incapacidad mental de quienes criticaban a los conquistadores, como “el indio Poma de Ayala, [que] mira con maliciosos ojos a dominicos, agustinos y mercedarios, mientras advierte que franciscanos, jesuitas y ermitaños hacen mucho bien y no toman limosna de plata”. Según Pidal, esto se debía a que “a esos indios prehistóricos, venidos de la edad neolítica, no era posible atraerlos con la Suma teológica de Santo Tomás de Aquino, sino con las Florecillas Espirituales del Santo de Asís”.

    En su intención de demostrar la enfermedad mental del denunciante, Pidal se encuentra con indicios contrarios y resuelve, por su parte, una regla psicológica que lo arregla todo: “el paranoico, cuando sale del tema de sus delirios, es un hombre enteramente normal”. Luego: “Las Casas es un paranoico, no un demente o loco en estado de inconsciencia. Su lucidez habitual hace que su anormalidad sea caso difícil de establecer y graduar”. Que es como decir que era tan inteligente que no podía razonar correctamente, o por su lucidez veía ilusiones. Bartolomé de las Casas “vive tan ensimismado en un mundo imaginario, que queda incapaz para percibir la realidad externa, que es la desbordante energía desplegada por España en los descubrimientos geográficos”. Una confesión significativa: “Las Casas hubiera sido, dada su extraordinaria actividad, un excelente obispo en cualquier diócesis de España, pero su constitución mental le impedía desempeñar rectamente un obispado en las Indias”. De aquí se deducen dos posibilidades: (1) América tenía un efecto mágico-narcótico en algunas personas o (2) los obispos de España eran paranoicos como de las Casas pero por ser mayoría era tenido como algo normal.

    Esta idea de atribuir deficiencias mentales en el adversario dialéctico, se renueva y extiende en libros masivamente publicitados sobre América Latina, como Manual del perfecto idiota latinoamericano (1996) y El regreso del idiota (2007). Uno de los libros objetos de sus burlas, Para leer al pato Donald (1972) de Ariel Dorfman y Armand Matterlart, parece contestar esta posición desde el pasado. El discurso de las historietas infantiles de Disney consiste en que, “no habiendo otorgado a los buenos salvajes el privilegio del futuro y del conocimiento, todo saqueo no parece como tal, ya que extirpa lo que es superfluo”. El despojo es doble, casi siempre coronado con un happy ending: “Pobres nativos. Qué ingenuos son. Pero si ellos no usan su oro, es mejor llevárselo. En otra parte servirá de algo”.

    Sócrates o Galileo pudieron hacerse pasar por necios, pero ninguno de aquellos necios que los condenaron pudo fingir inteligencia. Eso en la teoría, porque como decía Demócrates, “el que amonesta a un hombre que se cree inteligente trabaja en vano”.

    En Examen de ingenios para las ciencias (1575), el médico Juan Huarte compartía la convicción científica de la época según la cual el cabello rubio -como el de su rey, Felipe II- era producto de un vapor grueso que se levantaba por la fuerza de la inteligencia. Sin embargo, afirmaba Huarte, no era el caso de los alemanes e ingleses, porque su cabello rubio nace de la quema del mucho frío. La belleza es signo de inteligencia, porque es el cuerpo su residencia. “Los padres que quisieren gozar de hijos sabios y de gran habilidad para las letras, han de procurar que nazcan varones”. La ciencia de la época sabía que para engendrar varón se debía procurar que el semen saliera del testículo derecho y entrase en el lado derecho del útero. Luego Huarte da fórmulas precisas para engendrar hijos de buen entendimiento “que es el ingenio más ordinario en España”.

    En la Grecia antigua, como dice Aristóteles, se daba por hecho que los pueblos que vivían más al sur, como el egipcio, eran naturalmente más sabios e ingeniosos que los bárbaros que habitaban en las regiones frías. Alguna vez los rubios germánicos fueron considerados bárbaros, atrasados e incapaces de civilización. Y fueron tratados como tales por los más avanzados imperios de piel oscurecida por los soles del Sur. Lo que demuestra que la estupidez no es propiedad de ninguna raza.

    * http://www.argenpress.info/nota.asp?num=048445&Parte=0
    * © Argenpress

  2. As he arrives in Britain, DNA pioneer breaks his silence on racism row
    By Steve Connor, Cahal Milmo and Amol Rajan
    Published: 19 October 2007
    James Watson, the Nobel laureate who shocked the world with his views on race and intelligence, has defended his position in an exclusive article for The Independent today in which he seeks to justify his theory that there is a genetic basis behind differences in IQ.

    Dr Watson, who helped to unravel the structure of DNA more than 50 years ago, apologises for any offence that he caused when he suggested in an interview at the weekend that black Africans were less intelligent than Westerners.

    But he restates his position that studying genes may help to understand variations in intelligence. In his interview with a Sunday newspaper, Dr Watson 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 was quoted as saying his hope is that everyone is equal but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true”.

    Dr Watson says in his article today that he has never been one to shy away from stating what he believes to be true, however unpalatable that may be.

    “This has, at times, got me in hot water,” he says. “Rarely more so than right now, where I find myself at the centre of a storm of criticism.

    “I can understand much of this reaction. For if I said what I was quoted as saying, then I can only admit that I am bewildered by it. To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. This is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

    However, Dr Watson goes on to suggest that genes may account for many behavioural traits, including intelligence and even criminality. “The thought that some people are innately wicked disturbs me,” he says. “But science is not here to make us feel good.”

    Without referring directly to the subject of racial differences, Dr Watson once more invokes the idea that Darwinian natural selection has led to differences in behavioural ability between people from different geographical regions of the world. “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 says. “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.”

    Dr Watson, a former president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, arrived in the UK this week as part of a book tour but his speaking engagements are in disarray after the Science Museum cancelled a lecture by him planned for today.

    The controversy spread to America yesterday, as the board of trustees at Cold Spring issued a statement saying they were “bewildered and saddened” by his comments. “Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory does not engage in any research that could even form the basis of the statements attributed to Dr Watson,” it said.

    Dr Watson is due to appear at the Centre for Life in Newcastle this weekend. Organisers distanced themselves from his views but insisted that it would still go ahead. Linda Conlon, chief executive of the centre, said: “It promises to be a robust and unmissable discussion and many people have expressed interest in it.”

    Meanwhile, the organisers of the Festival of Ideas in Bristol, where Dr Watson is due to give a speech next week, said they were waiting for an explanation from the Nobel Prize-winner for his remarks before deciding whether to go ahead with the sell-out booking.

    Andrew Kelly, co-ordinator of the festival, which is a series of discussions with leading intellectuals, said: “A review of the event is pending a statement from Dr Watson. Once he has made his statement we will decide about the event.”

    Dr Watson’s comments provoked a furious reaction from students at Cambridge University and led to a heated row between student groups who disagree over whether he should retain his platform at the Cambridge Union on Tuesday.

    “His comments are part of an overtly political campaign which tries to justify and excuse the plight of black people in the world today,” said Junior Penge Juma, a Black Student Campaigns officer.

    Mr Juma is planning a protest to mark Dr Watson’s entry into the Union building on Tuesday. He will be joined by members of other minority student groups, including women’s groups and the Jewish Society.

    Meanwhile, organisers at Edinburgh University, where Dr Watson is scheduled to appear on Monday evening alongside Dr Ian Wilmut, the scientist behind Dolly the Sheep, refused yesterday to rule out cancelling his appearance. A spokesman said the organisers were “consideringthe issues raised as a result of this matter” and would make a decision in due course.

    Dr Watson’s remarks in The Sunday Times have also sparked a political furore. David Lammy, the Skills minister, said his comments were deeply offensive and would provide oxygen to the British National Party.

    * http://news.independent.co.uk/sci_tech/article3075664.ece

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