Wednesday, October 17, 2007

We have nothing to fear but fear itself

Fury and outrage is the reaction of the quoted to the Independent's front page story about James Watson, one of the two scientists that discovered DNA all those years ago. Never one to avoid controversy he has apparently said that black people are genetically less intelligent than their white counterparts. His choice of words in a newspaper interview about Africans were certainly odd and would inevitably cause the sort of reaction that has occured.

They become even stranger when compared with the argument made in his latest book which is, in my view, far more benign and simply notes that the assumption of evolutionary equivalence on matters of intelligence between races that evolved across disparate geographic regions may yet be shown to be wrong - this merely expressed what science and the acquisition of knowledge is all about doesn't it? The possibilty that there are as yet unknown genetic differences between races is hardly controversial, the problem with saying so and at the same time invoking such a potentially emotive thing as intelligence is where the real problems lies because it such a political affair.

Genetics will always have this problem of course because it is too easily and too often conflated with eugenics and this leads inevitably to analogous references to Hitler and the Nazis. If we pause for a moment though and put aside such arguments, as well as putting aside the scientific rightness or wrongness of Watson's words is there not a much deeper and far more dangerous problem here about Western Enlightenment in the 21st Century? What is the point of knowledge and its acquisition if the truths you appear to find are unpalettable? What if they are, dare I say it, 'inconvenient'? And how do we resolve a situation where science is no longer allowed to discover without first ensuring it is sufficiently in keeping with the current political and cultural orthodoxy?

What if, and this is a pure counter-factual, but what if one day someone discovers that people from South-East Asia are genetically more intelligent than the rest of the planet? What would happen if we discovered, and failed to falsify such a thing? Seriously. If science is to be a dispassionate study of nature then what happens if we find out things about ourselves that fly in the face of our contemporary political values? Would we suppress such knowledge? Would we actively attempt to discredit it because of our fear of the potential political implications?

What indeed does this say about the fragility of our faith in our own political values? Can political equality and potentially explosive genetic difference ever be reconciled should such a thing one day occur? In my view they most certainly can, for genetic difference, be it hair colour, or even intelligence based on race negate one important characteristic, the human will to endeavour. As such we should not be afraid of what science may or may not find out about what it means to be us on this planet.

Each and everyone of us is, undoubtedly, genetically flawed in some way, and yet a glance through history shows us that great men and women too have had these genetic disadvantages and yet still achieved great things. Albert Einstein was dyslexic, Emily Dickenson was a manic depressive, Ray Charles too suffered from mania as well as being blind of course (cause unknown). We should, I think, never forget that when, and if, genetics ever does throw up something that our politics make hard to swallow.

To steal the tagline from the movie Gattaca: 'There is no gene for the human spirit'


xyz said...

Intelligence is measured by IQ tests. There are decades of research with well known psychometric tests for measuring intelligence showing that North American blacks have an average IQ score some 15 points below that of whites. This first showed up in US Army data and has been repeatedly shown in other studies. These studies have fostered ongoing debates about whether the cause is genetic or, environmental. The real issue is that IQ tests were designed to measure the knowledge, intellectual skills & cognitive abilities VALUED in Western industralised societies. So the real question is: What do IQ tests measure? For example a typical IQ question is a pick the odd one (classification problem) out of hammer, saw, hatchet, log. Western culture would say log is the odd one out. But some other cultures say "all of them are needed for the purpose of building".
Anyone interested in reading more should read "IQ & Human Intelligence" by N.J Mackintosh.

Jack (a psychometrician)

dizzy said...

I would dispute that about IQ tests. Einstein, being dsylexic would have not perfomred well on an IQ test, but he was still a bloody genius.

Anonymous said...

Watson didn't "discover" DNA but did discover its structure (with the help of Dorothy Hodgkin) and helped elucidate its function.

Despite Einstein being dyslexic that wouldn't bar him from taking an IQ test with a helper and scoring very highly.

One problem with this story is it gets wrapped up in black/white debate. But there are other interesting distinctions such as the Chinese who because of their pictorial language have higher brain activity across both sides of the brain. Genetics or nurture, who knows? But if there are distinctions between paler skinned people then why not darker skinned people?

dizzy said...

"Watson didn't "discover" DNA but did discover its structure"

Fair enough.

Newmania said...

Dizzy thus is very old baloney.The IQ results are not a mystery...well any way theres alot to it and this is going back to an arguement from the 60s. ( Eskimos perform marginally the best BTW).

Whay interests me is why the Independent should put such a thing on its front page

Anonymous said...

Watson took an valid, if currently unproved, hypothesis (that there might be genetic differences in intelligence between different human races) and then embarrassed himself as a scientist by making an unsupported assertion that black people are less intelligent. If the hypothesis is, in the future, borne out by evidence, we could just as easily find that it is white people who are on average less intelligent.

IQ tests measure abstract reasoning ability, something that rises with greater education. Historically, black americans have not been educated as well as their white counterparts, this may account for the results in the tests that Jack mentions.

In all respects so far tested, 'race' has been shown to be a wholly superficial genetic characteristic engendered, in good Darwinian fashion, by the environments in which the various races first established themselves. Speaking from a strictly gentic viewpoint, there is only one human race, albeit with minor varieties of colour and body shape.

Old BE said...

Are left-handers more intelligent than right-handers?

Is it offensive to ask the question?

Rich Tee said...

I have always put the black man's lack of success down to them being more laid back in nature compared to the white man's emotionally and sexually uptight nature which means they always have to be doing something.

Wasn't it Freud who said that civilisation is built on emotional repression?

Little Black Sambo said...

It is ok to say that the Chinese & Indians are more intelligent than us. It is not ok to suggest that there are other peoples who are less intelligent.

malpas said...

It is if you asked Billy the Kid.

Anonymous said...

Surely I have read that in the UK, school exam results consistently show that Chinese pupils do best, followed by Asians, then black and white children?

I'd be inclined to think that it may be parental environment which is the key there.

I understand that there is a growing, educated black middle-class in America - but just like whites, they would no doubt go to some trouble to keep their children out of the military. To then test black soldiers and apply findings to all persons of colour would then hardly be scientific?

Anonymous said...

A brilliant post Dizzy.

I believe that the important point that you raise is not whether Africans are more or less intelligent, taller, faster runners or come to that blacker than Europeans but the abstraction of how to manage conflict between Science and Ethics/Political Correctness/Religion.

In a way Political Correctness has become a new religion and is exhibiting many of the traits of pre-Enlightenment Christianity.

Galileo must be turning in his grave.