A week after his antagonizing racial remarks in a newspaper interview, Nobel-prize-winner James D. Watson, 79, has stepped down as chancellor of the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories on Long Island.
Watson had told a London Times reporter that people of African descent are not as intelligent as those of European descent. The resulting furor led to Watson cancelling many of his scheduled book-tour engagements, including one here in Louisville this week.
While later stating that there was no scientific evidence linking race with intelligence, Watson has neither apologized for his remark nor recanted it, suggesting that he might at some level believe he is correct.
The CSH Labs, which for decades have pioneered research in genetics and produced several Nobel prize winners, relieved Watson of his duties as chancellor soon after the Times published the interview, but stopped short of dismissing him. Bruce Stillman, the president of the Labs, told The New York Times today that the decision to step down formally was entirely Watson’s. One wonders.
Watson had been associated with the Labs since 1968, and was president from 1994 to 2003. As chancellor. he also served on the Labs’ board of directors.
In 1962, he and Francis Crick shared a Nobel Prize in Biology for describing the double-helix structure of DNA. Some scientists since then have contended that Rosalind Franklin, a co-worker, should have shared the award with the two men.
In a prepared statement, Watson said he was “overdue” to surrender his leadership positions at the Labs.
[Incidentally, the Labs are just a few miles away from my high school in Cold Spring Harbor, an old whaling port on the North Shore. One of my classmates was the son of another CSHL Nobel Prize winner. Another was eBay CEO Margaret Whitman, but that’s a different story …]
The allegation that race and intelligence are connected somehow is an old one, dating back to the early days of slavery. That Watson would lend any credence to the idea is appalling, since as a scientist he should know better.
There is a correlation between IQ test scores and race, but IQ tests have long been identified as racially biased anyway. So any correlation cannot possibly suggest a racial causation for low intelligence. At best, IQ scores could measure a cultural (or environmental) basis for IQ test performance.
Or in other words intelligence is not the same as IQ scores.
Watson is not the first scientist to suggest that race and intelligence are connected genetically. At the risk of sounding like Grandpa reminiscing about the old days, when I was in high school, I met another Nobel Prize winner, William Shockley, with the same axe to grind.
Shockley was not a biologist, but an electrical engineer. His 1956 prize was in physics, which he shared with Bell Labs co-workers John Bardeen and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor in 1947.
[There is considerable evidence that Bardeen and Brattain did the bulk of the research and development on that project. Shockley as their nominal supervisor made himself an active participant afterwards, thereby enabling to share in the award. Needless to say, this did not endear him to Bardeen and Brattain. See the book Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age, by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, for details.]
Biographers of Shockley describe the man as brilliant but arrogant, extremely confident in the validity of his conclusions regardless of evidence to the contrary. After meeting and interviewing him for my high school paper, I can vouch for the accuracy of that portrayal. It was clear that Shockley, having made up his mind on something, would never consider any other opinion as worth his consideration.
At some point in his career, having run out of suitable projects in electronics and solid state physics, Shockley turned his keen mind to the subject of eugenics. Based on his armchair research into the (largely repudiated) work of Arthur Jensen and Cyril Burt, Shockley popularized the notion that IQ tests proved that one’s race determined one’s intelligence.
In particular, Shockley insisted that blacks were intrinsically less intelligent than whites. (That IQ test scores would similarly indicate that Asians were intrinsically more inteliigent than whites never seemed to enter into the discussion. I guess it’s easier to criticize those below you than you admit someone is above you.)
So now Watson, a real geneticist in his sunset years, is spouting the same kind of claptrap as Shockley did in his retirement years — Shockley was in his mid-60s when I met him in 1973. And meeting with the same kind of moral outrage at his remarks.
It’s deja vu all over again.
The concept that people of different races have different abilities or intelligence is an old one, dating back to the days of colonialism, if not before. The “white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling satirically noted, was to bring up the other races to the level of civilization of the white man (i.e., the British Empire).
Suggesting that black Africans were inherently inferior to whites made it easier for many Europeans to stomach the inhuman institution of slavery, and later, for white Americans to accept the prevailing notion that emancipated slaves could not possibly learn enough to vote, attend college or hold down professional jobs. Thus, it took another 100 or so years for the children and grandchildren of former slaves to gain the civil rights that we now largely take for granted.
IQ tests were one of the tools that supported the notion that whites were superior in intellect to blacks and other ethnic groups. Developed toward the end of the 19th century as a predictor of academic success, IQ tests quickly became a political and social tool to pigeonhole students and later adults according to their performance on the test.
Students with low IQ scores, for example, were directed toward the trades and away from college preparatory classes. Students with high scores, conversely, were expected to be “college material” and treated as such.
Immigration authorities during the early part of the 20th century used IQ tests (written in English) to determine whether new arrivals to our shores should be allowed to settle here. Oddly enough, those who were deemed unworthy (at the time, Eastern Europeans with little English skills) also scored poorly in the tests and were thus conveniently turned away.
Those predisposed toward believing whites were inherently smarter than blacks seized upon IQ tests as proof their beliefs were right after all, since generally speaking, there was a noticeable difference in the average IQ score of whites and blacks.
Their error, which Shockley and Watson seem to repeat, is to believe that genetics, and by extension race, is the only influence on IQ test scores. A further error is to assume that IQ scores and intelligence are one and the same thing.
Environment, upbringing, enculturation, language fluency, prior education, even having had enough sleep before the test, among other factors, all determine one’s ability to perform on these tests (including the SAT, I might add). And as designers of IQ tests will admit the tests only measure one aspect of a person’s intelligence, and certainly do not measure — or determine — a person’s relative worth to society.
If Watson truly believes what he said last week, I can only pity the man. Perhaps old age is diminishing his intellect, or at least his common sense. More worrisome is the fodder that his off-the-cuff remark provides white racists. Nutjobs just love to have their whacko ideas seemingly validated by well-respected experts, after all.
I am sorry that Watson essentially lost his job by saying something stupid and racist. He shares that distinction with broadcaster Don Imus, of “nappy headed ‘ho'” fame. (One wonders what a conversation between those two guys would be like … ) But people in the public eye need to be a little more circumspect in what they say to the press. Experts like Watson should stick to the scientific evidence, not their own free association blatherings.
It’s time to bury the myth that race determines intelligence. It just ain’t so.