I’m of two minds about the recent resignation of eminent geneticist James Watson, following the publication of an interview in which the Nobel laureate suggested that Africans are inherently less intelligent than Europeans.
On the one hand, I’m pretty confident that given all the various factors that influence intelligence—upbringing, adequacy of childhood diet, social expectations, not to mention the method of measurement—it’s not currently possible (even for James Watson) to say with any certainty whether or to what extent observed disparities in group averages can be put down to genetics. That being the case, it seems awfully irresponsible for someone of Watson’s stature to casually toss off a hypothesis in an interview with the popular press, as though it were established fact. And since Watson, by all accounts, had become more of a fund raiser than working scientist, it seems proper to have resigned once public outcry rendered him unsuited to that function.
Neither do I find it mysterious why some claims of group difference, and not others, are apt to provoke charges of racism. Selwyn Duke engages in a lengthy pantomime of chin-stroking over this question, but the answer seems rather clear: The idea of hardwired differences in intelligence has historically been deployed to both justify and minimize racial oppression. Nobody in the 19th century argued that blacks needed to be kept in a state of subjection because of their susceptibility to sickle-cell anemia. Nobody now argues that apparent evidence of persistent racial inequity is really attributable to sickle-cells rather than discrimination. And not least, the whole sickle-cell thing is sufficiently thoroughly proven that nobody wonders what psychological factors might play into someone’s embracing the idea.
That said, there’s something extremely unsettling about seeing a scientist of impeccable credentials essentially hounded from public life—even, apparently, investigated by a governmental equal rights commission—for offering a view about a genuine empirical question within his field of expertise. If this is what happens to the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, how many other, less eminent scientists, are going to get the message that certain topics are just too professionally dangerous to explore?
I also wonder whether it isn’t an error to reinforce the idea that it’s somehow crucially important that the hardwired potential of every group be statistically identical to that of every other along every dimension of intelligence. I don’t know of any ex-ante reason for thinking it’s impossible that someone will one day produce compelling evidence for some sort of difference, after all. Should that ever happen, surely it would be better for this to be seen for what it is—an interesting but not especially important datum—rather than as some kind of “vindication” of racists.