Race and intelligence

In an interview with the Sunday Times, scientist James Watson suggested that race determines intelli

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Every time we think we have buried the pseudo-science behind racist claims about differences in intelligence between Blacks and Whites, some attention-seeker attempts to re-ignite them.

This time it is Jim Watson, brilliant molecular biologist, Nobelist for the discovery of the structure of DNA and architect of the Human Genome Project. Watson, however, has an unfortunate reputation for making outrageous and offensive remarks in areas in which he is scientifically incompetent.

The scientific community has become wearily familiar with his tendency to shoot from the hip on issues such as feminism (the right place for a feminist is in someone else’s lab) and homosexuality (if a genetic test were available, pregnant women should be given the option to abort).

But his glamour means that his words, which are without scientific merit, will reignite an otherwise long-buried fight over race and IQ, bring cheer to racists and must be firmly rebutted.

In his newspaper interviews, and it appears, in his most recent book, Watson claims, without evidence, that 'Africans' have lower intelligence than 'Us' - by which he means white Euro-American males, and that this difference is genetic.

However, firstly, the question of what constitutes 'intelligence' is itself problematic - the word has much broader and diverse meanings than what can be encompassed in IQ tests.

Intelligence is always intelligence-in-context, ( many would argue that someone who can make remarks like Watson's is singularly devoid of social intelligence, for instance).

Second, the idea that there is a genetically meaningful African 'race' is nonsense. There is wide cultural and genetic diversity amongst African populations from south to north, from Ethiopians to Nigerians. There are, for example probably genetic as well as environmental reasons why Ethiopians make good marathon runners whereas Nigerians on the whole do not.

To group the entire diverse populations of Africa together is a characteristically racist trick. Furthermore, to even give any semblance of scientific respectability to Watson's claim, it would have been necessary to provide data such as IQ test results on all these varied African (and indeed Euro-American – so-called ‘caucasian’) populations and to explore the reasons for any differences should they appear.

Even where there are such average differences in IQ score, as for instance between Black and White populations in the US, there are no scientifically valid methods to enable one to untangle the many interacting factors of the validity of IQ tests themselves, as measures of anything other than school performance, educational and social deprivation, the history of slave-owners versus slaves and continuing racism, which may account for them.

It is now some 40 years since in the US Arthur Jensen resuscitated the buried claims of scientific racism, and since then geneticists, psychologists, neuroscientists and educationalists have rebutted them many times over.

It is sad to see Watson returning to this vomit. His scientific reputation will stand, but his reputation as a thoughtful contributor to debates about the relationship of genetics to social problems is irretrievably tarnished.

Following a degree in biochemistry at Cambridge, a PhD in neurochemistry in London and post doc periods in Oxford Rome and London, Steven Rose was appointed Professor of Biology and Director of the Brain and Behaviour Research Group at the Open University, where he is now Emeritus Professor. He is also Visiting Professor at University College London. His research centres on the neurobiology of learning and memory and is currently focused on developing a therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease. He has received a variety of medals and international awards, most recently the prestigious Edinburgh Medal.