The founder of modern genetics and discoverer of DNA, James Watson, reiterated the difference in intelligence between African Americans and Caucasians, calling it “genetic.” In response, he was stripped of all honorary titles, and the scientific community expressed bewilderment and dissatisfaction with the scientist’s words, says Naked Science.
From the point of view of science
The ninety-year-old American biologist James Watson can be considered one of the most significant scientists of the twentieth century: in 1953, together with Francis Crick, he deciphered the structure of DNA, for which in 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. With worldwide recognition, Watson took over at the helm of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a leading research center for molecular biology and genetics located in New York State, USA. The scientist headed the laboratory until 1994, after which he became its president and chancellor. In addition, Watson also led the Human Genome Project (the goal of which was to determine the complete sequence of nucleotides in the human genome) and became the second person in the history of science, whose entire set of genes was completely deciphered.
However, subsequently, the affairs of the eminent scientist became worse and worse, the reason for which was his own incautious statements. In an interview with The Sunday Times, talking about the future of Africa, he stated: “I see dire prospects for Africa, because our entire social policy is based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, while all research shows it is not so”. Moreover, he added that despite the desire for a level playing field for all scientists, “people who have to deal with black employees believe that this is not true.” Despite the fact that Watson apologized for his words, in 2007 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory removed him from his job and removed all administrative duties, leaving only the formal title of Emeritus Chancellor of the institution.
For a long time, the scientist did not appear in public, and only in 2014 it became known that he sold his Nobel medal at auction due to persecution in the scientific community, becoming the first laureate in history whose award went into private hands during his lifetime. After that, everyone seemed to have forgotten about the scientist, until Watson himself reminded of himself, again causing a flurry of criticism. The reason for this was the PBS documentary Understanding Watson, in which the biologist was asked if his views on the relationship between race and intelligence had changed.
“No, not at all. I would like them to change, for new knowledge to appear that will tell us that upbringing is much more important than nature. But I don’t see any new information. And there is a difference in average IQ scores between African Americans and Caucasians. I could say that this is a genetic difference, ”he replied.
A week after the release of the interview, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory announced that it had finally stripped the eminent geneticist of the title of Distinguished Chancellor. Recognizing his significant contribution to science, the laboratory noted that the statements made in the film “are fundamentally at odds with our goals, values and policies,” and therefore they are forced to curtail any form of cooperation with the scientist.
Despite the fact that back in 2007, expressing his apologies, Watson said that he did not know any scientific basis for such beliefs, work to determine the connection between race and intelligence, of course, was carried out, and often they received publicity against the background of the question of equals conditions for researchers of all races; and the small number of African American scientists.
African Americans in Science
Neil deGrasse Tyson, an African-American astrophysicist, Ph.D. and popularizer of science, has repeatedly stated that the modern system does not provide equal opportunities for everyone who wants to do science, and this should be considered first of all, “before we’ll start talking about genetic differences. “
This inequality begins in the education system, where students from racial minorities are not represented in science and where educational opportunities continue to be racial, gender and socioeconomic constraints. Last year, no African American student took the AP Computer Science exam in 11 states. The college board was not surprised, saying that computer courses have historically been dominated by Caucasian male students. In 2011, seven percent of California school students were African American and 51% Hispanic. However, only one percent of AP Computer Science students were African American, only 7% Hispanic. These statistics highlight a significant disparity between education systems in different areas and communities. Although some progress has been made in empowering people of different races, over the past 20 years, participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields has declined significantly among African American students, while interest among other ethnic groups in these areas has increased. since 2001. This means that African Americans have become the group least involved in the STEM field. Similar statistics are found in biomedical sciences, with African Americans accounting for only 1.5 percent of grant applications to the National Institutes of Health.
It is noteworthy that since the founding of the Nobel Prize (1901), the only African American economist from Saint Lucia, professor of economics at Princeton University Sir William Arthur Lewis, problems of developing countries ”. Including Lewis, 15 blacks have become Nobel laureates, 11 of whom have received the Nobel Peace Prize, and three have received the highest honor in literature.
However, it is, of course, a mistake to believe that there were no African Americans among the scientists. The world knows many scientists of this race: the chemist Percy Julian, who was the first to synthesize physostigmine, which is used in the treatment of glaucoma; David Blackwell, who made significant contributions to game theory and probability theory, who gave its name to the Rao-Blackwell theorem; Marie Maynard Daly, who studied protein synthesis, the relationship between cholesterol and hypertension, and the absorption of creatine by muscle cells; Patricia Bath, who invented the laser treatment for cataracts; Ernest Everett Just – whose main legacy is the recognition of the fundamental role of the cell surface in the development of organisms; as well as the already mentioned Neil DeGrasse Tyson and theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson, an interview with whom you can read in the previous issue of the journal Naked Science.
In terms of learning outcomes, African Americans today do indeed score lower than Caucasians on vocabulary, reading, and math tests, as well as on some tests that measure learning ability and intelligence. This gap appears before children enter kindergarten and persists into adulthood. However, researchers insist that this indicator should not be considered an inevitable fact of nature. The gap narrows slightly when children of both races attend the same schools, and narrows slightly when two families have the same number of students, equal income and wealth. But despite endless speculation, no one has ever found genetic evidence that the innate intellectual ability of African Americans is less than that of Caucasians. However, it is clear that closing the test gap will require a tremendous scientific effort and will likely affect more than one generation.
Scientists have not yet identified most of the genes that affect test performance, so we currently have no direct genetic evidence for innate cognitive differences between the two races. But over the twentieth century, researchers have accumulated a sufficient amount of indirect evidence. Most of them show that children’s life in an “African American” or “Caucasian” environment has a greater impact on their test scores than the number of Africans or Europeans in their family tree.
In 1969, American psychologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Arthur Robert Jensen, published an article in the Harvard Educational Review entitled “How Much Can We Improve IQ and School Performance?” on increasing IQ levels among African American children, failed largely because 80% of IQ variations, according to his own estimates, are associated with genetic factors, and only 20% with environmental factors. The publication caused a wide public outcry and was received with controversy.
In 1978, John Uzo Ogbu, a Nigerian-American anthropologist and professor who studied the relationship between race and intelligence and the role of racial and ethnic differences in educational and economic achievement, suggested that caste-like minorities around the world tend to be bad are in school and exhibit low IQ scores, even if they are visually indistinguishable from the majority. He also came to the conclusion that some black students performed poorly, because among their peers, high achievement was, as it were, regarded as “Caucasian behavior.” More recently, researchers Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond added another important point to this argument, suggesting that academic competence develops in part through competition and that “rumors of inferiority” make African Americans reluctant to compete academically. Claude Steele, a former UC Berkeley professor of psychology and psychology professor at Stanford University, confirms this idea, arguing that people of all races avoid situations in which they can confirm negative stereotypes about themselves, even though they know that the stereotype is not applicable to them.
Reaction to Watson’s claims
Andrea Morris, PhD and Rockefeller University scholar, who acted as scientific advisor to the film, responding to Watson’s claims, has already stated that as an African American scientist “would like to believe that the doctor is demonstrating a minority view of who can do science and what a scientist should look like. “
According to Harvard University geneticist David Reich (David Reich), all the updated results of the study of DNA demonstrate that individual human groups were geographically separated long ago, and therefore they could develop some genetic differences in cognition and behavior. However, in his recent book Who We Are and How We Got Here, he strongly rejects Watson’s suggestion that these differences are consistent with long-standing stereotypes because they are “inherently guaranteed to be wrong.”
Another famous geneticist, Robert Plomin, arguing that the natural factor plays a greater role than social (upbringing, education), rejected any attempts to substantiate average racial differences. In his opinion, there are reliable methods for studying the genetic and ecological causes of individual differences, which cannot be applied to study the causes of average differences between groups. In an interview with the New York Times, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, said that most intelligence experts believe that all the differences between African Americans and Caucasians in IQ test results are mainly due to environmental rather than genetic reasons. He also added that he did not know of any credible scientific work that Watson could rely on.
“It is disappointing that a person who has made such a revolutionary contribution to science has such scientifically unfounded and harmful beliefs,” says Collins.
A leading geneticist at the University of Washington, Mary-Claire King, who has a close acquaintance with Dr. Watson, suggests that a racially homogeneous culture of science also played a role in shaping the eminent biologist’s views. According to her, if the scientist knew African Americans as his colleagues at all levels, his current point of view would be impossible.
Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to find out if Watson is familiar with all this list of opinions and studies, as well as to get any comments from the biologist regarding the Laboratory’s decision and the statements made: the interview took place in June last year, and in October the scientist was hospitalized after a car accident and is still in the hospital.
However, no matter what he replies upon recovery, it seems that the public is unlikely to forgive him for the next such statements. One thing is clear: regardless of whether Watson believed his words to be true or wrong in them, he probably should have been more careful and accurate in his wording. In the interview itself, Dr. Watson has repeatedly tried to explain his own views on issues of race and intelligence, stating that he considers himself a “product of the Roosevelt era”, while remaining confident in the importance of genes. So much so that he hurt many people, which, according to him, he regrets.
Photo: In 2017, James Watson gave a lecture at St. Petersburg State University / © St. Petersburg State University