Watson Does it Again

James Watson has made a career out of being the enfant terrible of molecular biology, but a 79-year-old enfant is just downright icky. In the past, as I noted in a recent story, Watson has endorsed aborting fetuses if they are known to carry a gene for homosexuality, encouraged genetic engineering so we can "make all girls pretty," and posited that having a darker skin makes you more libidinous.

Now he has ventured into even stupider waters, telling The Sunday Times of London that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours–whereas all the testing says not really." Although people of good will might hope that all humans are equal in intellectual potential, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

Watson is in London to promote his latest book, "Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science," with a sold-out speech scheduled for the Science Museum tomorrow. Last night the Museum canceled the appearance after Watson's remarks, but merely skimming the book would have given them advance warning of what Watson is thinking these days. He writes, “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

We have been this way before. In 1990, Science magazine noted that "To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script.” Now colleagues are, predictably, condemning his remarks, with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York putting out a statement saying the board and faculty "vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments.''

Watson, of course, shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for discovering, with the late Francis Crick, the double-helix structure of DNA, the master molecule of heredity. In his chronicle of that achievement, "The Double Helix," Watson cast himself as the swashbuckling genius fighting his way to the top, climbing over anyone who got in his way (including Rosalind Franklin, who took the x-ray images that formed the basis for Watson and Crick's inference about DNA's structure but whom Watson and Crick failed to credit at the time).

His new book continues in that fine tradition. He quotes approvingly the remarks by former Harvard University president Larry Summers that "innate" differences might explain why women fail to achieve much in science and math, saying that explanation "might well be a fact of evolution that academia will have to live with." He ignores research showing that if there are innate differences---in, say, spatial ability--they are irrelevant to the kind of hard work and brilliance that makes for stellar achievement in academic science, and pale next to gender discrimination. (Stanford University neurobiologist Ben Barres wrote last year in Nature how he had just finished giving a seminar at MIT 10 years ago when, a friend later told him, one scientist in the audience turned to another and said, "Ben Barres' work is so much better than his sister's." Interesting, since Barres doesn't have a sister: the Barbara Barres the man recalled was Ben before his sex-change operation, and although his body had changed his science had not---only the gender-based perception of it had

As for race and intelligence, we have been down this path too many times to count. Discoveries such as the Flynn Effect, which finds that measured IQs have been rising for decades even though the world's population is not getting smarter, and stereotype threat, in which people reminded that they belong to a group that isn't supposed to do well on math tests (girls) or standardized tests (blacks) do worse than when they are not explicitly reminded of their sex or race, are dramatic proof that IQ scores are fungible and hugely subject to environmental influences rather than innate.

On that score, I can do no better than to cite the late Stephen J. Gould's 1994 critique of The Bell Curve: " The central fallacy in using the substantial heritability of within-group IQ (among whites, for example) as an explanation of average differences between groups (whites versus blacks, for example) is now well known and acknowledged by all," he wrote in The New Yorker, "but deserves a restatement by example. Take a trait that is far more heritable than anyone has ever claimed IQ to be but is politically uncontroversial: body height. Suppose that I measure the heights of adult males in a poor Indian village beset with nutritional deprivation, and suppose the average height of adult males is five feet six inches. Heritability within the village is high, which is to say that tall fathers (they may average five feet eight inches) tend to have tall sons, while short fathers (five feet four inches on average) tend to have short sons. But this high heritability within the village does not mean that better nutrition might not raise average height to five feet ten inches in a few generations. Similarly, the well-documented fifteen-point average difference in IQ between blacks and whites in America, with substantial heritability of IQ in family lines within each group, permits no automatic conclusion that truly equal opportunity might not raise the black average enough to equal or surpass the white mean."

If blacks score lower than whites and whites score lower than Asians, as they do, surely the smart thing is to look for explanations somewhere other than in Watson's beloved double helix.