The 1962 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm gave James Watson his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and launched him to scientific fame. courtesy Academy of Achievement

Intelligence shouldn’t define worth, despite racist claims

James Watson’s belief that race and IQ are correlated is rooted in racism, but the connection between genetics and intelligence is up for debate.

It appears James Watson is a racist. If you’re like me, you have no idea who that is off the top of your head, so you’re probably wondering why we should devote any space to a single lowlife in a sea of bigots. Well, for a start, Watson is actually a pretty significant person, one half of the famed “Watson and Crick” duo that discovered the double-helix structure of DNA in the 1950s and spawned the modern field of molecular biology.

But more interesting than that to me, and the entire impetus for writing about him in the first place, is the type of racist comments that Watson made. Specifically, what those comments and their public reaction have to say about the relationship between intelligence and the inherent dignity of a human being.

Let’s begin by looking at what exactly Watson said that is causing such an uproar. In a PBS documentary that aired on Jan. 2, Watson revealed that he believes genetics cause a difference between white and black people’s scores on IQ tests. This was in line with past comments made by Watson, including being “inherently gloomy about the prospects 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 his racist inclinations have been well known for decades, Watson’s beliefs are only now causing a popular outcry and have seen him stripped of honors previously bestowed upon him by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), which he directed for 25 years.

The condemnation has been swift and predictable, with news outlets quoting CSHL’s statement that it “unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions Dr. James D. Watson expressed,” and critics are wondering how such an intelligent man could hold such obviously false views. Of course, the unpopular answer to that last bit is that though Watson is oversimplifying the issue and almost certainly coming from a position of prejudice, he is not wrong in pointing out observed differences in cognitive ability across socially defined racial constructs.

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray are often credited with reigniting the modern debate concerning race and intelligence with their controversial 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” and in subsequent decades, there is still nothing resembling a consensus in the scientific community. In 2005, J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur R. Jensen published a study titled “Thirty Years of Research on Race Differences by Cognitive Ability,” which identified a black-white median IQ difference of up to 1.1 standard deviations. Stories of American universities raising the standard for students of East Asian descent in order to achieve other racial quotas have been of public interest for years. Ashkenazi Jews have famously high median IQ scores, a possible explanation for their vastly disproportionate representation amongst positions of academic prestige, including recipients of awards such as the Fields Medal and Nobel Prize.

Is it racist to point out these facts? Presented without context, and understanding that these are broad generalizations across ill-defined boundaries, I would say no, which also makes Watson’s most vilified comment a rather curious one. Though it reeks of condescension and Eurocentrism, there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently racist about pointing out that the same social policies may not succeed in every country or culture.
Rather, we can be sure of Watson’s bigotry from other, related statements (“people who have had to deal with Black employees find [that they are not as intelligent]”) and the fact that he seems unwilling to acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding the position of which he has remained so adamantly in favor.

Going beyond his obvious lack of appreciation for how generalized the differences in IQ are (to the point that interacting with individuals like “employees” should offer no indication as to the average intelligence of the whole), Watson cannot seem to recognize that no respected study has ever attributed intelligence 100 percent to one’s genetics, or that broad racial categorizations such as “white,” “black” and “Asian” are largely arbitrary and ever evolving.

But again, pointing out the inconclusivity of the science and recognizing Watson’s thinly-veiled prejudice does not by itself disprove the spirit of the claim that genetics play a role in intelligence and that those genetics vary in observable patterns across the human race. Nor should they, as I believe everyone should be prepared to one day accept the absolute reality of generalized intellectual differences in the same way that we largely believe in certain biological ones.

Men, on average, are stronger than women, and people of East African descent achieve disproportionate success in long-distance running, while those of West African descent dominate in sports prizing sprinting and jumping. These things are self-evident, and so too could be the fact that some groups on average perform better in a certain type of intellectual capacity. This is not racist. What we do with that knowledge defines our bigotry or lack thereof.

If you believe that the worth of a person is tied inherently to how smart they are, then you might just be a terrible human being. It’s as simple as that. Albert Einstein does not belong to a higher plane of humanity than high-school dropouts working for minimum wage just because their IQs are vastly different.

Intelligence is just another facet of a person unique to every individual, and though it can qualify you for different avenues in life, it should no more define your basic dignity than your skin color, sex, height, weight or any other attribute. And this is the logical problem one falls into if one tries to argue that differences in intelligence can’t be true “because that’s what racists believe.” What do you do if somebody is one day able to prove a conclusive genetic link between what we call race and intelligence? Throw up your hands and admit that the racists were right the whole time? Of course not! The argument must be discounted for its own sake. Your intellect is just something you have, it’s not who you are.

Post Author: Justin Guglielmetti