A critical think: the James Watson DNA debate

Written by on October 22nd, 2007 // Filed under CRITICAL DISCOURSE ANALYSIS


Photo: Edmond Terakopian/PA

I’ve read in the past few days, the following three news articles on James Watson. The 79 year old is a Nobel Prize winner (1962) and has served for 50 years as a director of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory on Long Island. He is considered a world leader in research into cancer and genetics. What I write in this post is based on these three articles I’ve thus read.

The first two news articles are from The Independent and the last from Fox News.

The current furore is based on Watson’s comments about the intelligence (or lack thereof) of Black people, where he is (quoted from the Times Online article)

… 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.

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.

He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that

people who have to deal with black employees find this not true

He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because

there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level

As a reader and consumer of newspapers it is easy to read the news as if they were neutral and somehow “true”, since I think we easily assume that reporters and journalists are supposed to do just that; to neutrally report what they see and hear to the non-present. This is however often untrue, since news are reported from the perspective of the individual reporter; a person backed up by the power of the institution of publishing but nonetheless, human and with his or her individual bias. Still, critical reading takes an effort, and on my lazy days I often wished that what I read could plain and simple, be taken at face value.

But in the case of the James Watson, with his being unwelcomed, suspended and with his controversy due to comments on Black intelligence, and a few other comments he has made over the years with regards to genetics, women, and even his own son, I was forced to do some critical reading in two directions:

  1. Watson’s claim that “equal powers of reason” shared across racial groups is a delusion (and that “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”).
  2. Point of view of the newspapers and journalists who write about Watson’s debate

Equal powers of reason as delusion

Rather than jumping to the conclusion that Watson is propagating scientific racism or is himself, racist, perhaps we could rather begin by investigating how intelligence is defined.

We often use the term intelligence to encompass both a broad range of abilities and the efficiency with which they are enacted. This implies flexibility and creativity, an “ability to slip the bonds of instinct and generate novel solutions to problems” (Gould and Gould, 1994:70). Byrne (1994) sees animal intelligence in the three pillars of association, imitation and insight. Then there’s also the symbolic (Deacon, 1997) and reasoning (Gould and Gould, 1998) abilities. Piaget (1929, 1952) deems intelligence as what one does when one doesn’t know what to do, when neither innateness nor learning has prepared one for the situation; intelligence is improvisation. Barlow (1987) sees intelligence as the ability to make guesses that disorder some new underlying order and in a similar vein, Calvin (1999) sees intelligence as a coherence, of finding a conceptual combination of sensory input, memories and movement plans that fit together particularly well.

A quick search on the internet shows that most understand intelligence as something that is abosolute, could be measured and expressed in numbers and, that this usually should be done by psychometric testing. Such intelligence quotient (IQ) tests include the Stanford-Binet (French), Raven’s Progressive Matrices (United Kingdom), the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (American) and the Wechsler-Bellevue.

It is said that all IQ tests seem to correlate with each other, but as you may have noticed from above, they all also originated from the West.

So, why couldn’t it be true when Watson said that

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.

Because if one were to look back on migration patterns where human kind are argued to have originated from the continent of Africa, then those who moved to terrains dissimilar to Africa, with differing climate, flora and fauna, would have had the task of solving new problems – how to keep warm and preserve food in a much colder climate for example; where perhaps those who chose not to migrate would not have needed to contemplate that kind of problems in order to continue to develop their society.

Going back to the definition of the word intelligence, one would realize that therein lies an implication that there are various intelligences, depending on definition. There are different kinds of intelligences just as there are different kinds of cultures across the world. And even within a dominant culture, one can find several sub-cultures. The Rain Forest Shaman for example, would have a different intelligence than scientists from the West.

So, why do we need to assume that Watson is wrong if he says that “all testing shows that Blacks or Africans indicate that they are less intelligent“? Aren’t we missing the small detail of how and by whom these tests were made? IQ tests, though widely accepted as a standard indicator of how “intelligent” an individual is, still comes with a white / western / male bias, because that is from where the tests originated. I don’t think we need to doubt that white, western male scientists whose socio-cultural, historical and political backgrounds are different from those of the Africans or Black Americans. So, while these IQ tests cannot be “universal”, they are often referred to as if they were.

So why shouldn’t Watson be, as he puts it;

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

Sometimes, I believe it is useful for us to think about what is left unsaid when people actually say something. In Watson’s case above, what is left unsaid is that social policies should not be formulated and implemented onto a group of persons without first understanding their socio-cultural, political and historical background.

How many countries are currently involved in helping save Africa for example, with policy makers who may never have lived there or even stepped foot in Africa or even less learnt to speak their language, tried to understand how they think and understand their culture, their ideologies; yet formulate social policies based on their own backgrounds and ideologies?

I think rather than readily agreeing with Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee (and who himself has a political agenda to fulfill), who said

It is sad to see a scientist of such achievement making such baseless, unscientific and extremely offensive comments.

I am sure the scientific community will roundly reject what appear to be Dr Watson’s personal prejudices. These comments serve as a reminder of the attitudes which can still exist at the highest professional levels. (Times Online, October 17, 2007)

I would instead, consider Watson’s point of view, including what Watson might have failed to say when he does indeed say something, and use that information to research future social policy making and implementing.

To try to treat everybody as equal is humane, but homogeneous and cast in the same mould, we are not. Trying to force it such is much less constructive for all. As in every society, there is one dominant culture, the hegemonic culture of those in power, backed by education institutions, institutions of the law, the mass media and the Army. To implement policies according to that dominant ideology without the sensitivities of the Others considered is, from what I see, not much different from dictatorship, implicit or otherwise.

Point of view of the newspapers and journalists

The term point of view here refers to who is saying what; why and for whom they say it for.

I couldn’t help but see that the article from The Independent, entitled James Watson: Genetic disorder by Paul Vallely (20 October, 2007) is written from the journalist’s point of view, with the article filled with Vallely’s own attitudes and opinions about Watson.

The title of the article in itself is seemingly neutral since Watson is indeed a geneticist who speaks his mind about DNA and genetic disorders. But a sweep through Vallely’s article indicates that the title of the article is actually doubled edged where one could read it as

  • James Watson whose field is the study of genetic disorder and whose controversy is about things he has said about genetic disorders
  • or

  • James Watson who himself has a genetic disorder

I have chosen a few excerpts from Vallely’s article that indicate the author’s own attitudes and judgements about Watson, highlighted in bold font.

The article begins with a seemingly neutral sounding paragraph, though Vallely’s general negativity and unsympathetic attitude towards Watson is already indicated in the first line with “by his own admission”, meaning to pull attention towards the situation that Watson has by his own doing, caused this controversy. Vallely’s irony and underlying sarcasm is indicated again, in the last line of the opening paragraph:

James Watson is a man who, by his own admission, enjoys controversy. But even by the great scientist’s standards this is one humdinger, and it’s not over yet. The man who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, the code to all life, yesterday cut short his week-long publicity tour of Britain after venues told him he was not welcome. But that was not all. His remarks, reported in a newspaper interview, that blacks are less intelligent than whites, had rippled back across the Atlantic. In New York his own laboratory, one of America’s leading scientific research institutions – which he has headed for 40 years – announced that it was suspending him as its figurehead because of the row. The title of his book was Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. By the end of the week boring must have looked rather attractive.

As the article continues, Vallely includes his judgment about Watson in the following lines: Now lets look for unsympathetic and negative value words:

  1. Watson and his co-discoverer Francis Crick failed to mention Franklin in their Nobel Prize acceptance speeches.
  2. But at the time Franklin went unacknowledged. Worse still, in his book The Double Helix, a gossipy account of the cracking of the code, Watson made derogatory remarks about her physical appearance, and painted her as a frigid, badly dressed and charmless bluestocking. She died four years before the Nobel Prize was awarded – from ovarian cancer at the age of just 37, possibly brought on by the constant radiation from her photography work.
  3. Even now Watson talks of her with a brutal frankness.
  4. In 1988 he also took on the task of heading up the Human Genome Project, the hugely ambitious $3bn scheme to map 100,000 genes.
  5. But Watson’s maverick nature was also gaining him notoriety.
  6. Choosing Germany as the place to float the idea of promoting abortion for Jews suggests that Watson himself may be missing the gene that governs political sensitivity.
  7. Again, when in a hole he never knows that he should stop digging.
  8. He fails to see that it might also lead to a world where “underdogs” are discriminated against by insurance companies or to a rise in eugenic abortions.
  9. His is, in any case, a weird world.
  10. Watson’s suggestions that some races are less intelligent than others sit neatly against this long history of contrived controversy.
  11. There is about it all a detached determinism which takes no account of environment, culture, education and all the other myriad factors which impact upon human behaviour.

Apart from Vallely’s underlying ironic tone of voice that laces the article, the above emboldened words show that Vallely’s attitudes and judgements towards Watson where in most cases, unsympathetic and negative. Watson is painted as brutal, weird and detached, from Vallely’s point of view. And in line 2, Vallely tries to draw readership sympathy for Franklin whilst depicting a darker more cynical side to Watson.

Throughout the article Vallely also quotes Watson on things Watson has previously said, in support for Vallely’s point of view. Watson for example, has been known to have said / implied things such as:

because most women want to have grandchildren … it’s common sense
— Watson when arguing for that women should have a right to abort a foetus if it was found to be carrying a “gay” gene.

Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them

If your heart doesn’t work well, people say it’s genetic. If your brain doesn’t work well, that, in a sense, is a brain disease
— Watson about a gene for stupidity and suggested that stupid people should be aborted.

“I think I would be a monster to want someone to suffer the way he has… so, yes, I would have aborted him”
— about his son, Rufus who has schizophrenia

I’m strongly opposed to sequencing people at birth and predicting their future …But if there’s a violent criminal, and I’m wondering whether to release him, in the future we would certainly look at his or her DNA.

Readers of the article will not know where and from which context these quotes from Watson originate.

I appreciate Vallely’s sense of humour throughout the article, but whilst reading his article, I had to constantly remind myself that all quotes from Watson are of Watson’s personal opinions, albeit perhaps made from his own extensive experience in research. Watson’s sayings, whether taken from the context of giving a lecture or a speech, it is nonetheless opinions of the individual that if anything, tells of Watson’s interesting personality, as an indication of how his mind works rather than be used as examples for condemning him as racist or uncaring.

Although not an easy task because language exists for us to tie one reality to another, one instance / event / happening to another, in my view, the James Watson debate would be much more constructive and contribute more positively to the betterment of the future, if Watson the person and his personal opinions, be separated as much as possible, from Watson, one of the world’s leading geneticists.

Added on 28 October, 2007
The above post of mine has led me into a world of science blogs, some of which are:

Gene Expression
Gene Expression, seed
Science Blogs

Of which I find many interesting and admittedly, most technical papers presented are beyond my means of comprehension. Still, I would recommend anyone to browse the sites for interesting updates and some quite intellectual discussions within the realm of science. I especially enjoyed the post on Neanderthals had red hair! (Ok, some)

There are a few comments that I would like to highlight from Gene Expression, because I myself find them interesting:

From: PhilB

What I have not seen is evidence that Watson necessarily said that some races had *more* or *less* intelligence than others; only that there were differences. In my experience, the term “intelligence” with no referent is almost meaningless. “Intelligent” at what? Some people are lousy at school, but brilliant in a workshop. Some are not so great at solid chains of logic, but great at creativity or at intuitiveness. And so on. There is a wide range of kinds of intelligence, and several known types of learning styles that are known to vary between individuals and between cultures. I certainly can see how different races (or other divisions or groups of people) in different environments could, would, and *should* develop different capacities for some kinds of intelligence, depending on what is most valuable for surviving and thriving in their particular environments.

Perhaps (likely, in fact) the particular types of intelligence valued by Europeans, and tested in an IQ test developed by European-descended people, are more prevalent in Europeans (and, by chance, Asians), while blacks or some others have evolved to focus their brainpower on somewhat different skills or abilities. If so, obviously blacks would not do as well on such a test, but conversely if African scholars developed their own IQ test, it might then show the reverse. This would not in any way imply superiority or inferiority of any particular group, and would be a legitimate and valuable course of inquiry for solving some of our world’s problems. If, for example, we are trying to force social models developed according to the intelligence patterns of Europeans upon people that have different intelligence patterns, it would be no surprise that it wouldn’t work so well. And refusing to acknowledge that this question could even be legitimately asked isn’t going to help anyone. It may be the case that, for instance, Africans will need to be allowed to develop their own social structures according to their own thought patterns and intelligence skills, rather than being expected to just culturally transform themselves into Europeans of a different skin color.

Even if Watson did say, and does believe, that blacks are somehow “lesser”, it still is important for the rest of us to look at the question raised and answer it rationally, with facts, rather than just shouting him down and punishing him for asking it.

From: TGGP who raised a discussion on “Cosma Shalizi’s assult on g”

And from tc, who wrote regarding Shalizi:

On Shalizi’s post:

First of all, I’d agree that g doesn’t tell us much about the evolution of the mind, or how the brain gives rise to reason, etc – by definition, g is about individual differences, not about human universals. But that’s precisely why people are so (rightfully) worked up about it – what Shalizi derides as “labor market sociology” is the whole reason why most of us care about g: why some people (or groups) might be richer or poorer or more successful than others.

Now, in his simulation, Shalizi has 11 tests, each of which draws upon from 1 to 500 shared abilities. From a psychologist’s point of view, this has no single “g factor” – but from the labor market sociologist’s point of view, who cares? What matters is that there is a set of abilities that affects _all_ the tests – we could take the average of the 500 shared abilities and label it “IQ”. A common factor is important because it means that there _is_ a single number you can use to predict all outcomes, and “multiple intelligences” and the like will not erase the predictive power of the common factor. And, if there are individual or group differences in this factor, then we should expect to see differences in outcomes.

Finally, Shalizi doesn’t mention the sheer diversity of the types of tests that show a common factor – not just the usual academic tests, but also of musical ability, reaction time, etc. Sternberg spent a lot of time trying to come up with a test of “practical” or “emotional” intelligence that does _not_ load on g, without much success. I seem to recall that only rhythmic ability does not load on g – if there really are all these independent abilities, why hasn’t anyone come up with lots of tests that don’t load on g?

Also, he says: The question is whether the index measures the trait the same way in the two groups. What people have gone to great lengths to establish is that IQ predicts other variables the same way for the two groups, i.e., that when you plug it into regressions you get the same coefficients. This is not the same thing, but it does have a bearing on the question of measurement bias: it provides strong reason to think it exists. As Roger Millsap and co-authors have shown in a series of papers going back to the early 1990s (e.g. this one from 1997, or this early treatment of the non-parametric case), if there really is a difference on the unobserved trait between groups, and the test has no measurement bias, then the predictive regression coefficients should, generally, be different. [15] Despite the argument being demonstrably wrong, however, people keep pointing to the lack of predictive bias as a sign that the tests have no measurement bias.

This has been addressed. From the conclusion:

We conclude that strict factorial invariance is tenable in comparisons of IQ test scores of blacks and whites. We base this conclusion on the finding that model A4, i.e., the least restrictive model incorporating SFI, fits reasonably well (see also Dolan, 2000). This is an important conclusion, because it implies that measurement bias, as defined by Mellenbergh (1989), is absent. Measurement bias, or content bias as Jencks and Phillips (1998) call it, is generally assumed to be absent (Jencks, 1998). It is nice to find support for this using the appropriate methodology.

I think tc’s post and this article by William H. Calvin has convinced me that cultural bias perhaps doesn’t play too large a role in IQ tests. Mostly Calvin’s article because I relate what Calvin says to language development and to a certain extent, pattern recognition.

There is an entire Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that I don’t wish to go into right now on language determinism and reflection of reality through language. But with regards to intelligence development, I think language certainly plays a role in how one orientates oneself to the environment, surrounding and thus “reality”. In fact, our very rationalizations are based on our language.

The question I’m interested in is: Does language development affect intelligence? Calvin has an interesting example on this case. And if so, how much can it affect intelligence development so that it is reflected across cultures and nations?


  • Byrne, R. W., 1994. The evolution of intelligence. In P. J. B. Slater, T. R. Halliday (eds), Behaviour and Evolution. Cambridge: Cambriege University Press, pp. 223 – 265.
  • Calvin, W. H., 2001. Pumping up intelligence: abrupt climate jumps and the evolution of higher intellectual functions during the Ice Ages. In R. J. Sternberg (ed), The Evolution of Intelligence. Erlbaum, pp. 97 – 115.
  • Deacon, T., 1997. The Symbolic Species: the co-evolution of language and the brain. W. W. Norton.
  • Gould, J. L. and Gould, C. G., 1994. The Animal Mind. New York: Scientific American Library.
  • Gould, J. L. and Gould, C. G., 1998. Reasoning in animals. Scientific American Presents 9(4): 52-59.
  • Piaget, J., 1929, 1952. The Origins of Intelligence in Children (translation of Naissance de l’intelligence chez l’enfant). New York: International University Press.

One Response to “A critical think: the James Watson DNA debate”

  1. just a quick message to say that i was here and browsing this post. must say i’m impressed though i will postpone reading this fully (and commenting) until i get the proper time it deserves. laters!

    Posted by MOGLi

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