PRINCETON, New Jersey — The intersection of genetics and intelligence is an intellectual minefield. Harvard’s former President Larry Summers touched off one explosion in 2005 when he tentatively suggested a genetic explanation for the difficulty his university had in recruiting female professors in math and physics.
(He did not suggest that men are on average more gifted in these fields than women, but that there is some reason for believing that men are more likely than women to be found at both the upper and lower ends of the spectrum of abilities in these fields — and Harvard, of course, only appoints people at the uppermost end.)
Now one of the most eminent scientists of our time has blundered much more clumsily into the same minefield, with predictable results. In October, James Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for his description of the structure of DNA, was in London to promote his memoir, “Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons From a Life in Science.”
In an interview in the London Sunday Times, he was quoted as saying that he was gloomy about Africa’s prospects 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 added that he hoped everyone was equal, but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”
Watson tried to clarify his remarks in a subsequent interview in The Independent, saying: “The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science. To question this is not to give in to racism.”
Watson is right that questioning this assumption is not, in itself, racist. A racist has a negative attitude to people of a particular race. There is nothing racist about trying to learn what the facts are. What does raise the suspicion of racism, however, is propagating a negative view of the facts when that view lacks a solid scientific foundation. That is precisely what Watson has now admitted he did.
Returning to New York, he apologized to those who had drawn from his remarks the implication that African are somehow “genetically inferior.” This was not, he claimed, what he meant, and more importantly, “there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
The retraction came too late. The Science Museum canceled a lecture Watson was to give about his book and his career. Under pressure from the board, Watson resigned his position as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an institution that under his leadership has become one of the world’s leading research and educational institutions in the biological sciences. Rockefeller University also canceled a lecture that Watson had been scheduled to give.
Putting aside the claims that Watson made in his Sunday Times interview, a difficult question remains: Should scientists investigate the possibility of a link between race and intelligence?
Is the question too sensitive for science to explore? Is the danger of misuse of the results of such research too great?
The dangers are obvious enough. Racist stereotyping harms the prospects of many nonwhites, especially those of African descent. The concepts of intelligence and of race are less clear-cut than we often assume them to be.
Scientists need to handle them carefully if they are to pose meaningful questions about the point at which these two concepts intersect. Some say that the tools we use to measure intelligence — IQ tests — are themselves culturally biased.
The late Stephen J. Gould, author of “The Mismeasure of Man,” dismissed cross-cultural research using IQ tests as an attempt by white men to show their superiority. But if that was so, the attempt has backfired, because East Asians tend to score better than people of European descent.
On the other hand, it clearly is possible that differences in IQ scores between people living in impoverished countries and people living in affluent countries are affected by factors like education and nutrition in early childhood. Controlling for these variables is difficult.
Yet to say that we should not carry out research in this area is equivalent to saying that we should reject open-minded investigation of the causes of inequalities in income, education and health between people of different racial or ethnic groups. When faced with such major social problems, a preference for ignorance over knowledge is difficult to defend.
In explaining why it was canceling Watson’s lecture, the Science Museum said that his remarks had gone “beyond the point of acceptable debate.” It then struck a reasonable balance by inviting people who want to learn more about “the science behind genetics and race” to attend other upcoming events at the museum. The speakers at these events will presumably have better credentials than Watson to discuss topics like race and intelligence. If so, one can only hope that watching how Watson blew himself up will not discourage them from venturing into the minefield.
Finally, no matter what the facts on race and intelligence turn out to be, they will not justify racial hatred, nor disrespect for people of a different race. Whether some are of higher or lower intelligence has nothing to do with that.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His books include “Practical Ethics,” “Pushing Time Away,” “The Moral of the Story” and, most recently, “The Ethics of What We Eat.” Copyright 2007 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)