October 17th, 2007

Oh, dear. Dr. Watson has gone and done it again. Now, he’s known for being quite the contrarian and for making controversial statements that get people up in arms. When I interviewed Dr. Watson on TWIS a couple of weeks ago there was no hint of his opinions on race.

Anyhoo, he’s stirred himself up one bee’s nest of trouble by insinuating that people of African descent are less intelligent than anyone else. He bases this idea on the hypothesis that there should be differences between peoples evolving in disparate locations.

“There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically.”

Sure, ok. I can accept that statement. But, not this one:

“”all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours… people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

He’s probably basing the comment on the idea that because whites and blacks evolved in different places with different cognitive demands they probably don’t have the same intelligence. Each might have specific cognitive strengths or weaknesses. But, the way he phrased the second bit just comes across as discriminatory. It sounds as if he means different is lesser. Any intelligent person should realize that A+B does not = C in this case.

Growing up, my dad employed blacks, whites, Hispanics, you name it, in his construction business. The worst (and dumbest) employees were without a doubt white. I won’t go into my hypotheses as to why this was so, but just suffice it to say that my experience leads me disagree with Dr. Watson.

There is some evidence of cognitive differences between related sub-species of birds living in different environments. Chickadees living in harsh northern climates have better memories and larger related brain areas than relatives living in more temperate climates. This evidence supports the idea that behavioral and physical changes arise to allow a population/species to survive in a particular environment. However, behavioral changes do not necessarily belie genetic changes, nor even, as Dr. Watson seems to suggest, intellectual superiority.

From my research into bird cognition, I found that yes, there are differences between individual birds. Like people, some individuals are “smarter” than others. But, when addressing the question of cognitive differences between species, I became more and more impressed that intelligence is situational. So, chickadees who needed to remember where they stored food in order to survive had better spatial memory than say a finch that forages more generally. However, those chickadees don’t perform as well on tasks that are more suited to the finch lifestyle. There really is no way one can say that one species is “smarter” than the other. They are both wonderfully adapted to the environment in which they live.

Yet, even in my example of bird cognition, I am comparing between different species. Consequently, one might expect that there would be dramatic differences in abilities and gene expression. In the case of humans, there is but one species being discussed. One species with very little variation in the genes that get expressed. Yes, after the last human diaspora different races resulted from the specific environmental pressures in various parts of the world. However, the visible variation between races is mainly based on gene expression. Skin color is a result of differing expression of the gene for melanin. There is some evidence for genetic evolution between the races, but the evidence is slight. Indeed, perceived intelligence is most likely a result of cultural influences rather than genetic ones.

I have to say that at this point Dr. Watson is hanging himself with the absolute nature of his comments. I agree with him, as do many others, that intelligence is genetically based. Everything is genetically based. BUT, one cannot discount the importance of society in this matter. One cannot discount the importance of opportunity. And, one cannot forget that we still debate the question: what is intelligence anyway?

Karl J. Mogel from the Inoculated Mind had this comment–
A couple more confounding factors:

Different “white” races are more closely related to Africans than they are to each other, and African populations have the greatest amount of genetic diversity of any group, which makes sense considering that Africa is the place of origin for our species.

I think Watson was behaving irresponsibly when he decided to claim publicly that there’s evidence that black people are less intelligent than white people due to genetics. Quite the contrary, evidence suggests that the best predictor of IQ is Socio-Economic Status, not race. His public statements are made worse by the fact that people will think he has authority on the matter and repeat his statements without knowing that he was speaking from his own personal prejudices. No genetics studies have found evidence for his claim, but people may have been given that impression.

He also claimed that Franklin was autistic.

Wow, if only you had Watson on the show the day after the news broke.
That would have been… interesting.

Also, thanks to Sancak for help on updating a link in my post!

2 Responses to “Incredulity”

  1. Inoculated Mind on November 19, 2007 2:41 pm

    Alright! Your comments work!

  2. Sherman Dorn on January 7, 2008 10:05 pm

    Before I read this entry, I never thought one could connect James Watson, theories of IQ, and the phrase “finch lifestyle.” How I’m going to explain that to our Zebra finches, I have no idea. But the argument is coherent, at least to this human…

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