colour of intelligence
this month, James Watson, the geneticist who shared the 1962
Nobel prize for his part in the co-discovery of DNA, created
waves in the scientific community and beyond for his view
that it was an illusion to believe that equal powers
of reason were shared across racial groups.
It was not the first time that Watson provoked controversy
with his scientific comments. He once suggested
that there was a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight
and sexual urges. Thats why you have Latin lovers,
he said. Youve never heard of an English lover.
Only an English patient.
There was also a scientific link between thinness and ambition.
Its the reason why whenever you interview fat
people, you feel bad, because you know youre not going
to hire them.
It was, however, his recent remarks that drew the most widespread
and hostile reaction. In an interview with The (London) Sunday
Times, Watson said he was inherently gloomy about the
prospect of Africa and its people because all
our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence
is the same as ourswhereas all the testing says not
We naturally wish, he continued, that all human beings
were equal, but people who have to deal with black employees
find this not to be true.
Watson was forced to resign as director of the Cold Spring
Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, an institute considered
a world leader in research into cancer and genetics, and his
comments continue to fuel denunciation. He is, however, only
the latest in a group of scientists in the late 20th and early
21st centuries to posit genetic differences between blacks
and whites that condemn blacks in perpetuity to being inferior.
In a 1969 article in The Harvard Educational Review, Arthur
Jensen, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley,
maintained that a 15-point spread in IQ between blacks and
whites was due to genetic differences that could never be
In the sixties also, William Shockley, a physicist at Stanford
University, advocated voluntary sterilisation as the way to
deal with blacks who had an IQ of less than 100. He and Jensen
agreed that such eugenic foresight, and not social
engineering, was the only real solution to the social problems
bred by low IQ.
In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The
Bell Curve, a work that echoed the familiar assertions of
racial inferiority. And more recently, in a series of online
articles on human nature in Slate, William Saletan
defended basically similar views.
The findings of these hereditarians, as they are
called, have been challenged as untrustworthy on scientific
grounds. Herrnstein and Murray, for instance, were shown to
have not only used statistics selectively but to have manipulated
them to prove that certain programmes, eg affirmative action
and Head Start (a programme promoting the social and cognitive
development of children), do not work, while ignoring data
from other studies that suggested otherwise.
More importantly, beyond such dishonesty, in terms of strict
evidence, no set of genes or gene markers has been conclusively
linked to the development of intelligence. There has also
been no evidence to substantiate the claim of a link between
brain size and intelligence.
Blacks are said to have smaller brains than whites, but the
brain size between men and women is greater. Yet men and women,
on average, score the same on IQ tests. A group of people
in Ecuador has a genetic anomaly that produces extremely small
head sizesand thus brain sizes. Yet their intelligence
is as high as that of their unaffected relatives.
Hereditarians pay no attention to environmental influences,
and yet common sense tells us that nature and nurture are
both constituents of who we are and what we become. No one
knows exactly where the influence of either begins and ends.
All we see at any given time is their interaction.
Yet science todayperhaps because the genetic bias keeps
recurringincreasingly demonstrates that environment
can markedly influence IQ.
The so-called Flynn Effect, for instance, named after James
Flynn, a philosopher and IQ researcher in New Zealand, has
established that in the West, IQ increased substantially from
1947 to 2002. Our genes alone could not have changed over
such a brief period to account for the shift; it must have
included the effects of powerful social factors. And if such
factors could produce changes over time for the population
as a whole, they could also produce big differences between
subpopulations at any given time.
In fact, researches also know that the IQ difference between
black and white 12-year-olds in the US dropped to 9.5 from
15 points in the last 30 years, a period that was socially
more favourable to blacks than the preceding era.
Many more researchers than formerly have taken issue with
the conventional approach in which a single number on a linear
scale defines the learning potential of an individual. In
fact, in his book The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould,
the late Harvard palaeontologist, had long questioned the
pretentious pronouncements and publications of such scientists
as Watson, based on the prevailing approach.
In the words of one critic, Gould skewered the abstraction
of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the
brain, its quantification as one number for each individual,
and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series
of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged
groupsraces, classes, or sexesare innately inferior
and deserve their status.
Psychologists who like Gould have questioned the conventional
methodology, have developed alternative models that attempt
to expand the definition of intelligence to include a broader
spectrum of abilities. Such models have explored capacities
such as creativity, social intelligence, and commonsense as
keys to human adaptation. They include Howard Gardners
Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Robert Steinbergs
Triarchic Mind, and Daniel Golemans Emotional Intelligence.
IQ testing was from its inception tainted not just with bias
but with the evil of racist eugenics. Originally designed
by French psychologist Alfred Binet in 1905 to identify students
who would need help in school (not as an overall measure of
cognitive ability), the method came to be regarded as having
laid the foundations of modern intelligence-testing.
Lewis Terman, another scientist at Stanford, adapted Binets
scale and hoped it would attract the attention of governments
to the tens of thousands of defectives who should
be kept from breeding. The area is still saddled with the
continuing effects of that pernicious impulse.