Thursday, 25 October 2007

I was supposed to go see James Watson talk today ...

...and quite frankly I am pretty pissed off that his lectures have been cancelled. James Watson, Nobel Prize winner and cofounder of the structure of DNA told the Times of London 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." So guess what? Most venues hosting Watson have decided to cancel his forthcoming public engagement talks.

Unfortunately such comments have often been made by Watson and while I don’t agree with him, I certainly defend his freedom of expression. I also don’t think he has a special ‘responsibility’ being a Nobel Prize scientists to censor himself. It is unfortunate that a man with so much knowledge and experience is drawing such conclusions but sweeping his remarks under the rug doesn’t help people. The organizers of events across the country are sticking their heads in the sand. By canceling these talks and making the decision that we shouldn’t be subject to his perspectives, they have denied us the opportunity to see a great scientist and to question him on his views.

Do we discard the great contributions of scientists, politicians, artists, because of their views? Clearly we haven’t. Personally I admire the work of Marie Stopes, known for her contributions to palaeobotany and advancement of women’s issues, but often not remembered for her views on race and eugenics. Another big contributor to my field of work was Swiss-American zoologist and geologist, Louis Agassiz who is known in other circles for his perspectives on racism and eugenics. Sir Winston Churchill, a man who was once chancellor of my own university and also who lent his name to my secondary school, was very vocal about his views on sex, race and the mentally disabled.

Unfortunately, an easy scapegoat has been made of Watson. The man’s contributions to science are a different matter than his personal views. If you’re on facebook and feel strongly about this issue, The Ministry of Love (a reference to Orwell’s 1984), is a group formed in protest of canceling Watson’s lectures.


Oldfart said...

As I have said elsewhere, Watson's views on intelligence, being much more informed than mine, may suggest that intelligence between the different varieties of man is "different" not necessarily better or worse. And is this not conceivable? For, when measuring intelligence, we are measuring our culture and are not really sure that we are measuring intelligence at all.

Forensic scientists can identify the likely race and sex of a skeleton from the nature of the bones. Since there are differences between the bones and teeth of the various types and sexes of humans, why not also differences in the nature of intelligence each variety has evolved over time? What is so terrible about that concept? The only thing that is terrible about it is what racists will make of it. And why should Watson be concerned about that? It is his job as a scientist to present what he believes are the facts without regard to the idiocy of the rest of the human race.

Andrew said...

I wish that James had not made that remark. With his celebrity status, he's under scrutiny. We are humans and we do made remarks that we shouldn't have said.

It's pity that he had to cancel his speeches and that you missed the opportunity to listen to his speech. Maybe, after the dust settles down, he would make an appearance and you could grab an opportunity to listen to his speech.

Zach Miller said...

I kind of...*cough*...agree with him in spirit. While it would be politically incorrect of me to say that different "races" of H. sapians evolved different intelligences to deal with the demands of their particular environment, I can see how such a thing would happen. People are allowed to think all they want about how NON-human animals may have evolved differently, but our society has learned the hard way that people are eager to take things the wrong way.


Anonymous said...

Oldfart...I believe Watson was actually quoted as stating that Africans have lower intelligence than "us" meaning Europeans.

Sure, we can all see the plausibility that intelligence is not necessarily the same across all races but he has gone further and stated which races are inferior/superior.

His quotes are as follows...

Hunt-Grubbe quoted Watson as saying he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" as "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really." Further selected quotes stated that he hoped everyone was equal, but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." and that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour "There are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level."

Fred said...

Why do you disagree with him? Is it because you don't WANT to believe him or do you have some data?

In other words, what's in charge here, your heart or your brain?

pterryhunt said...

Anonymous - "not the same as" means "different", not "lower than." As other above intimate, 'intelligence tests' are to a degree culturally specific, so those from a culture different to the testers are bound to 'score' less than those from the same culture - reverse the test setters, and the opposite would hold.

An illustration - my father teaches remedial English and Maths to British Army recruits, it being desirable for soldiers to understand instruction manuals and written orders, count men and bullets, spend their pay without being short-changed, etc. Some of his pupils are Britons who have dyslexia or discalculia, or who did poorly at school for other reasons, while others have English as only a 2nd/3rd/4th language.

More germanely some, such as hill-tribe Fijians[*] come from cultures in which even basic counting is simply unimportant - concepts such as less, more, and enough are more relevant than whether there are nine or eleven of something.
[* The BA is recruiting significant numbers of Fijians and South Africans at present.]

No-one suggests that such people are "less intelligent" than, say, the average Brit, but they would obviously do rather less well on arithmetically based 'intelligence tests' (though hopefully somewhat less poorly following my Dad's instructing). By the same token, average Brits placed in up-country Fiji would likely compare poorly in locally relevant mental skills.

My (over-?)interpretation of Watson's actual remarks (rather than the tabloids' over-simplifications of them) was that the average African's culturally mediated 'intelligence' is less suited than that of the average European's to deal with the somewhat inappropriate European culturally-biased model of government and politics which recent history has imposed on Africa.

It's a pity that, rather than exploring such questions further in a spirit of scientific dialogue, those who disagree with what they assume Watson meant (perhaps, who knows, correctly)prefer shutting him out of further discussion.