Maybe it’s because I’m a white man and thus not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m still having some trouble getting my head around the whole James Watson…race-and-intelligence scandal thing from the end of last year there. There’s a raggedness to the preceding sentence that I’m dimly conscious of—though frankly I’ll be jiggered if I know how to fix it. Much as I’d hope you wouldn’t ask a dog to land an airplane, I would hope you’d cut some slack to a slope-headed Caucasian trying to grapple with the intricacies of sentence structure. If it’s proper sentences that light your fire, I suggest you ask someone smarter. Don’t worry about me. I’ll just sit here slapping at the keyboard with my big fat stupid white buttocks.
James Watson, for those of you who are reading this magazine by accident, won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for figuring out the structure of DNA, went on to head the Human Genome Project, and then talked himself into trouble and out of a job last year when, in an interview with The Sunday Times of London, he made one of the more outlandishly racist remarks in history. Amid a freewheeling discussion of genes and human nature with Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, a former lab assistant of his, Watson chanced to comment that it would certainly be nice if the world’s different racial groups had all evolved to be equally intelligent, but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
He would later claim to have been misquoted, or at most to have misspoken. “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said,” he responded in a press release. “I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant.” One is tempted to believe him only because it’s such a downright weird remark to have made. Who are these “people,” and what kind of terrible Katzenbergian corporate power struggles have they lost so they “have to deal with” employees they’d clearly prefer to fire? As for the employees themselves, how is it their dimness didn’t reveal itself during the hiring process or in their job performance, coming to light only belatedly in this strange, coerced encounter with their employer?
Not that it matters. Just as there are slips of the foot after which saying, “I didn’t mean to step there” is not going to heal your broken body or return you magically to the edge of the ravine, there are slips of the tongue so bad that you don’t get to take them back, and this was clearly one of them.
Sure enough, as soon as the interview was published, news of Watson’s comments got around and a good old-fashioned Sheissesturm was under way. Watson’s lectures were canceled, the mayor of London issued a statement denouncing him, and his employers at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory promptly suspended him. Days later, they announced his early (-ish; he was 79) retirement. I wasn’t really paying attention at the time, being swamped with work, but from a distance Watson’s downfall seemed entirely self-inflicted and entirely deserved.
It was only weeks later, well into November, that I went back to read what had been written during Watson’s fall from grace, and it was at this point that it all started to seem a little Twilight-Zoney.
For starters, Watson’s nasty, indefensible comment about black employees was, to many of his more animated critics that first week, not that big a deal. In fact, some of them didn’t even mention it, being far more upset by a comment attributed to Watson a couple of sentences earlier: He was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” Watson had told The Sunday Times, because “all our social policies are based on the assumption that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”
To Ken Livingstone, the famously excitable mayor of London, this was a “discredited racist theor[y]” of “the genetic inferiority of Africans” that Watson was propagating with a view to “establish a genetically based racial hierarchy.”
All of which was news to me. I don’t pretend to be an expert on racial IQ, but prior to October I did at least think I had a solid dilettante’s familiarity with the topic, and a liberal one at that. Sure I knew that on average, black Africans score lower on intelligence tests than white Americans, who score lower on intelligence tests than Asians, who score lower on intelligence tests than some other Caucasians: Ashkenazi Jews. But I’ve also read Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man more times than anyone else I know (twice), and as a consequence I was, until October, still under the following impressions:
1) That while it’s possible that genes may play some role in explaining these differences, much of it comes down to culture, environment, and the fact that the questions on IQ tests are all written by graduate students from Connecticut and begin, “Teddy leaves Sag Harbor on the brunchtime jitney…”
2) That the very notion of intelligence as a single, quantifiable commodity is inherently bogus, to put it mildly. As you’ll know for a fact if you’ve ever met a person with a flair for poetry but no head for figures—a poet, for instance—mental ability comes in many different flavors, and so-called intelligence tests measure, at most, just a few of them.
Watson’s proposition, in other words, that black African intelligence is somehow “not really…the same” as white American intelligence was, I thought until October, squarely within the liberal range of views. The famous “controversy” over racial IQ, I thought I’d been taught, was about what causes the differences in racial test scores, not about whether those differences exist in the first place—and on that topic Watson really hadn’t offered an opinion. All he’d ventured was that whatever factors explain why black Africans perform so poorly on intelligence tests written by westerners might also explain the limited effectiveness in Africa of social policies written by westerners. Even if you don’t believe that’s what Watson really meant, you’d still have to see as surreal the fact that people were attacking his statement on Africa while ignoring a vastly more outrageous and transparently hateful comment just a column-centimeter away.
There are slips of the tongue so bad that you don’t get to take them back.
And it got surrealer. Many of Watson’s most ardent denouncers, while clearly sincere in their contempt for the man, held views on racial intelligence that sounded considerably more extreme than Watson’s own. Here, for instance, is a columnist for Britian’s historically left-leaning Guardian newspaper, a few days into the scandal, attempting to rebut Watson by sharing his own private theory of low African IQ scores: “If one lives in an extended family in a village of 1,000 people in Africa, one makes farms that produce enough food for one’s family and maybe a little surplus, which one might swap for salt or something else that one lacks. You do not need a high ‘IQ’—such as found in tests devised by westerners—to be able to do that.”
Got that? According to the Guardian columnist, Africans may not have been blessed with the fancy western kind of IQ that excels at such pointless parlor tricks as working with language or numbers or abstract ideas, but they’ve more than compensated with an aptitude for manual labor and bartering for salt. If you read that to the crowd at a Klan rally you’d get scattered applause and a few people scratching their hoods wondering if maybe you weren’t going a bit too far. That this theory of African “farm smarts” was published in a liberal newspaper in rebuttal of Watson is conclusive evidence, I would submit, of a world gone completely and utterly mad.
And this was far from the only instance. Time and again last October, some earnest, well-meaning lefty would take aim at Watson with a blunderbuss loaded with ignorance and bad science and end up hitting, and hurting, the very people he thought he was defending. The most ignorant and hurtful idea of all, of course, is that the entire topic of race and genes and intelligence is off-limits to all right-thinking, compassionate people, just on principle. What’s wrong with this, you idiot, is that it’s premised on the assumption that some races are innately and immutably much less intelligent than others—which, I hate to break it to you, is demonstrably false.
If there is any genetic basis at all to racial IQ test-score differences, it is indeterminate and poorly quantified, with recent studies estimating IQ heritability to be anywhere from nearly zero to over 80 percent, and strongly countered by other studies showing that environment counts most. Watson may be a genuine racist, but if discussing the differences between us is a racist act, then that term doesn’t mean what I thought it did, and while I have your attention you can color me that as well.