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The People vs. James Watson

Pyotr N. Petrov

Год назад, в октябре 2007-го, многие ученые и журналисты резко осудили высказывания нобелевского лауреата Джеймса Уотсона, которые были сочтены расистскими. Результатом скандала стало увольнение Уотсона с должности ректора Лаборатории в Колд-Спринг-Харбор. Какие уроки можно извлечь из этой истории? Неполиткорректные высказывания Уотсона, по-видимому, не так уж некорректны с научной точки зрения. Но едва ли эти высказывания следует признать расисткими. И едва ли серьезные научные данные вообще могут свидетельствовать в пользу расистской концепции превосходства представителей одной расы над представителями других. Многим из тех, кто обвинил Уотсона в расизме, вероятно, хотелось бы верить, что все люди обладают равными врожденными способностями. Это определенно не так. Тем не менее мы можем отстаивать свою убежденность в том, что при всём нашем неравенстве нам лучше всего иметь равные базовые права. Изучение различий между людьми едва ли представляет угрозу для обоснования стремления людей к равноправию. Год назад, когда были опубликованы злосчастные высказывания Уотсона, ему было предъявлено немало обвинений, но защищать его взялись немногие. Здесь представлена одна из статей в защиту Уотсона, подготовленная на основе текста, опубликованного онлайн на русском языке почти год назад. Английская версия содержит ряд исправлений и дополнений по отношению к русской. Задача публикации этой статьи именно на английском языке — в том, чтобы постараться донести ее содержание не только до российских, но и до зарубежных читателей, так или иначе связанных с наукой.

A year ago, in October 2007, Dr. James D. Watson’s allegedly racist remarks were widely condemned by scientists and media alike, leading to his retirement as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Any lessons we can learn from this story? Dr. Watson’s politically incorrect remarks may be largely scientifically correct, but he is hardly a racist. Genuine scientific data are unlikely to ever support racism, the belief that members of one human race are better than members of other races. Many of those who accused Dr. Watson of misconduct would probably like to believe that all humans are born with equal abilities. This is simply not true. But it can be argued that, unequal as we are, it is best for us all to have equal basic rights. The study of human differences apparently poses no threat to justifying the equality of human rights. Few people spoke out in defense of Dr. Watson last year. This article is published online in English with the intention to add one more to those few. This text is based on my Russian article («Народ против Джеймса Уостона») published online in Russkiy Zhurnal on 27 November 2007. I thank Danielle E. Catambay for correcting my English and for some fruitful discussions. I also thank Ksenia S. Onufrieva and Ilya V. Yampolsky for encouraging me to write an English version of my article.

James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA and former director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, had to retire from the position of chancellor at this institution after The Sunday Times (UK) published a few remarks attributed to him that were deemed racist and condemned by many in the scientific community. Photograph by Reuters from www.usatoday.com
James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA and former director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, had to retire from the position of chancellor at this institution after The Sunday Times (UK) published a few remarks attributed to him that were deemed racist and condemned by many in the scientific community. Photograph by Reuters from www.usatoday.com

Dr. James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine, and former head of the Human Genome Project, had to retire on 25 October 2007 as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (NY). Formally the reason for his retirement was old age (79), but in fact he lost the job at the laboratory, which he successfully headed from 1968 to 2003 as director and president and helped develop into a leading world-renowned scientific institution, not because of old age, but rather because of a scandal that arose from his remarks on human races published on 14 October 2007 in The Sunday Times (UK).

The article where these remarks were quoted is “The Elementary DNA of Dr. Watson” by his former protégée Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe. The paper was intended to promote his recently published autobiography, titled (with deliberate ambiguity) Avoid Boring People. The paper quotes some passages from the book, along with a number of things Dr. Watson presumably told Ms. Hunt-Grubbe in the course of an almost daylong talk with her during her visit in August 2007 to Cold Spring Harbor, where she came to interview him about the forthcoming book and related questions. Some of his words quoted in the paper ignited a firestorm of indignation in the scientific community and cost Dr. Watson his honorary position as well as his reputation, at least in part.

As early as October 19, Dr. Watson publicly apologized (“unreservedly”) before anyone he could have offended by these words. He also said that he was surprised that he could have said what he was quoted as saying. But the Anger of the People could not be stopped by apologies. Cold Spring Harbor administration hurried to issue a statement condemning the words of their chancellor (not forgetting to praise their own reputation at the same time) and suspended his administrative responsibilities from October 18, and several institutions, including the London Science Museum, canceled Dr. Watson’s lectures scheduled to be delivered at the end of October. Many colleagues, including the administration of Cold Spring Harbor, hurried to cast their stones at Dr. Watson. He had to abandon his UK tour intended to promote the new book and, on October 25, Cold Spring Harbor administration announced, in remarkably polite terms in contrast to the indignant style of their previous statements, his retirement as chancellor.

The words that awoke the wave of public outrage are all contained in a single paragraph of Ms. Hunt-Grubbe’s article:

He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” 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,” and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don't promote them when they haven't succeeded at the lower level.” He writes 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. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.’

Was the reaction of the scientific community to these words adequate? However mistaken he may have been, these words are no more than the scientist’s personal opinion. They were not intended by him as anything more, and contain no instigations to anything inhumane or unlawful. Furthermore, Dr. Watson publicly apologized. Even duels used to be called off if the offender apologized. But the Anger of the People is not so easy to call off. It was not even clear whether Dr. Watson actually said the words he was so widely condemned for. His original words could have been slightly edited to make them more provocative, or taken out of context. And if he actually said all those things, there was no evidence he intended them to be published — the remarks could have been an aside to the interviewer, his former protégée. She may have put them into the article without his consent. But all these circumstances were neglected by Dr. Watson’s outraged colleagues. Few of those who responded to what was labeled as “Watsons’s racist remarks” even cared to find out what these remarks actually were about. The logic of the scandalized scientists was simple: Watson said something racist, Watson is a scientist, ergo he discredits science and deserves punishment. Thus a few words published in a text authored by another person caused the great man, who did more for science than all but a few living persons, to be accused of racism and even betrayal of the interests of science, the interests he faithfully served throughout his long career.

Biochemist Hubert Rehm was one of the few scientists who spoke out in defense of Dr. Watson after last year’s scandal. His article on the subject was published in March 2008 in “Lab Times”, European news journal for life scientists. “The beast” in the picture is probably one of the two bronze rhinos standing in front of the BioLabs Building in Harvard, where Dr. Watson worked in 1956-1976. The rhino symbolizes biology, and James Watson is riding it into the molecular age
Biochemist Hubert Rehm was one of the few scientists who spoke out in defense of Dr. Watson after last year’s scandal. His article on the subject was published in March 2008 in Lab Times, European news journal for life scientists. “The beast” in the picture is probably one of the two bronze rhinos standing in front of the BioLabs Building in Harvard, where Dr. Watson worked in 1956-1976. The rhino symbolizes biology, and James Watson is riding it into the molecular age

No matter how wrong Dr. Watson’s statements may be, it is regrettable that they brought him to so much public disgrace and forced his retirement from an honorary position. Even if a person publicly and responsibly (for instance, in his or her own article) voices an opinion unshared and resented by most others, it should not be enough to cancel his otherwise unrelated public talks (which was in this case also done in a most impolite form) and within a few days fire him from his administrative position (where he did his duty, for all we know, quite successfully). It is possible only in a society where freedom of speech is declared but not fully provided, where the public is not willing to accept the right of every person to express personal opinions. Many of the outraged scientists were keen to emphasize how wrong Dr. Watson was, but few recalled that even if his ideas may seem very wrong to the majority of the public, this circumstance is no sufficient reason to insult and fire him. It appeared that the concept of tolerance to unpopular views is quite unpopular within the scientific community.

I believe that the effect that was produced by Dr. Watson’s words would be a regrettable overreaction even if these words were completely wrong and extremely offensive. But they are neither.

He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” 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”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address.’ Average intellectual level in Africa, estimated by whatever parameter, can hardly be as high as in the United States. It is well known that poorer countries have lower average intellect. It would be strange if it were not so, if only for the greater opportunities richer countries present to their populations for the development of intellect. And Africa is by far the poorest continent in the world. So, would it not be reasonable and advisable to take this fact into account in social policies (as Dr. Watson said), to make these policies more efficient and, eventually, to give the peoples of Africa more and better help?

His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”’ These words may, indeed, be considered offensive and unjust — at least towards those (numerous) black persons whose employers have no reasons to complain about their abilities. And yet any person in the world who has more than one employee can find that the idea of everyone being equal is not true. And, speaking about intellect, which is probably implied here, average widely used intellectual parameters are in fact lower in African Americans than in European Americans. For instance, the average IQ of black school students in the US is around 15 points lower than in white school students. Some scientific data, for instance the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study, support the notion of some genetic basis behind at least part of the observed difference of average parameters. Many recent publications in leading scientific journals have demonstrated the high degree of heritability in many socially important human characters. So it is by no means implausible that African Americans are in fact genetically predisposed to being, on the average, less intellectual than European Americans.

He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don't promote them when they haven't succeeded at the lower level.”’ There is nothing wrong with this statement. Somehow it went completely unnoticed that in the middle of the offending paragraph, Dr. Watson is credited with opposing discrimination on the basis of color. The type of discrimination discussed here may be called negative discrimination, the one that makes a member of a minority “more equal” than a member of the majority. The late Dr. Francis Crick (whose name is forever associated with Watson’s for their joint discovery of the structure of DNA) in 1972 wrote to another scientific giant, Ernst Mayr: “As to racism, what about negative racism? That is, the acceptance by Universities (like Harvard) of students with considerably lower standards merely because they are black. This policy is certainly going to lead to trouble.” I believe there is nothing racist about these ideas, which Dr. Watson, obviously, shares with his late colleague. Promoting a person solely on the basis of this person’s color is unjust, whether this person be black, or white, or of any other color. And such practice, in its turn, could be rightly called racist, even if the person promoted belongs to a minority.

He writes 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. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.’ These two statements are logically flawless and scientifically plausible. There are firm reasons to believe that evolution of human populations has been going for quite a long time in some different directions with many inherited traits. Ironically, the very day Dr. Watson’s administrative responsibilities were suspended, Nature published a paper (one of several published accounts of similar data) demonstrating different results of natural selection in different human populations. Some other papers, in their turn, indicate a high degree of heritability in such socially important traits as altruism or potential intellectual level.

Thus, it should be admitted that the condemned remarks are partly true, or at least scientifically plausible, and there is little offense in them. They could be interpreted as offensive, but Dr. Watson publicly apologized for that. So wasn’t the scandal that arose a regrettable overreaction?

It should also be noted that, although the statements assigned to Dr. Watson in The Sunday Times are to some extent plausible, in fact they scarcely support racism. Dr. Watson certainly understood this when he made the remarks, but his accusers, unfortunately, didn’t seem to. Not only these remarks, but also the data behind them and any genuine scientific data scarcely support racism. Racism can be defined as the belief that members of some race are, simply because they belong to this race, superior to members of other races and should have different rights. Science provides and is likely to provide no support for this belief.

The species Homo sapiens is extremely diverse. It comprises thousands of populations (more or less isolated from each other and different in many characteristics), around two hundred nations (characterized by extremely diverse levels of economic development), and several races (defined principally by skin color, but also by a few other inherited features of outward appearance). All the populations, as well as all the nations and all the races, are different in many aspects, which often include socially important features (like intellect). These differences are caused by both inherited (genetic) and non-inherited (environmental) factors. Among the environmental group of factors, the cultural subgroup is especially weighty, although physical environment (including climate) also plays some part in the existing differences.

The role of cultural factors is great. A human baby raised by wolves or other wild animals (a few examples are known) will never grow up to be psychologically human. A human being that spends all childhood among animals will never properly learn human speech and will have intellectual level comparable rather to that of the animal stepparents than to that of humans. If this same baby was raised by normal parents and had a chance to be well educated, it could well grow up to be an outstanding intellectual. Mental properties of genetically identical twins brought up in extremely different families are often extremely different as well.

But genetic factors should not be neglected. Many socially important characters, including potential intellect and even some altruistic aspects of behavior, are to some extent inherited. Several studies have proved this beyond doubt.

Human populations are different in many traits, due to both genetic and environmental factors. A number of characteristics differ less within a group of populations that constitutes what is called race than across such groups. Thus, not only populations, but also races differ in some characters. An obvious example of such a characteristic is skin color.

The problems of differences between human populations are extremely complicated. The study of these problems is still in the early stages of development, largely because of voiced and unvoiced restrictions imposed on this field of science. But neither the evidence obtained so far, nor any evidence that could be obtained in the future, is likely to support racism.

Most of the differences between populations or races are statistical. They are differences between averages within populations or races, and between other statistical parameters. The range of variability is usually huge. It is therefore not only unjust, but also, in the long run, pragmatically disadvantageous to support social systems where, say, getting a job would rather depend on an individual’s race than on the ability of this individual to do the job. It is far more pragmatic to estimate actual abilities of an applicant and give or deny this applicant a job based on this person’s individual properties, not on average properties of a member of this person’s race.

Some people think that science may show that “whites are smarter than blacks.” But such a statement is no science. Science may show that, according to some parameter that may be used to estimate “smartness,” a nonexistent average white person (as nonexistent as the average family man with two-point-something kids) is smarter than a similarly nonexistent average black person. Or, probably, that the smartest white person is smarter than the smartest black person. If we agree to estimate “smartness” by IQ (although this is by no means the only possible parameter, and it could well be that a person smarter than another according to IQ may prove less smart according to a different parameter) and conduct a large-scale study, results could well be just like that. But so what? Does it mean a black person should have rights different from a white person? The statistical populations clearly overlap to a great extent. What would be the reason for different rights, then? Marginal cases? And how would such different rights benefit society? If we need, for example, a particular level of IQ to accept an applicant for some job or educational program, would it not be simpler and more productive to estimate the IQ of each applicant, and not to make far-fetched conclusions about IQ based on skin color (bearing in mind that every race includes both idiots and intellectuals)?

It should also be remembered that the cultural factor of the intellectual gap between the “average black person” and the “average white person” is substantial. The historical background of many African people, unfavorable for intellectual development, is responsible for part of the difference. Minus cultural factors, this difference would be smaller, probably even minute, and the overlap still greater.

Moreover, is a less intellectual person consequently “not as good” as a more intellectual person? Not necessarily. Society often provides less intellectual persons with better salaries than intellectuals, and in some cases it is well justified. If someone does a difficult and important job that does not require much intellect, why should this person be paid less than someone smarter whose job is less important? Non-intellectuals are also needed, as well as intellectuals, as well as those with average intellect. Everybody cannot be equally smart, and being so is unnecessary. It is, therefore, wrong to label everyone as superior or inferior on the basis of intellect, and equally wrong to extend labels of this kind to such vaguely relevant traits as skin color.

Not only can a non-intellectual person be as beneficial for society as an intellectual, but such a person can also be as good and better, in the eyes of neighbors or anybody, than many intellectuals. There is no difficulty whatsoever in finding examples of wonderful non-intellectual persons and of intellectual scoundrels. Thus, the whites that are smarter than some blacks are by no means necessarily better persons than these blacks, no more than they are necessarily better persons than some other, less smart whites.

A few years earlier, the economist Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, was similarly condemned for his allegedly sexist statement suggesting the possible role of genetic factors in the prevalence of males among scientists with tenure positions. Summers later had to step down as Harvard’s president, and James Watson, himself a former Harvard professor, commented in his memoir that the catalyst of Summers’s undoing was “his uttering an unpopular, but by no means unfounded, hypothesis.” Photograph from flickr.com
A few years earlier, the economist Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, was similarly condemned for his allegedly sexist statement suggesting the possible role of genetic factors in the prevalence of males among scientists with tenure positions. Summers later had to step down as Harvard’s president, and James Watson, himself a former Harvard professor, commented in his memoir that the catalyst of Summers’s undoing was “his uttering an unpopular, but by no means unfounded, hypothesis.” Photograph from flickr.com

The scandal around Dr. Watson’s remarks that were deemed racist resembles another recent scandal, that followed Dr. Lawrence Summers’s remarks that were deemed sexist and ultimately cost him his job as president of Harvard, or at least precipitated his downfall. Dr. Summers, speaking in January 2005 at a Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, said that many non-cultural factors could play their part in the greater proportion of men than women in high-end science and technology. He suggested that one of the reasons behind this difference could be men’s higher variance in relevant innate abilities. The remarks, spoken at a conference, were later published and caused a lot of stone-throwing, despite the opinion of some scientists (including Dr. Watson, former Harvard professor, as well as some professional anthropologists) that the ideas expressed by Dr. Summers were scientifically justified and not actually offensive, especially if proposed as part of academic discussion.

It is by no means implausible that the greater range of innate intellectual variation in men as compared to women plays some part in the prevalence of men in high-end science (the male sex can probably provide more persons smart enough to make considerable achievements in science). But the case is similar to that of races: why should such things offend anyone? It seems not to offend women that men are, on the average, taller, or have wider shoulders. There are many other statistical differences. Innate differences between men and women even led to the establishment of separate professional sports for men and women (it also holds true for chess). The existing differences are mostly statistical, like in the case of races and any other large parts of humanity. These differences should not lead to discrimination. Equal basic rights of both men and women help every individual to realize his or her potential, for himself or herself and for society. Moreover, the fact that there are probably more men than women with high level intelligence is no justification for the sexist belief that men are superior to or better than women (or vice versa) or that being male necessarily makes you smarter than being female.

The Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Beautiful words, but they are open to some objections. The existence of a Creator is often questioned, and not without reasons. As for equality, it is true, although scarcely “self-evident,” that all men (and women) should have equal basic rights, including those listed in the famous statement, but it is also evident that all men and women are born and grow up quite unequal in many aspects. Our belief in the benefit of equal basic rights for everyone — endowed at least by society — should not be founded on the evident untruth that every person is provided with equal innate properties. This belief has other, more reasonable foundations. Defending this belief as derived from an incorrect notion, instead of supporting it, impairs its authority.

The principle of equal basic rights is best derived not from the imaginary equality of innate properties of every human being, but from the benefits of equal rights to every person in particular and society in general. Banishing the problems of human innate and developed inequality into the realm of the forbidden will not help us in the fight against racism. On the contrary, it would provide racists with an additional argument, allowing them to propagate the existence of a carefully concealed “scientific foundation” for their views.

The scandal created by many members of the scientific community over Dr. Watson’s remarks scarcely helped humanity in the fight against racism. Who would have heard about “Watson’s racist remarks,” if they were not advertised by those who wrongly accused Dr. Watson of racism? His unfortunate offensive phrase would most likely pass unnoticed. Racist leaders constantly remind their supporters of their belief that “true science proves racism,” and now they are provided with a useful illustration: the story of a big scientist fired for “racist” views. A little distortion of facts (typical to racists and other xenophobes) will make this into a “greatest scientist of all time proved racism and was fired” story. So, who benefited from the scandal? I believe, racists did, and science and society didn’t.

Let us also recall freedom of speech, which probably includes freedom of scientific thought. Present-day developed society accepts freedom of speech as an irrefutable value, but this value is much more cherished in appearance than in fact. The developed nations hold it that freedom of speech should be established and is established within them, but in practice almost every nation has opinions banned from being voiced.

Freedom of speech should certainly be restricted. You cannot be allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, or to incite others to do something criminal or inhumane. But there is a principal difference between opinion that can be applied to justify crime and actually inciting crime. Almost any opinion on earth can be interpreted so as to incite some sort of crime. An opinion as it is, no matter how wrong it may seem to some of us, cannot be a crime, and a person should have a right to express it, without fear of punishment (say, losing a job). The administration of Cold Spring Harbor probably did not violate any laws in “retiring” Dr. Watson, but they certainly violated the principle behind the First Amendment, and that’s regrettable. The editors of Nature did not violate any laws in publishing the editorial story “Watson’s Folly” to cast their stone at Dr. Watson, but what they did was, I believe, strengthening, not weakening public intolerance, and that’s regrettable.

As for folly, there may have been some folly on the part of Dr. Watson, at least in not checking the article that appeared to have offended so many, but how much more rudeness was involved on the part of others (including Nature editors) than folly on the part of Dr. Watson! It is surprising how often those who promote political correctness utterly neglect the old-fashioned ordinary correctness (which implies polite behavior) for the sake of what they believe to be its political counterpart.

To return to racist and sexist views, some people think that since, apparently, evidence from certain fields of anthropology may be used to support these hateful views, we should ban some or all kinds of scientific study in these dangerous fields and hide the results that have already been obtained. This idea is wrong and harmful to both science and society. A complete taboo on some field of scientific inquiry would certainly be harmful to science as a field of knowledge, but may also be harmful to society in general, and would create a precedent (of restricted freedom) more dangerous than any scientific knowledge on the nature of our species is or can be. The methods of science should be restricted to the lawful and humane, which holds true not only of the methods of science, but also of the methods of any other activity. But restrictions on the fields of study are hard to justify. Even if some field is banned in many countries, the accumulation of knowledge within it will inevitably go on, slowly but surely. Is it not better to know what we can as soon as we can, and act accordingly, than make decisions based on what we wish to accept as truth?

A few fields of anthropology are at present banned, partially or completely, unofficially or officially. Some people think these bans are useful to society or needed for the sake humanism. It is not necessarily so. If we stand for humanism, then probably our humanism should have a stronger foundation than something that can be disproved by science.


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