James Watson's racism is a product of his time -- but that doesn't excuse it

90-year-old Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson is not alone in his racist thinking. In a recent PBS ...

Posted: Jan 15, 2019 9:45 PM
Updated: Jan 15, 2019 9:45 PM

90-year-old Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson is not alone in his racist thinking. In a recent PBS film, Watson alleges that, because of genes, white and black people have different intellectual capacities. You can guess who he thinks is dumber.

As I have learned in my career, there is no correlation between an individual's scientific achievement and his or her ethical behavior. I routinely encounter individuals who are or were great scientists but remain flawed in regard to their thinking about race. Specifically, I have found it quite common for scientists, including many biologists, to conflate biological and social conceptions of race.

African Americans

Biology

Demographic groups

Discrimination

Genetics

Health and medical

Medical fields and specialties

Minority and ethnic groups

Population and demographics

Racism and racial discrimination

Science

Societal issues

Society

Thus, while the scientific method is objective, the scientific enterprise is not. The latter is carried out by individuals who always have social agendas. Some of them good, but just as often bad.

But back to Watson. His PBS claims weren't his first bigoted statements. He has routinely reiterated the views of 19th and early 20th century "race science," which is premised on the idea that different races of humans exist and that their inborn (genetic) qualities determine their intelligence and ability to create and sustain great civilizations.

Where did Watson get those racist ideas? Well, Watson was born into a rigidly segregated society. For much of his life, most biologists and anthropologists perpetuated the notion of race science. Take Sir Francis Galton, who gave the world biostatistics, but also said that some dogs were more intelligent than "Negroes," an idea which he articulated in "Hereditary Genius, an Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences."

Galton's views were shared by both Nazi and some American scientists in the mid-20th century, who agreed on the inferiority of the "Negro." And that thinking had dangerous effects on policymaking. During World War II, for example, the United States segregated blood supplies by race due to the widely held "scientific" belief that whites were a superior race, and their blood should not mix with that of black Americans.

But Galton wasn't the only scientist spreading this myth. And it's highly likely that Watson read the works of people like Frank McGurk, Henry Garrett, Richard Herrnstein and Arthur Jensen -- all scholars from distinguished universities claiming that intelligence (IQ) was genetically determined and that whites displayed greater genetic predisposition for this trait than blacks.

Even if Watson didn't read those writers, he may have arrived at the same conclusion, considering this was a prevailing view in American society. In 1942, only 47% of whites in the United States believed that blacks were of equal intelligence. This value increased to 80% in 1966, but declined to 77% in 1968. In 2008, this value was about the same as that recorded in 1968.

However, the tragedy here is Watson's intransigence in light of the scientific developments of the late 20th and early 21st century. These developments have demolished both the notion that human beings could be unambiguously partitioned into biological races, and the idea that it is likely that "races" of humans are genetically differentiated in intelligence (however defined).

We also have new genomic tools that allow us to better understand the relationship between genes and the traits that they encode. For example, studies of worldwide genomic variation don't allow us to unambiguously define racial groups. Furthermore, the studies indicate that our socially-defined races do not correspond to the underlying genetic variation within our species.

There have also been several recent studies that have attempted to identify genetic variants associated with some definition of intelligence or educational attainment. So far, these studies have found that the underlying genomics of these traits are complex -- meaning they are coded for by many genes, possibly in the thousands -- and are not generally replicable between the different cohorts studied.

And a new study on the genes-to-physical trait relationship makes the entire enterprise of attempting to correlate measured physical traits between human populations and their genetic underpinnings extremely problematic. This study shows that environmental influences can have profound influences on the how the gene-to-physical trait pipeline operates. For example, mutations have been found in fruit flies which have normal function at room temperature, but are lethal to the flies if you attempt to grow them in lower temperatures. Thus, because all genes are influenced by environment (even if not to the extreme of the last example), it is important to know if any two groups you are comparing are experiencing the same environment.

Therefore, when environmental influences are radically different between population groups, especially between those who are socially dominant and socially subordinated, we cannot say that a given physical result is being determined by the genes. This is Watson's great mistake, in forgetting, or possibly ignoring, that there are strong environmental differences influencing people existing in different portions of a society's hierarchy.

At the end of the day, though, Watson was a product of his time. He commented on what he saw; huge social differentials between persons of European and African descent. Although, because Watson was a biologist and science has so clearly evolved, his thinking on race should have evolved, too. He should have been able to recognize that there were numerous other explanations for the social conditions of persons of African descent around the world besides genetics.

Worst yet, his racism contributes to a pervasive institutional racism still steeped in the United States. I have argued that these conditions are toxic to both persons of African and European descent. Illustrations of that toxicity to African-Americans can be seen in several arenas, including health disparity, educational attainment and mass incarceration.

The toxicity of racism to persons of European descent results primarily from the amount of energy it requires to maintain social inequality. For example, the cognitive dissonance that is required to, on one hand, believe that all Americans should be treated equally by the law but, on the other, recognize that equality in this country has always been determined by skin color.

This is the irrationality of racism that can take even the brightest of people down roads that cannot be supported by their higher reasoning. Such is the case of Watson.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 145465

Reported Deaths: 2491
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin36126997
Ramsey14966377
Dakota10420139
Anoka9573156
Washington649074
Stearns647850
Scott366636
Olmsted344930
St. Louis333074
Wright282516
Clay259145
Nobles236818
Blue Earth21367
Carver19167
Sherburne189924
Kandiyohi18695
Rice174210
Mower155318
Winona136219
Crow Wing120822
Chisago11912
Benton109012
Lyon10446
Beltrami9839
Otter Tail9808
Waseca95010
Todd9337
Polk8845
Morrison8529
Steele8173
Itasca80617
Douglas8044
Nicollet78318
Freeborn7275
Goodhue68211
Le Sueur6716
Becker6654
Martin63718
McLeod6294
Isanti6196
Pine5960
Watonwan5854
Carlton5372
Chippewa4893
Mille Lacs47118
Hubbard4695
Cass4385
Wabasha4281
Dodge4200
Pipestone37217
Meeker3703
Rock3665
Brown3653
Roseau3650
Redwood31012
Yellow Medicine3096
Murray3023
Cottonwood2990
Renville28613
Fillmore2840
Wadena2743
Sibley2733
Faribault2580
Houston2492
Kanabec23610
Swift2322
Jackson2261
Pennington2221
Aitkin2142
Unassigned20354
Stevens2001
Lincoln1970
Koochiching1775
Pope1740
Big Stone1671
Marshall1611
Wilkin1484
Lac qui Parle1473
Clearwater1431
Norman1410
Lake1390
Mahnomen1342
Grant1094
Red Lake842
Traverse610
Kittson540
Lake of the Woods471
Cook200

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 124963

Reported Deaths: 1700
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk20019290
Woodbury753099
Linn6256134
Black Hawk6154102
Johnson610731
Dubuque563959
Scott501843
Story416418
Dallas364047
Pottawattamie343145
Sioux259517
Buena Vista231812
Marshall217136
Webster200915
Plymouth176731
Wapello161062
Clinton159028
Muscatine156058
Cerro Gordo154527
Des Moines153911
Crawford140015
Warren13477
Jasper124034
Carroll123113
Henry11495
Marion109211
Lee103412
Tama102138
Delaware84314
Dickinson8159
Wright7781
Boone7659
Mahaska75125
Bremer7459
Jackson7193
Harrison71217
Washington71212
Benton6782
Lyon5868
Clay5684
Louisa54915
Jones5374
Winnebago52719
Clayton5263
Winneshiek5259
Cedar5217
Hardin5187
Buchanan5155
Kossuth5020
Hamilton4945
Poweshiek49411
Floyd47211
Emmet46221
Cass4563
Iowa45610
Mills4403
Cherokee4342
Page4270
Fayette4224
Guthrie42115
Allamakee4189
Sac4174
Butler4163
Shelby4112
Franklin40118
Humboldt3833
Chickasaw3821
Hancock3796
Madison3783
Clarke3633
Grundy3526
Calhoun3374
Palo Alto3352
Osceola3100
Mitchell3021
Howard2889
Monroe27512
Union2725
Jefferson2671
Taylor2632
Appanoose2583
Monona2562
Pocahontas2532
Ida2312
Fremont2172
Lucas2146
Adair2041
Greene1990
Montgomery1977
Davis1954
Van Buren1942
Keokuk1901
Audubon1831
Decatur1700
Wayne1553
Worth1550
Ringgold1042
Adams841
Unassigned90
Rochester
Clear
35° wxIcon
Hi: 56° Lo: 25°
Feels Like: 23°
Mason City
Clear
34° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 23°
Albert Lea
Clear
36° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 26°
Feels Like: 25°
Austin
Clear
36° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 26°
Feels Like: 28°
Charles City
Clear
36° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 26°
Tracking a breezy weekend
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Community Events