A few weeks ago, Dr James Watson, who with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins discovered the structure of DNA, made some comments which provoked lectures to be canceled and the loss of his research post. The Sunday Times article he was quoted in says
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”.The thing that bothered me most about this scandal was that folks struggled to explain why he was wrong. The furore quickly became an issue of acceptable debate; was it okay for a scientist to say such things? Irrational Point eloquently explains the confusion between whether what was said was merely controversial or unscientific. However, many commentators seemed to say, This is wrong because you just don't say such things. I wanted to write a little bit about why Watson's assertions were plain wrong, regardless of how offensive they were.
So intelligence. You cannot stick a probe into someone's earhole and get a smartness reading of 7.3 goldfishes (a sensible unit of cleverness, I think you'll agree). Goodness knows we've tried; weighing brains, measuring skulls, dissecting and scanning and tickling a person to see if they have a knowing laugh (another of my failed experiments). There are no straightforward physical indicators of intelligence. This is partly because we don't know what the heck intelligence is.
What is intelligence? I dunno. How is it different from wisdom, knowledge or creativity? Dr Watson has himself demonstrated the possibility of extraordinary intelligence and foolishness coexisting in the same individual. There are lots of difference sorts of intelligence – and I don't mean if you include the entirely fluffy emotional intelligence* - but intelligence applied to processing numbers, processing images, problem-solving, data recall, comprehension, translation, wit and so on.
In any case, until we learn a lot more about the brain and perhaps not even then, the only question science can answer is What is there about this thing we call intelligence which might be measured?
And thus, they came up with IQ. IQ is a very useful idea – a fact I must concede before I knock it as I am about to. A person's IQ is represented by a number somewhere along a spectrum represented by a bell-curve, where the most common score will be 100 and the further you score away from one hundred, the fewer people share your intelligence quotient or lack thereof. Originally it was calculated using a comparison of "mental age" and actual age, but not only is mental age in itself a flawed concept, but you can only apply such measures to children. Anyway, it's now all relative, so for example, to get into Mensa, you must have a “genius” level IQ of over 150, which puts you in the most intelligent 2% of the population. So goes the theory.
But, the IQ test does not test intelligence. It provides a measure of your ability to perform certain cognitive tasks within a set time-frame – tested just the once, under one set of conditions. Because of the need for inflexible test conditions, great swathes of the population cannot be tested at all. In this regard it is rather like testing fitness through a running race, assuming the fastest people to run the distances are the fittest; there are lots of very fit people who cannot run at all, and even more fit people whose immense fitness doesn't happen to coincide with speed. However, in general, there would be some relationship between fitness and the ability to run fast, so it still has its uses.
Much more importantly, you can get good at the IQ test. Practice those sorts of puzzles and you can improve your score.
This fact is the clincher, as far as I am concerned; the only measurable manifestations of our intelligence are skills and as such can be learned. Of course there are people who have a natural advantage or disadvantage, just as we do when it comes to physical activity, but no individual is born with the ability to identify the missing number in the sequence 8, 13, 21, ..., 55, 89.
In order to know the answer, one must first learn to understand what numbers mean and how to do put them together, multiply, divide and take away. You have to learn to consider possible relationships between numbers. But if you had learnt about the Fibonacci Sequence in school, you would recognise it straight away and answer using recall as opposed to reason.
Although formal IQ tests attempt to avoid anything where a person may do better because of some knowledge they have, this is ultimately impossible. And for this reason it is extremely dangerous to make any connection between IQ scores in a population and genetics.
The physical development of the brain can be effected by all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle events from conception onwards. Oxygen levels, nutrition, disease and injury, as well as the levels and nature of stimuli a child receives before you get on to academic education.
And then there's culture. Different cultures consciously or unconsciously encourage different sorts of cognitive development. For example, a Chinese baby develops something akin to perfect pitch because the same word-sound can mean something different when articulated in a different tone within those languages. Some older generation Australian Aboriginis describe quantities as either one, two, some or many, creating a culture happily free of chartered accountants, but making them pretty rubbish at IQ tests, all of which require some basic mathematics. This, before you get onto differences in formal education levels, literacy, social inequalities and so on.
A further analogy: men have dramatically differing abilities to grow a beard according to their genes. This variation exists between individuals but also between ethnic groups. Using IQ tests to explore differences in intelligence as determined by our genes is rather like exploring one's beardy-genes by measuring the length of one's beards. From this one would conclude that the vast majority of white Western European men were unable to grow a beard, since most of them don't have beards. Beardiness is very much like intelligence; all a bit fuzzy.
So there's all of this, on top of the fact that race and ethnicity are largely cultural constructs. Of course, we have different genes which determine skin-colour and other things, but it's only by our external features that we use to determine our ethnicity; external features which only say one thing about our genetic heritage. Because of the way that race and particularly whiteness works, a person may have three white grandparents and one grandparent of colour and yet be identified in some non-white category. The whole thing is artificial, we're all a great mishmash and this is especially the case when talking about as diverse and large a group as Black US Americans.
Now, none of this means that there is absolutely no genetic difference influencing intelligence between people of different ethnicities. It is not beyond the realms of possibility, although it would have to be very slight because it seems so counter-intuitive. However, at this time in the history of science and in the history of humankind, there are other possibilities which might explain a difference in the typical IQ scores of different ethnic groups** which seem far more likely. Like the massive inequalities in education within our societies and throughout the world.
As far as Africa's problems are concerned, in the hundred years previous to 1945, Western Europe experienced bloody civil wars as well as international conflict, dictatorships and oligarchies, genocide on a massive scale, famine and pandemic disease. We have no reason to think those white Western Europeans were any less intelligent than the white Western Europeans of today. Africa's problems have nothing to do with the intelligence of its people, but the circumstances that face them, the lack of virtue in some of their leaders and the stupidity (as in lack of wisdom) of white Western Europeans who buggered things up there in the past.
And alas, Watson's comments about black employees read way too much like “You can't trust a [insert racist term].” In reality, a person having been employed on their merit is not going to reveal themselves to be of lower than anticipated intelligence at a later date. But there is the old racist stereotype that black employees will let you down one way or another, of which I hear an echo here.
Waston was wrong, but not because what he said was offensive. It happened to be both.
He has since apologised for what he said in such terms that it is difficult to work out how he managed to say such things in the first place.
If you got down this far, you deserve a joke, which as ancient as it is silly. But every time I read Dr Watson, I think of Holmes and Watson and this appalling joke.
Sherlock Holmes surveys the crime scene and asks his companion what he sees.
“Well,” says Watson, “I see a naked man lied on his front with what appears to be a yellow citrus fruit between his buttocks. So then, Holmes, what do you make of it?”
Holmes considers the scene and concludes, “A lemon entry, my dear Watson, a lemon entry.”
(Elementry, geddit? Nevermind.)
* I don't like the term emotional intelligence because it lumps a lot of things together which actually deserve to be recognised, explored and appreciated for their own worth, without needing to be compared with this very different thing we call intelligence. Empathy, tact, wisdom and compassion are highly valuable and in many circumstances, far more valuable than being able to find the root of seven hundred and twenty-nine. The concept of EI seems entirely superfluous.
** I haven't linked to this data as I cannot find a reliable on-line source. There is a much disputed Wikipedia page if anyone wants to get an idea of the kind of data we might possibly be talking about. However, as far as I'm concerned it is how we might understand that data rather than the data itself which is important.