James Watson’s Ordeal
October 24, 2007
James Watson’s embrace of racial differences in intelligence once again shows the undiminished power of the left to control public discourse on critical issues related to diversity and multiculturalism. When Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve in 1994, it was greeted with a great sense of anticipation in some circles that at last issues related to race and IQ could be discussed openly and honestly. Finally, a book had been published by a mainstream publisher that dared to argue that not only were there racial differences in intelligence, but also that it was reasonable to suppose that these differences were partly due to inheritance.
But it never happened. One has to look long and hard to find mainstream media accounts of race differences in academic success that even propose genetic differences as a reasonable hypothesis. For example, recent state reports on school success have emphasized that economic differences do not explain the racial gap in school success. One would think that the failure of the favorite explanation of the cultural left would prompt reasonable people to at least suggest the possibility that genetic differences are involved. But that explanation is utterly taboo in the mainstream media.
Below the surface, however, in the labyrinths of academia, The Bell Curve has had an impact. Many new researchers are now studying general intelligence. Even the US military and much work in industrial-organizational psychology is taking the importance of “g,” the general factor of mental ability, into account.
Admittedly, the topic of race differences is still highly controversial. Nonetheless, even here there are real signs of progress. For example, an entire issue of the top-drawer American Psychological Association journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law was devoted to a review of Black-White IQ differences by J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen. Their paper (in 2005) entitled “Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability” concluded that Black-White differences were between 50 and 80 percent heritable. Most recently, Rushton and his colleagues published two studies in a paper in the July 2007 Proceedings of the Royal Society of London showing that the East Asian-European-South Asian-Colored-Black differences, mainly in South Africa, were substantially heritable.
However, these positive indications have not yet percolated up into the mainstream media. Watson was in some ways an ideal person to express his views on the topic and bring this material into the light of day. At 79 years old, he has little tangible to lose. He is a world-renowned figure with the sort of stature that can only come from making one of the central discoveries of 20th-century science. He is also a biologist with a professional understanding of genetic influences on behavior. Gene/behavior linkages are a major research interest of the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory that he led until being suspended because of his comments on African intelligence. Watson also has a deep personal interest in genetic influences on behavior because his son has schizophrenia.
Of course, the egalitarians are free to have as much of their say as they like, no matter how nonsensical. A good example is Steven Rose, an old-time warrior in the IQ wars who is mentioned several times in Ch. 2 of The Culture of Critique. He not only condemns Watson for expressing his opinion, but is quite happy to see that Watson's life has been upended, stating that “the repercussions are to be welcomed.” At least that far-left ideologue was honest enough to say he didn’t believe in free speech for scientists. Stalinism lives! Perhaps Watson deserves a long prison term in a psychiatric hospital.
It’s noteworthy that Watson has not caved in on the general point that natural selection may result in differences between human groups. He has defended himself by rejecting any implication that the entire continent of Africa is “genetically inferior” while nevertheless writing
We do not yet adequately understand the way in which the different environments in the world have selected over time the genes which determine our capacity to do different things. The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science.
Watson believes that in 10–15 years we will get “an adequate understanding for the relative importance of nature versus nurture in the achievement of important human objectives.”
So is the clock ticking for the cultural left? Are we about to enter an age in which it will impossible to deny genetic differences on intelligence and we will be able to rationally discuss race differences in intelligence in the mainstream media? I think not. The cultural left has a long and largely successful history of being able to combat scientific ideas that it doesn’t like. This was the main conclusion of The Culture of Critique: The long and sorry history of Boasian anthropology, psychoanalysis, the anti-hereditarian and anti-Darwinian movements in the social sciences, and the Frankfurt School all masqueraded as science but they also wore their politics on their sleeves. Like other political movements, dissenters were simply excluded — drummed out of professional societies, publicly humiliated, and relegated to the fringes of intellectual life.
It’s a tradition that is alive and well in the 21st century. Watson has seen his book tour cancelled, he has been suspended from his position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and has been subjected to outraged moralism from people who can’t hold a candle to his intellectual stature. And all for expressing his professional opinion on how the blind hand of natural selection may have operated to make people different.