söndag 21 oktober 2007

Watson and race

James Watson, one of the team of four scientists who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, has come under attack for suggesting that there is some connection between being African or having African ancestry, and having low intelligence.

He seems to be suggesting that there is a genetic component to intelligence which condition in Europe have selected for this attribute more strongly than in Africa, though it is not clear exactly what he getting, but that has not stopped people rushing to attack, and silence him.

The whole subject area is murky, with several strands to this debate. The first is what precisely does intelligence tests measure? The second is whether the whatever-it-measures has a positive, negative or neutral moral value? The third is to what extent it is inherited through DNA and how much is a result of environmental factors? The fourth is whether it fuels racism?

Friends who have worked in Third World countries in Africa and elsewhere relate stories about being in the bush and the resourcefulness of their drivers when things go wrong. The skills that they describe are not the kind of thing that ordinary pencil-and-paper intelligence tests would measure. So the tests themselves need to be regarded with suspicion.

As for the moral value of intelligence, it was Einstein who famously said, on hearing of the atom bomb tests, "I wish I had been a watchmaker". The generals and politicians, and their scientist servants, who hatched the immensely destructive wars of the twentieth century, would no doubt have scored highly in intelligence tests. The quality of a society in terms of the happiness of its members depends more upon the prevalence of positive moral values than on the intelligence of its members. Africa's problems seem primarily to do with the corruption of its politics, and this is largely to do with the way the government of those countries interact with western institutions.

Whether mental capacities are inherited though DNA or environmental factors would be inherently almost impossible to establish. Studies of identical twins are of limited value, as we now know that the ante-natal environment is critical. But poor maternal nutrition and illness will inevitably affect brain development both before children are born and in the early years of their life, whilst poverty itself tends to result in an environment where children are less stimulated by parents, partly, perhaps, for cultural reasons but equally, because they are too busy with just trying to survive.

Sadly but inevitably, to raise this issue is, on the one hand to fuel attacks the one hand from people who cry racism, and on the other, to give propaganda to racists. Ironically, white racists themselves appear to be of well below average intelligence, however measured. This comes to light in Britain when members of the BNP win local elections and often turn out to be unable to handle ordinary council business.

Perhaps white racists should be invited to demonstrate their intelligence by participating in tests? They might get a shock at their low scores.

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