James Watson and Race

The BBC News was carrying a story on Friday morning about how James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist has been suspended from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and has had a number of other sanctions taken against him in addition. [I did start writing this on Friday but haven’t had chance to knock this post up from draft until now]

Reading what he has said actually makes me fairly uneasy, though lots of the reaction against him has struck me as very much knee-jerk. Quite a lot of what he was saying made me feel distinctly queasy, as a confirmed left-wing libertarian, but there is a point he makes in a clarification in today’s Independent newspaper which is an exceptionally good one.

“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,” he is quoted as saying. “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. To question this is not to give in to racism. This is not a discussion about superiority or inferiority, it is about seeking to understand differences, about why some of us are great musicians and others great engineers.”

The uncomfortable truth for us is this: the last paragraph of this Watson quote is absolutely correct. We may wish to treat all people equally and fairly, but at the same time we must also perhaps acknowledge that they are not all the same, whether for reasons of biology or culture. If we were all the same, then there would be no differences between races. And, from an evolutional point of view this clearly cannot not be correct. Even skin colour is an evolutionary marker. Having Watson say this is not in any way comfortable, but having normally rational men like David Lammy shrieking at him that he is a racist is not really helpful and, indeed, is obscuring any kind of real debate about the subject.

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