Everyone must be aware by now of the uproar caused by the recent remarks made by James Watson, the Nobel Prize winner for the discovery of the structure of DNA. According to Watson, he feels "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." Watson also asserted there was no reason to believe different races separated by geography should have evolved identically, and he said that while he hoped everyone was equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true."
I was aware of Watson's hubris long before this latest story broke. He had previously made similarly disparaging remarks about homosexuals and the "unintelligent" among us. I did not write anything about his latest gaffe here because it was widely covered in the media, it followed a predictable pattern and I had not much to add. Also, I had already vented sufficiently at another blog where a discussion on Watson's "ignoble" ways was under way. However, Watson is not alone in his obsession with IQ. Many other "intelligent" people can't leave the notion of IQ out of their evaluation of human worth. Some have made a career out of it.
I am not a post-modernist touchy-feely type myself. I do not believe for a moment that all of us have equal aptitude for everything we attempt to do. I also accept that some of what we are capable or incapable of is determined by our innate heritable traits. But that consideration ought to be limited to "individuals" who need to be evaluated for a specific task at hand. Even when a group consists of individuals with closely comparable traits in some enterprise or the other, it is dangerous to base human interactions on that blanket calculation. Doing so is unfair to the individual. It is a prescription for short changing some and setting up others for failure. The human society for better or worse, no longer operates by the law of the jungle for the most part. The criteria for survival in the modern world are more complex than they were for primitive societies. As important as a sharp mind and sound body, are our aptitude for co-operation, compassion and ability to handle stress. Also, survival in the wilderness and in an urban setting require different kinds of intelligence. Other than the conventional indicators of intelligence like business acumen and academic brilliance, our ability to respond to disasters, stewardship of the environment, good parental and educational insights, developing appropriate ethical and legal groundwork to guide our personal and public lives have become increasingly more important facets of intelligence that ensure success and survival as the world becomes more interactive, urbanized and the insularity of discrete cultural groups diminish. We have also seen repeatedly that an above average intelligence as measured by IQ tests does not guarantee that an individual will make a good parent, be ethical or well adjusted and as in Watson's case, have wisdom commensurate with intelligence.
Yet our society remains in thrall of IQ. I always cringe when this inadequate and even flawed measure is repeatedly used to assign worth (or unworth) to human life. I consider it especially pernicious when applied to entire racial/cultural groups. Once before I had expressed my unease with such stereotyping here. Today I came across an American Enterprise Institute talk discussing Jewish intelligence and other genetic traits. Not much in the discussion is new. But I find this obsession with "positive" group genetics as disturbing as Watson's insult to an entire continent and race based on so called "inferior" DNA. The main speaker was Jon Entine, an AEI fellow and author of a new book, Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. Charles Murray, another AEI fellow and IQ worshipper was predictably present as an enthusiastic participant.
Entine, author of the new book "Abraham's Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People," argued that genetic mutations gave Jews very high IQs. "If you had one of these mutations" -- such as those that cause Tay-Sachs disease -- "it probably could cause high intelligence," he asserted.
Fellow AEI fellow Charles Murray suggested that the rigors of Talmudic study drove out the dull Jews centuries ago. "If you were dumb and a Jew," said the philo-Semitic Murray, "it was a lot easier to be a Christian." Murray, best known for his incendiary book about race and intelligence, "The Bell Curve," explored Jewish smarts in an April article in Commentary titled "Jewish Genius." ....
All this might be traced, Entine said, to diseases that afflict Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe; these genetic mistakes "may promote the growth and interconnection of brain cells." "This is highly debated," the author admitted. "You're suggesting there could be a genetic basis to intelligence and it could be found more in one population than another."
It was not controversial with Murray, however. His only beef was that Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal were smart, too. "You had not only Maimonides . . . you had Jews prominent in business, you had Jews who were advisers to the court," he argued. "Many historians attribute in part the subsequent decline of Spain and Portugal to the fact that they got rid of their Jews." He further credited Jews for the rise of the Netherlands and noted that "one of my thesis advisers at MIT was a Sephardic Jew."
Update: For the nitty gritty on how mothers beat genetics, see Anna's post here.