The world of biology is throbbing with the excitement of ever new genetic discoveries - it is fast becoming a DNA driven world. Fine with me as long as we accept the findings as physiological facts and don't make wild leaps of socio- anthropological faith from there. We cannot be sure which way the sharp tool of DNA science will cut and smugness may be one trait that it shreds.
Three A.B. bloggers have recently addressed the "slippery slope" of genetics, IQ and race (here, here and here). So I didn't expect to write on this issue again, at least not so soon. But this article in Times Online is hard to ignore.
An analysis of his genome shows that 16% of his genes are likely to have come from a black ancestor of African descent. By contrast, most people of European descent would have no more than 1%.
The study was made possible when he allowed his genome - the map of all his genes - to be published on the internet in the interests of science....
“This level is what you would expect in someone who had a great-grandparent who was African,” said Kari Stefansson of deCODE Genetics, whose company carried out the analysis. “It was very surprising to get this result for Jim.”
This weekend his critics savoured the wry twist of fate. Sir John Sulston, the Nobel laureate who helped lead the consortium that decoded the human genome, said the discovery was ironic in view of Watson’s opinions on race. “I never did agree with Watson’s remarks,” he said. “We do not understand enough about intelligence to generalise about race.”
I lean to the left in most matters political and social. But I am definitely not a liberal creationist. There are many pills I can chew, swallow and digest, however bitter. But I believe that some pills, bitter or sweet, are unnecessary for the overall good health of our world and need not be sold carelessly over the counter for feel good anthropological studies, however objective one thinks the outcomes are.
Something that people often forget when they bash liberal social egalitarianism is the fact that the most significant interference with our "innate" abilities has come in the field of medicine, not the social/ cultural realm. We serenely take for granted (no, demand) in vivo/in vitro/pre-natal/ post natal tinkering to correct defects and enable life. Organ transplants, hip replacements, plastic surgery, designer target drugs and yes, the biggest daddies of all, antibiotics and childhood vaccinations, comprise the smorgasbord of medical advances that we have routine access to. We rarely question their benefits or grouse about "health engineering." How many of the so called "superior" humans with higher worth (IQ?) to society may have become toast early or later in life if such heroic measures were not available to buck mother nature in matters of life and death?
Yet as soon as anyone tries to raise the bar for similar intervention on behalf of a "backward" individual or group to give them a leg up for survival in the educational and economic world, howls of protest erupt from many quarters with accusations of "unnatural" meddlesome do-goodery flying left and right.
That as a scientist, Watson could not fathom that simple (and dangerous) fact about "sweeping generalizations" is the cause of his deserved downfall. What he smugly said about Africa and his black employees left no doubt about his ignorance.
There are many areas of genetics which indeed are group related. I think it is better to leave those studies to the "good" uses such as calculating the risk of heritable disease rather than trying to predict "desirable" qualities. (Why not look for compassion and common sense too while we are at it?) The pernicious effects of the latter, even when it reveals "objective truths", are so scary (think caste system, eugenics, Dr. Mengele, apartheid) that it is best to not make too much of it. Especially when we ostensibly strive to become a fair society and because such studies can be very unfair to "individuals" within a "group." If we don't agree, then let's measure away .... head sizes, IQ, finger lengths, ability to survive in the desert without water, stamina for long distance running and any other quality we think warrants measuring. Extrapolate from there to determine which tasks and duties we want each group to fulfill for the best division of labor and the most efficient society. The Brahminical caste system had its roots exactly in such value assignments to human life. Nothing wrong with it - if we can live with it.