Thursday, 25 April 2013

James Watson, Nobel Laureate and UnPerson

It is every researcher’s dream to publish a paper which changes their discipline. Few papers achieve that. It is even less common to publish a paper which changes the world. 
Today is the 60th anniversary of the publication of a short communication to Nature entitled “Molecular structure of nucleic acids” by Francis Crick and James Watson from the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England.  Maurice Wilkins from King’s College London also published complementary observations in the same issue. The latter was a quiet and modest man I enjoyed meeting many years later, when I was chairing a research group on cancer following nuclear weapons tests. All three shared the Nobel Prize.

The Crick and Watson paper heralded a change in our understanding of evolution. As a result, we had more of an idea about how the code was structured. It took 50 years to lay out the book of the code of one human being in the Human Genome Project that Watson helped set up in 1990. It has taken another 10 years to get started on reading the book. The genetic age has barely begun. At the moment we are in the grip of Moore’s Law as it applies to the computing power of genetic chips, and we are just about getting the analytic power needed to move from the first stage of obtaining coded intercepts, to the second stage of deciphering some of their meaning to the final stage, which is to take thousands of those meaningful messages so that we can make sense of the vast biological forces deployed across oceans and continents for millennia.

Both Crick and Wilkins are dead, so James Watson is the last survivor, our greatest living biological scientist. Today should be a time of celebration of his achievements and commemoration of what his intellect contributed to our understanding. However, in a travesty worthy of Stalinism, Watson has become an Un-person. His treatment has been so horrible that it has given rise to a new phrase: “being Watson’ed” which means that you are trashed, your name blackened, your career and social standing destroyed. 

At this stage you may be wondering how many young children he molested, or whether he devoted his subsequent life to developing nerve gasses. No, there was nothing like that. His modern day crime was to give his opinion, as the father of modern genetics, that genetics were involved in racial differences in ability and behaviour.

Possibly, at this juncture, you might want to turn elsewhere, alarmed that by a process of contagion you might be risking drawing opprobrium upon yourself. Leave now, before you have to explain to inquisitors why you have dallied here. Outside totalitarian regimes, the last scientist of comparable stature to be treated this way was Galileo Galilei. Some regimes always want to put the best thinkers under house arrest.

In October  2007, Watson was compelled to retire as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after he had been quoted in The Times the previous week as saying "[I am] 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."

In the most recent battles over the intelligence of Sub-Saharan Africans between researchers with strongly differing views,  Richard Lynn (whose work Watson was probably quoting) estimated their IQ at 70 (later raised on more recent data to 73) while Jelte Wicherts estimated their IQ at 78 to 81. Their arguments revolved on the representativeness of the samples studied, with the appropriateness of the tests, after an exchange of findings about the lack of ceiling effects, being somewhat less of a problem. Getting high quality national samples in Africa is hard, but not impossible. In those cases where larger, epidemiologically sound methodologies have been employed, the results have often been close to those obtained in the original smaller samples. The broad picture stated by Wicherts et al. (2010b, p.17) is that “there can be little doubt that Africans average lower IQs than do westerners”. Sub-Saharan Africans have an average IQ significantly lower than that of African Americans in the United States. Even taking the higher of the two estimates, Jelte Wicherts’ estimate of IQ 80, Watson’s remarks are correct.

By the way, racial differences in intelligence may be due to genetics or profoundly negative environments: both can have lasting effects on adult intelligence. I have given references below to the recent findings, but the picture continues to change, with some African countries showing gains in intelligence and scholastic ability. These are empirical matters, and the fact that in Africa only Mauritius and Tunisia participate in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) somewhat limits the evidence base.  

Leaving aside that Watson made his off-the-cuff remarks in an interview to an ex-student he had mentored, there was no proper public debate about his opinions, objectively based on the merits of the case. The Science Museum in London refused to let him speak, saying his views went "beyond the point of acceptable debate".

Prejudice is something which must be avoided by all parties. In 1830 William Hazlitt observed: Prejudice is prejudging any question without having sufficiently examined it, and adhering to our opinion upon it through ignorance, malice or perversity, in spite of every evidence to the contrary.

As an America astronomer (see below) said: Truth may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. 

The scientific ideal is that any hypothesis should be considered in an open-minded manner, whoever propounds it and however odd it may sound, and then the implications tested by harsh tests intended to destroy it until the remaining residue, if any, is accepted as probably, provisionally true.

As that kind and clever astronomer scientist Carl Sagan observed about the scientific mindset: It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.

Such exquisite balance seems not to be part of European thought in the 21st century.


Wicherts, J. M., Dolan, C. V., Carlson, J. S. & van der Maas, H. L. J. (2010a). Raven’s test performance of sub-Saharan Africans; mean level, psychometric properties, and the Flynn Effect.  Learning & Individual Differences, 20, 135-151.
Lynn, R. (2010).   The average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans assessed by the Progressive Matrices: Some comments on Wicherts, Dolan, Carlson & van der Maas. Learning & Individual Differences, 20, 152-154.
Wicherts, J. M., Dolan, C. V., & Van der Maas, H. L. J. (2010b). A systematic literature review of the average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans. Intelligence, 38, 1-20.


  1. Science was a historical phenomenon; it flourished for a while in Western and Central European culture and then dwindled away. Why the successful aggression against it seems to have started in the US is a mystery: something to do with the Pilgrim fathers perhaps. I suppose it's an odd sort of testament to the US that it is her aggression against science that will have succeeded when Hitler's and Stalin's failed.

    To remove any doubt, I'm not referring to the Creationists - mere nut cases - but to the Forces of Progress, who are intent on censoring what one is permitted to think, and determining what one is required to think.

  2. Lewis Wolpert argued that the scientific mindset was always a rarity. What is interesting is how so many people combine avid use of science-based technology with disparagement of scientific thought on other subjects (I have a post in progress on that subject).

  3. Perhaps less to do with the Pilgrim Fathers and more to do with Jewish intellectual movements as represented by the Frankfurt School.

  4. There has always been irrationality: look at the furious and ill-informed responses to Malthus (1798), say. Or at Bertrand Russell's father, whose career was destroyed because he privately approved of contraception (~1870!). Recent cultural developments have changed the targets but not the underlying problem.

  5. Yes, irrationality has a long pedigree. Problem is, determining what is rational is non-trivial.

  6. I wonder if the reaction would have been the same had he been bullish on China and India because east and south asians are more intelligent than Europeans - another result supported by the data.

  7. I agree with Anonymous above (02:35). If he had said Caucasians are not as intelligent as Asians, there would have been an awkward silence, and no controversy.