‘I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa… All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.’
So claimed the Nobel Laureate, James Watson, in an interview in Britain’s Sunday Times in October 2007. Watson is one of the most eminent living scientists. In 1953, he and Francis Crick unravelled the extraordinary double helix structure of DNA, perhaps the single most important scientific breakthrough of the twentieth century. For forty years he was director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York, one of the most prestigious biological research institutions in the world. He was also director of America’s Human Genome Project, until he resigned over plans to patent genes, to which he was passionately opposed.
But Watson also has a darker reputation. He has been mired in controversy throughout his life, such as when he claimed a link between skin colour and libido or seemed to suggest that it might be right to abort ‘gay’ foetuses (he later insisted that his words had been taken out of context). The journal Science once said of him that ‘To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script.’
The Sunday Times interview was one of several that Watson had given to promote his autobiography called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Avoid Boring People. Despite the title, the book is quite bland. Watson refers to the issue of race only briefly and obliquely. ‘There is no firm reason’, he writes, ‘to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of people geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.’ In the Sunday Times interview, conducted by his former student Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, Watson translated the careful wording of the book into the language of the street. People expect everyone to be equal, he claimed, but ‘people who have to deal with black employees find this is not so.’
Censure was swift and universal. Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, condemned the comments as ‘scandalous’. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, fulminated against ‘ignorant comments’ that ‘are utterly offensive and give succour to the most backward in our society.’ Britain’s newly-formed Equality and Human Rights Commission studied the remarks to see if it could bring any legal action. London’s Science Museum, at which Watson was to have delivered a lecture, cancelled his appearance, claiming that the Nobel Laureate had ‘gone beyond the point of acceptable debate.’
In America, too, the criticism was almost total. The Federation of American Scientists condemned Watson for choosing ‘to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science.’ Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, described Watson’s comments as ‘racist’ and as both ‘profoundly offensive and utterly unsupported by scientific evidence.’ Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory not only ‘vehemently’ disowned Watson’s remarks but suspended his chancellorship of the institution, forcing him eventually to resign.
The row over Watson’s comments shows all that is wrong with the current debate about race. On the one hand, Watson got his facts in a double helix. On the other, the arguments of Watson’s critics were equally in a twist. There are certainly real genetic differences between human populations and the scientific study of these differences can help unravel the roots of disease, develop new medicines, unpick the details of deep human history; perhaps eventually even tell us something about the nature of intelligence. Such genetic differences are, however, not the same as racial differences. Race provides a means, not just of categorising humanity, but also of imputing meaning to those categories and of selecting certain categories, based on skin colour, appearance, or descent, as being of particular importance. Racial thinking divides human beings into a small set of discrete groups, sees each group as possessing a fixed set of traits and abilities and regards the differences between these groups as the defining feature of humanity. All these beliefs run counter to scientific views of population differences.
If Watson’s arguments seemed to show a disregard for the facts of human differences, those of many of his critics appeared to be indifferent to the spirit of free inquiry. For the Science Museum, Watson went ‘beyond the point of acceptable debate’. But what is acceptable debate? Two years ago, the then Harvard chancellor, Larry Summers, caused outrage by suggesting, in a speech, that evolved brain differences, rather than gender discrimination, may explain why men dominate science. Like Watson, Summers faced condemnation. Like Watson, he had to apologise for his comments. And like Watson, he was forced eventually to resign his post. The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker was asked whether Summers had put himself beyond the pale of legitimate academic discourse with his comments. ‘Good grief’, Pinker exclaimed, ‘Shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa.’
Of course, there was more than a little lack of rigour to Watson’s comments. Yet the issue of race, and of the relationship between race and intelligence, remains the subject of legitimate scientific debate. Almost on the same day as Avoid Boring People hit the bookshops, so did Craig Venter’s autobiography, A Life Decoded. Venter is a geneticist, almost as distinguished as Watson. He was one of the driving forces behind the Human Genome Project and the founder of Celera, the private sector biotechnology company without which the unravelling of human genome would have taken considerably longer. His view on race is the opposite of Watson’s. ‘The concept of race’, he writes, ‘has no genetic or scientific basis’. Nor, he suggests, is there any ‘basis in scientific fact or in the human gene code for the notion that skin colour will be predictive of intelligence’.
There is, as we shall see in Chapter 2, a growing questioning of the idea that race has no genetic basis and a burgeoning use of racial categories in scientific and medical research. Nevertheless, Venter’s argument broadly accords with the current scientific consensus. It certainly accords with current moral and political sensibilities. Nevertheless, it is as legitimate for Watson to express his opinion as it is for Venter to express his, even if Watson’s appears to be factually wrong, morally suspect and politically offensive. As in many controversies about the human condition, the debate about race is less about the facts of human differences than about the meaning of these facts. It is only through open debate that we are able to decide which interpretation of the facts is the most meaningful. A scientific debate that is policed to ensure that opinions do not wander beyond acceptable moral and political boundaries is no debate at all and itself loses any meaning.
For many, though, science is political. In recent years, there has grown a greater scepticism about the idea that science provides an objective view of the world, a view that is universal and valid across all societies and cultures. Belief in the objectivity of the scientific method and the universality of scientific knowledge developed through the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth. It is a belief that traditionally has been associated with progressive thought – but no longer. Where radicals once championed scientific rationalism and Enlightenment universalism, now they are more likely to decry both as part of a ‘Eurocentric’ project. ‘All knowledge systems’, the philosopher Sandra Harding has written, ‘including those of modern science are local ones.’ Western science has taken over the world ‘not because of the greater purported rationality of Westerners or the purported commitment of their sciences to the pursuit of disinterested truth’ but ‘primarily because of the military, economic and political power of European cultures.’ Science, Harding concludes, ‘is politics by other means.’ And if that is the case, then science clearly must be policed for its moral and political rightness. That is why Watson was sandbagged as much by moral outrage as by rational argument.
The irony is that, for all the vitriol directed at Watson, racial talk today is as likely to come out of the mouths of liberal anti-racists as of reactionary racial scientists. The affirmation of difference, which once was at the heart of racial science, has become a key plank of the anti-racist outlook. We’re All Multiculturalists Now observes the American sociologist Nathan Glazer, in the title of a book. Indeed we are. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook and as the foundation of a modern liberal democracy. The paradoxical result, as we shall see, has been to transform racial thinking into a liberal dogma. Out of the withered seeds of racial science have flowered the politics of identity. Strange fruit, indeed.
This book challenges both sides of the race debate. There are three broad parts to my argument. The first two chapters explore the meaning of race as a scientific category. Race, I argue, is a social, not a scientific category, but it is precisely because it is a social category that it may be useful in scientific and medical research. Chapters 3 to 7 examine the rise and fall historically of the idea of race and explain its sublimation into the idea of culture. Chapters 8 to 10 look at the contemporary clash between claims of scientific rationality and those of cultural identity and at how much modern liberal thinking has been infected by a racial view of the world. The final chapter is an afterword on the Watson row, which re-examines the debate over his comments in light of the argument in this book.
Race is not a rational, scientific category. Anti-racism has become an irrational, anti-scientific philosophy. The challenge we face is to confront racial thinking while defending scientific rationality and promoting Enlightenment universality. The aim of this book is to do just that.