Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bigotry masquerading as science

Just in time for Halloween.

Nobel Prize winner and DNA-discoverer James Watson says that black people are 'less intelligent' than whites' and that the difference is due to genetics. That is, blacks are not merely less intelligent than whites, they are inherently less intelligent than whites.

Now, that may sound like bigotry, but it isn't. It is possible -- likely in fact -- that intelligence is at least partially determined by genetics, and it is possible (though very unlikely) that the genes that affect intelligence are somehow correlated with the genes that control skin color.

But Watson is in fact a bigot. He reveals it when he goes on to say:


[Watson] said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that 'people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.'"


Even if it were true that blacks are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than whites, the blanket statement that "people who have to deal with black employees find that [blacks are less intelligent than whites]" is, to summon as much diplomacy as I can muster, unjustified racism. Watson's antipathy towards blacks is revealed in his choice of phraseology: "people who have to deal with black employees..." as if black employees are some kind of problem that have to be dealt with rather than valuable contributors to a team irrespective of whether or not they are intelligent. After all, not all white people are Nobel Prize winners either.

Watson's statements are despicable. That they might -- MIGHT mind you -- contain a tiny grain of truth makes them no less despicable.

11 comments:

joe said...

W/R/T: "it is possible (though very unlikely) that the genes that affect intelligence are somehow correlated with the genes that control skin color."

Now i'm no geneticist, so I'm just talking out of my ass here (kind of like you are, i think), but I don't think this "finding" would link intelligence to skin color per se, but rather link intelligence to the overall evolution of homo sapiens and the human brain. Everyone would agree that humans overall are by far the most intelligent species on the earth, much more intelligent than our primate ancestors. And I think everyone would agree that some evolutionary mutation or natural selection occurred so many years ago which allowed humans to develop intelligence that distanced ourselves from primates and other homo-species. So why would it be a stretch to surmise that brains among different populations of humans would gather/create/grow intelligence at different rates?

As far as I know, homo sapiens were gathered in NE Africa 10s of thousands of years ago, and at that point, we probably all looked more or less the same i.e. African, or "black", and probably, umm, more hairy. Then when nomadic tribes formed and humans crossed into the Middle East and spread throughout Europe, Asia, and eventually into the Americas, evolution and adaptations obviously continued to occur, as evidenced by the widely varying and distinct physical attributes of native peoples from throughout the world.

Now, given that when humans spread throughout the world evolved/adapted physically to best survive in their surroundings, I don't see why it would be a preposterous notion that the brain might have evolved differently as well. If evolution of the brain occurred because of mutations or traits that made people smarter, I think it is fair to assume that when humans started spreading, their (our) brains evolved and changed just like our bodies did.

Now, who came out "ahead" in all this? I don't know. And for Watson? Yeah, sounds like a total douchebag.....

Ron said...

If evolution of the brain occurred because of mutations or traits that made people smarter, I think it is fair to assume that when humans started spreading, their (our) brains evolved and changed just like our bodies did.

Of course. But there is no reason to believe that the evolutionary pressures that drove brain evolution are in any way related to the evolutionary pressures that drove skin color evolution. In fact, it's pretty clear what drove the evolution of skin color: where there is more sun you need more melanin. There is no reason to think that where there is more sun you need less brains.

joe said...

yeah, i know - i'm not attempting to tie brain evolution to skin color. Plus, by only focusing on skin color, you're missing our on a lot of other biological traits that most definitely were driven by evolution, for whatever reason - Africans, in addition to dark skin color, are tall and slender (because of the way they hunted? i dunno). Inuits are short and stocky, presumably to maintain heat. I'm sure there are plenty of examples of how body-traits from people from throughout the world are best suited for their native environments.

My point is, when humans started spreading throughout the world and were no longer a single population in a particular place, their evolutionary trees started to branch. I think it's totally reasonable that one secluded population, say, Asians, saw some evolutionary mutations that increased their intelligence, which would obviously be a beneficial trait and would be spread throughout the population. This mutation would have nothing to do with Asian's skin color or physical characteristics. But since by the time this mutation happened, Asians and Africans where fully separate populations, then the mutation was never introduced to the African population. Again, I really have no idea if/when/how this could/would have happened, but it seems perfectly reasonable.

now what i'm about to say here might be blasphemy or whatever, but wouldn't it stand to reason that if all the human populations had spread throughout the world, and had remained relatively secluded from each other (Africans stayed in Africa, white Europeans stayed in Europe, Americans stayed in America), that each population would continue to evolve at its own rate based on very different circumstances, and eventually evolve into what would be considered different species? I mean, this has happened millions of times throughout the history of the world, where once-single populations split geographically and became secluded from each other, and eventually evolved into separate species. In fact, this was part of the basis of Darwin's original theories, when he saw the Galapagos Island birds that were obviously all from the same parent species, but each had evolved to meet the needs of each island.

Humans are probably unique in the history of the world in that after we split apart from our first population center (northern Africa), each population evolved separately for thousands of years. However, due to increases in communication and technology, humans started to re-spread throughout the earth again and started to mix-and-mingle with populations of humans that had been evolving in isolation. There has been no other animal in world history who has been able to quickly re-enter populations of the same species that it branched away from millenia earlier.

It's probably worth pointing out, too (this is where it gets touchy, and would take a geneticist and anthropologist to comment on expertly), that it was Europeans and Asians who first advanced in their technologies so much to allow them to start traveling and exploring the world. Could it not be that these populations were the ones who evolved the intelligence to do so first?

joe said...

couple more quick thoughts.

i think an aspect of human travel and race-integration that is particularly exciting is that as all of our separate populations (i.e. separately evolved for thousands of years) come back together, we have the chance now to start sharing genes and traits among different races/populations who never had the evolutionary need to develop those genes/traits when they were on their own. I mean, what short, white guy hasn't thought about how nice it would be to a little taller and have a little bit darker skin so he doesn't get sunburnt all the time? As Anglo-Europeans continue to mix with people of African or Native American (north, south and central americans, Hispanics), then these traits will eventually start to even out.

I just think it's a bit hypocritical that people will openly acknowledge and discuss physical differences between races/populations which came about because of evolutionary advantages, but as soon as anyone claims that the brain might have evolved differently in those populations as well, he's labeled a racist.

(once again, this Watson guy does sound like a grade-A asshole ;) )

Don said...

Ron,

I had exactly the same reaction as you. In his written words, Watson says some very careful, non-PC, uncomfortable truths. And I generally support the difficult things on race and IQ that he writes about.

Sadly, in his interviews he reveals that he's really just a racist bigot.

Reminds me of a Daniel Dennett quote: "There is nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear."

Anyway, I admire your restraint in describing the despicable episode in neutral, objective language.

But damn that Watson. Brilliant scientist in his field, yet total tunnel vision. Unable to apply his own objective scientific method outside his narrow field. Just a regular redneck kook. What a waste.

-- Don

denis bider said...

*sigh*

You people are so utterly disappointing. Here in this blog entry, you are being the PC police at their worst.

Here you go, to shed some real-world data on the topic.

Ron: the concurrent evolution of skin color and intelligence can clearly be related to the fact that the absence of winter does not require long-term planning, whereas the presence of winter does.

A group of people who have to survive winter, and even spells of poor harvests sandwiched between two winters - such a group will be naturally selected for intelligence, specifically their propensity for long-term planning, as well as their skin color.

As for Watson's statement about people who have to deal with black employees, what's your experience? And what black employees in your experience are we talking about? Those who went to Harvard, or the more common ones from the street?

Where's your factual evidence to support your prejudice that everyone who has negative experience with blacks is a bigot who is despicable and unworthy? What makes you qualified for that?

You bestow etiquettes that exceed your credentials.

Ron said...

the concurrent evolution of skin color and intelligence can clearly be related to the fact that the absence of winter does not require long-term planning, whereas the presence of winter does.

That is a plausible hypothesis, but there is no evidence to support it. An alternative hypothesis is that drought, not winter, is the driving factor, which would predict that blacks should be more intelligent than whites. There is no evidence to support that hypothesis either.

As for Richard Lynn's book, even if the data are accurate (which is debatable) just because there are differences in IQ test scores among populations does not prove that those differences are genetic.

Where's your factual evidence to support your prejudice that everyone who has negative experience with blacks is a bigot who is despicable and unworthy?

First, I never said that everyone who has a negative experience with blacks is a bigot. What I do say is that anyone who extrapolates anecdotal evidence about negative experiences with blacks into a blanket statement about blacks in general and attributes the cause to genetics with no supporting evidence is a bigot. (And I'm looking very hard at you now, Denis.)

Watson himself has apologized "unreservedly" for his remarks. So if he's not a bigot then he's a coward for not standing up for the truth. Take your pick. Either way his conduct in this matter has been thoroughly dishonorable.

Don said...

See, Denis, you've missed the point. Ron has been very careful in his writings to object to the bigotry, not the science.

It is likely true that various inbreeding subpopulations of humans evolved somewhat different average IQs over the past 100,000 years. It is also likely true that this is at least a partial explanation for cultural achievements in the past few thousand years (along with other explanations, such as Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, & Steel" theories).

What's annoying about Watson is that, on top of these uncomfortable truths, he's also a racial bigot. He completely undermines the scientific exploration into the topic by showing all of the bias of an ignorant redneck, and none of the tact required by the delicate nature of the subject.

So: please try to be as careful as Ron has been, and separate the questions of whether there is a genetic basis for IQ (almost certainly), whether human subpopulations have significantly different average group IQs (very likely), whether those "racial" group IQ averages have a strong genetic basis (probably, but evidence is limited), and finally, whether Watson is a racist (unfortunately apparently true).

-- Don

denis bider said...

Ron: "That is a plausible hypothesis, but there is no evidence to support it. An alternative hypothesis is that drought, not winter, is the driving factor, which would predict that blacks should be more intelligent than whites. There is no evidence to support that hypothesis either."

I don't have data on droughts. Have droughts been a driving factor of evolution that have historically posed a problem for people in Africa that would select for intelligence in the long run? Or have droughts been a problem only recently because of rampant population growth and mismanagement of resources? Or if droughts were a problem before, did they necessarily select for IQ, or did they select for other characteristics, e.g. being able to walk long distances with little food?

Yes, the "winter" hypothesis is a hypothesis, it is not fact. But that doesn't mean that the mechanism and reasons are less likely to be genetic.

If the differences were cultural, then black students at universities in South Africa would have IQs similar to their white counterparts. They don't. They are significantly lower.

Lynn's book includes results from tests designed by Africans who wanted to eliminate cultural bias. The results were the same. Drastically lower IQs.

The genetic hypothesis is compatible with average IQs of black Americans (85) compared to sub-Saharan Africans (60-70). Given that a person is considered "black" in the United States even if half their ancestors are white, it makes sense that their average IQs would be somewhere in between.

The alternative would be something along the lines of black IQs being lower than whites because they're poorer and have worse public schools: the "continuing injustice" argument. But Lynn shows that schooling does not affect IQ; not to the tune of 30 points, anyway. So what then? Bad nourishment in pregnancy and childhood? Black people don't get enough to eat?

What?


Ron: As for Richard Lynn's book, even if the data are accurate (which is debatable) just because there are differences in IQ test scores among populations does not prove that those differences are genetic.

(1) Are you talking as someone who has read the book, or as someone who has read about it?

(2) If you have read the book, then - please beg my pardon, but - what likely explanation that is non-genetic are you able to provide? See above.


Watson himself has apologized "unreservedly" for his remarks. So if he's not a bigot then he's a coward for not standing up for the truth. Take your pick. Either way his conduct in this matter has been thoroughly dishonorable.

I pick coward. I don't blame him, either. Peer pressure is a very hard thing to take. That's why peer-to-peer societies (read: socialism, communism) have low levels of development and eventually fail.

I can support my point of view as long as I am challenged by relatively few and reasonable people like the audience here present. If, on the other hand, I was being attacked for my opinions from all quarters and my career was being threatened because people thought of me as a bigot, well, then I'd probably give an "unreserved" apology, as well. I'd think the people who forced me into such a thing are idiots, but hey, one the one hand there's having opinions, and on the other hand there's having a future. It takes an obstinate nut indeed to choose the former over the latter!


Don: "So: please try to be as careful as Ron has been, and separate the questions of whether there is a genetic basis for IQ (almost certainly), whether human subpopulations have significantly different average group IQs (very likely), whether those "racial" group IQ averages have a strong genetic basis (probably, but evidence is limited), and finally, whether Watson is a racist (unfortunately apparently true)."

OK. So if we agree that there's a genetic basis for IQ; and if we establish that the tests are fair, which I believe that Lynn has done; then how can the cause for different average IQs in several disparate, largely non-interbreeding groups (the Chinese, whites in Europe, and blacks in sub-Saharan Africa) be non-genetic? What alternative can you provide?

Finally, I interpret what Watson is saying not so much as intending to disparage blacks in the United States, as intending to convey the futility of trying to "help" Africa.

Yes, Shikwati (do not help us because it stops us from developing) makes a more appealing argument than Watson (do not help them because it will never work).

Yes, Shikwati's argument is also more optimistic (if you don't help us we can learn to develop on our own) than Watson's argument (they can't develop anyway, so let's just leave them on their own).

But how is it bigotry if you look at available data and conclude that, well, even in the best case, it simply does not appear that Africa has the potential that Europe or Japan do?

That may be racism in the sense that the person making that observation is recognizing differences between races. But it's not bigotry - it's just facing what there is to see.

Ron said...

I've been meaning to write a long post addressing all these topics, but I haven't had time. (I'm premiering my movie tonight, and that's been keeping me busy.) Just a few off-the-cuff remarks:

Yes, the "winter" hypothesis is a hypothesis, it is not fact. But that doesn't mean that the mechanism and reasons are less likely to be genetic.

Doesn't matter. IMO, the harm that would be done by acting on that hypothesis should it turn out to be mistaken is so great that it ought not be accepted even tentatively until it is proven beyond reasonable doubt.

That may be racism in the sense that the person making that observation is recognizing differences between races. But it's not bigotry - it's just facing what there is to see.

You are all -- including Watson -- missing the most important point. Racism and bigotry are not the same thing. Where racism descends into bigotry is when you take statistics about a group and apply them to individuals. If I say that a higher proportion of black men than white men are in prison in the U.S. that is merely stating a fact. If I say that this is a consequence of differences in behavior between the two races (as opposed to, say, instutionalized bias in the legal system) that makes me a racist, but not yet a bigot. If I go on to say that all black men are criminals, or that an individual black man is more likely to be a criminal merely because he is black, that makes me a bigot. And if I go on to say, as Watson did, that it ought to be self-evident to everyone that all blacks are inferior, that makes me a Nazi.

denis bider said...

Congrats on your movie! Will it be possible to see it online?


Ron: "IMO, the harm that would be done by acting on that hypothesis should it turn out to be mistaken is so great that it ought not be accepted even tentatively until it is proven beyond reasonable doubt."

We don't always have the luxury of knowing things for certain, and yet we have to make decisions. I don't advocate that we assume that the genetic hypothesis is true, but I think it would be very reasonable to act as though it is likely true, which means act in a way that is optimized for the hypothesis being true, but without incurring too horrible consequences in case it isn't.

It so happens that, or so I think, the optimal strategy for Africa is the same regardless of whether or not we believe the genetic hypothesis for IQ: like James Shikwati says, give them access to free trade - stop discriminating against them through tariffs and agriculture subsidies and quotas - and then stop helping them. This strategy should yield the best result regardless of whether the genetic hypothesis for their IQ holds.

The hitch is, if we adopt the above strategy, and then find that Africa has not developed into a set of full-fledged developed countries within 50 years - don't interpret this as a sign of the strategy failing, and don't interpret this as a sign that they need more direct help.

Basically the reason I am supporting the genetic IQ hypothesis - obviously, apart from that I think it's probably correct - is because it has a significant practical value in that it helps avoid misinterpreting the absence of results (from whatever help strategy is implemented) as meaning that Africa requires yet more help.


Ron: "Where racism descends into bigotry is when you take statistics about a group and apply them to individuals."

I agree.


Ron: "If I say that a higher proportion of black men than white men are in prison in the U.S. that is merely stating a fact. If I say that this is a consequence of differences in behavior between the two races (as opposed to, say, instutionalized bias in the legal system) that makes me a racist, but not yet a bigot."

I agree.


Ron: "If I go on to say that all black men are criminals, or that an individual black man is more likely to be a criminal merely because he is black, that makes me a bigot."

No. What makes one a bigot is if one asserts either that all black men are criminals - they are most certainly not; or if one asserts that an individual man is a criminal simply by virtue of being black.

However, saying that an individual black man is more likely to be a criminal than, say, a white man, is in the same category as what you propose constitutes racism, but not bigotry, above.

Iff it is true that proportionally more blacks than whites are criminals - as opposed to merely being victimized by an unjust legal system - then it is also true that an individual black person is more likely to be a criminal. These are two ways of saying the exact same thing.

Now, acting as though the black man is a criminal - even though there is only an increased probability that this is so - that is bigotry. But merely acting in accordance with real probabilities makes sense.

After all, if you see a person in a police uniform, you usually act as though he is a cop. Simply because the person wears a uniform, you interpret that as indicating a high probability that the person is a cop.

Bigotry is to assert that just because a person is black, he therefore must be a criminal. That's unjust. But if say 10% of black men are criminals whereas only 1% of Asians are, being more afraid of blacks than Asians is only fair.


Ron: "And if I go on to say, as Watson did, that it ought to be self-evident to everyone that all blacks are inferior, that makes me a Nazi."

Watson was quoted as saying that this is evident to anyone with experience employing blacks. I don't have experience employing blacks, and I don't know what's the experience of people employing blacks in the United States. However, I've read interesting tales about companies trying to do work in Africa, and let's just say there is a reason sweatshops are in China and not in Uganda. In China, at least people actually come to work.

By the same token, I've heard of mining companies importing Chinese workers to work in African mines. I wonder why that is, if it's not that they don't feel they can rely on local labor.

I've heard these things from different people and coming from many sources - through missionaries, traveling diplomats, magazines. I find it highly unlikely that none of this is real.

Before I got my hands on Lynn's book, I used to ascribe it to the sun frying their brains. I used to think that, perhaps, if only they had air conditioning from childhood, their work habits would be better.

Like Watson, I was stunned to realize that the evidence points to a more likely explanation with a different outcome.