Nirpal Dhaliwal: This is not the raving of a deluded old man

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The Independent Online

Genius and malign idiocy often inhabit the psychology of a great man. Dr James Watson is one such individual. One of the outstanding scientists in history, his contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA won him the Nobel Prize and created the science of genetics that will influence our destiny as a species. But, last week, he was barred from speaking at London's Science Museum after claiming that black people are naturally less intelligent than whites. Like Winston Churchill (who regarded Indians as inherently incapable of self-rule, declaring, "They are a beastly people with a beastly religion"), Watson's limitations as a man are revealed by his attitude to race.

The 79-year-old said he was "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". He issued an apology and admitted that his views had "no scientific basis" after public outrage curtailed the promotion of his latest book, and he has now been suspended as the chancellor of a prestigious US research institute.

But his remarks can't be dismissed as the rantings of a destabilised old man, being consistent with a series of prejudicial statements he's made: that women should be allowed to abort homosexual babies; that poverty is the result of stupidity; and that women should be genetically designed to be more beautiful. The only people he doesn't regard as being in need of improvement are privileged, affluent, heterosexual white males.

Questioning the intelligence of a race is to dispute whether those people are fully human and worthy of basic rights, compassion and humane treatment. The pseudo-scientific libelling of Africans was a 19th century justification for slavery, its proponents arguing that black people were uniquely suited for it because of their "primitive psychological organization".

A leading physician of the antebellum South, Samuel A Cartwright, even diagnosed runaway slaves as suffering from a mental illness, drapetomia, the onset of which revealed itself in their being "sulky and dissatisfied" – unsurprising sentiments in a slave, you might think. The treatment he proposed for slaves displaying such symptoms was, "whipping the devil out of them". Cartwright also diagnosed dysaethesia aethiopica, a theory of negro laziness, characterised by an insensitivity of the skin. His prescription was to anoint the toil-shy black "all over in oil, and to slap the oil in with a broad leather strap; then to put the patient to some hard kind of work in the sunshine". Flogging was the cost-effective remedy offered by scientists for the exhaustion, rage and desire for freedom of the enslaved.

James Watson's defamatory remarks have put him in the unique position of being a man who shares a podium with the titans of science – such as Darwin, Oppenheimer and Bohr – while having one foot on a soap-box with Cartwright and other distasteful cranks. His assertion that genetics, rather than political and economic conditions, is the cause of Africa's malady was a glib, inhumane refusal to recognise the historical context of Africa's condition and the responsibility the world has towards it.

Africa's plight isn't unique, and has nothing to do with race. More people live in poverty in India than in Africa; 40 per cent of India is illiterate, and the subcontinent is home to almost half of the world's malnourished children. But India has had 60 years of relative political stability, without external interference, enabling the emergence of a strengthening economy that is now in the grip of a technology boom. How would Watson account for the disparity between the Bangalore whizz kids who manage the computer system of the New York Stock Exchange and the famished, empty-eyed rural millions who live in conditions identical to those associated with sub-Saharan Africa? Would race explain that too? And how would he account for the hugely different conditions in which the people of South Korea live compared with their former compatriots in the North? Is it DNA, or is it the political situation in which they live?

Politics underlies the problems of the developing world, both the internal political systems of developing nations and their power relations with richer ones. In the middle of the 20th century, most of India's and China's populations lived in a state of pre-industrial subsistence, and both countries experienced famine until the 1960s. But both are organic nation states, whose territorial boundaries cohere with their historic ethnic groupings.

While both have suffered enormous upheavals, they have managed to arrive at stability because neither country inherited the post-colonial turmoil that Africa did, with different, often historically opposed ethnic groups forced to live within artificial borders drawn by imperial masters. African tribes were split between colonial powers or crowded into states, where, as in Rwanda, one tribe was privileged over another, causing resentment and hostility that has escalated into conflict to the present day.

And unlike the fractured mini-states of Africa, the vast size of India and China gives them the economies of scale attractive to inward foreign investment and the power to deter Western bullying. India and China run a massive trade surplus with the West, exporting consumer goods or providing an outsourced back-office for multinationals. But the West doesn't dare punish them for it, let alone force them into the unfair trade agreements – such as in agriculture – that it applies to disunited, disorganised and easily manipulated Africa. The West invests billions each year in Indian and Chinese capital and infrastructural projects, while its relationship with Africa is solely as an exporter of primary resources. Indians and the Chinese increasingly work in factories and offices built with Western money, but Africans continue to toil in mines and farming crops.

James Watson stupidly stated that the West's social policies in Africa fail because Africans have a low intelligence. But the only social policy the West has is indifference or the exploitation of the continent's weaknesses. Watson's remarks have attracted scorn for their racism, but they should also have reignited discussion about the real reasons why the dysfunctions of Africa have proven so intractable. But the causes are too complex and guilt-inducing for the likes of Watson to address, and the media fell into apathetic Africa fatigue long ago.

The West owes Africa a huge moral debt: its political chaos, and the corruption and economic uncertainty that arise from such chaos, has its roots in the greedy, reckless colonial scramble that carved up the continent more than a century ago. The West will probably never make good on that debt, but the very least it can do is treat the continent with some fairness and decency, and never blame its problems on any deficiency in its people.