Steve Connor: This is not a black and white issue

Share

There is, perhaps, no brew quite so heady as that which mixes race, genes and intelligence. The history of the 20th century is replete with examples of how people with deep-seated racist views have misappropriated the science of genetics to justify their belief in the superiority of one race over another.

Jim Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, is no racist. I have met him several times and believe that his words, as quoted in a Sunday newspaper last weekend, are more of a reflection of a scientist who wants open and honest debate than someone who genuinely believes that whites are superior to blacks.

Nevertheless, Watson's remarks implying that black Africans are less intelligent than white westerners have been seen as offensive and racist. He appears to justify his position by citing the results of IQ tests on different racial groups. He also invokes Darwinian natural selection by saying: "There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples 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."

Watson, who arrives in Britain today to promote his new book, Avoid Boring People, has some explaining to do. He is a controversialist who enjoys making mischief. He is also a supreme master in the art of science communication so it will be interesting to see how he extricates himself from his latest polemical outburst.

He will no doubt cite, once again, the results of IQ tests indicating that black Americans are less intelligent than white Americans. This is ancient stuff, but few of us actually know what it means. For a start, people who are good at IQ tests are merely demonstrating little more than they are good at IQ tests. Intelligence per se is a more difficult entity to quantify.

In fact, it is Chinese Americans who appear do best in "non-verbal" IQ tests. Studies going back 20 years or more also show that Asian Americans – who in 1987 comprised just 2 per cent of the US population – are staggeringly overrepresented in American universities: 14 per cent at Harvard, 16 per cent at Stanford, 20 per cent at MIT and 21 per cent at Caltech. One psychologist in the 1960s prophetically described Chinese Americans as the "natural aristocracy" because of their overachievement in practically all things intellectual.

So the story is not black and white. Leaving aside the usefulness of IQ tests and what they measure, the question is whether the difference between the races is down to genetics or whether it is due to cultural upbringing. Just because skin colour and race are genetically determined, is it reasonable to suppose that IQ difference between the races has also got something to do with genes?

At the heart of this question is the subject of heritability, a scientific measure of how much of a trait is due to genetics (nature) and how much is due to environment (nurture). Studies of identical twins, who have the same genes, reared apart suggest that the heritability of IQ is 70 per cent, meaning that 70 per cent of the variation in IQ is due to genetics.

There is a widespread assumption that because IQ has such a large heritability, then the differences in IQ between the races is largely due to genes and not environment, culture or upbringing. This would be wrong. For a start, heritability has a major, inherent problem. It is a mathematical ratio and as such it applies only to the population in question. It can only be used to analyse variation within that particular group, and cannot be used to compare differences between groups.

In other words, heritability cannot be applied to any other group, other than the one in question. Heritability in whites cannot, therefore, be used to explain heritability differences between whites and blacks, or even between two populations of the same racial group separated in time.

People now do much better in IQ tests than 30, 40 or 50 years ago. The reason for the effect is not clear. What is clear is that the improvement cannot be genetic. Evolution does not work that fast. Black American children also do worse in IQ tests as they get older. Again, this fall in IQ is not genetic, and must have something to do with upbringing and environment, possibly interacting with genes.

And even something that is completely heritable does not mean that it is immutable and fixed. Height, for example, is highly heritable, yet until recently the middle classes were significantly taller than lower social classes, simply because they had a better diet.

Another example is the genetic disorder phenylketonuria, which is 100 per cent heritable. Children with the defective genes, left untreated, become educationally subnormal. However, a simple change to their diet at birth rectifies the problem – a supreme example of the power of nurture over nature.

Jim Watson knows all this, so it is a bit of a mystery as to why he raised the issue in such simplistic terms – unless of course he really believes that we are slaves to our DNA.

s.connor@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Assessor

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Sustainability Assessor...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The successful applicant w...

Science Teacher

£110 - £150 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: This sch...

English Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Ilford: English teacher wanted in a school in R...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: second languages, the secret of love and is it all right to call someone stupid?

John Rentoul
High and mighty: Edinburgh Castle and city skyline  

i Editor's Letter: We're coming to Edinburgh

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?