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

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities