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

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: a duchess by any other name is just wrong

Guy Keleny
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor