Ignoble Hereditarian Follies

James Watson throws stones from a genetic glass house

Posted Jan 26, 2019

As most know by now, Nobel laureate James Watson, 90, has publicly rejoined the ranks of hereditarians who proclaim the innate, genetically mediated and irremediable intellectual inferiority afflicting people of African descent. A decade ago, after being widely criticized by scientists and forced to step down from his chancellor’s position at Cold Spring Laboratory, he recanted claims that genetics makes the average black person innately less intelligent than the average white. However he recently declared to The Telegraph that his views had not changed after all, and was promptly stripped of remaining honors at CSL.

Watson’s statements echo the mid-century racist ruminations of Arthur Jensen and William Shockley as well as a host of later luminaries like Charles Murray, Jason Richwine, Philippe Rushton and even the sloppy contemporary works of Satoshi Kanazawa and Nicholas Wade. These scholars, in turn, parrot earlier centuries of racism thinly garbed in science: pro-slavery Victorians like Josiah Nott and Samuel Cartwright would instantly recognize these theories as their own.

But Watson stands out from others who cling to this oft-refuted brand of racial determinism in two ways. First, he shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for discovering DNA’s structure, and so enjoys an unique authority among many genetic scientists as well as laypersons. (Shockley was also a Nobelist, but as a physicist who helped invent the transistor, he had no expertise in genetics. His foray into racial calumny is easily dismissed as an example of the “Nobel curse” in which laureates stray from their area of expertise to espouse risibly dubious beliefs.)

The second manner in which he stands out from the common herd of hereditarians is astounding: Watson himself is black.

Recent news accounts that ponder whether Watson is a victim of senility or a martyr to ‘political correctness,’ have ignored this startling aspect of his story: In the mother of all ironies, a decade-old analysis of Watson’s genome by Iceland’s deCODE Genetics shows that he has sixteen times more genes of African origin than does the average white European.

Kari Stefansson, deCODE’s CEO, equated Watson’s genome with the African DNA complement found in someone with an African great-grandparent, adding “This came up as a bit of a surprise, especially as a sequel to his utterly inappropriate comments about Africans.”

There’s a name for people like Watson. A person with one black great-grandparent is an “octoroon” in the racial argot of the US, and is black. Terms like “octoroon” follow a policy of hypodescent, in which a society assigns offspring of mixed unions to the socially subordinate ethnic group. Thus, throughout our nation’s history, from enslavement through eugenics to the present day, variants of the “one-drop” rule have stipulated that any admixture of ‘African blood’ is enough to bar an American from whiteness.

Some may argue that Watson simply cannot be black because he claims no African American kinship, social ties or familiarity with any black cultures. He is fair-skinned with pale blue-gray eyes, and although there are many blonde and/or blue-eyed people of African descent, Watson looks like most Americans’ idea of a white person. But so do most other octoroons, and—except for those who avoided racial oppression by assuming a white identity and “passing” into whiteness—these mixed-race persons have shared other African Americans’ fate of enslavement, segregation, disenfranchisement and bias. For example, as I relate in Medical Apartheid,

When the duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt visited Thomas Jefferson at Monticello he pointedly observed that his host owned many “mongrel negroes . . . who, neither in point of colour nor features, shewed the least trace of their original descent. “

Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons
James Watson in 2003
Source: Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons

Watson is far from alone in his shrouded racial identity: One recent study calculated that nearly one of every three white Americans possesses as much as 20 percent African genetic inheritance, yet looks white. Moreover, 1 in 20 African Americans possesses no detectable African genetic ancestry.

And this hints at some deep flaws in hereditarian arguments. Today we know that genetics maps very poorly onto what we think of as racial markers and that “race” itself is not only socially constructed but is also subject to very poor scientific analysis. Last September, for example, Jennifer Tsai’s Scientific American article entitled “What Role Should Race Play in Medicine?” noted that “A sampling of over 300 genetic studies published between 2001 and 2004 found that not one article explicitly defined its use of the term. Fewer than 10 percent of the articles contained any discussion of how racial labels were assigned.” Contemporary works such as J. L. Kincheleo et al.’s Measured Lies, C. S. Fisher et al.’s Inequality by Design, M. K. Brown et al.’s Whitewashing Race, as well as R. E. Nisbett’s Intelligence and How to Get It. refute hereditarian claims in detail.

Those who balk at acknowledging Watson’s blackness should consider how Watson himself argues that genotype alone, not environment, dictates black racial identity. Watson does not invoke culture, educational opportunity, proper nutrition, poverty, or exposure to neurological toxins when insisting upon the innate genetic inferiority of the African American: he denies these realities when he predicates black intellectual inferiority solely on a genetic complement. So he cannot now logically claim non-genetic mitigating factors such as that his genotype is trumped by his immersion in “white” culture and identity.

Absurd? I agree: Watson’s case illustrates the folly of treating race as anything other than a social construction supported by illogical conventions, not by sound science.

In erroneously divorcing IQ and intelligence from the strong environmental and social pressures that form them, Watson finds himself hoisted with his own petard as he joins the group whose lower average IQ he proclaims.

Welcome to the struggle, brother.

In future blog posts I’ll address the scientific fallacies of hereditarian arguments and the types of environmental pressures that trump genetics in forming the intellects of African Americans and other ethnic groups, as detailed in my forthcoming book A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and it Assault on the American Mind.

But for now, I’ll just point out that such racial calumnies are not mere insults to a marginalized group with a long history of mistreatment in the medical arena. The claims of Watson and his ilk create disastrous real-world consequences. For example, proponents of genetic determinism (illogically) claim that because the intellectual limitations they see are genetic, treatments and intervention are futile and too expensive to adopt. This despite the success of pre-kindergarten enrichment such as Head Start. Swayed by this sentiment, schools relegate children of color to non-academic tracks rather than supporting their learning needs. Employers either avoid hiring African Americans or relegate them to low- tier position such as maintenance or clerical work ‘suitable; to their perceived limitations. Thus, hereditarian mythology imposes a low ceiling on African Americans’ image and achievements early in life.