Should We Talk About Race and Intelligence?

The intersection of race and intelligence is an intellectual – and political – minefield, as James Watson recently found out. Yet to say that we should not carry out research in this area is equivalent to saying that we should reject open-minded investigation of the causes of inequalities in income, education, and health between people of different racial or ethnic groups.

PRINCETON, NJ - The intersection of genetics and intelligence is an intellectual minefield. Harvard’s former president Larry Summers touched off one explosion in 2005 when he tentatively suggested a genetic explanation for the difficulty his university had in recruiting female professors in math and physics. (He did not suggest that men are on average more gifted in these fields than women, but that there is some reason for believing that men are more likely than women to be found at both the upper and lower ends of the spectrum of abilities in these fields – and Harvard, of course, only appoints people at the extreme upper end.)

Now one of the most eminent scientists of our time has blundered much more clumsily into the same minefield, with predictable results. In October, James Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for his description of the structure of DNA, was in London to promote his memoir, Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons From a Life in Science . In an interview in the London Sunday Times , he was quoted as saying that he was gloomy about Africa’s prospects, 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 added that he hoped everyone was equal, but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”

Watson tried to clarify his remarks in a subsequent interview in The Independent, saying: