Watson, black people, and IQ controversy


Well-Known Member
Jun 7, 2007
You probably heard about James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame) being ushered unceremoniously out of public life for his remarks about black people and intelligence. There's an article on the topic here, but here's the money paragraphs:

The 79-year-old geneticist said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” 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 said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “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”.

This was followed by a barrage of statements from various politicians and other types to the effect of: "This is not only immoral but scientifically untrue." Obviously his comment about people dealing with black employees universally finding equality untrue is troubling and I don't know where he gets it from; I've never worked with blacks in a supervisory capacity, but where I have trouble with black co-workers, it is never because of a low IQ on their part.

But the evidence does not seem to support the claim that a genetic basis for IQ is untrue. As I understand it, blacks consistently underperform whites on IQ tests by a standard deviation. (By contrast, Asians outperform whites by similar amounts). The difference is too large and too consistently noted to be attributable to observation bias. Socioeconomics alone don't account for the difference: poor white folks still outperform wealthier black folks, and poor Asians still outperform wealthier white folks. It's not enough to say that IQ tests themselves are racially biased, because IQ tests still correlate positively with other indicators the way we would expect them to; that is to say, if it were merely IQ tests that were biased, then there would be rough parity between blacks, whites, and Asians on various other tests, measures, and performance indicators, but there isn't: blacks lag whites on IQ tests and a number of other tests that correlate positively with IQ; Asians consistently outperform.

He is certainly right to say that the confirmed (and, as the APA noted, utterly uncontroversial) correlation between IQ and race does not lend itself to extrapolation. I cannot assume a black man is less intelligent than me simply because he's black. What it means is that if I draw a random sample of black people from the population and compare them to random samples of whites and Asians, the mean IQ of the black sample will be lower than the mean IQ of the white sample, which in turn will be lower than the mean IQ of the Asian sample.

Obviously genes are not and cannot be the sole predictor of IQ. But no one's saying that's the case. The IQ gap, in America at least, has closed in recent years, probably due to advances in healthcare and nutrition, which still account for a pretty broad slice of IQ (I think they estimate that consistently malnourished kids wind up about 5 IQ points lower than they would have been otherwise), which obviously suggests genetics can't be held accountable for everything. But to say unilaterally that genes do not and cannot account for even the slightest bit of the IQ gap is simply unscientific.

I guess I just don't understand why it's controversial to say stuff like this. It seems to me that human beings have evolved in a wide variety of climates and geographies, and have had to evolve different skill sets to survive in them. IQ is simply not a singularly useful skill set in all of those circumstances. Drop me into the desert or the rainforest and my IQ will not do much for me.
Environment does play a role in intelligence but who creates the environment?

Great thread from 2007 but nobody wanted to talk about it.