Posted by: Lister | October 20, 2007

James Watson on race and IQ

Watson has distanced himself from some of the interpretations of what he said.

I find myself at the centre of a storm of criticism. I can understand much of this reaction. For if I said what I was quoted as saying, then I can only admit that I am bewildered by it. To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.

He’s still of the view that genetics may be a bigger influence than environment. And that science will, within a couple of decades, be able to answer the nature/nurture questions.

It will soon be possible to read individual genetic messages at costs which will not bankrupt our health systems. In so doing, I hope we see whether changes in DNA sequence, not environmental influences, result in behaviour differences. Finally, we should be able to establish the relative importance of nature as opposed to nurture.

[…] The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science.

To question this is not to give in to racism. This is not a discussion about superiority or inferiority, it is about seeking to understand differences, about why some of us are great musicians and others great engineers. It is very likely that at least some 10 to 15 years will pass before we get an adequate understanding for the relative importance of nature versus nurture in the achievement of important human objectives.

Before he wrote this, the Independent’s science editor, Steve Connor wrote:

Jim Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, is no racist.

[…] 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.

I think the example of improvement at taking IQ tests over a few generations is a good point. Could it be that intelligent people are having THAT many more children than those less intelligent? Not officially, as far as I can find.

Another explanation could be all the practice people can get before they take IQ tests. So that they’re better at the “game”.

Here’s an article on the increase in IQ scores (1998). It poiints to many environmental factors, and discounts the likelihood of a genetic cause to the increase in IQ scores.

IQ scores are rising so dramatically, say researchers who study intelligence, that a high proportion of people considered average at the turn of the 20th century would be regarded as significantly below average by today’s tests.

“People are smarter now, they know more,” says Cecil Reynolds, a Texas A&M University professor of neuroscience and educational psychology. “Children are stimulated at an early age by a more complicated world, fostering neurological development.”

More specifically, psychologists cite as likely explanations better education, improved socioeconomic status, healthier nutrition, smaller families, urbanization, even television and video games making minds more agile.

But critics, most of them opponents of IQ testing itself, argue the rise is not so much proof of greater intelligence as it is of greater sophistication about test taking. Moreover, they argue that the increase is evidence of what’s wrong with IQ testing.

One explanation for the increase is not possible: heredity. Because the rise has taken place in such a short time — three IQ points per decade in the United States — it cannot be because of genetic factors.

Yet no one is positive what truly is the cause, and uncertainty about that — and what it means — is only exacerbated by the absence of a simultaneous rise in scores on achievement tests like the SAT.

So we’re not more productive. We don’t out-perform people from 50 years ago — except on IQ tests.

[…] In their most primitive form, IQ tests date to the 19th century but they became widely used only in the early 20th century and considered reliable in the 1930s.

[…] The steady rise in their scores was not apparent before because the tests are regularly adjusted, or renormed, so half the takers score below 100 and half above, regardless of how many questions are answered correctly.

The worldwide pattern of rising IQ scores was discovered by studying results of those tests that have not been revised over decades, such as those used by the military; and by studying scores of people who took both versions of a given IQ test — the current one and the forthcoming replacement. Nearly always, people scored higher on the old test.

I assume they mean somthing along the lines that if you score 100 on today’s test (ie: average) you’ll score above average on the old test. But that’s above the average compared to people who took the test in the 50’s, say, rather than compared to other people who took the old test today.

The largest gains were found on Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which measure abstract reasoning ability by relying on shapes rather than words. Its scores have grown an average of six points per decade, meaning that people who scored in the top 10 percent in the late 19th century would score in the bottom 5 percent today.

On two more commonly used tests — the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler Scales — the increases were only about 3 points per decade. But if their sections reflecting knowledge acquired over time were eliminated to consider only those sections measuring abstract reasoning skills, the increases would jump to six points.

“But the question is, what do you mean by intelligence?” asks Dov Liberman, a University of Houston professor of educational psychology and ardent opponent of the most common IQ tests. “Intelligence is a multi-faceted thing, incapable of being summed up by one number, and all a consistent rise in IQ test scores tells you is that people have learned better how to take them.”

Liberman points to the growing industry of “test-preparation” companies and argues it is no coincidence that scores go up on IQ tests that haven’t been revised, then go down when new versions are used.

Indeed, points out Rice psychology professor Mickey Quinones, the increase in scores is proof of how much IQ tests are susceptible to the environment — educational background, emotional state — instead of just measuring the immutable, inheritable thing psychologists have long assumed intelligence to be. The biggest IQ gains, for instance, have come among those at the bottom end, at a time the government invested more in equalizing education for minority children.

But does that mean people are smarter today? One expert argues that the reason IQ scores are increasing but achievement tests aren’t is that fluid intelligence, the ability to learn how to do something, is growing while crystallized intelligence, the possession of information, is decreasing. That’s why children from the 1930s who would do badly on Raven’s would likely outperform today’s kids on questions about literature or history.

Fluid intelligence — UT psychology professor Joe Horn describes it as a greater societal stress on cleverness — is nurtured everywhere. For instance, kids now encounter mazes and puzzles, all appearing in formats similar to those used on IQ tests, everywhere from software to cereal boxes. A maze used on a place mat at the International House of Pancakes is identical to one used on a Wechsler test.

And several studies have shown that playing video games actually improves children’s performance on IQ-type tests. One found that after playing a video game that required them to manipulate an object as if it were moving through 3-dimensional space, children performed better on a mental paper-folding task similar to ones found on the Wechsler and Stanford-Binet tests

Nevertheless, skeptics wonder if we are really so much smarter now, where are today’s Michaelangelos or Shakespeares? People like A&M’s Reynolds respond that the new skills are instead manifested in this era’s achievements in science and technology — DNA, for instance, or computers. They also say increased intelligence shouldn’t unsettle people.

“I don’t mean to sound Darwinian, but our very chances of survival depend on becoming smarter,” says Reynolds. “If intelligence doesn’t increase while the world’s complexity does, we’re doomed.”



  1. Via PZ Myers, who is dubious of the following article — which claims that one of Watson’s great-grandparent may have been African.

    JAMES WATSON, the DNA pioneer who claimed Africans are less intelligent than whites, has been found to have 16 times more genes of black origin than the average white European.

    An analysis of his genome shows that 16% of his genes are likely to have come from a black ancestor of African descent. By contrast, most people of European descent would have no more than 1%.

    The study was made possible when he allowed his genome – the map of all his genes – to be published on the internet in the interests of science.

    “This level is what you would expect in someone who had a great-grandparent who was African,” said Kari Stefansson of deCODE Genetics, whose company carried out the analysis. “It was very surprising to get this result for Jim.”

    One of the comments to the article claims that this is being used to somehow discredit Watson. Hardly. It’s being used for irony factor only.

  2. If we are less productive now than 50 years ago, leving every other reason aside, it may be accounted for by the fact that there are those who understand the “theory of ditch digging” but have no idea how to use a shovel. Thus, while we isolate our brightest so they will not be bored in elementary, middle and high school classes, we do so to the detriment of those who are more intelligent, because when they graduate from high school, they lack experience with those with whom they will have to work for the rest of their lives. Look back. In 1957, every college student – almost – was required to have pretty much the same background. How could we possibly be more productive when the workforce is loaded with those who have ‘diluted’ academic experiences – divided by the lowest denominator. Clarity on the biased and undescribed variables unlying the test and any analysis is critical to any analysis that would claim credibility. Conclusion: there is great wisdom in knowing one’s place in the intellectual hierarchy so that one can define one’s role in the solution. Otherwise, there is a danger that one’s efforts may become part of the problem. Whatever the IQ test says, it is the individual who must be prepared with the tools. If we are short of individuals with tool sets, we might try to figure why. My electron microscopes are repaired by high school graduates – one trained in the Navy and the other trained in a technical school. If our schools are not working, perhaps we should take them back and repair their shortcomings. Are you happy with the math skills of the teacher of your fifth grader? You tolerate it- if necessary, because the NEA, among other American social operators, has spent over 60 years overseeing the growth of a meritocracy of mediocrity in our schools. Educators now speak, quite correctly, of grades K-16! We are wasting the middle, and we deserve the consequences.

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