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Science vs. Wisdom

James Watson isn't the first gene devotee who subscribes to the crude notion that biology is destiny. Such a belief runs contrary to even the most basic kind of wisdom.
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James D. Watson, arguably the most eminent geneticist in the world because of his discovery, with Francis Crick, of DNA, has been causing a flap. In the wake of his latest comments, yesterday he resigned from his positions at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The Nobel laureate, now 79, ventured to connect race, genes, and intelligence. Specifically, he was quoted in the Times of London saying that while "there are many people of color who are very talented," he is "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa."

"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 went on to say. Other reports have alleged that Watson has a history of contentious remarks, including his affirmation that pregnant women have a right to abort their unborn child if genetic testing discloses that the child will grow up to be homosexual. Dr. Watson brought a storm of criticism down around him, including some harsh rebuttals from his colleagues in biology.

Sadly, a good deal of this may be political correctness. Almost every aspect of life has become scientized, and if IQ testing disclosed racial biases, many sociologists and psychologists would accept this as truth, even if they wouldn't dare to say so in public. Similarly, many parents might quietly discontinue a pregnancy if they knew in advance that their child would be gay. (If this sounds cynical, consider that in a country like India, where baby boys are more welcome than girls, over 90% of voluntary hospital abortions are of female fetuses. Social prejudice matters.)

For years Watson has been looked upon as a wise elder, and yet wisdom isn't the same as science. Sometimes an individual scientist may be wise, as Einstein was, but the tendency of science is to narrow one's vision. Great technicians pass for great scientists. It's undeniable that scientific progress fights against superstition, and in that way humankind gains understanding of the truth. But data isn't truth automatically. In the case of IQ, to take a specific example, the simplistic connection between genes and intelligence is flat wrong. What Watson failed to take into account is the following:

--Poor and uneducated people perform badly on standardized tests. It doesn't matter if they happen to be black or white.

--Genes are affected by the environment, including upbringing and behavior.

--The brain changes throughout a person's life depending on a wide range of experiences.

Watson isn't the first gene devotee who subscribes to the crude notion that biology is destiny. Every day one runs across popular television commentary about some behavior that is "caused by genes" or "caused by the brain." Such a belief runs contrary to even the most basic kind of wisdom. Human beings aren't automatons whose switches are run by brain cells and genes. If we were, then by a reductio ad absurdeum, neurons are smarter than people and genes know more than the mind. I once stood in front of the masterpieces of art in the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. Standing beside me, as it turns out, was James Watson. We were both there by way of invitation of a mutual friend.

"So all these paintings are the result of genes?" I asked him.

"Of course," he said curtly, ending the discussion.

In other words, nothing that actually happened in the life of Leonardo or Michelangelo -- schooling, upbringing, the painters they loved or hated, the choices they made about subject matter, their philosophy of life and art -- means anything. I walked away wondering if DNA was the end all and be all of Watson's world. I still do.