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My brain is better than yours, part II

October 25, 2007

As promised, here are some of my thoughts on the James Watson African Intelligence Debate:

As someone who has a passable knowledge of economics, I find cost-benefit analyses to be a useful tool. Where the costs attributed to widespread dissemination of the information outweigh the benefits, that information is of little use. Watson himself seems to recognize this. In an Esquire interview given on Monday, Watson says the following of DNA sequencing startups:

I’ve given my DNA to two of these companies. I’ve told them they can publish everything except the structure of the gene that will tell me if I’m predisposed to Alzheimer’s. I don’t want to know.

For him, the information on his predisposition to Alzheimer’s imposes costs with no corresponding benefits. And because of this, he does not want to unearth this information. This is how I view his comments on relative intelligence between races. Assuming his comments are correct (which I speak to below), I cannot imagine how the results of his potential experiment can be turned into something that on net, provides some benefit for our society.

What I can see is people treating this information as permission to be racist. Imagine our country where 87% of the people feel they have been told that the other 13% is intellectually inferior to them. I trust James Watson to make level-headed conclusions about his research. I do not trust the average American to do the same. What are the benefits of this research? We may get rid of some affirmative action programs. Many people (likely myself included) will see this as a positive. I can’t think of much else. The costs to black Americans if people adopt this mindset, however, will be astounding. Even assuming it is true that people of African descent are less intelligent than others, like Watson said about his chances of getting Alzheimer’s, I don’t want to know.

Dan Agin, a leading biopsychologist at the University of Chicago, offers a strong rebuttal to the claims about Watson’s claims on the connection between genetics and intelligence. As someone who has spent years researching this topic, Agin provides a decent argument as to why Watson is incorrect in his statement. One excerpt from his article:

No one has proof that the genetic contribution to cognitive performance is more important than the contribution of a combination of fetal and postnatal environments. Maybe Watson will tell us he did not mean genes, he meant environmental damage. We’ll see, but I don’t think that’s what he meant.

Additionally, and of significant relevance to Watson’s claim, he also emphasizes that any genetic variations in performance (in this case, intelligence) are much greater between individuals, not between groups. In another piece on the topic of genes and IQ, interestingly written a few weeks before Waston’s interview was published, Agin wrote of a recent study done on the topic:

In plain English, for middle and upper class children, differences in IQ can be explained mostly by genetic differences, while in lower class children, differences in IQ are explained mostly by non-genetic differences (fetal and postnatal environments).

According to Agin, the research shows that environmental variations, not genetic variations are the main cause of differences in intelligence in individuals.

Finally, I think the reason this bothers me more than the research on male/female brain differences is that in that argument, we are talking about differences without a value judgment attached. Male and female brains operate differently, but there is no discussion of which is better. When Watson says, “people who have to deal with black employees” know African intelligence is not equal to white intelligence, I can’t help but read a strong value judgement in there. That’s what bothers me.

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