Friday, 19 October 2007

Doctor Neutralises Africans

The mystique of Nobel accolades

Nobel Prize laureates are considered prime brain-boxes of intelligence and are in the unique situation of having brought great good to humanity. This is sometimes less expressed in the peace and literature prizes but more evident in the sciences.

At 34 in 1962, James Watson jointly shared the prize with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins who were both 12 years older and both died in 2004, quite uncanny.

Their prize, The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962 was “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” In common parlance, he was involved in discovering the structure of DNA a field of endeavour that has brought significant progress and understanding about the make up of living organisms and their hereditary factors.

Avoid Boring People

45 years on, Dr. Watson was out promoting his new book - Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science and part of that promotional tour included an interview with an English newspaper which is par for the course, and as a Nobel laureate, there are many who would have flocked to hear him wherever he was speaking along with those would want to read about him.

Before I get into the substance of this matter, I remember chatting online years ago and the moment my correspondent learnt I was African I was hit with a diatribe that started with him saying he does not have time for monkeys. Much as I was quite slighted by this turn of conversation, I responded saying that either this monkey was so smart it could interact with humans or he had lost his humanity and was now cavorting with simians.

It makes you wonder where people get all these crazy ideas from, and this not helped when a respected and celebrated Nobel laureate gives oxygen to such views by implying that black people are less intelligent compared to white people.

Of evidence or generalisation

Obviously, there are some events and situations in Africa that would almost allow this esteemed scientist to draw more than inference and be able to give contrived and believable examples to support this claim, to that extent I can share the position that many are “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa”, but I cannot assimilate the extension that portends that in the West “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 goes on to say that whilst he hopes everyone is equal – “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true - there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level.”

Now, I would not know what testing has taken place to arrive at these conclusions and it is no surprise that the aversion to gene research is sometimes the fear that certain elements of the research can lead to eugenics, xenophobia or unacceptable pronouncements, albeit from learned persons.

DNA debunking

Dr. Craig Venter, who is a contemporary authority in gene science and a man I dislike for probably the media portrayal of his seeming arrogance but respect for his grasp of his science and the relevance of his endeavour, debunks this claim with this statement – “Skin colour as a surrogate for race is a social concept not a scientific one, there is no basis in scientific fact or in the human genetic code for the notion that skin colour will be predictive of intelligence.

Many would breath a sigh of relief to that, though an unhealthy debate has started with the accompanying backlash which the malevolent would dismiss as the onslaught of the political correct rather that the offensiveness of opinions that should never be expressed.

The greater concern here is DNA is so fundamental to understanding the physiology of the human-being, adding social dimensions to purely physiological issues complicates the matters, relating that to race allows for elements of race supremacy to develop and the vicious cycle of man’s inhumanity to man is given impetus by those who should know a lot better.

Backslash backlash

In any case, doors began to close in the face of Dr. Watson, the Science Museum cancelled a talk, the Bristol Festival of Ideas cancelled an appearance stating Dr. Watson’s opinions were unacceptably provocative and now the Board of Trustees of the New York’s Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory where Watson was chief for four decades has suspended him from his administrative responsibilities pending a review of his comments.

It would appear Dr. Watson has now gone to ground, cancelled all engagements in England and returned home, but not before he tried to extricate himself from the quagmire he sank into with all his Nobel-lauded faculties about him.

Mortified and almost remorseful, he contends that the reportage of his words do not reflect his position properly and appreciates why people would have reacted in the ways that they have about his comments.

However, a new area of study is emerging as genetic intelligence which is not in and of itself racism as Dr. Watson does agree that there is no scientific basis for considering Africans inferior and the apology reads further as thus – “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly.

Well Dr. Watson, before I step up to hug you, I might as well just do some research to see if this is a simple error of judgement or getting away with form has inadvertently deserted you at this hour.

Nobel Syndrome

Roger Highfield in The Telegaph comment section contends that Dr. Watson is suffering from a mental condition called Nobel Syndrome, a tendency for laureates to stray from their knitting to create controversy and worse.

There is however a great risk in suppressing scientific ideas if we attack contrary commentary, but a man of Dr. Watson's stature should understand his position of responsibility and the import of his opinions which may not be subjected to the quality of peer review as “lesser mortals” would suffer, in fact, many might read his words as incontrovertible truth.

Worse still, his actions bring into disrepute and dishonour the good name of one lady whose work was the precursor to his work on discovering DNA, as the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously Rosalind Franklin’s good name and work depends on how the other recipients conduct themselves, she died in 1958 and these activities 49 years on are definitely not what all who were involved in the discovery of DNA would want to be associated with.

References

James Watson: To question genetic intelligence is not racism – The Independent

The elementary DNA of Dr. Watson – Times Online

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

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