James Watson is seriously facing the risk to go broke. After his comments on the linkage between race and intelligence in 2007, when he claimed that Africans were genetically less intelligent than Caucasians, the American molecular biology pioneer suddenly ran into isolation, drawing the contempt of public opinion and academics. Now, his budget is dangerously low, and he decided to auction Nobel Prize medal to fuel his finances and to make a couple of donations. Evidently, and despite his advanced age, the need to clean up his public profile is still very strong. As I have read this on The Guardian, my mind went back to 2007, when I was an undergraduate staring in disconcert at such unbelievable comments by the man whose discoveries caused me, and thousands students like me, to join biology.
As extensively explained on The Independent, Watson proposed that the IQ tests, conducted on Afro- Americans, confirmed a significant racial divide in intelligence, and discussed some connotations in welfare policies. He claimed genes responsible for human intelligence determination could be found within a decade, to provide an experimental support to his statements.
Despite controversy understandably focused on racism at the time, I have always found quite curious that intelligence could be “written in our genes”. Before any consideration on the social implications, we should reflect about the scientific bases of what Watson says: is DNA able to determine how smart we are? During the past decade, as the sequencing capability grew exponentially, the belief that any possible answer in biology could be found in the DNA became dominant. Enthusiasts, and molecular biology advisors, eagerly celebrated the golden age of genomics, proposing a bright future made up of genome wide- screenings, personalised medicine, and other disturbing GATTACA- like scenarios.
Everyone seemed pretty sure that any phenotype could find his direct counterpart in the genetic code, firmly trusting in the neo- Darwinian commandment claiming the existence of a simple relationship between genotype and phenotype. According to this view, even a very complex and hard- to be determined phenotypic trait as intelligence must be the effect of some gene. Everything is thus very easy: one day we will discover the genes controlling intelligence, creativity, love and even football addiction. You don’t need a degree to understand how much improbable is this. Luckily, the application of complex systems theory to molecular biology and evolution is telling a different story, and the current challenge is to understand how the phenotype is determined by independent contributions at genetic, protein, cell and macroscopic level.
The very first mistake James Watson did was not his racist outbursts, but his giving in to the lure of reductionism. Intelligence is the result of complex interactions at neuronal level, and human brain’s huge plasticity is our winning strategy in evolution. Over the years, no convincing proofs of the existence of genes controlling intelligence have been provided, and the main trend in brain research is to focus on brain’s impressive ability to change and improve. Moreover, IQ test are highly controverted, because their ability to predict the potential of a mind is all but demonstrated. The American molecular biologist applied a reductionist approach to a pretty complex matter, by using a very weak indicator, since there are no genes controlling intelligence, and the IQ itself is just pointless.
Watson’s creepy positions are thus the direct consequence of a kind of “genomic delirium of omnipotence”. It confirms that in Science, and in life itself, terrible things may happen if you choose the simplest route, indulging in simple answers to hard questions, and leaning on shallow descriptors of complex phenomena.