Last week, William Saletan, Slate's national correspondent, jumped on the grenade left after Jim Watson's mid-October gaffe. (Remember? He was The Sunday Times of London remarking that Africans were less intelligent than whites. The comment earned him universal revulsion from all corners of the globe and the boot from his perch atop Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, primarily for offending our egalitarian sensibilities, but also because he has a history of making provocative (sometimes ridiculous statements), a largely indirect connection with eugenics and, frankly, because he hasn't done any research (that I am aware of) into the genetics of intelligence.
A month after the frenzy, when the licked wounds of our pierced political correctness had mostly healed, Saletan penned a scholarly essay in three parts that basically said the following: According to a lot of data, Watson's comments were statistically supported. Tests do show an IQ deficit, not just for Africans relative to Europeans, but for Europeans relative to Asians. Economic and cultural theories have failed to explain most of the pattern, and there's strong preliminary evidence that part of it is genetic. It's time to prepare for the possibility that equality of intelligence, in the sense of racial averages on tests, will turn out not to be true.
Rather than rail against findings of these studies, Saletan suggests coming to terms with them, recognizing that these are averages (so there's a great deal of overlap between the races) and noting that, at the end of the day, none of these studies really mean anything. Racial mixing is eliminating these discrepancies, and, as new genetic work is beginning to show, genes can be influenced by environmental stimuli, for instance, by breast-feeding, at least in some cases.
Saletan only made one mistake, in what was an otherwise noble and well-articulated, if at points, uncomfortable, exercise. He based his three-part series, which he knew would be upsetting to many, on a set of papers published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law in 2005. Of the five reports, two--including the one that kicked off the whole exchange —were coauthored by J. Philippe Rushton, a controversial psychologist at the University of Western Ontario. In the past, his work has received support from the likes of E.O. Wilson, but, for the past five years, he has been president of The Pioneer Fund, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group, and has spoken at conferences associated with segregationists. Saletan added a mea culpa to his essays apologizing for overlooking Rushton's background.
File Under: Hearsay: Earlier this week, Kari Stefansson, a well-known geneticist and the founder of deCODE, an Icelandic company specializing in translating human genetics into drug development and diagnostic tools, stopped by the Scientific American offices to talk about a new project: For less than $1,000, anyone can send his company a cheek swab and get his or her genome scanned. Then, via the decodeme.com website, they can review a number of predetermined complex genetic disorders to assess his or her relative risk for developing maladies such as diabetes, myocardial infarction and even restless leg syndrome. In addition, you can check your ancestry to get an idea of the geographical distribution of their forefathers. According to Stefansson, when he put in James Watson's genome, which was sequenced earlier this year and made publicly available, the legendary geneticist turned out to be 20 percent African. (When we checked his claim, it was more like 16 percent, but with rounding, fine.) Stefansson remarked that the ancestry test suggests that Watson had at least one African ancestor within two or three generations of his birth.
Like I said, this is just gossip. But it would be ironic. Don't cha think? A little too ironic.