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Russia: Bloggers Discuss James Watson

James Watson, an American Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, provoked international outrage when the following statements of his were quoted in the Oct. 14 profile in The Sunday Times:

He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.

The news of the controversy has produced a certain stir in the Russian-language blogosphere, too.

U.S.-based LJ user karial recounted (RUS) meeting James Watson in person:

[…] I met Watson two weeks after 9/11. The first question he asked after introductions and hand-shaking was: “So, are we [the U.S.] going to Afghanistan now to finish off what you guys [the Soviets] haven't?”

[…]

I had been warned about Watson's habit of saying politically incorrect things. I had to sit with a microphone in my hands throughout his lecture, ready to stand up and say that the company that organized this seminar didn't share Mr. Watson's views. No, I don't find the role of a censor pleasant – I find it amazingly disgusting – and I really hoped to avoid becoming one. But, unfortunately, we could face a lawsuit otherwise.

I admit that a few times I did push the microphone's switch-on button – and was about to rise. And each time Watson would stop “on the verge.” But he always comes closer to the verge than anyone else on the celebrity lecture circuit, and it seemed to me that he was doing it with a bravado and even with something resembling Schadenfreude.

In the current situation – if you read the actual quote – he has also slowed down almost at the edge. But crossed the line a tiny little bit. And a lot of people were waiting for this moment.

Watson, despite his age, is a wonderful, very interesting lecturer. During the first half of his lecture, we had a feeling that he didn't really understand why he was invited to this seminar; he was beginning with different thoughts – then dropping them halfway through. He was using old slides, not even the transparencies of the early 90s, but slides in square frames. And then he easily, with a few phrases, connected all the lines that he had started and showed how they emphasize the seminar's main concept. So, at least six years ago, he was in his right mind and with solid memory, so to say. And all Watson's political incorrectness is conscious.

We can argue ad nauseam whether a star of his magnitude can allow himself to voice thoughts that [aren't PC]. Whether it's an impudent challenge of a free person to the system or a hole at the bottom of a boat that took much effort to build, a boat that ensures there's if not equality, then a state close to it. […]

Below are some of the comments (RUS) to this post:

doctor_iola:

Actually, I think it's a paradox that a country with such a level of freedom of speech or something has gotten itself so much of political correctness…

karial:

And thank God that there is political correctness. Or else you wouldn't have become a doctor. IQ tests at the turn of the century used to show that the IQ of East Europeans was lower than that of the native Americans. Would you like to fight every day to prove the opposite? Or keep hearing that women bigger than sixe 10 are neither sexy, nor satisfied with themselves?

drauk:

Still, I think that political correctness (especially, its today's, extreme, version) is not the same as equal rights and opportunities.

karial:

Unfortunately, these are really close notions. Because how can one talk about equal rights, when a certain group of people – based on race, ethnicity, sex, size – would permanently be tied to […] a certain quality? Say, all Russians are crooks. And yes, they'll invite you to a [job] interview, but they'll always assume that you are very likely to be stealing things.

And what's being said by the public print and broadcast media is what forms these perceptions. […]

puh:

So much noise because an old person has decided to say what he thinks (and, most likely, it is really the way he says it is)?

karial:

A person who is a public figure, especially in the world of science, has to understand that he can't “just say what he thinks” – it's not his kitchen, his words cause public response. […]

Moscow-based LJ user ivanov-petrov wrote (RUS):

[…] I'm a stranger, of course, and these problems seem rather remote to me. But if something like this happened in Russia, I'd be extremely upset. I know that things like this did happen in Russia, and even twice as bad, and many times worse. I'm not saying we've got something to be proud of. What I'm saying is that it kind of sucks.

[…]

I'm absolutely not sure that the guy is right. It's very important to know what and how exactly it was said. But it seems to me that it's all about an individual's right to say things – and the right of a group not to want to hear such things. And whose freedom is tougher… All else being equal, I'm rooting for the individual.

And here's one of the conversations that took place in the comments section to this post:

taichi_777:

Everyone agrees that [blacks] have a special kind of plasticity that Europeans lack, and they dominate in many types of sports, and the white aren't offended by this, as far as I know. I mean, if the guy's theory gets a scientific proof, there'd be nothing terrible for the Africans in it. Statistics aside, [Aleksandr Pushkin] did exist after all. :)

Who knows, maybe each race has its niche, each one has its own strengths.

[…]

alamar:

[…] For most people, statistics is a tricky thing, but it's a perfect basis for speculation.

taichi_777:

I can't but agree, especially when we're talking about intellectual skills statistics. Miracle often occur here even at the individual level here – I know D-students with high IQ :)

[…]

ajawa_took:

It's a very standard argument: let basketball and jazz be black, and science and business white, and no one would be offended. The problem is, the niche that you reserve for the blacks – it hasn't got enough money even for a small share of them.

Those who dreamed of becoming great scientists or businessmen, but failed to, they live in private houses and drive Lexuses, and their children continue to dream, knowing that if it doesn't work out for them, they'll be like their papas. And those who dreamed of becoming great musicians or athletes, but failed to, they live in black ghettos and are either surviving on unpleasant, low-paying jobs, or begging for money, or end up as criminals. And their children understand that they have no future in sports or music (or else I'll be like papa), and no one's calling them to science and business – there are only whites there.

taichi_777:

There's plenty of injustice in the world, and, moreover, something's telling me that the life of American jazz-playing blacks is no more horrible than the life of the Russian pensioners.

And one more injustice that we may lament: it's become fashionable in science to be politically correct instead of seeking the truth.

6 comments

  • Shame on Watson! He should know better! So-called “race” is simply a random assortment of very superficial genetic characteristics.
    Read ‘Race: Man’s Most Dangerous Myth’ by Ashley Montague, which I read when I was sixteen, changing forever my own mental swamp of racist notions (a swamp which Mr. Watson occupies!).

  • […] Below are a few responses, translated from Russian. (A GV translation of the Russian-language comments on the James Watson controversy is here.) […]

  • Charlotte

    I think it is insane to think that Watson could be remotely taken seriously. When I read this story I thought that I was reading a story from the 1800’s. Discrimination based on race is one of the worst things to happen to someone and I think it’s disgusting that a American Nobel Prize-winning geneticist would even challenge the notion that we are not all created equal. I’m personally insulted that Watson could make this comment about a whole nation of people he doesn’t know. Who are these “people” who have to deal with black employees? What does it say about our world when people can make these comments to the public and not have the evidence behind it, ready for the questions? Also it makes me sad to know that this was a American who has to have knowledge of our past and how hard it was for African Americans to overcome those stereotypes, just to spit in their ancestors faces, with this quote.

  • Elise

    “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours”
    This quote is understandable since not all cultures are alike and therefore not all policies are applicable in all societies. However, there is a point that Watson failed miserably to make about Africa. Even it Africa’s intelligence level is not the same as our’s, it doesn’t mean the level is less than our’s, it is just different. Also, we can’t base intelligence/ability levels on race since race is not determined biologically, rather it is a socially-constructed concept that has been shaped throughout history. For example, regarding athletic ability, there have been multiple cultures which have held dominance in particular sports. In American basketball, first the Jewish were highlighted and then the African-Americans. Our genetics show that we actually share more genes with those outside our race than with those we identify are part of our race. In the film “Race: The Power of an Illusion”, a high school group performs mitochondria DNA experiments and find there is more genetic diversity within particular racial groups than between two separate races.

  • Civil-ized

    It seemed that his statements and subsequent apology were more geared to the idea that some cultures or people are inferior to others by their lack of rational thought, decision making, critical thinking, etc…

    People do stupid things everywhere regardless of culture. Take his mis-statement for example…

    The other posts about genetic diversity seem in line current academic thought and theories regarding genetics.

  • Alex

    “it makes me sad to know that this was a American who has to have knowledge of our past and how hard it was for African Americans to overcome those stereotypes..”

    Yesterday’s victim is often tomorrow’s bully, who uses the past to stir up grievances. I’m a white American who believes in fair play and decency, but I am tired of whites routinely being treated with disrespect by American blacks. If blacks are so kind and considerate, why do they say “cracker”, and say sneering things about Asian Americans, all the time?

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