It’s the age-old story of crabs in a bucket: When one enlightened individual looks up, he sees the expanse of the universe and all its possibilities, but when all the other crabs look up, the ones who aren’t so enlightened only see one individual trying to escape. And they pull him back in.
James Dewey Watson is one such enlightened individual. We all know his accomplishments as perhaps the world’s most famous living scientist. In 1953 Watson, along with Francis Crick, discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. The pair, along with Maurice Wilkins, earned a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” He’s authored many science books, won countless awards and honors, and was on the Harvard faculty from 1956 to 1976. Starting in 1968, Watson served as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s director; in 1994 he became its President, and then in 2004, its Chancellor. He also helped establish the Human Genome Project in the late 1980s. It’s fair to say that James Watson’s career was a boon for molecular biology, genetics, and cancer research.
Yet in today’s climate, he’s remembered less for these remarkable feats and more for the naughty-but-true things he has said about sex and race. For such violations of social etiquette, people with a fraction of his ability have recently cancelled, insulted, and ostracized him. Such is the way for crabs who cannot escape the bucket. With the way things are going, however, it seems that old Dr. Watson just may clear that bucket rim after all. The field of neuroscience has finally vindicated the father of DNA.
Watson’s fall from grace is well known, and Infogalactic gives a good roundup of some of his saucier quotes.
In The Sunday Telegraph, 1997: “If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn’t want a homosexual child, well, let her.”
In the San Francisco Chronicle, 2000: “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.”
At a conference in 2000, Watson suggested that melanin gives dark-skinned people stronger libidos than light-skinned ones. “That’s why you have Latin lovers. . . . You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English Patient.”
Things came to a head in 2007, however, when Watson made a few honest statements about race:
On October 25, 2007, Watson was compelled to retire as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on New York’s Long Island and from its board of directors, after he had been quoted in The Times the previous week as saying “[I am] 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.” He went on to say that despite the desire that all human beings should be equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
After this, Watson apologized and went on with his career as best he could, even resorting in 2014 to selling his Nobel Prize medal for $4.1 million (which the wealthy buyer magnanimously returned). In 2019, however, he got in hot water again. In a PBS documentary entitled American Masters: Decoding Watson , he stated — accurately — that “[t]here’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites in IQ tests. . . . I would say the difference is genetic.”
That did it. James Watson had had his chance to kowtow to Leftist orthodoxy, and he blew it. No redemption for him now. According to the Guardian:
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory said it was revoking all titles and honors conferred on Watson, 90, who led the lab for many years.
The lab “unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions Dr James D Watson expressed on the subject of ethnicity and genetics”, its president, Bruce Stillman, and chair of the board of trustees, Marilyn Simons, said in a statement.
“Dr Watson’s statements are reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way represent the views of CSHL, its trustees, faculty, staff, or students. The laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.”
Problems arise, however, with the advent of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology. Today’s MRIs of human brains can not only accurately predict IQ, but also demonstrate racial differences in IQ — thereby vindicating our Nobel laureate and putting the lie to Stillman, Simons, and their ilk. Yes, the genetic link to IQ is supported by science. The more we learn, the more we confirm that this is true.
I have written about this in the past, mostly in conjunction with Richard Haier’s research as presented in his excellent 2017 volume The Neuroscience of Intelligence. From my 2022 review:
Haier moves on to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). When used in conjunction with computer technology called voxel-based morphometry (VBM), three-dimensional images of the brain can be created and studied. A voxel is essentially a 3D pixel, and lowering the voxel level within regions of interest in the brain allows researchers to accurately correlate test scores with physical structures. Here is a brief list of brain structures which correspond directly with IQ:
- Cortical thickness and surface area (which correlates with the number of neurons in a major part of the brain associated with memories and reasoning).
- White matter in the parietal lobe (which corresponds to the speed of signals sent between brain cells).
- Gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex (which is associated with attention allocation and impulse control).
- N-acetylaspartate measurements (a marker of neuron density and viability).
- Shorter path length of frontal-parietal connections (a measure of communication efficiency between crucial parts of the brain).
- Inter-hemispheric connectivity between parallel brain structures (an inverse relationship with IQ).
- Basal ganglia volumes (subcortical nuclei associated with cognition and learning).
- Volume of the thalamus (“an important hub of brain circuit connectivity”).
But there is more. According to Liye Wang of the Beijing Institute of Technology, a pair of recent Public Library of Science (PLOS) experiments on MRI’s predictive power resulted in average correlation coefficients of 0.718 and 0.684 with IQ. First author Wang provides an excellent rundown of the value of MRI in discovering the roots of human intelligence:
Uncovering human intelligence has always been of major interest in cognitive neuroscience. With the advent of brain imaging, there have been efforts to investigate the relation between brain anatomy and intelligence [3,4], and substantial understanding has been achieved in the field. For example, Supekar et al. showed that the size and circuitry of certain parts of children’s brains could be a potential predictor for how well they would respond to intensive math tutoring . Chen et al.  demonstrated that the volumetric analysis of gray matter (GM) from structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) could be used to predict a subsequent decline in IQ in children with sickle cell disease. McDaniel et al.  found that the volume of the brain is positively correlated with IQ according to MRI-based experiments. Frangou et al.  reported positive correlations between IQ score and GM density of the orbitofrontal cortex, cingulate gyrus, cerebellum, and thalamus, but negative correlation between IQ score and the caudate nucleus. On the other hand, Navas-Sanchez et al.  investigated the relationship between IQ score and microstructure of white matter (WM) tracts using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), and found that IQ score is positively correlated with fractional anisotropy (FA). Kim et al.  found that lower performance in verbal IQ score is correlated with the decrease of FA values. In another DTI-based study, Welcome et al.  discovered that the volume of WM fiber tracts is correlated with nonverbal IQ score.
There are lots of recent studies that have tried to estimate IQ from MRI or EEG readings (sometimes called “neurometric” IQ); many of the teams are based in South Korea and Malaysia. The Malaysian group, based at the MARA University of Technology, has published about a dozen papers over the past two years, involving hundreds of subjects. They can now use EEG readings to sort subjects into one of seven IQ ranges (e.g. 90-100, 120-130) with 83% accuracy; this figure jumps to 98% when subjects are sorted into one of three IQ ranges (low, medium, or high).
98% accuracy in predicting IQ. Let that sink in.
Furthermore, we wanted to move beyond whole brain volume towards a machine learning (ML) algorithm trained for optimal predictive validity of intelligence. In this paper, we apply machine learning to a rich set of MRI variables to create MRI-based predictors of intelligence. We then examine the relationship between the MRI-based predictors, intelligence, and socially-identified race. Based on past research, we make the following predictions: 1. Predictors based on all available MRI modalities will achieve validities for intelligence that are significantly higher than that for brain volumes alone. 2. MRI-based predictors will show race differences, and these MRI-based differences will statistically mediate the association between race and intelligence.
The proof is not merely neuroscientific. There is also genetic, evolutionary, and historical evidence for the race realism that Watson espouses. According to a 2005 paper by Bruce Lahn, data has shown accelerated evolution of a pair of genes called ASPM (abnormal spindle-like microcephaly-associated) and microcephalin, both of which help regulate brain size, which alone has between a 0.3 and 0.4 correlation with IQ. Moreover, this happened fairly recently, evolutionarily speaking.
According to Catherine Gianaro of the University of Chicago Chronicle:
These time windows are extraordinarily short in evolutionary terms, indicating that the new variants were subject to very intense selection pressure that drove up their frequencies in a very brief period of time — both well after the emergence of modern humans about 200,000 years ago. Each variant emerged around the same time as the advent of “cultural” behaviors. The microcephalin variant appears along with the emergence of such traits as art and music, religious practices and sophisticated tool-making techniques, which date back to about 50,000 years ago. The ASPM variant coincides with the oldest-known civilization, Mesopotamia, which dates back to 7000 BC.
Lahn and his colleagues then set out to determine the variation frequency of these two genes by surveying over 1,000 individuals representing 59 distinct ethnic groups. They found “geographic differences,” which we all know is another way of saying race:
For haplogroup D of ASPM, they found that it occurs more frequently in Europeans and surrounding populations, including North Africans, Middle Easterners and South Asians, and at a lower incidence in East Asians, New World Indians and sub-Saharan Africans. For microcephalin, the researchers found that haplogroup D is more abundant in populations outside of sub-Saharan Africa.
In any event, no more evidence is required to show that James Watson’s comments were neither reckless nor reprehensible. But what’s interesting is how some of his critiques’ reckless and reprehensible statements reveal more than what their authors intended. Despite their claims, the push to cancel Watson springs from politics, not science. For example, in a Wired article entitled “James Watson and the Insidiousness of Scientific Racism,” biologist C. Brandon Ogbunu writes:
The problem with this argument isn’t only that it avoids critical discussions about the possible sources of group differences, but also that it uses the notion of the exceptional individual to justify racist ideas towards others in the out-group. In general, armchair appeals to statistics often conceal negative feelings that people already have, attitudes forged in the fires of fear and bias, not science.
We therefore shouldn’t pursue truth, because it might “justify racist ideas” or encourage “negative feelings.” But are these good reasons to impede scientific inquiry? Julia Belluz of Vox seems to think so. In an article entitled “DNA scientist James Watson has a remarkably long history of sexist, racist public comments,” she writes:
In other words, Watson isn’t being persecuted for unpopular scientific views; his views just aren’t scientific at all. They’re hurtful and dangerous — and are fuel for bigots and white supremacists to draw on to justify their views.
So it’s all about white people, is it? It’s all about resisting the Right. Petty people like Ogbunu and Bulluz have no appreciation for science or for honest scientists like James Watson, because they view science more as about people than about truth. They would gladly sacrifice truth along with a good man’s reputation and livelihood if that would limit the influence of people they don’t like. This is what it boils down to. This is how far we have fallen from the lofty examples set by Galileo and Newton, who did care about truth first and foremost.
Hopefully, with the examples set by James Watson, Emil Kirkegaard, and, yes, Liye Wang and a number of East Asian scientists researching MRI and intelligence, we will rise back up again — and escape that bucket once and for all.
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Notes (starting at 3 to match the citations in the Wang paper):
3. McDaniel MA (2005) Big-brained people are smarter: A meta-analysis of the relationship between in vivo brain volume and intelligence. Intelligence 33: 337–346.
4. Li Y, Liu Y, Li J, Qin W, Li K, et al. (2009) Brain anatomical network and intelligence. PLoS Computational Biology 5: e1000395. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000395 PMID: 19492086
5. Supekar K, Swigart AG, Tenison C, Jolles DD, Rosenberg-Lee M, et al. (2013) Neural predictors of individual differences in response to math tutoring in primary-grade school children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110: 8230–8235. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1222154110 PMID: 23630286
6. Chen R (2013) Prediction of Sickle Cell Disease Related Cognitive Decline Using Volumetric Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Proceedings of Radiological Society of North America Chicago.
7. Frangou S, Chitins X, Williams SCR (2004) Mapping IQ and gray matter density in healthy young people. NeuroImage 23: 800–805. PMID: 15528081
8. Navas-Sanchez FJ, Aleman-Gomez Y, Sanchez-Gonzalez J, Guzman-De-Villoria JA, Franco C, et al. (2014) White Matter Microstructure Correlates of Mathematical Giftedness and Intelligence Quotient. Human Brain Mapping 35: 2619–2631. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22355 PMID: 24038774
9. Kim SE, Lee JH, Chung HK, Lim SM, Lee HW (2014) Alterations in white matter microstructures and cognitive dysfunctions in benign childhood epilepsy with centrotemporal spikes. European Journal of Neurology 21: 708–717. doi: 10.1111/ene.12301 PMID: 24330132
10. Welcome SE, Joanisse MF (2014) Individual differences in white matter anatomy predict dissociable components of reading skill in adults. NeuroImage 96: 261–275. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.03. 069 PMID: 24704456
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