The shunning of James Watson. Better to understand than to deny?

It’s pretty well known that following his joint discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick (helped by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling amongst others), James Watson made some dubious suggestions about racial differences based on DNA – disgraceful by today’s standards. It’s also quite likely as “men of their time” that Watson (and Galton, referenced) actually held sexist and racist world-views, and even pursued misguided agendas based on such views. I have no reason to either deny or justify any of the above. I repeat, I’m not disagreeing.

What I would take issue with in Adam Rutherford’s Grauniad piece is the denial of any racial (or gender) DNA differences. (I bring in gender simply because Rutherford already brings in Watson’s sexism alongside his racism – no reason to conflate, but we can draw on analogous examples.)

Now, gender-wise there are DNA differences (*) that result in physiological and physio-chemical differences between the sexes. What significance(s) you attach to those differences and what consequential behaviours you attribute to them, or counter-behaviours you propose, are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish – a veritable minefield of ethics and political correctness not to mention mis-directed reductive science or scientism. But denial of difference seems neither scientific nor in any other way rational or valuable, and indeed to deny or misrepresent any such differences can only obscure human value. Vive la difference is my typical positive reaction in gender difference cases.

Race is a very slippery concept scientifically, but then even species is a bio-genetic concept whose boundaries are ill-defined and variably-defined depending on which aspect of significance you are proposing to use for what purpose – no less a minefield than gender. (We are evolutionarily fortunate, that none too close hominid cousins exist today, for human species definition to be problematic in practice. Gender-wise there are of course definitional border-line cases, but sufficiently uncommon statistically that the grey areas definitionally-speaking can be addressed by gender re-assignment if the individual so desires – proper understanding helps address the reality of such cases in practice. Race is a totally distinct concept from either species or gender, however ill-defined it or they are.)

The nicest irony is that genetics – the field he founded and Watson transformed – is precisely the subject that has singularly demonstrated that race as a scientific concept holds no water.

It holds water with great difficulty, that’s for sure. However objectively ill-defined, denial of difference cannot be the best course. I’d be very interested in whether “holds no water” is really just a statement of failing to meet certain scientific objectivity criteria in defining racial difference, or literally no demonstrable difference at all. Which specific references this alludes to. Ill-defined is not the same as non-existent – it just means understanding is more complex and problematic. Denial is not really a valid alternative.

Vive la difference I’d probably say again. Better to understand than deny.

As a humanist, I’d say Watson is human too, fallible like Rutherford and the rest of us.

[(*) Post Note : Of course another part of this minefield is that DNA genes are themselves over-definitively-objectified in the reproductive, developmental and evolutionary story – a whole ‘nother story.]

[Last laugh to James Watson . Gets $ 4.8m for his Nobel Prize medal .]

[Last last laugh to Usmanov. Ian Sample in the Grauniad.]

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