James D. Watson, the 90-year-old Nobel laureate co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, is recovering from a car accident and, at least in person, currently out of the public eye.
But he is very much in the media eye, due to the recent release
of a documentary film about him. The scientist, interviewed last year, before
the accident, told the documentarian that he has not renounced his
controversial decades-old position that different racial populations possess,
on average, different degrees of intelligence.
Dr. Watson has for years been excoriated for that stance,
specifically its claim that blacks, on average, are not as intelligent as
whites. And as late as last spring, when M.I.T. mathematician and geneticist Eric
Lander praised Dr. Watson’s involvement in the early days of the Human Genome
Project, the M.I.T. professor was swiftly condemned by a slew of scientists for
doing so, and apologized, penitently calling Dr. Watson’s views “despicable.’
As news of the documentary emerged, Nathaniel Comfort, a science
historian at Johns Hopkins University, called Dr. Watson “a semi-professional
David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University, contends
that Dr. Watson’s presumption that intelligence differences might “correspond
to longstanding popular stereotypes’’ is “essentially guaranteed to be wrong.”
And Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National
Institutes of Health, laments that “It is disappointing that someone who made
such groundbreaking contributions to science is perpetuating such
scientifically unsupported and hurtful beliefs.’’
There has always been something indecorous in the harsh
reactions to Dr. Watson’s opinion, as so many of the objections seem to be
about its simple unacceptability. His
conclusion, though, is based on I.Q. – or “Intelligence Quotient” – testings of
different populations, and, although some white supremacists have used his
words for their own nefarious purposes, there is no evidence that the scientist
harbors any animus for any group.
He is entitled to his scientific opinions and shouldn’t be
excoriated for their political incorrectness
That said, though, his conclusion about race and intelligence
Firstly, I.Q. tests measure only a specific type of abstract
reasoning ability. And such aptitude is only part of what make up what most of
us call intelligence. Creativity and industriousness, moreover, are not
reflected at all in I.Q. scores.
And even if we could fine-tune a holistic definition of
intelligence, its possible genetic underpinnings would provide only a partial
portrait. Among other relevant variables would be things like family and
communal environment, nutrition, stress and societal expectations.
And finally, of course – and Dr. Watson has never claimed
otherwise – averages are only averages. They predict nothing at all about
individuals. And so, a random member of a group scoring marginally lower on a
test might easily be more capable – even in what the test measures – than a
random person from a higher-scoring population.
Most important of all, though, intelligence, however
defined, is not in the end what determines the true value, or true success, of
a human being.
Some studies have shown that Eastern European-rooted Jews
have higher I.Q.s than any other ethnic group. And we Jews certainly value
intelligence. Those of us who remain faithful to the Jewish mesorah are mispallel daily for dei’ah,
binah v’haskel, and consider the intellectually demanding study of Torah a
high and holy calling. And even Jews who turn to other disciplines, more often
than not, seek to exercise their gray matter rather than their biceps.
But neither logical reasoning nor creativity is what
ultimately matters from a true Torah perspective.
Whatever our intellectual prowess, our crucial merit lies in
our zechus avos, our forebears’
dedication to Hashem. Chazal did not
generally stress inherent abilities – mental or otherwise – but rather the
choice to utilize whatever abilities we have. Their honorifics customarily ran
not to words like “genius” or brilliant” but to ones like tzaddik, chassid and kadosh, “righteous,” “meticulous” and “holy.”
Modern society’s world-view leaves little room for the idea
of service to the Creator as the true measure of man. Goods – whether of the
materialistic or cerebral sort – are what the larger world chooses to value and
Shouldn’t we, though, who know better what life is really
about, take pains to avoid, chas v’shalom,
inadvertently adopting society’s illusion?
Let us teach our children, whether they are grappling with educational
issues, with shidduchim or with
children of their own, that it isn’t the natural iluy who is most worthy of praise, but the masmid; not the one who shows the sharpest wit, but the one who
shows the greatest concern for others. Let us guide them to not let Intelligence
Quotients go to their heads, when A.Q.s and M.Q.s, Avodas Hashem and Menschlichkeit
Quotients, are so very much more important.
© 2019 Hamodia