Saturday, December 15, 2007

Equality vs. Equal Treatment

When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self. ~ Confucius

Recently, James Watson, noted for his contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA, generated a great deal of brouhaha, angst, and general consternation for expressing concerns over policies concerning 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." This comment generated a firestorm of protest from scientists, politicians, and commentators all over the place. It also generated the expected backlash against so-called Political Correctness.

It also led to his resignation and investigations into his own DNA which revealed -- gasp -- that Watson himself has African ancestry.

I am not a fan of James Watson, but this has nothing to do with his recent comments. Anyone who as ever read about his less-than-ethical shenanigans in cynical pursuit of the Nobel has to wonder if scientists ever do research for the sake of actual discovery.

I also am not one who gets on the "Political Correctness is getting out of hand" bandwagon. What a lot of people brand Political Correctness is simple respect for others. I grow tired of people complaining they can't use racist and/or sexist terms anymore without "offending" anyone anymore. The terms were always offensive. What is frequently called "Political Correctness" (such as issues over "Happy Holidays" versus "Merry Christmas") aren't matters of Political Correctness; they're just people being silly.

All of the preceding is just so you understand where I'm coming from when I say that I was not overly put out by Watson's remarks, because, as far as they go, they're correct. Using the standard measure for intelligence, namely IQ testing, Africans do in fact test lower than Europeans. Europeans, in turn, test lower than Asians.

Frankly, geneticists and anthropologists must generally share the view that people are different. And racial groups are different from one another. Every indication is that there are differences in the nature of the brain, resistance to disease, physical abilities, and more. That doesn't mean one group is dumber than another or that one group has more athletic prowess than one another. It means that we are all different, with our own genetic advantages and disadvantages.

There are also cultural differences that have a major impact on our behavior and apparent intelligence. U.S. policies have been notorious for not taking cultural aspects into account. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union often made inroads with countries that didn't want U.S. handouts by making deals. The Soviets would provide technology and assistance but some repayment would be expected (either of loans or through trade agreements). Heads of so-called third world countries preferred to be partners and even debtors rather than children being given gifts by Uncle.

So there are differences between peoples, and those differences need to be taken into account when creating policies toward others. In that context, Watson is correct. Some groups do not score well in IQ tests, so their level of intellectual development is different from others. Here, too, Watson is correct, and policy needs to take that into account.

The problem is that his comment implies (and he may well mean) that Africans are somehow dumber than Europeans and, more importantly, less capable intellectually. I am no expert, but I think there's enough research to indicate that IQ tests evaluate a the level of a certain type of intelligence rather than raw intellectual development.

Even if differences in intelligence are real, the need for equality under the law doesn't change. And I never heard Watson suggest that equal rights legislation be repealed. Firstly, it certainly appears that whatever native, genetic, cultural intellectual advantages or disadvantages people have, they all have similar capabilities. There are African poets, scientists, and politicians (showing that they can be as stupid as we are). Secondly, history has shown that no group that has been deprived of its rights to live and to grow has ever been sufficiently unintelligent not to know that they were being deprived.

Humans are diverse as individuals, nationalities, and racial ethnicity. That diversity is what moves us forward; when humans become homogeneous, change stops, innovation dies. It's not bad to recognize inequalities. It's bad to consider them limiting and, worse, to consider them a reason for one group to dominate or exterminate another. If Watson believes anything of the sort, I'd be very disappointed.

The problem is that some bozos will take Watson's views to justify racist attitudes. Perhaps that's what has the scientific community so nonplussed. I've noticed that geneticists and anthropologists do go out of their way at times to avoid any sort of assertion that a human genetic grouping may have had some sort of superiority to others. Of course, it may be that when characteristics are taken as a whole, the plusses and minuses cancel out, making us all more or less equal.

It really doesn't matter. If all of us, African, Europeans, and Asians alike, weren't already disposed to being bigots, statements like Watson's wouldn't bother any of us. People need to take a long look at why they're so upset with Watson more than they need to criticize him.

Watson may have given us more to think about than he thought.

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