Scitech | Masked racism

The continuing risks of racial anthropology

In October 2007, James Watson – who won the Nobel prize in 1962 for his role in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA – made several racist comments calling into question whether people of different races had “equal powers of reason.”

Though not a psychologist, Watson nevertheless went on to say in an interview with the Sunday Times that he was “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.”

These comments caused outrage and Watson, considered one of the most prominent scientific figures of the late 20th century, was forced to resign from his position as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

His views, though not supported by concrete research, are far from new or unique. Racial anthropology – a term used to denote the use of the scientific method to research differences between races – grew to prominence in the second half of the 19th century. The practice – closely associated with European imperialism, slavery, and eugenics – was popular, and the argument that people of African heritage belonged to a different species was heavily relied on during the 1857 Dred Scott U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined that people of African descent were not protected by the Constitution.

Racial anthropology, termed scientific racism by critics, was formally denounced after the Second World War. Even so, the “science” has since been used to further the racist beliefs of individual researchers. In 1994, Richard Hernstein, a Harvard Univesity psychology professor, and Charles Murray, a political scientist from the American Enterprise Institute, published their best-selling book The Bell Curve. Not submitted for peer review, the controversial book claimed that intelligence was primarily based on genetics, and by extension race.

However, according to Thomas Shultz, professor of Psychology at McGill, the reasoning behind research of this kind is flawed. In an email to The Daily, he wrote, “in the old days, researchers tried to figure out, for intelligence and other interesting traits, how much of that trait is due to genetics and how much to environment.”

“A common strategy,” he continued, “was to examine the correlation in IQ between pairs of people representing various degrees of genetic relationship.” The strongest comparison was between genetically identical twins and unrelated people, and often “there was an independent factor contrasting pairs of people who are reared apart versus together in the same family.”

Shultz added that “a typical finding was that about eighty per cent of the variation in IQ was due to heredity and twenty per cent to environment. A big problem with this conclusion is that you have dramatic differences between levels of genetic relationship and rather small differences between levels of environmental variation.”

Shultz went on to say that since adopted children were often placed in families similar to their natural parents, “monozygotic twins reared apart did not necessarily have very different experiences.” The fact that environmental differences, and therefore their measurable effect, could be so small indicates that, according to Shultz, “such research designs favour genetics over environment and thus cannot decisively assess the relative contributions of heredity and environment.”

Though the belief that race dictates intelligence is still held by some today, Frances Aboud, another McGill Psychology professor, is hopeful. “You can always find someone who wants to uncover an evolutionary or genetic basis for intelligence, but more researchers and educators are interested in discovering how to promote learning,” she said. “There is no serious scientific debate about this any more.”

Although both Shultz and Aboud believe that we have seen the last of racial anthropology, the scientific community should be wary of prominent figures like Watson, who do nothing but validate racism and further stigmatize people who are already victims of discrimination.


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