On Contemporary Scandals about Evolution, Cognition, and Race

"Elementary, my dear Watson": On Contemporary Scandals

 about Evolution, Cognition, and Race

by Rodrigo Fernos


When James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA's double helix,  made a comment about the intelligence of 'Africans', all hell broke loose, forcing him to quickly return to the US from his UK book promotion tour.  Yet, at the base of his claim--whatever Watson actually might  have said--is the presence of evolutionary racial genetic change, which undoubtedly exists.  

If you look at phenotypic differences between 'Africans' and other races, you might actually conclude that 'Africans' are genetically superior.  After all, no african scholar would deny that 'Africans' tend towards the sickle cell because it confers a survival benefit in malarial infested regions, nor would they deny that the higher incidence of 'salt' in the blood allowed many to survive the very harsh conditions of the Atlantic Passage to the Americas, conferring longevity during periods of extreme water scarcity.  (These benefits were a double edged sword, leading to problems such as sickle cell anemia and a greater propensity towards hypertension.)  There are hundreds of other such 'politically neutral' examples.  

By contrast, when it comes to the possibility of analyzing other differences, specifically traits associated to the brain such as intelligence or personality traits, fierce emotions are set  loose in the academic community, as recently seen.  Yet what is clear from a consideration of the aforementioned examples (sickle cell) is that at issue is NOT the existence of evolutionary modified genetic differences between races as a general concept per se, but rather genetic differences which strictly pertain to 'intelligence'.  This observation raises the fundamental question whether "intelligence"  is really what is at issue after all.   

Why is intelligence such a politically charged issue?  Are less intelligent creatures any less successful than more intelligent creatures?  Why do emotions so rapidly escalate when the issue regarding the evolution of cognition is even mentioned.

The Watson incident is extremely illustrative, not because it demonstrates the racist beliefs of a famous Nobel scientist and hence, by implication the 'false objectivity' of science as some postmodernists and islamicists are likely to claim, but rather because it sheds a very strong light on the contemporary justifications of economic and political power in the modern world.

Let me begin by using as an example the case of my dog--a stray which I picked up because it insisted that I be its owner despite the fact that it doesn't speak Spanish or English, and could not create a simple sentence if it even wanted to.  

I am, strictly speaking, smarter than my dog--I think.  I have far more higher order brain cells than she does, have the advantage of acute vision which enables me to read and write text, as well as opposable thumbs which enable me to physically grasp and manipulate objects.  She has none of these.  While I communicate with individuals thousands of miles away or hundreds of years into the past, the only thing my dog can do is bark at other dogs passing by and chase small moving objects; her only reality is the here and now.   Yet, for all my superior intelligence and (inversely) her reduced cognitive capacity, on a daily basis she gets me to bestow upon her resources and opportunities that she would not otherwise have.   Despite the fact that she is not my child or that we do not share mutual genes, she triggers my genetically ingrained parental dispositions to award these prizes at my own personal loss--as all other dogs do with their dog owners.  Which is more intelligent of the two?  Although I am genetically and phenotypically more intelligent, for all sakes and purposes she is clearly the winner in our daily exchange.

Despite the persistent evidence in everyday life, the news, and the media that intelligence is not necessarily coequal to success (think of Pamela Anderson, Ricky Martin, and the epitome of all-George Bush Jr.), individuals seem to generally assume that they are coequal.  What this actually shows is that intelligence is commonly presumed in our society as the legitimate bases upon which certain advantages are rendered to some individuals, at the expense of others (the less intelligent).  While societies in the past used other criteria, such as height or skin color, "intelligence" is an accepted social determinant used in our era, regardless of whether it is actually put in practice.  This concept is depicted in H. G. Wells famous novel "The Time Machine".  The very smart ruled over the very dumb.  Even more so, as the novel again exteriorizes, too many tend to presume that intelligence also justifies the taking advantage of the 'intellectually inferior' by their superiors, a very false idea.  Sadly, as history has shown, the internalization of this belief actually promotes its publicly acting out and, therefore, the carrying out of atrocious injustices and social inequalities as a 'greater good'--a false belief perhaps too pervasive in the British who at times assume they share the 'intelligence genes' of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Sherlock Holmes, that fictional epitome of brilliance who could solve all problems in a few magical steps.    

The mere hint or suggestion that one's racial category falls into the second category sparks such emotional triggers not because of its 'truth content' per se, but rather because of its socioeconomic implications.   After all, access to income is not merely access to 'more objects', but at a very fundamental level also means access to greater freedom.  And, as primates, we dearly cherish our freedom and even more so, our equality.

While we usually associate freedom with political rights and liberties, conceptually restricting the concept to the realm of 'the law', seldom do we consider the economic basis of freedom and, by definition, the suggestion that a truly democratic society would in fact have an equanimous distribution of economic resources.  With money, after all, you can do things that you could not otherwise do--travel far and wide, enjoy new gastronomical flavors, and obtain knowledge that would otherwise not be had.   Not having money for a modern person is, relatively speaking, akin to being in a prison. (This is not the case for those who know nothing but their poverty, as humans did during most of their long history.)  The economic elite of our modern societies, those who make a million dollars or more per year, not only have 'more money' and 'more objects' but they also have 'more freedom' in a very real sense.

These observations logically suggest that, were we to live in a truly democratic society--one without drastic differentials of liberty and income--then the entire issue of 'race' would not hold the same emotional and political weight they currently hold in our contemporary era because they would not necessarily imply socioeconomic injustice.  If "your" truth claim does not affect "my" status because we are all equals socioeconomically, I could care less whether your given truth claim as to my intelligence was valid or not.  However, if I believe that "your" truth claim directly impinges upon my socioeconomic well-being, independently of the topic that the truth claim refers to, then I will oppose it regardless of its validity--as reaction to Waton's statement demonstrated.  Because so many individuals believe this presumption to be true--the intellectual basis of socio-econoimc power, then discussions of evolutionary determinants of 'personality' and 'intelligence' become taboo scientific subjects.  Even worse, key issues hidden in the debate, such as the bases of the socio-economic order, are passed overboard in the public forum.

How do we arrive at that just society?  That is another issue altogether which, for now, I will leave to Sherlock Holmes...or maybe my dog.  Either have just as much possibility of solving its riddle.


The ruckus over the link between intelligence and race actually sheds more light the former rather than the latter; on the theme of "intelligence" as one of the most pervasive dogmas - paradigms - meta-narrative (however you may want to call it) of our era.  More importantly, it sheds light into the manner in which science has been misperceived by the general public, and (more generally) to the relations between science and society, which we will explore in this brief essay. 

Science and scientific arguments are at times grievously misunderstood in the public domain--a trait which is often worsened by liberal humanists who seek to establish 'justice' in the social realm, but which basically turn the academic endeavor into a forum for propagandistic claims rather than the ideal 'search for truth'.  While in an ideal world the two should coincide, at certain junctural points they do not, particularly when the quest for a (misunderstood) justice becomes the foundational rhetoric for propagating falsities throughout a given community.  Because a scientific study of human nature, which in contrast to the 'natural world' turn science's critical arrow at ourselves, is fraught with political complexities (valid or not), liberal and conservative humanists are quick to shout in the air and sling arrows without trying to genuinely understand the true nature of the scientific endeavor.  They tend to worsen an already difficult search for the world as it is, without noting the injury they actually impose on themselves.

We might begin by asking what a study between intelligence and race would look like.  

For one, it would not look to seek a blunt relationship between "race" and "intelligence" that many racist propagandists would love to see: i.e. "whites are smarter than blacks".  Any geneticists will be quick to point out that the genetic variation between two individuals of the same community will be as great as that between two humans of two different communities.   In other words, one could find more genetic differences between two members of a tribe in Lapland, than between a Laplander and a member of the Swahili community.  The example also demonstrates two common misperceptions: that of statistical variation and the function of genes in human life.  Recent research has shown that RNA, as opposed to DNA, play a much more significant role than was once thought; we might also note that the complexity of proteinomics is orders of magnitude higher than the 'simple search of genetic code'.  Secondly, the tendency to overly associate racial color (one genetic variant) with internal biochemical processes is overtly indiscriminate.  As Jared Diamond points out, utilizing non-apparent biochemical processes as an organizational principle will actually show radically different groupings of human communities than would superficial markers such as skin color.  

That being said, what's the issue?  Here we may point out a historical flaw in the social legitimization of the scientific enterprise, which is still pervasive to this day: the belief that scientists are 'geniuses' by nature who miraculously fix problems due to their tremendous endowment of cranial gray matter.  In other words, the 'scientist' as an eternal "Sherlock Holmes" who solves all problems and cures all ills, as if by sheer will power.  This blatantly false image of the scientist and the scientific process has, unfortunately, provided one of the predominant foundations for the contemporary criteria of intelligence as the legitimization of socioeconomic status.

At a time when science held little prestige in world history, one might suggest that this rhetorical tool was importantly useful to gain much needed social standing and recognition.  In the history of medicine of the seventeenth century, it has been well documented that when intellectual-scientific differences between schools of practitioners could not be recognized by the general public (and more importantly kings and their courtiers), the overt tactic of elite dress and demeanor was used to gain points in the eternal competition for social resources--perhaps somewhat analogous to today's banking class who dress so sharply and try to impossibly appropriate science's intellectual demeanor.  

Still today, when the general public consider science they conjure images of scientific geniuses that revolutionized our concept of the universe: Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein.  Poorly is it generally understood the social contexts in which geniuses operated, which by nature tend to be much more complex and fuzzy--and easily bypassed in public descriptions, which tend to make simple the complex to gain market audience.  It is to be recognized that early histories of science also tended to propagate the vision of the 'hero genius', analogous to previous historiographical models of the 'hero political leader' found in the traditional discipline of "history"--early histories of science which themselves contributed to this public misunderstanding of science.  

However, as the history of science has evolved in its conceptual and historiographical apparatus, a different version of the scientist emerges.  When you consider that Charles Darwin would not have been "Darwin" without the presence of the British Empire, previous hero worship models suddenly become much more nuanced and complicated, loosing their previous mythos.   Darwin no longer becomes a hero genius (in fact, he had a moderate IQ), but rather a fortunate opportunist who made the most with what he had available.  The new social studies of science reveal that, wonder of wonders, scientists are humans after all.

That being said, this awareness which occurred within the discipline of the history of science still has no been transferred to the general public, hence continuing the basis of 'intelligence' as the requisite basis of socioeconomic power.   It is a phenomenon which is routinely seen.  Intelligence tends to be equated with 'truth'--an image which 'intelligent persons' are all too easily predisposed to believe and use to promote their own social standing and agendas.  In an interesting anecdote, a local recognized scholar uses his/her own mental tricks to give the appearance of having a vast 'data hard-drive' in his/her brain--to such an extent of prestige that his/her decisions are seldom questioned.  Yet, as the magician who conjures tricks to give the illusion of 'magic' impossibly defying physical laws, these public performances are only 'tricks of the trade'.  Actual scientific data demonstrates that such truly 'gifted individuals'  are only autistic males with severely handicapped abilities on a normal everyday scale.  No matter how much we may wish to believe it, the human brain is simply not a hard drive.

It cannot be denied that at a point in history, there emerged a noxious discipline which used this criteria as a legitimization for the most atrocious of atrocities: the eugenic rationalization of the Nazi movement which murdered 6 million Jews and countless other minorities.  This, validly, is what all liberal humanists fear: the re-emergence of an empire of injustice in our human world.   Hitler's "superior Aryan race" was "destined" to rule the world by propagating its species over all other human variations.  Blacks, homosexuals, and some women were "destined", according to eugenic rationalization, to be wiped out the face of the Earth.  Hard to believe that such ideologies were actually created and, even worse, believed.

However, it is to be noted that eugenics is very different conceptually from what is being here proposed.  The eugenic movement sought to impose one 'ideal type', when human genetic health requires the presence of diversity and variance. (In fact, the absence of genetic variation in today's food crops constitutes one of the most unrecognized threats to human survivability: we depend on too few variants of species for our survival.)  

To look at the world 'as it is' is obviously not to impose a 'ideal model' but simply to study the undeniable impact of evolution; to study the human species in its most complex historical reality.  We are miracles of evolution, and no part should be 'off limits' to understanding how this miracle came to be.  

It will also contribute to our understanding of how the changes we have imposed on the material world--the construction of modern cities and industrial economies--are transforming us at a genetic level.  If the increased use of eyeglasses and cesarians in contemporary society are any indication of what could be occurring, our future may not be as bright as we would like it to be, consisting possibly of 'genetic decay'. We tend to erroneously presume that our species is a fixed  type that will never change, just as we presume the fixity of the earth--until we personally experience an earthquake.  To state the obvious, both evolution and human variation show that the eternal fixity of the human form is not the case. 

If we do not confront these issues and recognize their existence, our span as a species might be shorter than we pretend it to be.  Gradually medicine will make up for greater and greater human genetic imperfections, establishing with it the same kind of co-dependency which exists within our own bodies between previously-independent organisms and cells.  From this point of view, technology will truly become imbedded in the human body, as Ray Kursweil so often argues from a different 'futurist point of view' upon his reflection of the increasing miniaturization of computers.


Histories of science that focus too strictly on subtle shifts of intellectual positions without considering the broader social contexts in which such shifts occur, unknowingly promote a shallow understanding of scientific change by implicitly suggesting that genetically determined factors (the brain) constituted the key causes of these intellectual dynamics.  It is a suggestion embedded deeply within its historiographical methodology, of which often the historian is not even aware.  Of particular propensity towards this attitude are authors who focus on the big figures of science.  Strict internalism and social racism go hand in hand. 

There is certainly a psychological appeal to the historian who can master the masters.  There is an undeniable sense of genuine accomplishment, of having climbed the tall peaks, of having sustained the rough winds and the cold seas of intellectual achievement.  Somewhat ironically, in the most sophisticated realms of mathematics, there is a kind of "African" epistemology at hand: the doctrine of analogies.  Having travelled with the master, his traits, virtues, and social status are somehow conferred upon the historian--even more so if the historian can point out his mathematical or metaphysical errors.  This is not to deny the difficulty of such achievement, but merely to point out the irony of its accomplishment in light of the history of racism.  One of the principal colonial critiques of the backwardness of the "African mentality" was precisely its failure to clearly distinguish between causes by 'analogizing' the world.  By 'eating' the historical character, the historian obtains his traits and glories.

Fortunately, one rarely sees strict internalist histories of science now-days, and perhaps the tendency has been too far to the social extreme, as if all scientific innovation was only stimulated by broader social changes.  Nonetheless, it seems that regions in which the profession formed at a rather late period tend to be afflicted by this tendency.  It is often found in the hispanic world, where an overbearing emphasis on 'pedagogy' abound--as if all social ills could be solved by it. The emphasis on 'thought' and 'logic' is also indicative of this trend, and is again suggestive of the mistaken presumption that logic will always find the answer, that it will be a miraculous 'cure-all'.  

Again, we come upon the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes.  

Certainly the big figures of science portray themselves as iconic statutes who live in ethereal worlds of pure thought--Einstein perhaps being the epitome, with his senior white hair, contemplative pipe, and prestigious position at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study late in life.   They want to be portrayed in this manner to the world, where the spots and blotches of ordinary life are by definition removed from their shiny metallic-like portraits.  Recent histories have revealed that Einstein was certainly no saint, as  recent studies depicting his relationship with Mileva Marić, the wife he mercilessly abandoned to marry his cousin Elsa.  But this is not what we have in mind, as its portrayal falls into the 'us versus them' characterization of science that does not get at the deeper influences of society on the scientist's own mind.  To damage reputations is not the role of the historian, but of the town chronicler.

Relativity did not arise in vacuo but rather in the context of a particular moment in world history where the technologies of transportation and communication had grown to the point of needing to become all interrelated into an emerging global web of commerce.  Time synchronization in the era of telegraphs and trains had become a key scientific problem which, if resolved, would allow the unimpeded growth of capitalism--or at least eliminate some of its existing barriers and limitations.   The face of the clock tower in the town of Bern, where Einstein worked during his 'miraculous year' of 1905, had not one but three clocks side by side.   European empires were busily threading telegraphic networks throughout the world, and the coordination of movement and information was crucial to their well-being.  

It is no wonder that Poincare and Einstein both arrive at similar concepts, as both had worked on the problem of time synchronization in their respective ordinary working lives.  Poincare had actually been trained as a mining engineer, and Einstein's ETH had inculcated a rather pragmatic approach to physics.  Their interaction with their societies via the world of labor brought them into the 'leading edge' of engineering problems of their time.  How do you coordinate clock towers of different towns so that they all have the same 'ideal' time--a problem also pervasive across Latin America during the era.  The year 1904, prior to Einstein's annus mirabilis, had actually been marked by the highest number of patent applications for clock synchronization mechanisms in his office.  Poincare had been working at the Bureau des Longitudes of Paris, who had been trumped by the british Greenwich time frame of reference.  Dealing with 'simple' engineering problems opened the gateway to broader philosophical speculation as to the nature of time and space for both men.  Mach, who had previously criticized Newton's absolutist concept of time did not invent relativity because he did not 'suffer' the same social stimulus of his successors; the frantic need to solve these specifics problems of empire did not exist.

Einstein's own life is actually proof to the contrary on the nature of intelligence in scientific progress.  One of the most curious traits about the actual 'productivity' of his scientific work--his actual original contributions to science--was that, despite strictly dedicating his life to the unification of physics at the Institute for Advance Study, he failed miserably.  Despite his wide popular appeal, making faces in front of photographs in jest of the stature to which the world had placed him, Einstein was actually seen as somewhat of an oddity in the scientific community.  His opposition to the universe's rate of expansion, and therefore wrongly proposing the cosmological constant, actually was a step backward for science.  While some use Einstein's scientific life to portray the traditional patterns of productivity in physics, occurring early rather than late in life, it also demonstrates the vacuity of the implicit "Sherlock Holmes thesis" of the story.  Had it been true, the physics of the very big (general relativity) and the very small (quantum mecanics), which hold contrasting sets of propositions, would have been revolutionized a second time by a single man--which truly would have been a miraculous feat.  Einstein possibly wished he would be able to do this, to recapture the achievements of his youth.  But, alas, it did not occur; he was human after all.  Intelligence is no the 'deux ex-machina' we would wish it to be.  

Newton was perhaps one of the first figures to have been "sherlock-holmized".  Historians of science, such as Alfred Rupert Hall, praised him as the light and glory of western civilization, the epitome of cold hard logic.  In fact, Hall's portrayal of the Scientific Revolution excluded anything that was 'irrational', regardless of its actual influence in this historical process.   Yet Newton was anything but 'logical' for much of his life.  His hatred of Robert Hooke was such, that Newton delayed publication of his "Optics" until the death of his nemesis who had years before critiqued his work.   It is also clear that early childhood traumas shaped much of the scientific orientation of a man who never married.   When later generations of science historians, as Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, tried to humanize Newton by showing his religious side, particularly his studies of alchemy that make up a third of his literary corpus, she was severely attacked by the old school historians.  It was perhaps too hard to have human idols of 'logic', 'rationality' and 'intellect' (the Sherlock Holmes effect) so easily tainted.

It is indeed very tempting to be allured by the mythic appeal of the Sherlock Holmes figure.  It all seems so simple: get a brain, and all else will be resolved.  The hero will be recognized in both the scientist and the historian who, on some level, sympathizes with his experience and mental state of his subject.  But the world is not that simple, and scientific progress is both dirty and clean.  Historians of science need to forget about Sherlock Holmes, if they are to move onto more sophisticated explanations of human intellectual change.  Otherwise, they will continue perpetuating the myths, paradigms, or dogmas of their predecessors--particularly those pertaining to racial prejudice.    


Historians are often "poor bed-fellows" in that the preservation of the past often inhibits the ability to step into the future.  One of the reasons why the 'evolutionary bases of intelligence and/or personality' is so objected to, is due to the fear that the past will repeat itself, however much it might be publicly denied with the claim that 'history does not repeat itself'.  It is genuinely feared that eugenic and social darwinist beliefs will again be used as pretexts for systemic inhumane behavior--not that their absence is necessarily inhibiting individuals from coming crimes at the present moment.  But is this really what a contemporary modern study would mean?  

What it should actually end up meaning, however, is a realignment of our mistaken conceptions with "reality" (our own human nature), and the elucidation of events or objects which were previously puzzling and misunderstood.   To give the most trite example, suggested in the first essay of this group, is that of parental affection. 

A key cognitive mechanism that "emerged" in human evolution is the sympathy felt towards all infants, regardless of race color or creed--and species.  Generally speaking, when we observe living entities with the particular head-body proportions of an infant, most (non-psychopathic) humans tend to feel warm affection for them: a small chick, a baby monkey, or a kitten.  Consider the case of what would happen if it were otherwise.  If we reacted to the sight of a human infant as we react to our oldest 'predators' (say snakes), then our species would clearly have died out a long time ago because it would have triggered an aggressive defense mechanism against our defenseless genetic progeny.  "Kindness towards infants" conferred a genetic benefit to the human species.

Does the allegation that humans have a 'cognitive predisposition to love infants' sound like a preposterous claim?  Of course not, because we all know it to be true; very few traits will actually be either 'race' linked or 'sex' linked.  Similarly, as Darwin noted, many domesticated animals remain domesticated because, in their brief evolutionary history with human beings, they mimic the traits and characters of young human infants, therefore benefitting from the resources that would 'naturally' be awarded to such kin.  It is a kind of species cuckoldry whose small costs are incurred to the benefit of the parties involved.  All end up winning.  (As any dog owner would tell you, dogs serve as security alarms, companionship, and exercise motivators, therefore contributing to the well being of the individual and/or group to which they belong.) 

Yet extremist reactions are made again and again when claims pertaining to the evolutionary impacts on our cognitive mechanism are raised. When Edward O. Wilson, 'father' of sociobiology, gave a talk in Harvard during the 1970s where he actually teaches, riot police had to be called in to escort him out of the building.  This is surprising when one considers that the only thing Wilson, an ant specialist,  was doing was merely applying the biological analysis of animal behavior to humans.  Evolution has meant not only biological adaptation to existing conditions, but behavioral adaptations as well.  While today Wilson's lectures do not require riot police to insure law and order,  the same anti-intellectual climate can be detected every time when the issue of 'evolutionary basis of cognition' occurs.  It is perhaps hard for us to deny the privilege positions religious institutions have elevated us to; we are no different from other species after all.

Extremist critiques are odd positions to take in part because we know so little about the human brain in the first place.  Studies of the sort would probably take various decades to complete, if not more.  As with all science, they would be limited by the existing state of technology as well.  If 'darwinism' took some 100 years to be settled as an incontrovertible theory, how much longer would studies such as these take?  A very long while--during which, with the increased process of globalization, will likely reduce the genetic homogeneity of human communities across the globe.

When considered, "alarmism" is an extremely cowardly response that actually serves to stifle genuine academic debate and/or exploration.  It is all too easy to raise the 'race card' or the 'gender card', indignantly shout, and make preposterous accusations that in fact do not hold much weight; their use is mainly political in that they draw attention to one's alleged 'search for justice', therefore drawing points in the race for academic positioning, rewards, and tenure.  It is a curious observation that feminists might in fact be unconsciously using the very evolutionary behavioral adaptations they so ardently critique to promote their own positions.  After all, sexual competition for females tends to drive inter-male animosity, as islamic norms clearly presume upon removing females from the male realm and therefore reducing its influence.  Typically, if a woman makes preposterous claims on either end of the ideological spectrum, she is simply accepted as an oddity with good intentions.  But when men are perceived doing the same thing, they are 'burnt at the stake' as in Wilson's case--ironically another example of the evolutionary impact on human behavior.  

The inability to openly and freely discuss these issues invariably also points to deeper problems in the heart of academia, which finds itself under the pressure  due to its own resource constraints and whose goals (culture and truth) increasingly comes into direct conflict with the externally imposed mission of revenue generation (money and wealth).   University professors are increasingly turning control of their institutions to masters with business degrees (MBAs), who in turn distort its fundamental premise of its existence: free speech. While in financial circles, the mere public discussion of a problem is strongly inhibited due to potential repercussion in the irrational stock market, in scholarly circles, the very first thing one should do is exactly the complete opposite:  bringing up problems that have not yet occurred so as to prevent them from occurring in the first place'.  

Instead of speaking about the 'real issues' relevant at hand, including the reduction and/or absence of income and economic security in the academic realm, the evolutionary basis of cognition becomes a clobbering hammer to win percentage points for the 'home team'.  Academia all too often has stopped being a forum of discussion but instead has increasingly been turned into a profit-making marketing device which, by distorting genuine intellectual exploration, is inhibiting the search for truth and knowledge. This in itself is of a greater structural threat than the mere discussion of evolution, but which is seldom as avidly criticized.  A well known theme in the history of science is that the profit motivation stifles scientific communication.  The reward basis of science--personal recognition for a discovery--leads to the earliest possible publication.  But if your publication might jeopardize your institution's corporate advantage, this information is prevented from entering the public domain.  Corporate goals come into a head-on conflict with the intellectual purposes of academia--and is one of the most troubling issues in the changing realm of telecommunications.  But, again, these institutional conflicts are seldom publicly noted.

 In this sense, the new financial purposes of academia are analogous to the mechanism which curbed scholarly discussion in parts of the Western World for a couple of centuries: the Inquisition.  While their formal mechanisms are radically different, their final results are the basically same: the suppression of honest scholarly expression and genuine intellectual innovation.


A question still remains, however.  Is James Watson a racist?  Probably so.  But again here we come to the grievous public misunderstanding of science when we consider the outcry that followed.    

Watson can make a millions statements and claims, but in and of themselves would not necessarily mean they are right nor that we should be believe them.  He could have said "the earth is square" but the mere fact of saying it would obviously not make it so.    The outrage is actually a strong indication of the degree to which scientists are today taken as a priesthood of truth, that any statement made by a scientist must therefore, in-and-of-itself, be also true.   Wrong.

Science obviously does not work like this, but more akin to the models of 'open source computing': truth is basically arrived at by consensus.  While this might sound extremely dangerous to a person of a Catholic mindset, where truth is hierarchically dictated from 'above', this chaotic model turns out to be a very viable one in actual practice.   A claim is made, and if verified by others without falsification, then it is  accepted as having a high probability of 'truthfulness', and hence accepted among the prevailing knowledge claims. (A --> D; B --> D ; C--> D)  The accepted claim, in turn, serves as building blocks for other knowledge claims (D -- > F; F -- > R); were it false, it obviously could not serve this function (E --> D).  In other words, "D" is true, not only because of "A", but because of "B", "C", "F", and "R".  Counterexamples or anomalies as "E" would place into question the nature of "D", and possibly lead to a general reconceptualization that would ricochet throughout the system, i.e. a 'scientific revolution' .  While there is a vast literature pertaining to the complex creation of knowledge in science, however it is that science "works", it is certainly not a priesthood, whereby one reads a given text and renders its truth for the rest of the world (A -- > Z).  It might have a religious taint in the public eye, but in and of itself is not 'religious' in terms of its actual functional processes and mechanisms.

This is not to say that scientists have not taken advantage of their public prestige to push ideas which in and of themselves are not scientific.  Again, Einstein is perhaps a good example.  

Einstein was a Zionist.  Certainly there were reservations in the degree to which he was willing to advocate this stance, which was ambiguous in many of its components. However, the fact that he publicly did so certainly helped give the idea of Israel as a sovereign state in the Middle East much credibility in the world, and contributed in the formation of a military state which committed grievous atrocities towards the Arabs of the region.  One might reasonably ask, of all the millions of desolate acres in the world, why did the Jewish community have to pick precisely the one that would bring the greatest polemic, and the one in which communities already resided.  Why not pick an isolated spot in the Saharan desert, which would have caused conflict with no one?  The Jewish community obviously manipulated the suffering of WWII to their own political advantage, with results that are very ironic in light of its own internal justification: the repression of a community, the Palestinians.   

What does Zionism have to do with science?  Absolutely nothing.  Regardless of his ambivalence towards Zionism, Einstein appropriated his public prestige to push a personal set of beliefs, and he was able to do this only because of the awe, the mythos, in which the public held him.  Scientists are our new Olympian gods, that are as emotionally human as they are politically powerful.

It was wrong for the Woods Hole Laboratory to have fired Watson as they did--wrong not in and of itself, but simply for the actual reasons alleged.  Watson had every right to say what he believed was his public opinion.  It is called the freedom of expression, regardless of how wrong the ideas exposed might have been.  (It is likely, however, that the institutional dynamics are not exactly as they seem.  We might note that the following is the likely scenario.  While it appears as if the institution 'buckled' under public pressure, they probably used this incident as a good excuse for a change in leadership.  Watson, is after all some 79 years of age, and clearly should not have held the position in the first place.  It was a good excuse to let him go--but this is only an opinion.)


While we may judge the "Watson scandal,"  we can actually characterize Watson's politically incorrect claim ("africans are intellectually inferior") as 'true' in its 'scientific spirit'  in the sense that Watson gives the appearance of simply being a very honest kind of guy who tells you exactly what he thinks. Intellectual forthrightness is a critical ingredient in science, and also makes up for some of science's unique culture--which contrasts greatly with the culture of the politician or the businessman where nothing is what it seems.  Which would you rather have?  The biggest issues are the ones that are often not publicly revealed.

A friend in Minnesota studying physics in graduate school once told me a few years ago that in the department's seminars, everyone debated.  Everyone.  No point of weakness was left unturned, no matter who made the claim; it was a cruel and demanding environment that many people simply could not stand.  Of the multiple talks I heard, the most eloquent and well-strutured tended to be by physicists that they took nothing for granted--an ideal more humanists should adhere to.  I heard another interesting anecdote about Stephen Weinberg at the University of Texas (Austin).  After having given a long speech about the uses of the supercollider, a graduate student stood up and pointed out that it simply would not work.  The actual energies required to study subatomic matter at the scale suggested were orders of magnitude higher than anything a multibillion dollar machine could generate; it was in fact better to study the stars than the meek energies generated by a small human instrument.  Needless to say, despite Weinberg's own renown Nobel status, the student was right.  The Supercolider was, ultimately, cancelled.  Again and again people forget that scientist are humans, and nothing more.  

A single statement, in and of itself, does not constitute scientific truth.


Some afro-americans might find what is written here offensive, despite that fact that racist purposes are farthest away from the author's mind.  

The aim of these words has ben to show how science has become modern society's new religion, and its practitioners its priesthood.  The implicit sources of its "magic" andy "sacredness", whose internal processes are generally poorly understood, is the intelligent brain.  While intelligence is certainly a requisite element to all successful science, it is not the ONLY requisite; technology, politics, culture and history all play a role.  In this sense, the excessive valorization of "intelligence" as if it were the only source of socio-economic progess therefore has tremendous social implications.   Any social group which is categorized as not having this elixir is therefore reduced in its social standing.  In this particular case, "africans" group falls into that category, but frankly it could be any other according to any other criteria (gender, ethnicity, geography, etc.).  

But the whole dynamic is simply a mob based on a lie, as so often occurs.  The outcry, while valid in its critique of the person (James Watson), fails to call into question its own fundamental premises--and thereby actually promoting what it so actually detests.   It does not call into question the fundamental rules of the game, but rather operates within it.  From a scientific point of view, this actually has high detrimental repercussions due to the stifling of very important scientific studies: ourselves and human nature.  

In the meanwhile, there are also other issues that could be going on that, because of the polemic, are entirely bypassed.  

As we impact the conditions of survival with our continually changing technologies, we might ask how do these in turn impact human gene frequency over time.  How do the changes we impinge on the world impinge back upon us?  If the existing biological forms of animals were dependent on their conditions of survival over very long periods of time, could we then not argue that income inequalities in societies will inevitably push and modify human genetics over extended periods of time into very different forms?  This is what H. G. Wells' imagination vividly suggested, which despite being fiction might very well turn out to be true.  

Certainly, to many it will seem like a preposterous notion, just as the concept of "evolution" seemed to appear when if was first expressed by Charles Darwin.  After all, we have so much to worry about in our everyday lives, that one more thing far off into the future seems like a waste of time.  We can so little conceive of human biological change because such modifications occur very slowly over very long periods of time.  Despite the fact that my kids are different from me, they are different in function but not in form; the same basic platonic ideal type remains.  When drastic human aberrations occur, they are usually attributed to disease (Down's syndrome) or negligent human intervention (radiation from nuclear war), but are not characterized as permanent alterations of the basic human structure.   We might note that  when such changes in form have occurred (creation of races), so drastic did they differ from European ordinary assumptions about the stability of the human form, that those forms classified these traits in entirely other categories altogether separate--as the history of racism so clearly shows. 

That being said, it cannot be denied that the conditions of the present are very different from those which existed during the formation of the human being in its present form (homo sapiens sapiens).  Inevitably, if they haven't already, these new conditions will begin to alter its traits in one way or another, just as it has occurred.  How or why is a guess beyond me.  However, to not even ask whether they have or not is to make a mistake.  

Ultimately, understanding the present by looking at the past is a good way of understanding the future. The further we look into the past, the further we might be able to peer into the future.

© 2014 Rodrigo fernos riddick