Nature has weighed in on the Watson imbroglio with a ponderously written editorial, accusing him of “lending succor and comfort to racists around the globe”. It concludes:
Many human geneticists are engaged in the sensitive task of unravelling differences between the world’s population groups, all the while acknowledging that ‘race’ is an emotive and unscientific word. Others are investigating the equally sensitive genetics of ‘desirable’ traits, such as cognitive ability.
Asking such questions has always been controversial, given the potential for abuse of the outcomes demonstrated by the history of eugenics. Scientists explore the world as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. There will be important debates in the future as we gain a fuller understanding of the influence of genetics on human attributes and behaviour. Crass comments by Nobel laureates undermine our very ability to debate such issues, and thus damage science itself.
Now, it’s well-known that Watson is an asshole, and frankly I can’t say I really care about the “punishments” he’s getting (if he really said, as he is quoted, that his conclusions should be obvious to anyone that has worked with black employees, then, well, I can see how an organization with black employees might not want him around so much). I’m not too worried about the guy’s prospects; he’s no martyr.
That said, he’s brought to the attention of a larger crowd the “uncomfortable facts” that human geneticists are starting to face–populations differ genetically, and those genetic differences actually matter phenotypically. In the internets, Larry Moran is asking about the genetic component of intelligence, and the commenters over at Half Sigma have been having a field day looking through publicly available resources at the population distributions of alleles thought to be involved in IQ.
I don’t know how much any of this trickles up to the world at large, but if it does at all, and it accelerates the coming of the day when people can quit feeling awkward about the implications of genetic research and start saying forcefully that political equality is not dependent on biological identity, then ultimately this could be a good thing. So has James Watson damaged science itself? Hopefully, quite the contrary!