James Watson: Challenging What it Means to be Considered a Genius

James Watson is a Nobel Prize winning scientist who co-discovered the structure of DNA. On the flipside, he is also known for controversial opinions that include advocating the “right” for women to be able to abort their children for being gay, his obvious sexism, and most damning of all, his opinions about race in relation to intelligence. His behaviour has cost him the respect of his peers and his position in the scientific community, and in response he’s decided to sell his Nobel Prize, no doubt as a symbolic gesture of his disillusionment. My take on all this leads me to a number of conclusions about the nature of intelligence and people like Watson.

This man is really fascinating. He’s smart enough to be partly responsible for what is definitely among the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, yet he has the social grace of warthog. It’s really interesting how people can be so contradictory in everything they are. His work is the basis of the careers of all contemporary biologists, yet it didn’t occur to him that saying racist things to a journalist would somehow make it into his or her article (a mistake even he admits to being “stupid”). He’s capable of transforming his field with his peers using hard science, yet he’s perfectly comfortable using anecdotal evidence about black employees he’s had to support his highly controversial statements (he told journalists that believed that different races are born with the potential for intelligence that those “who have to deal with black employees find this not true”). This man was part of something that literally changed history, but he’s too dense to realize all the social and historical implications of his commentary.

I’m not naïve enough to believe intelligence has any actual bearing on one’s character, Watson’s own scientific memoir The Double Helix is evidence enough of that. The way he discussed his equal partner in discovering the structure in DNA, Rosalind Franklin, was patronizing at best, and monstrously sexist at worst. In that regard, I think this quote from him speaks for itself: “Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive, and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not”. The fact that she was dead by at the time of writing really doesn’t do him any favours in the “being a decent human being” department either. So yes, this man is clearly has the character of a wet cat and the self-awareness of a goldfish, but in an interesting twist he’s also kind of an idiot.

There is no doubt that there are many other scientists who hold thoughts rooted in eugenics, but most of them are either intelligent or at least discerning enough to hold their tongue. There is too much social and political context tied to those theories, and publicly pursuing them is career-suicide at this point. Furthermore, it actively goes against what many consider the purpose behind science in the first place (benefiting “mankind”) since all it could possibly lead to is divisions that would help absolutely nobody. The aspect of this I find funny though, is the thought process Watson has going into this. Just reading through his writing and his interviews, I’m definitely getting the sense that he sees himself as a vanguard, someone with the bravery and gumption “real-talk” the scientific community.

What he doesn’t realize is that by pulling this thread, he comes off like the opposite of that. He’s clearly under the impression that his peers “know what’s up” deep down, but his thoughts actually give an impression that is more akin to a child loudly declaring someone with a different skin tone “looks weird”. He isn’t displaying scientific bravery or making some kind significant stand, he’s just spouting acidic statements that people less than a quarter of his age would realize aren’t meant to be shared, and what’s worse is that he has the gall to submit his personal history with employees as support for his claims. When it’s all said and done, it’s fitting how someone who considers himself to be so intelligent can end up turning the last years of his life into a bad punchline. His scientific genius aside, nothing he has done shows him as anything more than an awkward oaf. Coincidentally, the IQ tests he holds in such high regard don’t measure his poor decision making skills, his lack of understanding regarding the social and historical position he belongs to, or his inability to display any measure of self-awareness. These things are as valid signs of intelligence as any whether you like it or not, lest you seriously want to argue that Watson’s choice of words were anything more than foolish. The truth is, intellect and measuring it is far more complex than people like Watson would like you to believe. Ironically enough, it’s Watson himself, an esteemed champion of his field, and his unexpected display of foolishness that shows us this more than anything else. If a brilliant scientist can come off as an idiot while discussing the subject of human intelligence, what does that say about human intelligence itself?

Quote of the Day:

Steven Hawking (after being asked about what his IQ was): “I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers.”  


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