Fury and outrage is the reaction of the quoted to the Independent's front page story about James Watson, one of the two scientists that discovered DNA all those years ago. Never one to avoid controversy he has apparently said that black people are genetically less intelligent than their white counterparts. His choice of words in a newspaper interview about Africans were certainly odd and would inevitably cause the sort of reaction that has occured.
They become even stranger when compared with the argument made in his latest book which is, in my view, far more benign and simply notes that the assumption of evolutionary equivalence on matters of intelligence between races that evolved across disparate geographic regions may yet be shown to be wrong - this merely expressed what science and the acquisition of knowledge is all about doesn't it? The possibilty that there are as yet unknown genetic differences between races is hardly controversial, the problem with saying so and at the same time invoking such a potentially emotive thing as intelligence is where the real problems lies because it such a political affair.
Genetics will always have this problem of course because it is too easily and too often conflated with eugenics and this leads inevitably to analogous references to Hitler and the Nazis. If we pause for a moment though and put aside such arguments, as well as putting aside the scientific rightness or wrongness of Watson's words is there not a much deeper and far more dangerous problem here about Western Enlightenment in the 21st Century? What is the point of knowledge and its acquisition if the truths you appear to find are unpalettable? What if they are, dare I say it, 'inconvenient'? And how do we resolve a situation where science is no longer allowed to discover without first ensuring it is sufficiently in keeping with the current political and cultural orthodoxy?
What if, and this is a pure counter-factual, but what if one day someone discovers that people from South-East Asia are genetically more intelligent than the rest of the planet? What would happen if we discovered, and failed to falsify such a thing? Seriously. If science is to be a dispassionate study of nature then what happens if we find out things about ourselves that fly in the face of our contemporary political values? Would we suppress such knowledge? Would we actively attempt to discredit it because of our fear of the potential political implications?
What indeed does this say about the fragility of our faith in our own political values? Can political equality and potentially explosive genetic difference ever be reconciled should such a thing one day occur? In my view they most certainly can, for genetic difference, be it hair colour, or even intelligence based on race negate one important characteristic, the human will to endeavour. As such we should not be afraid of what science may or may not find out about what it means to be us on this planet.
Each and everyone of us is, undoubtedly, genetically flawed in some way, and yet a glance through history shows us that great men and women too have had these genetic disadvantages and yet still achieved great things. Albert Einstein was dyslexic, Emily Dickenson was a manic depressive, Ray Charles too suffered from mania as well as being blind of course (cause unknown). We should, I think, never forget that when, and if, genetics ever does throw up something that our politics make hard to swallow.
To steal the tagline from the movie Gattaca: 'There is no gene for the human spirit'