Turok & Watson Duel Brain Politics of Genius by Alice Travis

Who is correct?
Neil Turok, Chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, is equally well described as an education activist in the knowledge economy. “It’s so important to allow brilliant people in Africa to thrive, and somehow this very obvious fact has been missed,” explained Turok following his selection as one of three 2008 TED Prize  recipients. He garnered a $100,000.00 prize to propel fulfillment of his one wish to change the world, celebrating an African Einstein in our lifetimes.”

Turok is a native of South Africa. His parents were anti-apartheid activists.  In 2003 he founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Muizenberg. In pursuit of Turok’s wish, fifteen new post graduate educational centers will open in partnership with the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Stellenbosch. Courses will be taught in association with the Faculty of Mathematics of Cambridge, the Division of Physical Sciences at the University of Oxford, and the University of Paris-Sud.  Turok’s aim for the centers is to “unlock and nurture scientific talent.”

The venture has the attention of the best and the brightest. Turok’s close Cambridge University colleague, cosmological physicist Stephen Hawking, NASA’s Michael Griffin, David Gross Nobel Prize for Physics 2004, and George Smoot Nobel Prize for Physics 2006 were in attendance when his Next Einstein from Africa program was launched in Cape Town South Africa on May 12, 2008. A former professor of physics at Princeton University, Turok is clear that the Institute does not seek “ivory tower academics”, but math and science graduates who can become “independent problem-solvers, creative thinkers, innovators and excellent teachers.” The ultimate objective of the effort, according to Dr. Turok is the establishment of a “powerful network working towards African educational and economic self-sufficiency,” including producing “the African Bill Gates, Sergey Brins and Larry Pages of the future,” as in Microsoft and Google.

Turok’s Next Einstein from Africa project is a radical cognitive departure from the sentiment expressed in October 2007 by Nobel Laureate geneticist James Watson, another Cambridge man, who with his Cavendish Laboratories partner Francis Crick unlocked the structure of Deoxyribonucleic acid. At the time, since repudiated, Dr. Watson told The Times in London 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.” He stated “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.” James Watson said he did trust that everyone is equal, but “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”  He cautioned that one should not discriminate on the basis of color, for “there are many people of color who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level.” Watson predicted that a gene responsible for creating differences in human intelligence could be found within a decade.

Chaos followed. The destabilization caused by Watson’s utterances led to his early retirement as Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. His book tour was cancelled and choruses heard around the world condemned the comments. Dr. Watson himself was forced to retreat from the public eye saying he can’t imagine why he made those statements, because he doesn’t believe them to be true.

Cognitive Dissonance in the Knowledge Economy

As the pendulum swings, public response has been telling. While there was vociferous outrage over James Watson’s views as expressed to The Times, few editorials have lined up in support of the realism of Neil Turok’s quest for the African Einstein. To be fair, the bar has been set quite high. Nevertheless, Turok’s aim squarely brings to the discussion forum the issue of universal Homo sapien cognitive capacity. Both Turok and Watson suggest that within our lifetimes in the next decade or so, scientific discoveries and technological measures will provide support for their divergent predictions. Who is correct?

Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen in IQ and the Wealth of Nations state that the reason some nations are rich and some are poor is the disparate innate intelligence of their populations. While provocative, the authors fail to explain material anomalies such as Bahamas, and nations formerly within the Soviet Block. The economic successes and failures of those and other nations support significant additional influence factors discarded by Lynn and Vanhanen.

The subject of universal Homo sapien cognitive capacity has become such an explosive and thorny topic that even psychologist Arthur Jensen who started the public debate in a 1969 issue of the Harvard Educational Review states that following increasing difficulty in getting his new work published, he no longer addresses racial implications of his research. The consensus seems to be that silence is golden. When close to the vest held observations are telegraphed such as those made by James Watson to The Times, pandemonium results. Granted, Dr. Watson’s status as a prominent Nobel Laureate should have dictated to him that his pronouncements would not be viewed as agonizing personal musings but as scientifically proven dicta. This raises the question of what does science say.  The short answer is very little.

Reams of data exist. Most of the data have been interpreted to mean that measured IQ differences exist globally among racial and ethnic groups and that these differences are reflected in standardized achievement test scores and other social indicia. This was echoed by geneticist James Watson. The position was memorialized by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve and their recommendation that society brace itself for the ramifications of such a reality. Mathematician physicist Neil Turok obviously shares a different perspective, and believes that little in Africa supports the travails of brilliant minds.  He laments that projects aimed at eradicating poverty are given priority. Turok calculates that the cost of supporting the fifteen new AIMS centers in Africa during the next five years will be about $150 million. This is less than one percent of the aid given annually to Africa. His conviction is, in the knowledge economy, “The people who will make Africa rich are the brightest people because they will generate wealth.”

Obviously, a critical mass of educated citizens will be required to make the continent competitive. It has been noted for decades that many tribal systems have not provided for the development of a managerial class. This involves issues related to the selection of wives capable of the required cognitive and social nurturing of offspring. And, there is the general lack of free public primary education.

Where we are is an extremely fascinating point in witnessing the evolving effects of planned cerebral intervention. Within a decade the impact of Neil Turok’s AIMS program and its offshoots will be measurable. Great success will be identified by some diehards as further evidence of a bimodal cognitive distribution on the continent. This theory, however, has already been significantly discredited. But even modest to moderate success will be meaningful, if the world begins to look to African minds for global solutions, viewed by most today as an oxymoron.

While no one can excuse James Watson’s intemperate public comments about the genetic quality of African minds, many live in similar glass houses. It is significant that the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories under his leadership grew to become one of the most respected molecular biology research institutions in the world. He is not alone in thinking his, now withdrawn, utterances to The Times. And there is plenty of guilt to go around. For the past forty years much of the significant cognitive research and compilations of data have been conducted by followers of Jensenism, Eugenics and others whose stated intent often has been to confirm immutable cognitive differences among racial and ethic groups. When the studies are disseminated the usual outcries of racism follow. Volumes are written, courses are taught, and discussion panels are convened to refute the validity of the latest findings.  What is arguably missing are serious new research efforts to analyze and explain hard data. What is the brain science behind the numbers? Where are the research voices of black sub Saharan African scholars? Black American and Black European scholars? Identification of miniscule errors in the compilation of data is not the needed scientific research. Suggestions that the motivations of the researchers are less than pure are useless babble. The gigantic, enormous, foreboding elephant is still in the room.

The Neil Turok James Watson Duel will play out in the science and technology advances of this decade. Much not grasped today will be known definitively tomorrow. And when brain images immortalize differences, those who have squandered the research opportunities of the decade shall be driven from center stage amidst the worst human relations nightmare the world has ever witnessed.
Alice Travis is an information theorist.    She is the author of Cognitive Evolution: the Biological Imprint of Applied Intelligence. http://www.amazon.com/COGNITIVE-EVOLUTION-Biological-Imprint-Intelligence/dp/1581129815


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