Written by Etim Etim
JAMES Dewey Watson (born April 6, 1928) is an American molecular biologist, best known as one of the three that discovered the structure of DNA. Apart from space technology, molecular science and genetics are perhaps the most sophisticated manifestation of human ingenuity. Dewey is therefore one of the world’s most renowned scientists of our time.
Brainy people could also be eccentric and controversial. And Watson is no exception. Recently he stirred up a huge controversy when he made statements about possible links between race and intelligence. In a London-based newspaper, Sunday Times Magazine, published on October 14, 2007, Watson said that he is “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”. Watson went further to indicate that although everyone appears equal, “people who have had to deal with black employees find this is not true”.
Expectedly, Watson’s statements generated widespread condemnation, especially from the scientific community, who countered that such a theory has not been scientifically proven. “We feel Dr. Watson has gone beyond the point of acceptable debate”, wrote the London Science Museum in a statement, and went further to cancel a talk he was to give. Although the scientist has since apologised for his rather indelicate expression and gone further to amend his position, I have reflected keenly over the issue. First, why has there not been a response to Dr. Watson from any African scientist or eminent person, especially those noted for their cerebral dispositions?
Where are Prof. Ali Mazrui, Prof. Wole Soyinka, and many others of similar ilk? What are the implications of their silence? Acquiescence or doubt? What of African writers, commentators, politicians and even statesmen? Why have they not tackled the septuagenarian? Dr. Watson was essentially saying that such Western policies like debt relief, economic and trade aid, trade agreements, Tony Blair’s Africa Commission, etc may as well come to nothing because Africans do not have the intellectual capacity to manage their affairs and complex bilateral relations.
The scientist chose a very auspicious moment for his statement: the week of the yearly World Bank/IMF Annual Meeting in which African finance ministers and central bank governors met in Washington, DC to request for a greater African power in the two institutions. Although many people in the scientific community and political establishment in Europe and America would find Watson’s suggestion insulting and racist, quite a few will doubt that Africans, especially the political leaders, many a time conduct their affairs in a way that seem to suggest that we are less intellectually endowed.
And this perhaps is the underpinning of the Watson postulation. What is so intelligent about what Robert Mugabe has been doing in Zimbabwe? Which intelligent person would subject his citizens to so much pain and agony without the slightest compunction? Mugabe’s subjugation of his people and the complete destruction of what was once a beautiful and prosperous country because of selfish political gains do not sound intelligent to me. Equally disturbing is the inability of other African countries to bring requisite pressure to bear on him.
Back home, Nigeria is equally confounding. Individually, the citizens are known for their intelligence, hard work and assertiveness. Even our 419 scam is a unique invention. But as a people, the country presents a lackluster performance. The leadership class is dim and demented. It lacks the know how to mobilise the energy and vibrancy of the people into a collective potent force. What you then have is the despondency and frustration of the capable ones and the emergence of the likes of Patricia Etteh as a key national figure. How could a leading African country, clamouring for a voice at the UN Security Council, have chosen a failed hairdresser as the fourth ranking member of the ruling class? Is there any wonder that in the week that Dr. Watson made his comment, Etteh and her colleagues in the House were busy fighting each other and waving handkerchiefs and flags in the chamber?
Look across the entire continent, especially the sub Saharan region. Which country has really made you proud to be an African? The only two genocides of the last two decades occurred here. We also record the highest infant mortality rate, highest maternal rate and least school enrolment globally. African leaders spend time in office looting their countries’ resources and stashing them away in European banks, only to blame colonialism and unfair trade for their poverty.
On leaving office, they are easily honoured by their tribesmen as a hero. Yet the same people would be quick to lynch a pickpocket at a bus stop. Do those African leaders sound intelligent when they arrive foreign capitals to seek investments, favourable trade deals and debt rescheduling or forgiveness when indeed their bank accounts reek with loots? Remember, intelligence is simply the ability to learn, understand and think in a logical way about things. It does not just entail putting a man on the moon or discovering the structure of the DNA.
Individually, there are brilliant Africans in many spheres of human endeavour, but as a people, we have consistently underperformed all other continents. When the white man arrived from the New World, they met Africans wandering and fatigued from communal strives and wars. But they were easily deceived into selling their skilled and strong ones into slavery. What type of people could so easily sell off their children into slavery? The depravity of that action has left a permanent scar on our collective (and even individual) psyche. The white South Africans, I understand, can’t seem to live it down that they are no more the masters. Here in Nigeria, friends who work in some of these South African-owned firms, speak of condescending leers from the Boers.
Centuries after slavery ended, the evil practice still exists in many parts of the continent in one form or the other. There is so much superstition and religion and little science. Many African societies are chaotic, disorderly and filthy. We all marvel at and enjoy the order and cleanliness in western countries, yet there is no attempt to replicate them here. There are many reasons why Africans have not made any scientific progress. First, there has not been a cumulative build-up of knowledge from the days of our forbears. Herbal medicines were well developed and used by our great great grand parents. But this knowledge was neither documented nor shared.
And so successive generations had no basic foundations to improve upon; but rather had to depend on inventions from other climes.
Our school system is not science-focused and practical. Students spend most of their learning time cramming published works. Laboratories and practical work are almost non-existent now in public schools. Even the curriculum is lacking in creativity and imagination. How then can our young minds thirst to discover if we do not challenge them to seek?
Africa’s problems have been with us for a long time. As far back as the 1970s, Mr. Areoye Oyebola wrote a book entitled The Black man’s dilemma in which he bemoaned the fact that the black man has not made any major scientific contributions despite the fact that the Africa is the homestead of the first man. Over three decades later, this paradox has become a subject of a major international snipes.
Etim lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
NOTE: A new analysis of Dr. Watson’s genome shows that he has 16 times the number of genes considered to be of African origin than the average white European does — about the same amount of African DNA that would show up if one great-grandparent were African, said Kari Stefansson, the chief executive of deCODE Genetics of Iceland, which did the analysis.