So James Watson Is 16% Black Himself?

Under the Neem Tree

So James Watson Is 16% Black Himself?

Surprise surprise, Dr James Watson, the DNA “expert” who recently claimed that Africans were less intelligent than whites, has been found to be 16% black himself!  – the embarrassment that awaits all racists.

In October 2007, to the annoyance of its African readers, the British daily The Independent, published a front page story, under a huge headline saying that a DNA “expert”, Dr James Watson, a Nobel Prize-winner, had claimed that “Africans are less intelligent than whites”. In fact, the issue became a very controversial matter in  Britain, as all manner of racists came out of their closets to support Dr Watson’s claims, on the basis that they too believed that IQ tests proved that blacks were less intelligent than whites.

I was one of those who wrote to disprove this notion, pointing out that intelligence evolves in humans to enable them to deal with problems relevant to their environment, and that expecting an African who is obsessed with trying to obtain food from the forest around him, without killing or injuring himself, to do just as well in a test developed by people in countries where abstract notions are more important than those of elementary survival, was nonsensical. I gave my favourite example of “fufuo and soup” to illustrate how Africans test their kids for intelligence, or the lack of it.

I could have gone on to quote a few other proofs of African “intelligence”. For example, how the Akan and Yoruba people, among others, are able to make drums imitate human speech so exactly that a person can understand what is being “spoken” on a drum; how “gold weights” – nominally utilitarian objects – serve the secondary purpose of conveying complex abstract ideas, in the form of proverbs which one understands by just looking at them (like the famous  crocodiles joined at the stomach, articulating the following proverb: “Funtumfrufu ne denkyem afurafu: y’afuru ye baako nso yeedidi a na yerfom!”, which translates from Twi into English as “[Look at these] two crocodiles – funtumfrufu and denkyem afurafu – who have got but one stomach and yet they fight over their food!”.

In times past, if an Akan king wanted to remind another Akan king to whom he was related, that they were kinsmen or family and should not be engaging in warfare against each other, all he needed to do was to send a messenger to the antagonistic king, carrying  an akyeame poma  (linguist’s stick or orb) with the funtumfrufu proverb as its insignia, and the plea for a truce or reconciliation would be understood without a word being said. Similarly, designs on Akan kente and adinkra cloths could convey such messages as “Ti koro nnkor agyina”  (one head alone does not consult together; i.e. two heads are better than one). A king contemplating war somewhere without first consulting his immediate neighbours or kinsmen, would, on seeing envoys sent to him clad in clothing that proclaimed this proverb, immediately understand, and if he did not, he would be pulled up by his own elders who would comprehend the message that was meant to be conveyed by the cloths the envoys wore.

Indeed, a whole book can be written about the philosophical and practical ideas conveyed by Africans in their art and crafts. To suggest that they are not as intelligent as whites, just because their mode of transmitting wisdom or know-how is not the same as the cognitive tests (IQ tests) developed in Europe and America for Europeans and Americans, is of itself, as eloquent an admission of stupidity on the part of the proponents of that idea, as could be imagined. I, for one, would like to see what a European or American “scientist” would make of the dance that an Akan king would perform around him, and the gestures incorporated into it, if such a foreigner were unfortunate enough to become the prisoner of such a king (the writings of Ramseyer and Kuhne, two Germans kept as prisoners by the King of Asante in the 19th century, would perhaps assist the foreigner in this regard).

On the more general question of understanding the intellectual prowess of African people, the writings of R. S. Rattray, such as “Ashanti Law and Constitution”,  and “Religion and Art in Ashanti”, are some of, if not the most, erudite and comprehending studies of Africans ever made by a European, and would repay reading.

Rattray’s “Asante Proverbs” and “Asante Folk Tales” are also fantastic masterpieces. Such books are rare to find, because they were commissioned by the British Colonial Office to educate British officials who needed to understand the Asante in order to be able to rule over them. Anyway, I was not the only one who torpedoed Dr Watson’s nonsense about intelligence and IQ tests. After I had published my views in my blog in the “comment is free” section of the website of The Guardian (of London) (, many people wrote in to point out that Watson was wrong.

A major debate in fact took place in the British media over his claims, and  eventually his own institute in the USA disowned him, pointing out that the research he was engaged in at the institute was not concerned with measuring intelligence. This forced him to retire – despite having tried to keep his job by abjectly recanting his stupid views in public.

And now – surprise, surprise – we are told by the 9 December 2007 issue of the British weekly, The Sunday Times – the paper that carried the original interview that reported Dr Watson’s racist views – that Dr Watson has been found to be 16% black himself! Watson had published his DNA genome on the internet, and someone had used the information in it to detect the fact that Watson is 16% black, according to his own DNA. Here is the story, with the headline: “DNA pioneer James Watson is blacker than he thought”. “James Watson, the DNA pioneer who claimed Africans are less intelligent than whites, has been found to have 16 times more genes of black origin than the average white European. An analysis of his genome shows that 16% of his genes are likely to have come from a black ancestor of African descent. By contrast, most people of European descent would have no more than one per cent.

“The study was made possible when he allowed his genome – the map of all his genes – to be published on the internet in the interests of science. ‘This level is what you would expect in someone who had a great-grandparent who was African,’ said Kari Stefansson of deCODE Genetics, whose company carried out the analysis. ‘It was very surprising to get this result for Jim.’ Watson won the Nobel prize, with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, after working out the structure of DNA in 1953. However, he provoked an outcry earlier this year when he suggested [that] black people were genetically less intelligent than whites. This weekend his critics savoured the wry twist of fate. Sir John Sulston, the Nobel laureate who helped lead the consortium that decoded the human genome, said the discovery was ironic in view of Watson’s opinions on race. ‘I never did agree with Watson’s remarks,’ he said. ‘We do not understand enough about intelligence to generalise about race.’

“The backlash against Watson forced him to step down as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York State, after 39 years at the helm. He had said he was ‘inherently gloomy about the prospects for 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’. The analysis by deCODE Genetics, an Icelandic company, also shows a further 9% of Watson’s genes are likely to have come from an ancestor of Asian descent. Watson was not available for comment.”

Dr Watson’s discomfiture reminds me of a story I read about South Africa during the days of apartheid. In those days, the South African population was officially classified by law into three main groups – White, African or “Coloured” (mixed race). Now, because of many years of what is called “miscegenation” (could there be a more horrible word?), which means sexual relations between different races, many South Africans  who were officially classified “White” looked very much like “Coloured” people, and some “Coloureds” were so “fair” that they could pass for “Whites”, although they were officially classified “Coloured”.

As a result, the apartheid monsters established a special department that carried out official examinations of the physical attributes of individuals, in order to ascertain whether they were White or Coloured. If you were reported to be a suspect person, in terms of race, you had to go through the examination.

The main instrument used to determine whether a person was White or Coloured was a comb. The examiner would run a comb through the hair of the examinee, and if the comb went through the hair without difficulty, then the person was White. If the comb had difficulty, then the person was Coloured, even if his or her eyes were blue, or if a female, even if her hair was blonde-white.

The results of these examinations were awaited with great anxiety by families, because if a person who was considered White failed to pass the test, he or she would have to move to a different part of town, as the “Group Areas Act” and other laws did not permit Coloured or black persons to live in a “White” area.

The absurdity of it all exploded into national headlines when, in a village called “Excelsior”, about 100 members of the most prominent “White” families were arrested in 1970-71 and put on trial for having sexual relations with African and Coloured maids employed in their households. A judge, a priest, even a race examiner – they were all put on trial. As the “scandal” hit world headlines, anti-apartheid campaigners had a field day. If you wanted to throw the worst insult at a racist, you just said “Excelsior” to his hearing.

Many a racist blushed deep red on hearing the name “Excelsior”, for many white South Africans are “swarthy” in colour (as they like to say of themselves) which means they are “quite dark”. And Excelsior had proved conclusively that not all that swarthiness was the result of “sun-tan”. Eventually so embarrassing did the matter become that the apartheid government ordered that the trial should be halted. A black South African novelist, Zakes Mda, has since captured the whole story brilliantly in a novel entitled The Madonna of Excelsior.


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Written by Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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