In defence of Watson

Nobel laureate James Watson was attacked on  April 14th  2011 whilst giving a lecture at Patras University. Hooded youngsters invaded the lecture theatre crying “racist!”. One of them  jumped on the stage yielding a stick and attacked elderly Watson. The Nobel laureate escaped unharmed thanks to students and academics who rushed to his rescue.

I condemn this fascist incident which has to do with a twisted and quite insane idea that prevails in Greek Universities with regards to “asylum”; meaning that anyone within University grounds has immunity from the law, including criminal activities such as attacking someone with intent to cause harm, or even kill.

However, and because there will be many in Greece and elsewhere who apart from condeming the attack they might also accuse Watson for racism, let me remind what has happened; and then let me explain my take on this,

Watson had told the Sunday Times a couple of years ago 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.” The world media reacted violently against those comments, the result being that Watson is being branded a racist and widely discredited. His response to the uproar has been: “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

So what did Watson really mean?

An undeniable and mysterious fact has been that during the half century or so in just about every industrial society average IQs have risen dramatically. This cannot be evolutionary. It takes many generations for evolutionary effects to take place and fifty years are simply not enough. So what has gone on? Many candidates: better diet, better education, even television aka the information revolution. All in all, what the findings mean is that Europeans and Americans – let us say predominantly “white people” (although black people in western societies are also included in those measurements) – were more “stupid” fifty years ago. This ‘stupidity” had nothing to do with the color of their skin. It is related to the level of social and economic development in the west. What Watson tried to say was that the same truth applies to Africa today. Africans’  measurements of intelligence (and not intelligence as a “natural” given whatever that may mean) are low not because they are black but because they are poor and uneducated, like us white ones were fifty years ago. His point is very poignant. When smart white people at the IMF and the World Bank develop their smart white policies to cure the ills of Africa, and then expect the Africans, at their present level of socio-economic development, to implement them, they are wasting valuable resources. Measures for Africa must be customized to reflect the situation on the ground. Imagine a World Bank expert on a time machine, flying back to Washington DC at the turn of the 20th century and expecting to implement modern policies in the all-white America of 1900s. I would dare to guess that our well-meaning time traveler will not be understood – by those white “stupid” folks, who would find it impossible to heed to our time traveler’s advise.

So why Watson did got so misunderstood? Because of two things. Firstly, because of media hysteria on anything that touches upon race and gender. Secondly, because when a scientist speaks to the media must tread very carefully. I have met many scientists in my life who thought that science communication in the media simply means “talking about science”. Well it does not, folks! It means, first and foremost, understanding the difference between a newspaper and a science journal. In the latter you have time to expand, retort, debate. In the former you do not. Elementary, dear Watson…

The Secrets of the Lands Without: concept notes

The Secrets of the Lands Without is a novel about Religion meeting Science, a literary exploration into the latest theories of physics, biology and cosmology, as well as their relation to the World’s religious and esoteric beliefs.

Around twenty billion years there was the beginning of Time, when the Word of God -according to the Judeo-Christian tradition -, or Brahma (according to the Hindus), created our Universe. And there will be an end, the “Second Coming”, the Apocalypse. The Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelation signify the beginning and the end of the Biblical concept of time and space, corresponding respectively to the Big Bang and the Big Crunch of modern cosmology. Within that enormous span of time Intelligence appears. It constructs civilisations, searching for answers, contemplating the meaning of its very existence. Is there a reason for all this? For life on Earth? For Intelligence? Or is it all a coincidental and unimportant quark of Fate, totally brief and sadly insignificant within the vastness of a dark, lifeless and unfriendly Universe? Should we be concerned for our future as a species? Is there a future?

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, a theory developed in the 1980s by scientists Barrow and Tippler, answers                   

emphatically yes. They claim that the Universe was created in order to bring forth intelligence, a claim also proposed by the Jesuit mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (see photo). It is as if Intelligence was built-in the various physical constants and forces which define the way our Universe functions. Most scientists would agree to that notion. It is a indisputable fact that if the physical constants were but a small fraction different Life would be impossible. But why? Why should there be Life? Tippler says because in the very distant future, when planet Earth would have long evaporated, our very distant grandchildren, in the form of intelligent self-reproducing spacecrafts, will colonise the Universe to such a degree that they will be able to control its evolution. They will, in fact, stop it from ever getting too cold, by thus becoming Universe’s self-defence mechanism against its own self-destruction. And at the time of absolute end, at theOmega Point (a term coined by de Chardin from the famous Christian saying “I am the Alpha and the Omega”), the infinite energy - abundant within that future singularity - will enable an infinite-states computer containing information about every being that ever lived, resurrect us all. In fact, it will upload us onto a higher plane of digital existence. And this will truly be the Judgement Day!
The Secrets of the Lands Without take their main lead from this cosmological theory. It    
blends with the mathematics of chaos and genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, the evolution of society in the next century, time travel and its philosophical consequences, as well as world-wide religious archetypes of the eternal battle between Good and Evil. It travels into the world of esoteric wisdom, of the ancient sciences of alchemy, astrology and numerology, of the Gnostic path of true knowledge inherent to secret societies throughout history. The novel thus spans through the tradition of every culture on Earth, of all races and creeds. The Secrets of the Lands Without was written as a truly world book. After all, it is the totality of this planet that is contributing to world civilisation; when we begin to stretch our wings out of the solar system and into the stars, it will be that world civilisation which will fly out into distant space…

Archipelago Republic: concept notes

The 15th century was of tremendous importance to European affairs. It was the beginning of the expansion of “western civilisation” across the globe, through Renaissance and the Age of Discoveries. During the same time, the Greek Empire of Byzantium fell to the Turks - in 1453 - and most of the historical Greek lands became part of the all-mighty Ottoman Empire.
This resulted in many Greek intellectuals fleeing to the West, bringing along manuscripts and knowledge from the imperial libraries of Constantinople, and “fertilising” the re-birth of civilisation in Europe. One of the most influential figures of that time had been the neoplatonic philosopher Georgios Pletho, who lived in Mystras (near ancient Sparta). Pletho was a teacher of the Paleologi, the last Greek Imperial family, and of the Medici, who established their Platonic Academy in Florence as homage to him.
“Archipelago Republic”, inspired by Pletho’s legacy, builds its hypothesis on a fictitious student
of Pletho (named Laonikos Kantzis in the novel), who flees Mystras and lands on the island of Irekoussa, where he establishes a “plethonian” community. Pletho’s ideas are put into practice, including his strange beliefs on the re-instatement of a syncretic religion incorporating ancient Greek gods and Mithraic Rituals, as well as the development of a socialist-type political system (inspired, of course, by Plato’s “Republic”).
The novel further explores the historical fact of Christopher Columbus’ visit to the Aegean in 1474, in search of information, which would help him navigate the Atlantic Ocean. Could he have visited Irekoussa, met with Kantzis and obtained a most valuable map? After all, it was Plato who wrote extensively about Atlantis. It would be easy to assume that Pletho disclosed to Kantzis sacred ancient knowledge pertaining to the whereabouts of America. In fact, the Platonians believed in a land to the west, beyond the Great Ocean, which was called “Mericia”!
In the novel, an emissary of theMedici family travels with Columbus to Irekoussa. It is his chronicle – in the aftermath of fallen Byzantium – (read excerpt) which provides the main axis of the novel.
What sorts of teachings were held secret in Irekoussa? Centred upon the ethics and physics of Plato (and his Renaissance counterpart Pletho), the novel explores the demarcation between “essence” and “knowledge”. For example, are computer memories a “true” depiction of facts about the world, or a new universe altogether?
Do “new ideas” pre-exist their thinking up by someone?
Is the Universe bounded, as cosmologists seem to agree that it is, or by “thinking” we drill holes into it, expanding it forever?
The heroes of “Archipelago Republic” pose the questions.
But, in the end, it is the reader who must decide.