“IQ Tests Detect Mental Retardation Better Than Genius”

Many months ago, I had a chat in front of a live audience with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, or Venki as he likes to be called even by his foes. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for revealing the structure of the Ribosome, which is a giant molecule in every living cell. The Ribosome decodes the genetic instructions that specify a protein. I forgot to ask him how he likes his mangoes, but I think I managed to ask other important questions. Here is most of the conversation. Just sit back, don’t be in a hurry, drink something you like and enjoy what he says. 

MJ: In my line of work the Nobel is not a guarantee that the guy is any good. That is true of all the subjective Nobles — the literature, peace and economics awards. But the science Nobels have more gravity. Now there, I think I have messed up my chances of winning a Nobel. 

Venki: Oh, so did I, but I did it after winning the Nobel.

MJ: When a person wins a Nobel, how does he get to know of it? How does the Nobel committee convince you it is not a prank?

Venki: I now get all these random letters, quite a few from India asking me to nominate them for the Nobel Prize, people nobody has heard of.

The Nobel doesn’t happen like that. What happens is, you do good work, you start publishing in important journals, then you start getting noticed for your work. People start inviting you to meetings and so on, and then at some point people realise that this work is really very important, sort of groundbreaking, and at some point the Swedes notice this as well.  They are very clued in to the science world, they have people who go to all sorts of meetings, and they start inviting you to meetings in Sweden.

Now you know you might be in the running. It is just that you never know whether they will pick your field, because there are lots of fields where there are important discoveries, and even if they picked your field there is a limit of three people, so you don’t know if you’re going to be in one of those chairs when the music stops.

MJ: You also have to be alive, right? 

Venki: You do have to be alive.

MJ: They don’t give it posthumously.

Venki: They did give it to one guy who had died. They didn’t realize that he had died two days earlier. But then they had a meeting and they decided to award it to him anyway because the rationale was that they didn’t know he was dead.

MJ: When you go to receive the Nobel can you wear anything, or do they tell you what to wear? 

Venki: Oh, it’s very, very carefully choreographed. They are very concerned about protecting the Nobel brand, because it is by far the most prestigious prize. There are now many prizes which greatly exceed the Nobel in cash value, so they want to make sure that people go away feeling that this is the greatest prize. Anyway, it’s all very, very carefully choreographed, and you are actually given an  assistant. I know it is not a big deal in India but trust me, to me it is, to have a car and driver. You are given a car and driver for the week, and a personal assistant, too, for a week. Suddenly you feel like you’ve somehow made it.

For the ceremony itself you are required to wear either tails, which is white tie, it’s a white bow tie and tails, or you can wear a national dress. I chose not to bring attention to myself, and just wore the standard uniform.

MJ: What in your view is the Indian national dress?

Venki: It’s very hard to say. I mean depends on where you are. I think there isn’t any one such thing.

MJ: Are the science Nobels as political as the literature, peace and economics prizes?

Venki: They’re not political in the same way. Well, literature, people would argue are not political either, they’re just opinionated; opinionated is different from being political. I think they are not really political, even in literature, even when I don’t agree with their choices, but I think, in the science thing they do a very, very careful job, and they get lots of expert opinions, and as I said, they actually invite people they are considering multiple times, to listen to them and see what they are like, and so on.

MJ: James Watson (who shared a Nobel with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for their studies on the DNA) has been in trouble recently for….

Venki: Not just recently, he has been in trouble for a long time.

MJ: …Yes. And he is in trouble now for refusing to apologise for a view he has held for long — that African natives are not as intelligent as the whites. How do you see this issue?

Venki: I think Watson is a little bit of a tragedy. Here is a guy who has probably made a bigger impact on molecular biology than any scientist in the last 50 years. He not only worked on the structure of DNA, he also did a lot of the early work on the Ribosome, and Messenger RNA (molecules in every living cell that convey information from DNA to the Ribosome), and he pushed the Human Genome Project. He pushed studies on cancer.

So he has done tremendous good for science, but he stopped being self-critical. I think what happens is, when you are right so often you tend to think everybody else is wrong. You develop a kind of arrogance. That is very dangerous in science, because in science even if you step outside your field a little bit you are really no better, you can fall into very elementary traps. So outside your own specialty you are really no more knowledgeable than a lay person.

He is talking about broad population genetics, the use of statistics, and so on, in which he is not really an expert. Yes, there are mean differences in IQ between populations, but we have no idea whether that’s due to nutrition, or whether that is due to bias, and the test itself. I mean, what are we measuring? So for him to say these things it is really without substance.

MJ: True, but sometimes truth is indecent.

Venki: Yes.

MJ: So what are the indecent truths in genetics that you agree with?

Venki: I think that genetics does have quite a large component in making us who we are, and so on, and there are groups who won’t accept that. They feel that’s somehow unfair.

Richard Dawkins has a very good analogy. He says, genes are not a blueprint. Often genes or DNA are thought to be a blueprint of life. That’s not a good analogy because when you follow the blueprint for a house or a car it will be identical every time you use that blueprint to make it. He used to think of DNA more like a recipe. Different people following a recipe will produce different things. Somebody will make a hash of it, somebody will modify it on the fly and make it even better, things like that. So you will get lots and lots of different variations. Genes specify, but you are not preordained because of your genes. They give you what your potential is, what your tendencies are. We live in a world where any kind of inherited innate quality is considered sort of, “Oh,  that’s not fair,” and there’s a left-wing ideology that has become very anti-genetics. So that is one area where I think there will be some unpleasant truths that will be discovered, but the point about Watson is he doesn’t have any evidence. If he had strong evidence then we would have to live with it, and then do something about it, and try to create a fair society.

MJ: What is your view of IQ as a measure of intelligence?

Venki: Humans are very obsessed with intelligence. Well, let me tell you, the purpose of life is not to be intelligent, the purpose of life is to survive. We evolved intelligence because in our early history intelligence was actually useful, it allowed us to cooperate, to communicate, to become better hunters, or whatever. So intelligence drove human evolution, and vice-versa, but bacteria are not intelligent and they survive just fine. Cockroaches survive just fine. So the point is, we shouldn’t mistake intelligence as some innate goal of life.

Now we define intelligence in this narrow way, by way of IQ tests. IQ tests were originally designed to detect mental retardation, they were never designed to detect genius. So they are being slightly misused. Well, not slightly, more than slightly misused by the community.

MJ: There is a huge global movement against genetically modified organism that has promoted the view that GMOs are poison. Where do you stand on the matter?

Venki: There is a recent paper (in the journal ‘Nature Human Behaviour’) where they did a huge survey, and they found that the less someone knew about genetics and molecular biology, the stronger their views on GM crops; so it’s almost an inverse relationship.

The people who are against GM crops, they are not really aware of the biology. What they have is an instinctive reaction against multinational corporations, against monopoly practices, against practices that might degrade the environment.

For example, one company, Monsanto alone makes lots of GM products. One of its products requires very high levels of herbicide, and not surprisingly they also sell you the herbicide. So these are practices which people don’t like, and there is a very valid reason. But genetically modified crops are simply a powerful way of doing what we humans have been doing for centuries in a haphazard way, which is crossing crops, selecting genes, selecting for traits, and so on.

Now we can introduce very precisely what trait we want, so I don’t think there is anything intrinsically harmful about genetically modified crops. In fact you could do a lot of good with it, you can design plants that are drought tolerant, or saline tolerant, or have better nutrition, or you could, for example have Omega-3 oils in plants. So there is plenty of good things you might think of doing by using these things, and it is up to us to use it in a beneficial way if we don’t like what multinational corporations are putting out.

MJ: But where do you see the activism headed? It is a very righteous activism but might end up harming the poor.

Venki: It is. I used to say, when this was primarily in the West, that people who are against GM are rich people who are letting the world’s poor go hungry. That used to be my take, but now of course you have people in India protesting against GM crops, but I suspect they are also from this somewhat upper strata, this English speaking, plugged into the global culture of protest.

MJ: What about our ability to tamper with the human genome?

Venki: I don’t think it’s ethically objectionable to change things when you are considering remedying a very well-studied and horrible defect. I think that’s okay, provided safety can be ensured. The reason I think so is… let’s go back to James Watson. Watson is a eugenicist. He would argue, I think he even said, “Why shouldn’t everybody look like Jennifer Lopez?” I guess that was his dream of what a woman should look like.

Now, the problem with this is something farmers always knew. If you plant a monoculture you could have one virus that wipes out your entire crop. The reason that humans as a species are resilient is that we are diverse, we have different capabilities, different strengths, different physical attributes, and that’s what gives us our resilience as a species.

So maybe there is no such thing as a perfect human being, and the perfect society is really a very diverse group of people.

MJ: Is there a hypothesis that you have that you can’t prove but you believe in your heart is true?

Venki: That’s interesting. Well, it is the one. It is the RNA-world hypothesis…

MJ: That is the theory that in the beginning, before DNA, there was just RNA?

Venki: Yes. RNA can carry information, and also carry out reactions; and so the hypothesis is that it came before DNA and proteins, in a very early form of life.

Another thing that we can be completely on either side about…there is a big argument about whether there is life on other planets. People fall into camps, they either believe it or don’t believe it, nobody knows because nobody knows what the probability of life evolving is. We know it is probably quite small, we don’t know how small. We now are realizing there are lots and lots of planets out there. The problem is you don’t know whether the product of the large number and the small number is close to zero or close to one, so nobody has any idea, so it becomes a matter of faith. Some scientists believe there’s got to be life on other planets, others think, “No, it’s very unlikely, and this could be an accident.” 

MJ: We are searching for water and carbon on other planets, so it’s like we are searching for human beings.

Veni: Yeah, we’re searching for life, whether we will be able to recognize it is another question. Because it’s not going to look like us, except green. 

MJ: When you are studying the mechanism of life as a biologist, have there been moments when you wondered, “Come on, all this can’t be accident”? I’m not saying there was a Semitic Jewish god, but have you wondered if there was something, something that people mean when they say, “I believe in a force.”

Venki: No, I think this is a misconception, because you are looking at a final product. Darwin addressed this in his book 150 years ago. Through the human eye. If you look at the eye you can’t imagine how all of these components fit so beautifully together. You have a lens which can move its focal length, you have an iris which can control light, you have retina, which sends signals to the brain, how could this thing possibly have evolved? 

But then what happens is you don’t just start off with the eye. The eye is the end product of billion years of evolution. You start off with cells that are a little bit sensitive to light, that allows the organism to either drift towards light, or not.

MJ: Would you say it is the same evolution that has created the idea of the self? How do you explain consciousness?

Venki: I wouldn’t want to go there.

MJ: I really don’t want to sound doped, but why is there life?

Venki: Biologists don’t think there is a point to life. There is life because it could reproduce itself, and therefore it existed. Just as I said, there is no point to intelligence except to survive, there is no point to life either, except to survive and reproduce. Those are the only two functions of life. That’s what defines life, actually: to be able to self reproduce.

MJ: It’s a happy thought, when you think of it – that life is pointless.

Venki: Think of it as a giant party, never-ending party, you come in, the party’s going on, you’re new, you meet people, etc., and at some point it’s time for you to leave, and you have to leave, out into the cold night, but the party is still going on, there are other people who have joined the party after you have left.

Californian billionaires are having such a good time at the party of life that they don’t want it to stop. They don’t want to go out into the cold night at their appointed time.

I wasn’t going to mention, if this book does well, I thought, as I wind down my Science I might take up writing as a second career, and one of the books I think of writing is, “Is death necessary?” which is exactly the question you are asking. 

The point is, bacteria don’t die, they’re effectively immortal, even cancer cells are effectively immortal, but organisms die, animals die,  insects die, and we have wildly different life spans. Insects like butterflies last for weeks, we last for decades, and tortoises can last for centuries, and some trees can last for many centuries.

So why is it that death evolved? What is its function? One function may be that death evolved in conjunction with sex. What does sex do? It allows you to shuffle the card deck of genes between two people: you have one set of genes, your partner has another set of genes, offspring have different combinations. It’s like a lottery, you’re tossing different combinations of genes out at life to see which ones can maybe do better, but in order to give them a shot the older generation has to somewhat get out of the way, they can’t be there competing with their offspring as well, and that’s why I don’t buy this whole idea of cheating life. I think you might be able to extend it, and so on, but would you want to live in a society where nobody dies, and it’s all the same old people. It’s not like you’re going to have fresh ideas, and so on. I think, you need death for regeneration.

MJ: So death is the price we pay for sex.

Venki: You know, that is exactly the line I was going to use.

(This conversation was in Quorum, a club in Gurgaon)

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