At some point in 1913, a young Indian named Srinivasa Ramanujan, the son of a clerk and a housewife, wrote a letter to G.H. Hardy of Cambridge. Ramanujan had a certain gift for mathematics but he was largely unaware of his potential, having been grown up as a poor, mostly self-taught, boy with very limited access to books, proper education and tutors. He had only been exposed to the academic micro-environment of the subcontinent, at the time very confined and narrow. Hardy was already the uncontested star of British mathematicians, a member of the Cambridge Apostles, one of the youngest ever lecturers at Trinity College and a reformer of both math education and research, alongside another prodigy, John Littlewood. Littlewood, roughly the same age with Ramanujan, immediately recognized the talent of the young Indian and convinced Hardy to invite him to England. In the brief period of the next seven years, the three of them would work on a variety of problems in number theory with groundbreaking results, before Ramanujan's ailing health deteriorated, forcing him back to India, where he died in 1920.
Besides a large number of important mathematical accomplishments, that even spawned their own scientific journal and a series of mythical anecdotes (the most famous of which led to the concept of "taxicab numbers"), the common story of the three mathematicians is very interesting in the sense that it makes one think about privilege and humility in science and life in general. Or, at least it makes me think about these things.
I remembered this story, of the poor, unknown young man from the colonies who is recognized by his established, highly esteemed peers in the metropolis, while listening to a controversial podcast excerpt by MIT Professor Manolis Kellis. In it, Kellis describes how his becoming an academic, somehow reflects his genetic predisposition for being clever. He then goes on to suggest, that his kids, being similarly endowed genetically, have the additional benefit of finding themselves in the company of other, gifted children of Kellis' University colleagues in the scholarly micro-environment of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The comment has caused quite a steer in US academic circles with Caltech's Lior Pachter calling out Kellis for promoting eugenics and Berkeley's Mike Eisen following suit.
Even though Pachter has a long-standing, open feud with (fellow computational biologist) Kellis and Eisen may be somehow sounding echoes of underlying, west-vs-east academic rivalries, it is hard not to see their point. Kellis' comments rank somewhere between incredibly arrogant and downright prejudiced, even when put in the context of an interview with Lex Fridman (himself not exactly the best example of academic -or social- tolerance). The problem is that Kellis is probably neither a bigot nor even -that- arrogant. The way I see it, his comments are more likely the reflection of an increasingly lazy approach by academics (and other privileged individuals) to explain (and sometimes justify) their place in life.
I have personally met Manolis Kellis a couple of times in scientific meetings (actually meeting dinners). Being both Greeks we were able to casually discuss in our native tongue about his origins from Lesbos, good ouzo, sardines and the fine mediterranean climate compared to the harsh Boston winters. My perception of him is that of a very intelligent individual and yes, perhaps one that is rather aware of the fact, but not of someone who would look down on people who are less smart or educated than he is, even though he may belong to that -ever expanding- group of academics who find themselves in trouble when having to talk or relate to laymen. His "genetically inspired" comments (to put it mildly) are thus less a reflection of a sense superiority and more of naivety and insensitivity. And this is why they are more alarming.
In Kellis' description of Cambridge one finds a worldview containing only Hardys and Littlewoods, those who belong in the academic environments, by virtue of their endowments, be them genetic or other. But Kellis doesn't realize that in this same view of the world, the Ramanujans remain rare oddities. Only a handful will be able to fight their way into scientific institutions, but most will spend their lives in ignorance. There is simply no way, established procedure or even space to ensure that very intelligent people from under-developed countries, (or poor people from developed ones), can get into MIT or Harvard, let alone to allow them to "stick around and become professors" (in Kellis' own words). Those that do make it may indeed carry superior "cognitive systems" (again, his words) but this has much less to do with a genetic predisposition and a lot more with a combination of privilege, geographical and cultural advantage (themselves, let's not forget, linked to centuries of colonialism) and, basically, pure luck.
In this sense, Kellis' arguments are not so disturbing for picturing a world of genetically superior scholars inbreeding in Ivy League campuses. They are more an ominous predicament of the detachment of academics, scholars and university teachers from the rest of society. A world in which clever, gifted people indulge themselves in believing their position to be the result of genetically inherited excellence is a very dark place.
It is exactly from this sort of people that we expect better. Better interpretations of the unequal state of affairs in our universities and other workplaces and a better understanding of the complexity of societal factors in shaping our own worldviews.
We also expect more. More empathy towards the disenfranchised strata of our unequal societies and more radical ideas on the organization of academic institutions than the ones of 19th century biometricians.
One of the key attributes of a good researcher is to not give in to complacency. To unceasingly challenge his/her own perceptions. I hope, for the sake of us all, that intelligent people like Manolis Kellis rise to this challenge.