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Race and IQ

The Theory of Innate Differences

Ceci and Flynn, while expressing their skepticism about the possibility of genetic differences between the races for IQ, agree that the question is a legitimate matter for scientific inquiry, to be settled by cool-headed evaluation of the empirical evidence. I disagree. I contend that:

  1. The important questions about the role of genetics in the explanation of racial differences in ability are not empirical, but theoretical and philosophical, and,
  2. When the theoretical questions are properly understood, proponents of race science, while entitled to their freedom of inquiry and expression, deserve the vigorous disapprobation they often receive.

To understand the theoretical conundrums underlying this race question, the hypothesis must be stated plainly: Genetic differences between groups of people produce innate differences in their cognitive abilities. The key is the word, “innate.” What exactly it means for a characteristic to be innate is one of the great questions in the philosophy of biology, and like most great philosophical questions it gets deeper and more puzzling the longer you think about it. Our initial intuition is that something that is innate just happens as a matter of biological development, regardless of environmental inputs. Dogs have an innate tendency to bark; ducks quack.

But the intuitive view turns out to be incoherent on more than superficial examination. A point of view that is sometimes called developmentalism points out that absolutely no aspect of biology or genetics comes into being automatically without rich interaction with the environment. Ducks raised in the complete absence of auditory input from other ducks don’t quack, and in general organisms raised in the absence of environmental inputs don’t do anything at all. So the difference between learning to play the oboe and learning to walk is not that the former requires environmental input while the other does not, being in principle innate. They both emerge from a complex interplay of genetics and environment, and thinking of walking as innate is a distraction from the real scientific question of how the extraordinarily complex process actually comes about. Once you start to think this way, it gets difficult to say that any difference between two organisms is innate. The contention about Africans and IQ has to be that their genetic makeup is such that they will be lower than other races in IQ not only in the current environment, but in all imaginable alternative environments, and how could we possibly know that?

The developmentalist argument, however, is susceptible to a reductio ad absurdum. If taken too literally, it could lead you to conclude that there is nothing to be said about biological differences between organisms. You couldn’t say that people are more intelligent than turtles, or that Africans have darker skin than Scandinavians, because it is always possible in principle to imagine an environment where that isn’t the case. And there is a difference between learning to play to oboe and learning to walk: Walking may depend in complex ways on environmental input, but it nevertheless develops in a very wide range of environments, whereas oboe playing requires a very specific environment to develop. Geneticists have come up with the concept of a reaction norm to describe the range of environments in which a genetic trait might develop. Under this view, characteristics of organisms are not either innate or learned: they vary in the width of the reaction norm describing the kind of environmental inputs they require. Under this view, the race and IQ question comes down to the question of whether African IQ deficits are like dark African skin, so pervasive across all imaginable environments that calling them innate is perfectly reasonable as a first approximation, or more like African-American success in popular music, for which we require no scientific evidence to attribute to the particular combination of history, culture and sociology of the present time. We are justifiably offended by a hypotheses involving, say, an innate gift of rhythm.

Why Race Science is Objectionable

If I may address my fellow Jews for a moment, consider this. How would you feel about a line of research into the question of whether Jews have a genetic tendency to be more concerned with money than other groups? Nothing anti-semitic, mind you, just a rational investigation of the scientific evidence. It wouldn’t be difficult to measure interest in money and materialism, and it wouldn’t surprise me if as an empirical matter Jews scored a little higher on the resulting test than other groups. As a behavioral geneticist I can assure you without reservation that the trait would be heritable, and, if anyone bothered to take the time to find out, specific genes would have small associations with it. Of course, this research program has already been carried out, at least to the extent the relevant technology was available in 1939. While we are at it we could open a whole scientific institute for the scientific study of racial stereotypes, and finally pull together the evidence on sneaky Japanese, drunken Irish, unintelligent Poles, overemotional women and lazy Italians.

Hopefully I am beginning to offend you. Why? Why don’t we accept racial stereotypes as reasonable hypotheses, okay to consider until they have been scientifically proven false? They are offensive precisely because they violate our intuition about the balance between innateness and self-determination of the moral and cultural qualities of human beings. No reasonable person would be offended by the observation that African people have curlier hair than the Chinese, notwithstanding the possibility of some future environment in which it is no longer true. But we can recognize a contention that Chinese people are genetically predisposed to be better table tennis players than Africans as silly, and the contention that they are smarter than Africans as ugly, because it is a matter of ethical principle that individual and cultural accomplishment is not tied to the genes in the same way as the appearance of our hair.

If the question of African IQ is a matter of empirical science, exactly what piece of evidence are we waiting for? What would finally convince the racialists that they are wrong? Nothing, it seems to me, except the arrival of the day when the IQ gap disappears, and that is going to take a while. The history of Africans in the modern West is roughly as follows: Millennia of minding their own business in Africa, followed by 200 years of enslavement by a foreign civilization, followed by 100 years of Jim Crow oppression, followed by fifty years of very incomplete equality and freedom. And now the scientific establishment, apparently even the progressive scientific establishment, is impatient enough with Africans’ social development that it seems reasonable to ask whether the problem is in the descendants of our former slaves’ genes. If that isn’t offensive I don’t know what is.

Having said that I should add that I believe absolutely in freedom of expression and inquiry everywhere, but especially in academia. The racialists are entitled to their tenure and their speaking engagements and their promotions, but they are not entitled to my encouragement or respect.

I will close with a word on Watson. He is not really a racial scientist to any significant degree, he just expressed a point of view that I think is false and destructive. No one deserves to be punished for expressing a point of view, but there is another consideration here. Watson is a legitimately respected and famous person on the basis of his great scientific accomplishments and the awards they have won for him, but those accomplishments don’t have very much to do with racial differences in intelligence, except that both domains involve the concept of “genes” in a very general way. It is safe to say that he does not know anything more about the subject than anyone writing here. He is, of course, still entitled to his opinion, but famous scientists and intellectuals have some responsibility not to use their fame in the service of dangerous ideas that are ultimately outside their real expertise. Watson got in trouble for casually stating poorly informed opinions about a deeply serious subject. He is still the great scientist he always was, and I admired the apparent sincerity of his apology, but he deserved most of the criticism he got.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Shattering Intelligence: Implications for Education and Interventions by James R. Flynn

    In this month’s lead essay, famed intelligence researcher James R. Flynn draws on his new book, What Is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect, to help answer some of the puzzles surrounding the controversial issue of IQ. Flynn, who first discovered that IQ scores were rising generation after generation, notes that this improvement has been more dramatic on some parts of IQ tests than on others, challenging ideas of a unified general intelligence or “g.” Flynn argues that the fact cognitive abilities do not develop together has important implications for education. Additionally, Flynn contends that the evidence for the co-determining reciprocal influence of brain and environment should lead us to set aside simple ideas about the primacy of nurture and nature in intelligence. Once we grasp that “the brain is much more like our muscles than we had thought,” we can do more to improve cognitive performance by doing more to exercise the brain.

Response Essays

  • Shattering Logic to Explain the Flynn Effect by Linda S. Gottfredson

    Linda Gottfredson, co-director of the Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society, defends the unity of general intelligence, or g, against Flynn’s attempt to “unravel g into its component parts” by charging that “his core argument rests on logical fallacies that profoundly misinterpret the evidence.”

  • The Fundamental Intuition by Eric Turkheimer

    University of Virginia psychologist Eric Turkheimer contests even James Flynn’s modest accommodation with the construct of g, or general intelligence. Turkheimer argues that the “fundamental intuition” of g is that “universal positive relations among mental tests compels a single dominant explanatory construct,” but that “the fundamental intuition is wrong.” According to Turkheimer, g is not “discovered,” but is simply posited as a convenience, like the Prime Meridian. g may be useful for some purposes, but a multidimensional explanation of ability may still be correct. “The trick is not to get hooked on any particular way of dividing up the pie,” Turkheimer writes, “because it is a short step from there to trying to find the Greenwich Meridian at the bottom of the North Atlantic.”

  • The Significance of the Flynn Effect by Stephen J. Ceci

    Stephen J. Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology at Cornell University, explains why Flynn’s work has been so important. According to Ceci, the received wisdom about the nature and effects of g, or general intelligence, led “some to argue that inequality in the distribution of wealth, prestige, and educational attainment is, in part, a consequence of unequal distribution of the intellectual capacity needed for high levels of functioning.” However, Ceci says, “[Flynn] has shown beyond doubt that general intelligence fluctuates systematically over time and this cannot be due to our having better genes than our grandparents,” and he goes on to explore the puzzles raised by this discovery.

The Conversation