Some Thoughts About Race, Genetics, and IQ

When I wrote this week about “race realism” as the new word for the debunked claims of “scientific racism,” I was unaware of the fact that the topic had been given new life with the publication in the New York Times of a piece by David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard, titled: “How Genetics is Changing Our Understanding of Race.” Here is his basic thesis:

I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.”

Over at Vox, Ezra Klein wrote a response and today, Andrew Sullivan weighed in.

To be very clear, I pretty much unambiguously come down on the side of Klein’s argument in all of this. But I encourage you to read all of the different points of view because it will help sharpen your own thinking. I’m not going to rehash the arguments that have been made, but found myself wanting to make some points that weren’t raised elsewhere.

First of all, Reich argues that, as the science progresses, liberals must engage with the facts that emerge. So far…so good. But I’m not convinced that he is as open as he wants us to believe. For example, at one point he says this:

If scientists can be confident of anything, it is that whatever we currently believe about the genetic nature of differences among populations is most likely wrong.

I appreciate that, especially because one of my biggest frustrations with scientists is that they often pretend to know a whole lot more than they actually do. But then in another part of his piece, Reich says this:

This is why it is important, even urgent, that we develop a candid and scientifically up-to-date way of discussing any such [substantial biological differences among human populations], instead of sticking our heads in the sand and being caught unprepared when they are found.

In other words, while admitting that scientists are most likely to be wrong in their understanding about the genetic differences among populations, he assumes that at some point those differences will be found—and we need to prepare for that.

While Reich addresses the possibility of genetic differences among races more generally, I find it interesting that Klein and Sullivan zero in completely on whether or not they have to do with IQ. The age-old racist notion is that white people are more intelligent than black people, something that has been revived by Charles Murray and Andrew Sullivan.

Klein does an excellent job of addressing how slavery, Jim Crow, and inequality have affected the development of IQ among African Americans. I was disappointed that he didn’t include what Kevin Drum has so thoroughly documented about the role of lead in developing brains.

But my big issue whenever this topic comes up is to question the whole notion of IQ and how intelligence is framed and tested. Perhaps the best way to describe my concerns is with this popular cartoon that makes a critique of our educational system.

I’m not writing for a scientific journal here, so I don’t think its important to address the fact that, in this cartoon, we’re talking about different species. Instead, I want to make the point that intelligence comes in many different forms, some of which are very culturally weighted.

In writing a response to Charles Murray, three academic psychologists who specialize in studying intelligence suggested that the science behind IQ is meaningful. Here’s how they summarized:

Good thinkers do well at lots of things, so a test that measures quality of thinking is a good predictor of life outcomes, including how well a person does in school, how well she performs in her job, even how long she lives.

I want to know which school and what kind of job they are referring to. Personally, I have a fairly high IQ and yet I have always had a hard time with science and history because I have a terrible memory for facts. I got my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and went to graduate school with a whole host of people with high IQs who literally got sick when it came time to take a basic course in statistics. There is a reason why the idea of an absent-minded professor became so common place. We all know brilliant people who actually struggle to navigate some of the basics of daily functioning. A computer tech person once told me that most firms, including his own, keep their most intelligent geek at the office to consult with those in the field because they tend to be the worst at interfacing with customers.

Much of what we assume about intelligence is based on the centuries old Western concept of rationality that is divorced from all other considerations. Take a look at how Murray alludes to intelligence:

…we now have social policy embedded in employment policy, in academic policy, which is based on the premise that everybody’s equal above the neck, all groups are equal above the neck, whether it’s men and women or whether it’s ethnicities. And when you have that embedded into law, you have a variety of bad things happen.

He is mocking the idea of social programs that treat populations of people as equal in terms of intelligence, which he assumes is “above the neck,” and thereby divorced from the rest of the body. That is the classic definition of intelligence that has emerged from white males in Western society. If that is what we are measuring with IQ tests, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that the group who invented the definition tends to do better than those who weren’t involved. It is as if the monkey in the cartoon up above decided that the test for all the animals should be about how well they can climb a tree, and then built a whole pseudoscience about how monkeys are genetically superior to the other animals.

The one thing I know for sure is that valuing what someone has “above the neck” over everything else is not a very intelligent approach. Perhaps we need an IQ test that can measure things like wisdom and adaptability. I wonder if we’d find substantial biological differences among human populations for those.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.