I took the Introduction to Psychology class in college as part of my General Education requirement. While taking it, and for some time afterward, I hung around in the Psych Student Lounge and read some of the material on hand there. One item I found, in the late 1970s, was a brief article on taboo subjects in psychological research. One of those topics was “Race and IQ”. Not much has changed.
In the latest issue of National Review, John McWhorter has a challenging and thought-provoking essay about the topic of race and IQ — specifically, about whether that topic should even be up for discussion in liberal-arts classrooms and in the media, as opposed to in scientific journals. He suggests not, as there is nothing to gain from discussing it.
I read McWhorter’s essay with special interest because I have violated the norm he proposes. I have written about race and IQ on numerous occasions — and for a general audience, as I am not even a specialist myself. See, for example, my 2013 essay in this space about Jason Richwine’s departure from the Heritage Foundation, as well as my RealClear reviews of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance and Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (on its 20th anniversary).
In light of McWhorter’s essay, I thought it would be worth explaining how I became interested in this topic and why I participate in public discussions of it. Here goes.
I suppose I can blame this on my wife. Back when we were dating in college — and she was a self-described socialist, and I thought democratizing Iraq sounded like a fantastic idea — she insisted I take a class offered by the sociology department called “Social Inequality.” It would open my mind. I don’t even remember what led up to it, but at one point the professor informed us that some amorphous “they” had proven that “race isn’t genetic.” Murmurs of amazement spread among my classmates. “That sounds like bullsh**,” I thought.
Back at my dorm I turned to Google and quickly sussed out one of the basic truths McWhorter mentions: Categorical claims that “race isn’t genetic” amount to either bad science or word games. One of my most amusing discoveries that day was the argument that when forensic anthropologists identify someone’s race from nothing but a skeleton, all they’re really identifying is the region the person’s ancestors came from, which is totally different. I later learned that, if given a collection of DNA samples, scientists can predict the racial self-identifications of the people the samples come from with nearly 100 percent accuracy.
Are the precise boundaries we draw between racial categories subjective? Of course. But even our casual classifications strongly reflect ancestry, and people with different ancestries have recognizably different genetic profiles. To insist otherwise is ridiculous.
At any rate, one year around 2005 or so I pulled out all the stops. I read The Bell Curve, including all the technical appendices. I read not one but two essay collections responding to The Bell Curve. I read a bunch of other stuff online. And on the underlying scientific issue here, I came to the same conclusion McWhorter does: The evidence doesn’t justify a verdict one way or the other. Genes do differ among racial groups, measured IQs differ on average as well, and some of the genes that differ might affect IQ. There’s no reason this can’t be the case. We just don’t know whether it is yet.
My experience provides a window into (a) how it is that people become interested in this topic and (b) what material is available to those who do. Regarding (a), it’s certainly true that if three different people had taken McWhorter’s advice and simply steered clear of the issue — my sociology professor, Eric Alterman, and my classmate — I might never have become so intrigued.
But I rather doubt that an effort to further stigmatize the discussion of race and IQ could have more than a minor effect on how often people actually discuss it. And even if people did stop discussing it openly, I suspect many would still become curious about the topic and research it online, where people feel considerably freer to explore the taboo. This subject sits at the nexus of numerous others that are inherently interesting, for perfectly legitimate reasons. How did evolution shape humanity as a whole, and to what extent did it shape different populations differently? Why do we have such stark inequality among different groups of people, and not just blacks and whites in the U.S.?
So regarding (b) above, the big question is: When people start hunting around for information online, what do you want them to find? If mainstream outlets decline to cover the subject, all that will be left are what McWhorter calls “dense, obscure academic journals” — and fringe websites whose proprietors don’t feel bound by society’s norms. Do you think the typical Googler is going to wade through the technical pros and cons of the “method of correlated vectors” (a heavily criticized technique suggesting that the best measures of “general intelligence” also have the biggest black–white gaps), or do you think he’ll turn to the more accessible option, especially if it’s at least presented in a reasoned tone?
There’s another reason too: Whether we like it or not, scientists are going to answer these questions sooner or later. They are already in the process of figuring out exactly what genes shape our brains and how they differ among individuals and groups; even McWhorter would not stop this research, and it will be carried out in other countries if American scientists keep away from it. I think we should be intellectually prepared for the possibility that this line of work won’t turn out the way we want.
In A Dream Deferred, Shelby Steele wrote that it would have “far-right and, I have to say, even fascistic ideological implications” if genes contributed to the black–white IQ gap. Responding to my above-mentioned piece about Jason Richwine, Will Wilkinson of The Economist wrote that if genetic, group-level IQ differences exist, it forces us to “acknowledge that the racists were right all along — that racism has, to some extent, a valid scientific basis.”
I submit that it’s better to establish why these conclusions are wrong before scientists uncover any bombshells about IQ or other sensitive traits. They are wrong because population-level averages cannot justify discrimination against individuals, and because genetic abilities and propensities — measured at the group or individual level — cannot justify inhumane treatment. After all, we stopped sterilizing low-IQ individuals long ago, despite a wealth of research showing that individual-level differences in IQ are roughly half genetic. The immorality of fascism and racism stems from the moral equality of all human beings; it cannot rest on an assumption that all human beings or groups of them are exactly the same.
If we achieve that, though, what we should aspire to is not a “brutally open, race-based meritocratic consensus” but an end to racial bean-counting. If Americans of all races have the opportunity to achieve what their natural talents make possible, any remaining statistical gaps among races should become a non-issue. In other words, it’s at that point we should stop talking about all this, and I think we very well might.
Thomas Sowell has written a great deal about race and culture, and about the statistical disparities in which populations are represented in which areas of life. Like it or not, bean counter or not, the fact is that different demographic groups have different levels of interest in different things. Not every race evince the same proportion of people interested in archery. Certain jobs will attract more of this ethnicity than that ethnicity. These are cultural patterns that prove to be very resistant to change, and to follow populations as they migrate around the planet.
I doubt there’s a genetic reason why Germans have more brewers of beer than other nationalities. In fact, there’s probably no good reason for it at all. It just is.
We’ve made something of a peace with physical differences, but psychological difference are proving a lot harder to swallow.