Intelligence and race: an example of racist science?


A recent article by Gavin Evans in The Guardian has drawn attention to a resurgence in the idea that race and intelligence are linked.1 These terms, though commonly used, are quite difficult to define…and for good reason. (see separate boxes below)

In the 19th century, despite the religious tradition that “God…hath made of one blood all nations of men,” it was axiomatic that there were different races with different abilities. Since European powers were dominant, “Caucasoid” (white) peoples were held superior. Other races were divided into Mongoloid (yellow), Malay (brown), American (red), and Negroid (black), in a hierarchy linked with the darkness of their skin.

For Darwin, the races were too similar not to have descended from a common ancestor but others held that the races had evolved separately. White slave-owners held their African slaves to be of a different, inferior, species which justified their enslavement. This idea that inferior races were liable to enslavement was unaltered by the fact of millions of white slaves being held by the Ottoman Empire from the 16th to 19th centuries, captured by Barbary pirates from as far north as Iceland.

Despite Darwin, as late as 1939, the prominent anthropologist Carleton S Coon divided people into Caucasoid, Congoid/Capoid, Mongoloid (including native Americans), and Australoid, believing them to be descended from different populations of Homo erectus, a view which some hold even now. Coon’s views were certainly of interest to those who believed in a hierarchy of races. However, another prominent anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (father of Ursula K Le Guin) actively opposed racist interpretations of human differences throughout his long career.

It is now accepted that Homo sapiens is one species with superficial differences in facial features, hair, eye and skin colours, and so on. Genes2 for these are distributed according to environmental factors such as temperature or sunlight. Other genes seem equally distributed and equally variable, with some exceptions, such as genes for lactose tolerance in dairy farming societies, genes for sickle cell trait in areas where malaria is prevalent, and genes for cystic fibrosis where tuberculosis is common. These genes have survival value in these environments.

However, this doesn’t stop some people asserting that there are genetic differences between ethnic groups which affect characteristics such as intelligence and tendencies to violence (e.g. alt-right hero Steve Bannon, fan of the Front National). DNA structure discoverer James Watson also strayed out of his field to assert that melanin was linked to libido.

There are appreciable differences in habitats occupied by different groups of humans, and in their cultures, but there is no evidence that humans of particular groups are genetically any more or less able to adapt to, act on, or alter their environments. The differences in the state of “advancement” of various human cultures already have an adequate explanation, as Jared Diamond says.3

Diamond, an expert on the birds of Papua New Guinea, was talking to a local politician who asked him “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” Diamond rejected the simplistic explanation that different “races” had different levels of ability and looked instead at their different environments. He argues that indigenous New Guineans and Australians are probably more intelligent than the white colonists, despite their “stone age” technology, since they easily master advanced industrial technology when given the opportunity. Caucasians were simply luckier: their civilisation arose in an area where metals could be obtained, plants and animals suitable for domestication existed, and the resulting denser populations encouraged the development of resistance to disease.

All this begs the question of what intelligence is. (see box) It is often assumed that the complex abilities humans have to share ideas and work with each other to gain their living can be measured, not in real life tasks, but with pencil and paper! This has given rise to IQ testing which inevitably reflects middle class Caucasian culture. Diamond speaks of how “stupid” he felt in the company of New Guineans who could follow faint jungle trails or erect a shelter but who would fail dismally in an IQ test!

Early IQ testing led to theories about the intelligence of immigrants to the USA. Robert Yerkes’ tests, used to evaluate draftees in WW1, showed that southern and eastern European immigrants had lower IQs than native-born Americans; that Americans from the northern states scored higher than those from southern states; and that African Americans scored lower than White Americans. Some began to talk about a “Nordic” race as being the most intelligent.

Partly driven by revulsion at the Nazis’ racist policies, scientists began to recognise the unscientific nature of IQ testing, ignoring as it did environmental and cultural factors. However, anti-immigration, eugenics, and segregation lobbies continued to use IQ tests to support their theories. Modern racist theories of intelligence emerged some 60 years ago with arguments that genetic differences made it necessary to segregate black and white children in school. In the 1960s, transistor inventor (!) William Shockley claimed that black children were innately unable to learn as well as white ones and psychologist Arthur Jensen argued that it was pointless trying to improve education for black children as their genes were to blame for their poor attainment (rather than poverty, discrimination, racist violence, unemployment, poor housing, and worse schools).

Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) refined the race and intelligence theory to argue that poor, especially poor black, people were inherently less intelligent than White or Asian Americans. They argued for reducing immigration, against welfare policies that “encouraged” poor people to have babies and against affirmative action. More recent opponents of affirmative action include Jordan B Peterson and James Damore (author of the Google memo opposing inclusion and diversity policies).4 Damore’s is an interesting case. He argues that women are inherently less likely to excel in software engineering for biological (i.e. genetic) reasons but then argues for dropping all diversity and inclusion initiatives, including those for Black and Hispanic people. Logically, he must feel that they are also genetically unfitted for software engineering…

Intelligence is not what intelligence tests measure. Practising intelligence tests can improve one’s attainment (as can having a good breakfast!) but doesn’t necessarily mean that one is more “intelligent.” But even if intelligence was simply determined by genes, it would still be the case that people should be encouraged to fulfil their potential. I don’t normally agree with the CBI but, when they said recently that thoughts, questions, creativity and team-working were just as desirable outcomes of education as academic achievement, they referenced a wider and more humanly relevant concept of intelligence.

What is intelligence?
In Latin, intelligens means understanding and comes from inter (between, among) and legere (to choose, select or pick out, and later to read). An excellent definition of intelligence is “the ability to use what you have got to get what you want.”5 Modern dictionaries have subtly changed this: “The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations; the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (such as tests).”6 [my emphasis]

Thus, a general ability to understand one’s environment and manipulate it has become reduced to skill with abstract tests of certain abilities which produce a number. Other tests that produce numbers are to found in the educational system but, as the CBI recently complained, success in “exam factories” (i.e. schools) does not necessarily lead to success in work and life.

Are there genes for it?
Yes – human genes! We all share the vast majority of our genes and those genes give us our large (but not so large as Neanderthal) brains and they give us the ability to learn, which is key to mastery of our environments. But are there genes for the narrowly-defined intelligence which is measured by intelligence tests? No doubt! A studypublished in 2017 analysed the genomes of 78,000 people of European descent and identified up to 52 genes associated with a general intelligence factor, g (a measure that various IQ tests seem to share).

What this means is that these genes, which all humans possess, occur as two or more slightly different alleles:2 some alleles are associated with higher values of g, others with lower. Most of these genes seem to be involved in brain development or nerve functioning. There is a massive correlation between educational attainment and certain alleles but this is hardly surprising since intelligence tests measure the sort of knowledge and abilities taught in schools and tested in exams.

There are also moderate positive associations with brain volume, autism spectrum disorder, giving up smoking(!?), longevity… and moderate negative associations with Alzheimer’s disease, depressive symptoms, ever having smoked, schizophrenia, “neuroticism”… Other factors, such as BMI, insomnia, ADHD, have weaker negative links. These are modest conclusions, given the size of the study.

It would seem that knowledge of an individual’s genes would allow little to be predicted apart from educational attainment…but this can be found out anyway through the education process. It is difficult to see why this research has been done and what lessons it has.

Is there such a thing as race?
According to scientists, no.8 Neither of the biological concepts of race, genetically distinct or geographically isolated groups of a species, apply to humans. Svante Pääbo, an eminent evolutionary anthropologist, says “What the study of complete genomes … has shown is that even between Africa and Europe … there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded.”

1Gavin Evans The unwelcome revival of race science.

2Genes occur in different forms called alleles. All humans have the same genes but the different forms (alleles) are present in differing proportions in different populations. However, there is no general pattern to these differing proportions that would support the idea of separate races.

3Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond (1997)


5David Adam in The Genius Within (2018)

6Merriam-Webster online

7Sniekers et al. Nature Genetics 2017;49(7):1107-12

8See and Biological races in humans


We’re here because we’re here: A Brief History of Time

I wrote this review in 1989 for the left-wing newspaper, Socialist Organiser. Unlike most other left journals of the time (and indeed today), SO felt it was important to be aware of scientific developments, as did our inspirers Marx. Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. SO’s successor Solidarity maintains this aim. 

In 1963, when he was a student, Stephen Hawking was told he had motor neurone disease and had possibly two years to live. Now, confined to a wheelchair, unable to move, breathing through a hole in his windpipe, communicating by computer and voice synthesiser, he is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.

It cannot have been easy for Hawking to build his career, even with the devoted help of his family, colleagues and students. Luckily, theoretical physics requires little equipment and much thought. Like Newton before him, Hawking is Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. His major work has been to describe the appearance and behaviour of black holes.

And – a rare achievement for any scientist – Hawking has written a readable book about the origin of the universe, tackling the age-old questions: “Why is the universe the way it is?” And “Why are we here?”

Over the last 300 years, science has banished humanity from the centre of the universe to the sidelines. We live on a speck of dust orbiting round an average star near the edge of a galaxy of a hundred thousand million stars, surrounded by a hundred thousand million other galaxies. Was all this created just so we could exist?

Through the 20th Century, reality has become more and more weird. Light can only travel at one speed, which nothing else can reach; absolute time and speed do not exist; there are no simultaneous events; space-time is distorted by gravity so that straight lines do not exist; gravity and acceleration make clocks run slower and let radio-active particles live longer; matter and energy can be converted into each other; the universe is expanding and has a definite age; it started when all matter was concentrated at one point (a singularity) and then exploded in a ‘big bang.’

The list of strange truths does not end there. Energy comes in little packets called quanta, rather as matter does as particles; but both energy and matter can behave as waves; and we can never predict exactly how something will behave because we can never accurately know both its position and momentum.

Bizarre and disturbing though these facts are, they have all been identified as true many times, even down to the discovery of the echo of the Big Bang still reverberating round the universe as microwaves.

Hawking takes his readers through all these discoveries, including his own work on black holes. These are formed by the collapse of a large dying star under its own gravity. An astronaut on the surface of the star would be stretched like spaghetti by the colossal gravitational pull of the new black hole. Luckily, time would stand still at that moment.

Hawking has calculated that black holes are not really black. Though they crush matter out of existence, black holes radiate energy and are really a sort of cosmic recycling plant. The only equation included in the book, E = mc^2, exemplifies this conversion.

The story is leavened by humorous anecdotes or scenes from Hawking’s life. For instance, he describes how he met the Pope in 1981 at a Jesuit conference on the origin of the universe.
The Catholic Church had already, some 30 years earlier, accepted the Big Bang as being the same as the biblical moment of creation. The Pope sanctioned research into the evolution of the universe but not into the Big Bang itself since that was God’s work! Hawking had just given a talk denying the idea of a precise moment when the Big Bang had occurred.

This is Hawking’s particular contribution. He argues that the universe has a finite size but no boundaries, just like the surface of a ball but including time. But with no start to space-time there is no creation.

Some other physicists are eager to see the hand of God in determining the fundamental values of things, like the strength of gravity, so that intelligent life could evolve. If things like the charge and size of the electron, or the rate of expansion of the universe, had been even slightly different, life would not have been able to develop.Hawking argues, however, that things are as they are because, given the number of possible universes, one like this was most likely to result. Even less role for a creator!

Hawking ends by saying that a complete theory of everything would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for “then we would know the mind of God.” Since, up to there in the book, he had argued that there was little or no place for a creator, I can only assume he put the phrase in to sound good to reviewers.

That apart, I can’t praise the book highly enough. Read it!

Why we are here – Stephen Hawking’s take

This book review was written in 2010 for the paper Solidarity (for Workers’ Liberty). With the recent death of Stephen Hawking, I thought it was worth reminding readers of some of his popular books that explain difficult topics in physics. It was previously published in this blog as M-theory and “The Grand Design.”

Stephen Hawking’s latest [2010] popular work (The Grand Design, written with physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow) seeks to answer questions that many have asked:

• Why is there something, rather than nothing?

• Why do we exist?

Hawking and Mlodinow (H&M) also pose a question which potentially answers the first two:

• Why this particular set of laws and not some other?

The answer, say H&M, is to be found in M-theory.

The trivial answer to the last question is that, if the laws were different, we would not exist and would not be asking any questions. But the observed laws seem to be very finely tuned to allow matter to exist in extended forms, like atoms, molecules and us. This has been called the anthropic principle and, in its strongest form, has often been given as circumstantial evidence in favour of design, allowing god to slip back in after being excluded from all other observed processes.

H&M controversially argue for a strong anthropic principle: “The fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves”. However, their argument does not rely on a grand designer but on the possibilities inherent in M-theory.

M-theory (where M stands for membrane) is an attempt to unify all of the forces of nature into one overarching explanation, encompassing the very large and the very small. The reason for trying to do this is not just a love of orderly explanations but that previous unifying theories, that which unified the electric and magnetic forces in the 19th century, that which included quantum mechanics (quantum electrodynamics — QED) and that which unified the weak force with the electromagnetic (EM) force (the Standard Model) in the 20th century, led to enormous benefits. Promising attempts to unify the strong force with the EM and weak forces have been made (Grand Unified Theories — GUTs). M-theory is an example of a Theory of Everything (ToE) which aims to include the gravitational force.

Why the urge to unify or to build more inclusive theories? This sounds like the sort of “blue skies” research that politicians scorn, in favour of research with commercial benefits. However, the work of James Clerk Maxwell in the 19th century to uncover the relation between electric and magnetic fields, curiosity-driven, showed that electromagnetic fields spread through space at the speed of… light! Thus, light was an electromagnetic wave, which led to the discovery of radio waves, microwaves, X-rays, gamma rays, and to untold benefits in medicine and communication. It is quite reasonable (though not guaranteed!) that future unifying theories will lead to useful outcomes.

H&M’s approach leans heavily on the work of my favourite scientist, Richard Feynman, a profound thinker but also an engaging and playful character. You would be rewarded if you looked into his life (and perhaps watched clips of interviews with him on the BBC website).

Feynman worked on the science of the very small, where quantum effects rule. One example concerns the behaviour of light when it shines on two vertical narrow slits very close together. This gives rise, not to two vertical bars on a screen, but to a wide horizontal band of dark and light bars.

This has classically been explained by Thomas “Phenomenon” Young (1773-1829), another fascinating character, as the interference of the peaks and troughs of waves, sometimes reinforcing, sometimes cancelling each other, much as ripples in water do. This fatally wounded the particle theory of light held by Newton.

This commonsense explanation was however shown to be inadequate, not least by Einstein’s proof that light could act as particles, photons, in the photoelectric effect. Newton’s theory rose again Lazarus-like. More oddly (and contrary to Newton and indeed to common sense), faint beams of light consisting of single photons when shone on a double slit gradually reproduced, spot by spot, the interference pattern supposedly explained by wave behaviour.

The “solution” was to associate a probability wave with each photon so that where it ended up was essentially random but over time a distinct pattern emerged. It was as if each photon passed through both slits and the probabilities interfered with each other resulting in the detection of the photon at a particular place.

Theory predicted that matter particles would also have a probability wave associated with them and, sure enough electrons (and larger particles) behave in a similar way with a double slit — even single electrons interfere with themselves (this experiment was voted the most beautiful experiment in physics in 2002)!

Feynman’s explanation is that the system, in this case the single electron/double slit/screen system, has not just one but every history. The particles take every possible path on their way from the source to the screen — simultaneously! Furthermore, our observations of the particles go back into their past and influence the paths they take.

If, like me, you’re going “What?”, you’re in distinguished company: Feynman himself said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”. Nevertheless, the theory has passed every test.

Lots of people are unhappy with the implication that someone has to be looking before a quantum process is “forced” to arrive at a particular outcome — and yet this has been confirmed by many experiments. It actually is the case that the outcome is influenced by the process of measurement or detection (though this need not be a conscious process).

This sort of crazy quantum behaviour obeys strict laws. Laws of nature are not like human laws which seek to encourage certain preferred behaviours. They explain how things behave and how they can behave. The laws of modern physics, including the modern understanding of gravity, explain an incredible range of observations to incredible precision and have made amazing predictions which have almost entirely been borne out. H&M pose more fundamental questions, including “Is there only one set of possible laws?”

The laws are, needless to say, not entirely known. While three of the four forces of nature, the electromagnetic, weak and strong forces, have provisionally been united in the “standard model”, crucially gravity still needs to be integrated into the picture. This what M-theory, incorporating string theory and supergravity, seeks to do. One of its startling predictions is that there are 10 space dimensions and one time dimension, in contrast with our everyday experience of three space dimensions and one time. The unobserved dimensions are rolled up very small, so that particles are actually vibrating strings or membranes.

M-theory does not predict the exact laws observed. These depend on how the extra dimensions are “rolled up”. A great many universes are possible, some 10*500 or 1 followed by 500 zeroes, each with a different combination of fundamental constants, and it is not surprising that we exist in one where the constants are compatible with the evolution of life. The “apparent miracle” is explained.

H&M point out that the law of gravity is not incompatible with the emergence of a universe “from nothing”. In particular, the principle of conservation of energy is not violated (because, while matter energy is positive, gravitational energy is negative) and, at least in quantum mechanics, what is not forbidden is compulsory. Furthermore, with a wide range of possible sets of constants, some (at least one!) universes must come into existence in which life can evolve.

And here, without the need for a creator, we are!