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


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