human behavior

Are whites smarter than blacks? That’s a stupid question.

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Habits & Manners, Race & Ethnicity by humanb on May 6, 2010

Everyone now knows about the Harvard Law School student who argued:

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African-Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. African-Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair. (Now on to the more controversial:) Women tend to perform less well in math due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders. This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria. I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African-Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.

From what I’ve read, there appears to be two types of responses to this woman’s argument:

1) She’s a racist. Harvard Law School should never have accepted her, and her Supreme Court clerkship offer should be rescinded because she holds dangerous views. (See the Harvard Black Law Student Association reaction here.)

2.) She’s a victim. Unpopular scientific questions should never be suppressed for fear of the answers they may yield; we should be comfortable and eager to submit any scientific question to testing and based on available evidence, consider seriously the conclusions to which the evidence points. (See Andrew Sullivan here and here.)

I didn’t pay much attention to this storm in a tea-cup when it first happened, and I’m a black Harvard graduate. My initial reaction was “Who cares what some random person wonders about race and intelligence? Why would I take that personally?” Obviously, if that someone is in a legal position of power and they’re convinced of a particular race’s inferiority, this could have implications for how they treat that group and dispense justice. What is important then in such a case, is to what extent that person allows their personal views to affect their judgment and decision-making. This is pretty much impossible to determine, so we tend to fear giving people with such opinions power over others. But this woman appears to be asking a question, not expressing a firm conviction.

So what’s wrong with the question?

First, point number two above is dead right. We shouldn’t be afraid of asking any question if we honestly want an evidence-based answer. There is no advancement in human understanding or in science without asking questions. We dumb-down society and retard our own emotional maturity by rendering uncomfortable questions off-limits. So this woman’s question should have been interpreted as an invitation for scientific debate, not an insult. The response should have been intellectual, not vengeful. There is room for passion here, but if there is an interest in squashing repugnant views deemed false, you passionately argue for their falsehood. You don’t just paint the person as repugnant.

So let’s consider what’s wrong with the question…

This is a Harvard Law School graduate, so will presume she’s an intelligent woman, whatever that means. She makes great pains to consider the possible genetic inferiority of black intelligence as a scientific question requiring evidence to disprove. In asking the question: “Are blacks genetically less intelligent than whites?” this woman has already disqualified the question for serious scientific enquiry.

I hate to use trite phrases like “social construct” but there it is. “African-Americans” and “White Americans” are unique social groups that Americans have come to define in particular ways. This is no more clearly demonstrated than in the debate over whether or not Barack Obama is African-American. These are not, and never have been, genetic groups.

If the field of genetics has drawn any conclusions thus far, it has demonstrated that the genetics of African-Americans and White Americans is complex, and that ‘races’ as we understand them – mainly phenotypically – do not correspond to specific genotypes. Therefore, we cannot ask questions about genetic predispositions when talking about groups not defined by genotype. That’s like asking, “Are people with brown hair genetically more intelligent than people with blond hair?” Here we choose to group people based on their hair color because that holds some social significance to us. There is no denying that there must be some degree of genetic difference between the groups to produce different hair color, but just because blondes look the same phenotypically, doesn’t mean they are the same genotypically. They share a discrete set of genes that give them blond hair but may have wildly different genotypes in every other possible way. To conclude that this genetic difference is meaningful beyond aesthetics, or that it contributes to their intelligence in isolation of the rest of their genes is likely an impossible question to answer.

If you want to investigate genetically-inherited intelligence, then you must compare genetically distinct groups. Scientists know this. There’s a reason so much genetic research is done in Iceland, for example, where the gene pool is relatively homogenous; or better yet, among twins, where they can compare genetically identical people and establish the proportional contributions of gene and environment on human development. Geneticists don’t use messy social categories like ‘black’ and ‘white’. That’s crap science.

If we want to know if the social group we name “blacks” is less intelligent than the social group we name “whites”, we can only look at the social factors that contribute to their IQs, their academic performance, and their social progress. This is challenging enough – perhaps too challenging, because then we have to consider cross-generational, social and individual human psychology; socioeconomics; geography; physical health; social hierarchy; race relations; legal trends; access to health care; employment and social services; history and yet more. For some, this is too hard. Too much.

It would be a lot easier if we could just conclude that blacks were born dumber.

But this is the antithesis of vigorous intellectual enquiry. This is wishful thinking out of intellectual laziness hiding behind a pseudo-scientific question.

This is stupid.

Also: Until we can accurately define what we mean by ‘intelligence’ and attribute it to a specific set of genes, then it is impossible to scientifically determine who’s genetically more predisposed to have it. When that day comes, there will be no room for debate. There will only be fact.

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