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IQ and race

The three great strategies for obscuring an issue are to introduce irrelevancies, to arouse prejudice, and to excite ridicule.... ---Bergen Evans, The Natural History of Nonsense

"IQ" stands for "intelligence quotient." A person's IQ is supposed to be a measure of that person's intelligence: the higher the IQ number, the greater the intelligence. This is inaccurate, however, since it assumes that there is only one kind of intelligence. Most people recognize that there are some people with fantastic memories, some with mathematical minds, some with musical genius, some with mechanical expertise, some with good vocabularies, some good at seeing analogies, some good at synthesizing, some at unifying, etc. Some people excel at more than one of these behaviors. It would be more accurate to speak of human intelligences than of intelligence. Furthermore, the typical IQ test doesn't even measure rational decision-making ability.* An IQ test, therefore, should be considered a measure of some kinds of intelligence, but not all. The most accurate claim one can make about an IQ test is that it measures IQ.

Another accurate claim that can be made is that however IQ is measured it has been increasing with each generation over the past sixty years or so. James R. Flynn discovered this when he analyzed the data for all the countries that keep records of IQ scores. This trend is now called the Flynn effect. It could be due to more people with higher IQ breeding or taking the test, fewer people with lower IQ breeding or taking the test, the test getting easier, or social/cultural factors. The latter seems the most plausible. Flynn thinks that the hypothesis most in accord with the data regarding the relationship of IQ tests and intelligence is that "IQ tests do not measure intelligence but rather correlate with a weak causal link to intelligence."

The research on IQ and race by Arthur Jensen, William Shockley, Herrnstein and Murray (The Bell Curve) and others have not found any significant correlations between race and intelligence. They have found correlations between race and IQ, which has been used to support the notion that some races are intellectually inferior to others. Not surprising is the fact that different researchers using different data get different results. Richard Lynn and James Flynn came to quite different conclusions regarding Asian IQ, for example.

Data showing that the Japanese had higher I.Q.s than people of European descent, for example, prompted the British psychometrician and eugenicist Richard Lynn to concoct an elaborate evolutionary explanation involving the Himalayas, really cold weather, premodern hunting practices, brain size, and specialized vowel sounds. The fact that the I.Q.s of Chinese-Americans also seemed to be elevated has led I.Q. fundamentalists to posit the existence of an international I.Q. pyramid, with Asians at the top, European whites next, and Hispanics and blacks at the bottom.

Here was a question tailor-made for James Flynn's accounting skills. He looked first at Lynn's data, and realized that the comparison was skewed. Lynn was comparing American I.Q. estimates based on a representative sample of schoolchildren with Japanese estimates based on an upper-income, heavily urban sample. Recalculated, the Japanese average came in not at 106.6 but at 99.2. Then Flynn turned his attention to the Chinese-American estimates. They turned out to be based on a 1975 study in San Francisco's Chinatown using something called the Lorge-Thorndike Intelligence Test. But the Lorge-Thorndike test was normed in the nineteen-fifties. For children in the nineteen-seventies, it would have been a piece of cake. When the Chinese-American scores were reassessed using up-to-date intelligence metrics, Flynn found, they came in at 97 verbal and 100 nonverbal. Chinese-Americans had slightly lower I.Q.s than white Americans. (Gladwell 2007)

In his monograph on Asian Americans and IQ, Flynn claims that Chinese Americans' occupational achievements well exceed their IQ. He argues that the best explanation for this is environmental, and is due to such things as education, work ethic, and family values. Flynn also argues that the Asian-American dominance in math has been in spite of their IQ, not because of it (Gladwell 2008: 231n). In chapter eight of Outliers: the Story of Success,  Malcolm Gladwell presents the case that the main cultural factors that explain Asian dominance in math are rooted in the history of rice growing and the way numbers are named, written, and conceived.

Few deny that there are several races or that there are obvious physical and cultural differences among different ethnic groups. Since the publication of Richard Lewontin's 1972 article "The Apportionment of Human Diversity" in Evolutionary Biology the view that race is a social construct has been accepted by most scientists. That view has been challenged by Armand Marie Leroi, who argues that Lewontin's error was that

he looked at one gene at a time and failed to see races. But if many—a few hundred—variable genes are considered simultaneously, then it is very easy to do so. Indeed, a 2002 study by scientists at the University of Southern California and Stanford showed that if a sample of people from around the world are sorted by computer into five groups on the basis of genetic similarity, the groups that emerge are native to Europe, East Asia, Africa, America and Australasia—more or less the major races of traditional anthropology.

Basically, Leroi's view is a return to the view that dominated before Lewontin's view took over. It had become a widespread belief that race is genetically determined in much the same way as, say, eye color. Having a certain gene or set of genes means you have blue eyes. Likewise, having a set of genes makes one Caucasian. It has always been accepted that a person's genetic makeup is a significant factor in individual intelligence in particular areas and in physical features associated with different races, such as skin color, breadth of nose, shape of eyes, etc. There is, of course, a tremendous variation in intelligence among individuals of any race. Clearly, environment plays a significant role in the development of intelligence. Over the long haul, environment determines which physical features evolve in the group. Whatever genetic differences exist among the races are due to mechanisms like natural selection and sexual selection. The notion of a "pure" race is an absurdity. Even if the Christian fundamentalists are right and there was an original Adam and Eve, no race can claim to be "pure." Each race evolved according to natural processes such as natural selection.

some race data

"There's about a 15 percent genetic variation between any two individuals," according to science writer Deborah Blum. "Less than half of that, about 6 percent, is accounted for by known racial groupings....A randomly selected white person, therefore, can easily be genetically closer to an African than another white" (Blum 1995). Others contest these figures, arguing that genetic clustering is less likely to be evident in studies that use a small number of genetic markers. The greater the number of markers used, the greater the genetic clustering (Tang et al.: 2005).

Joseph Graves, an African-American evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University-West in Tempe, notes that most people and researchers who try to establish correlations between various natural abilities and skin color are not geneticists.

These people don't know evolutionary genetics. They talk about interesting issues in race and biology. And since, I think, there are no real races, I wonder what these issues are. It makes me angry that I have to take time from my research (on the genetics of aging) to argue about something that shouldn't even need to be discussed (Blum).

C. Loring Brace, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, claims that "race is a four-letter word with no basis in biological reality" (Blum). Others claim that the assertion that race is biologically meaningless is politically motivated.* There is also the problem of different scientists defining 'race' in different ways.

In any case, genetic clustering occurs due to geographical isolation over long periods of time, and continues through inheritance when individuals leave their native area and breed with others of similar background. Physical features such as skin color, shape of eyelid, color of eyes, texture of hair, etc., are genetically determined. (For example, about 90 to 95 percent of African Americans and 98 to 99 percent of Asians are Rh-positive.*) It is also true that an individual's capacity for any particular kind of intelligence is largely dependent on genetic factors. As far as I know, nobody has yet found a correlation between the genes that determine, say, musical talent or the power to visualize or to think abstractly, and the genes that determine a set of physical characteristics that most would readily recognize as European or African. If you want to find out why Asians are over-represented in California's universities while blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented, you will probably search in vain for a genetic answer. Those who are interested in such things would do better to look at family structure, ethnic traditions, and social conditions.*

spurious correlations

To correlate race and intelligence in the name of science and have the world pay attention to you is no small feat. Could it be the numbers, the statistics, which impress people? Not likely. Even the most sophisticated numerical analysis which showed a correlation between phlogiston and ether wouldn't get a hearing today. So, why does the race/intelligence bit get a hearing? How can any rational person take seriously notions such as the Aryans or racial purity? Some probably assert these things as a matter of establishing power. Being a member of a pure race is a quick and simple way to establish one's superiority. Membership is easy. You're born into it. Being the right race gives one a right to superiority and justifies inequality, regardless of one's individual deficiencies. It also justifies racism, since if inferior people are succeeding they must be cheating the truly superior people out of their just inheritance. It also justifies believing things about oneself that have no objective validity. A truly inferior being can justify thinking of himself as superior because of his race membership. He can rationalize any failures or inadequacies and attribute them to the unfair advantage given to those he considers inferior. He can even fool himself into thinking his non-white skin is white and that he somehow deserves to share in the accomplishments of anyone in his "white" race. (I have been expected to check "white" on a number of forms concerned about my "race", although when compared to a white sheet of paper, my skin color is clearly not white, but light brown. I have met very few "white" people who are white. At least they are not white in the skin areas generally exposed in public. Truly white people—albinos—come in all races.)

However, even if there were such a thing as a pure race, that fact would not justify considering that race superior to any other. One might even make a case for the inferiority of such a race. Nature clearly favors variation. Chances of survival under varied and changing conditions increase as the species is more varied. Too much similarity could mean racial disaster, extinction; while variation could mean the survival of some members of the species if disaster should strike. Likewise, a species with several varieties of intelligences, as well as individuals with varying degrees of those intelligences, could well be a sign of superiority, at least in terms of the survival potential of the race.

Are the studies of no value that show African-Americans or Asians doing differently than so-called "white" Americans on standardized IQ tests? That is, is the work of people like Herrnstein and Murray worthless? No. It is valuable data, but it is also explosive data because of our racist political history. The data is also often wrong.* Such data will inevitably be exploited by white supremacists, twisted for their own political goals and used not to improve racial relations in America but to encourage further racial strife. Such data consists mainly of correlations. And while correlations should convince orthodox empirical scientists of nothing, to the racist researcher, correlations are the heart and soul of their work. The furor that The Bell Curve caused died down quickly because there occurred an ongoing saga which usurped its political and entertainment value: the O. J. Simpson trial. In fact, Herrnstein and Murray, in chapter after chapter, call for social reforms to improve the status of blacks in America. They may be disingenuous calls, but they are nevertheless inconsistent with the notion that the social condition of blacks in America is due to genetic factors. If genes led to the black underclass of young thugs who murder each other on a daily basis in almost every city in America, then there would be no point in calling for educational or vocational programs, no point in urging a change of focus for black men and women in their families, as even the black supremacist Louis Farrakhan has recommended with his million man march.

One can't deny that the majority of young men killing each other in gang wars are minorities. But one can deny that the reason they are so violent and immoral is because of their genes. That is false and an insult to the majority of blacks and other minorities who are decent, law-abiding persons. One can't deny that minorities are undereducated as a group and underrepresented in our colleges and universities, and in the professions and skilled trades. But one can deny that the reason minorities are underrepresented is that their genes makes them inferior and incapable of competing with "white" America. Even so, it is true that many minorities are not in college or working as doctors or lawyers or teachers or auto mechanics, etc., because of their race. There are social factors, such as racism and poverty, that continue to adversely affect black progress in America. There are also cultural factors that need to be addressed, but when they are—even by black leaders like Bill Cosby or others—they are often met with the same kind of resistance that Jensen and Shockley experienced.

It is possible that some day we may be able to look at people of different races and see them as human beings without losing sight of what is special and unique about racial or ethnic membership. We do not need to be colorblind, nor should we strive to ignore racial differences. But they should be seen in a proper perspective: significant in forming us, but irrelevant to our status as human beings capable of both the highest moral and intellectual behavior and of bestial depravity and moronic incompetence.

In the meantime, we should heed Peter Singer's words:

...the genetic hypothesis does not imply that we should reduce our efforts to overcome other causes of inequality between people.

...the fact that the average IQ of one racial group is a few points higher than that of another does not allow anyone to say that all members of the higher IQ group have higher IQs than all members of the lower IQ group....

And, having a higher IQ does not justify racism (Singer, 1993), or any other kind of -ism, for that matter.

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Allport, Gordon. The Nature of Prejudice (Addison-Wesley, 1954).

Augstein, Hannah. ed., Race: The Origins of an Idea, 1760-1850 (Bristol, UK: Thoemmen Press, 1996).

Blum, Deborah ."Race: many biologists argue for discarding the whole concept," The Sacramento Bee, October 18, 1995, p. A12.

Evans, Bergen. The Natural History of Nonsense (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), ch. 14, "The Skin Game."

Flynn, James R. 1991. Asian Americans: Achievement Beyond IQ. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Flynn, James R. 1980. Race, IQ and Jensen. Routledge Kegan & Paul.

Fraser, Steve, editor, The Bell Curve Wars : Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America (Basic Books, 1995).

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2008. Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown and Company.

Gould, Stephen J. The Mismeasure of Man (New York, Norton: 1981).

Higgins, A.C. Review of William Tucker's The Science and Politics of Racial Research

Kamin, Leon J. Science and Politics of IQ (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 1974).

Kincheloe, Joe L. et al. editor, Measured Lies : The Bell Curve Examined (St. Martin's Press, 1997).

Marks, Jonathan. "Black, White, Other" in Natural History, 12/94.

Montagu, Ashley. Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, 6th ed. (Altamira Press, 1997).

Nisbett, R. E. (2005). "Heredity, environment, and race differences in IQ: A commentary on Rushton and Jensen (2005)". Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 302–310.

Montagu, Ashley. Race and IQ: Expanded Edition (Oxford University Press, 1999).

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Stanovich, Keith E. 2009. What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, Yale University Press.

Tang, Hua et al. 2005. Genetic Structure, Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity, and Confounding in Case-Control Association Studies. American Journal of Human Genetics, v.76(2), February.


Does Race exist? Dr. Loring Brace of the University of Michigan says 'no" and Dr. George Gill of the University of Wyoming says "yes"

June 2005 issue of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol. 11, No. 2.

Does Race Exist? By Michael J. Bamshad and Steve E. Olson (Scientific American, December 2003)

None of the Above - What I.Q. doesn't tell you about race by Malcolm Gladwell

An 'Obama Effect' on Blacks' Test Scores? by Sharon Begley


BOOK REVIEWS - Race Finished by Jan Sapp

RACE?: Debunking a Scientific Myth. Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle. xviii + 226 pp. Texas A&M University Press, 2011. $35.

RACE AND THE GENETIC REVOLUTION: Science, Myth, and Culture. Edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan. xiv + 296 pp. Columbia University Press, 2011. $105 cloth, $35 paper.

"The consensus among Western researchers today is that human races are sociocultural constructs. Still, the concept of human race as an objective biological reality persists in science and in society. It is high time that policy makers, educators and those in the medical-industrial complex rid themselves of the misconception of race as type or as genetic population.....Race is not just a sociocultural construct; it is a technological and commercial artifact that persists today."

Intelligence Mapped in the Brain


Human Races May Have Biological Meaning, But Races Mean Nothing About Humanity "Like Charles Darwin, today’s scholars have concluded that humans are fundamentally an African species. But unlike Darwin they conclude from this that there is a biological, essential unity of humankind, such that talk of “civilized” and “savage” is rendered moot and irrelevant. We do look through the mirror of our ages darkly, seeing startlingly different insights from the same shadows of reality. Whereas racist assumptions and beliefs were supported by interpretations of science of the 19th century, today we attempt to harness science in the opposing direction."


Last updated 21-Oct-2015

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