Politics & Policy

Racy Questions, Continued

More on race, I.Q., and the mainstream.

Editors note: This is the second of three parts (Read Part I here).

Q: None of this means anything. There’s no such thing as intelligence; or if there is, you can’t measure it. Didn’t Stephen Jay Gould write a book proving that?

A: Gould was a self-declared Chomskian “progressive.” You want to talk agendas? For goodness’ sake.

And negativity doesn’t count for very much in science. Sure, you can criticize another guy’s work; but sooner or later, you have to come up with work of your own.

Here’s a commonplace phenomenon we’re all aware of: Some individuals are smarter than others. We see it every day; nobody really doubts it; all human languages have a vocabulary of words to describe it. No such thing as intelligence? Fiddlesticks.

O.K., let’s investigate the phenomenon systematically. Let’s observe, measure, classify. Let’s form hypotheses and test them. Let’s publish and compare results. Let’s do science.

You don’t like what a century of psychometricians have come up with by traveling that route? That’s fine: but what have you come up with? You don’t think I.Q. tests are valid as a way to quantify smartness? Then what do you think is valid? What methodology would you suggest? Where is your data? What hypotheses have you generated? Where did you publish your results? What do your results say about group differences?

In science you have to walk the walk. I.Q. deniers are like the Intelligent Design folk: long on critI.Q.ue, pitifully short on research, on data, on work, on science.

You should experience the collegiality in this field — hear the respect with which, for example, Charles Murray (libertarian conservative) speaks of James Flynn (egalitarian socialist). “Really important data… impeccable methodology… remarkable insights…” etc. That’s science. That’s why science geeks love it. No shrieking.

Q: But there are different kinds of intelligence, aren’t there? The Bushmen of the Kalahari have their own kind, to help them survive. You, with your book-smarts and your desk-smarts, wouldn’t last a week in the Kalahari.

A: That is very likely true, but if so, it belongs to the category of melancholy truths. I mean, it’s a truth that does nobody any good, and which, if you think through its consequences, will make you feel sad.

It certainly isn’t going to do the Bushman any good. If the terrain over which he exercises his keen hunter-gatherer intelligence becomes interesting to some mining company, or builder of dams, or foreign conqueror, he will be swept from it like a bug from a picnic table. His superior intelligence, however admirable it may be from a metaphysical point of view, will avail him nothing in a clash with modernity.

There may indeed be different kinds of smarts, each worthy in its own way. In the world as it is, though, the kind of smarts that gets you a coherent nation under stable government, with a fair shot at security, prosperity, good health, and comfort for yourself and your descendants, is one particular kind — the kind measured by I.Q. tests.

Jared Diamond is keen on the other kind. He attributes it to the highlanders of New Guinea, among whom he has lived and done anthropological research. That’s great; but as Diamond himself notes — though with regret — Highland-New-Guinea-type smarts is never going to develop any society or technology capable of sweeping away Modernity-I.Q.-type smarts, while the converse has been proven all too many times.

One even wonders if this is really so sad. Ignorance is bliss. While no doubt the New Guineans are happy in their isolation, would their lifestyle survive in free competition with modernity? Imagine them set down on a self-sufficient but open-borders reservation in the middle of some modern city — Hong Kong, say. Which of the following things would be more likely to happen: (a) the New Guineans drift off into the city lifestyle leaving the reservation empty at last, or (b) the Hong Kongers clamor to join them on the reservation and adopt their lifestyle?

Q: What is race, anyway? Hasn’t it been proved a meaningless concept?

A: Race is just common ancestry. More precisely, it’s mostly common ancestry.

If I sit down to work out my family tree, I have two slots for parents, four for grandparents, eight for great-grandparents, and so on.

Go back a thousand years — say thirty generations — and there are, by the well-known doubling rule, a billion-something slots to fill. Now, there weren’t a billion people alive in the world in A.D. 1008. The actual number of different persons filling those billion slots is likely only a few ten thousands, each name repeated over and over hundreds of times as a result of inbreeding across a millennium.

Can I say anything nontrivial about those few-ten-thousand persons of the early 11th century whose inbred contributions make up my genome?

Well, yes, I believe I can, just by looking in the mirror. I can assert with perfect confidence, for example, that it is not the case that any large proportion of them — twenty, thirty, forty percent or more — were Australian Aborigines. If that were the case, I would not look so unmistakably European. (And should my confidence in the mirror test waver, there are now firms that will sequence my genome for a few hundred dollars, from which I would get the same answer.)

Of course, there might be an Aborigine in there somewhere — even two, four, eight, or sixteen. Most of my ancestry, though — look at me, for Pete’s sake! — is European. In fact, given what I know about my ancestry, and about history, and about mobility and mating customs in times gone by, my strong guess is that most of those few ten-thousand people were subjects of Ethelred the Unready, born in England. Most of the rest lived within a thousand miles of England.

In my children’s cases, half of their few-ten-thousands ancestors circa A.D. 1008 would be east-Asian, the other half north-European. They’re mixed race. I don’t personally find this a difficult concept to grasp. Nor, again — boy, I must have ice in my veins! — is it anything I get worked up about.

If, instead of a mere thousand years, I were to track my ancestry back to the Paleolithic era –20, 30, 40 thousand years ago — when the number of slots to be filled is in the high quonzibazillions, there would paradoxically be even fewer people around to fill them. After modern humans scattered out from Africa, small groups of them, likely just a few hundred in each case, settled down in different parts of the world and multiplied there quietly for hundreds of generations, breeding among themselves. The particular few hundred individuals who generated modern Europeans occupy most of the quonzibazillions of slots in my early-paleolithic family tree, each individual showing up in a trixikazillion slots. That’s why a person who looks at me for the first time will think “European ancestry,” as opposed to “Polynesian ancestry,” “Northeast Asian ancestry,” “Meso-American ancestry,” or “Sub-Saharan-African ancestry.” That’s my race. Race doesn’t exist? More fiddlesticks.

Races are fuzzy sets, with indeterminacies, like my kids, around the edges. Those old ancestral paleolithic populations have been mixing, to some degree, since the agricultural revolution of eight thousand years ago. In the tens of thousands of years prior to that, they apparently mixed very little. The degree of post-paleolithic mixing shouldn’t be exaggerated, either. It’s a shame my (great)23-grandma got raped by the Golden Horde when they overran Kiev, but pretty much all the other mating in my ancestry was between Europeans. People didn’t move around much in the premodern world. Of the 10479 slots in my 50,000-B.C. family tree, a few trillion are filled by proto-Mongolians as a consequence (presequence?) of that unfortunate incident in Kiev. The rest are all proto-European.

Population-genetic studies of the British Isles suggest a few thin layers of paint (Romans, Danes, Normans,…) on a big, solid paleolithic substratum. American blacks seem to be only 20-25 percent nonblack by ancestry on broad average. In Mexico, after 500 years, two-fifths of the population is still unmixed (30-percent Amerindian, 10-percent European). For mating purposes, oddities like the Derbs apart, people seem to prefer their own kind — defined to mean: a large component of common ancestry. Which people can detect, to high accuracy. Using their eyes.

Q: Come on. “Race” is just arbitrary. Remember Jared Diamond’s argument that lactose-intolerant people, found all over the world wherever cattle breeding was never a major economic factor, form a “race” by virtue of having the lactose-intolerant gene variants. Don’t they?

A: No. Jared Diamond’s viewpoint is warped by his affection for those New Guinea highlanders he used to hang out with. (This is the charitable interpretation of Diamond’s motives. You’ll hear much worse.) He must surely know, at some level, that it’s nonsense. As the old baseball saying goes: You can b-s the fans, but you can’t b-s the players.

Race is common ancestry. That will give you clusters of common gene variants. It’s the clusters that tag your ancestry, not any one gene variant.

Black skin, for example, is found all over: sub-Saharan Africa, Melanesia, Australia, south India, southeast-Asian hill tribes… I was at college with a fellow as black as a person can be: he came from Burma. Yet these black-skinned populations are as genetically distinct from each other as Norwegians and Japanese. The same applies to lactose intolerance, which is found all over.

If I’m given a population to study, and they mostly have black skin, I’m not really anywhere close to knowing they have common ancestry, any more than if I know they are lactose-intolerant. If, however, the population has high frequencies of black skin and high frequencies of gene variant X and gene variant Y and gene variant Z… Then I’m on to something. The data is starting to yell: Common ancestry!

Q: Suppose we find that, yes, I.Q. really measures something key to life and group outcomes, and yes, race is what you say it is, a real thing, and yes, different major races profile differently on I.Q. and other personality indices. What use would that knowledge be? What would anyone do with it? What would anyone NOT POSSESSED OF MALIGN INTENT do with it?

A: First, nobody ever knows where scientific research will lead. If you fear that knowledge unearthed by science might be used for malign purposes, your only logical course of action is to shut down absolutely all research in every field. I am sure there are people who want to do that. I am not one of them.

Isaac Asimov posed the following thought experiment. Imagine it’s the year 1890. You canvass the world’s best specialists in orthopaedic medicine, asking them all the question: Which current field of research, in which of the sciences, will lead to the greatest advances in orthopaedic medicine during the coming decades? Never mind regular-Joe citizens: you’re asking the specialists.

Asimov said, I think correctly, that none of them would have given the right answer. The right answer would have been: Research by physicists into the transmission of electric current through rarified gases. (Which led to the discovery of X-rays.)

Second, there are direct public-policy consequences to having good-quality knowledge about human nature. The No Child Left Behind Act, for instance, includes incentives and mandates to eliminate race difference in test results. If the knowledge that race differences in test results can’t be eliminated had been available to, and accepted by, the drafters of the Act, we should have spared ourselves the error of spending scads of public money on futile policies. Wouldn’t that be worth doing?

(Excuse me: In fact, the differences can be eliminated. There are two ways to eliminate them. One, you make the test so easy that everyone passes with 100-percent score. Race gap eliminated! Or two, you make the test so hard that everyone scores zero. Race gap eliminated! This is not a trivial observation. Somewhere between infinitely-easy and infinitely-hard there is a point — a point of test difficulty — where the race gap is at maximum. If you now adjust the difficulty of your tests in either direction away from this maximum point, a tad easier or a tad harder, the gap diminishes. That’s what “maximum” means. You’ve diminished the gap! Do you think state education bureaucrats have not yet figured out this simple little nugget of elementary calculus? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!)

Again, if, as Jim Watson implied, having more smart people is good for your country’s development, security, and prosperity, shouldn’t we factor that into our immigration policies? Shouldn’t we use immigration policy to beef up our stock of smart people? Perhaps you think we shouldn’t; but can’t we at least discuss it? What’s so scary?

And again, black Africa’s chronic backwardness is a phenomenon that needs explaining, if anything is ever to be done about it. Watson offered an explanation: Black Africa, for reasons to do with the deep history of the human race, doesn’t have enough smart people.

That’s what scientists and intellectuals are supposed to do: offer explanations for things. Once we’ve sifted through the explanations and agreed on which one is most likely correct, we can figure out solutions to problems.

Of course Watson’s explanation isn’t the only one. Let’s line up all the explanations on offer and subject them to cool discussion and analysis. That’s how the human race makes progress. NO, LET’S NOT! IT’S ALL TOO SCARY TO TALK ABOUT! WATSON IS A BAD, BAD MAN! Good grief. Are we adults, trying to enlarge our understanding, or children squealing in terror at the boogey-man?


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