Politics & Policy

Watson Was That Again?

Still more on race and I.Q.

Editor’s note: This is part three of three. (Read parts I here and II here).

Q: O.K., O.K., but back to the point that got Watson in trouble. You race realist types like to say: “Well, it’s nothing to do with superiority or inferiority. It’s just DIFFERENCE — and abstract group-statistical difference at that.” Isn’t that a bit disingenuous, though? I mean, look at black Africa. They’re really NOT doing well, are they? If, as Watson claimed, it’s because they just have too few smart people to keep a modern society going — well, how is that not calling sub-Saharan Africans an inferior race, a failed race? How is it NOT?

A: That’s the big one. That, in my opinion, is what all the fuss is about. Again, I’m looking at it a bit “cold,” not quite seeing why there’s a fuss. Why should Clarence Thomas (say) feel any the worse about himself because black Africa’s a mess? Does he, in fact? (My guess: no.)

And here is where you bump up against the fact that what makes human nature so hard to discuss coolly is human nature itself.

One component of human nature is a cluster of emotions associated with group membership. On the positive side there are loyalty and patriotism, selflessness and co-operation, leadership and followership, teamwork. On the negative: hostility to other groups, anger and sadness at exclusion from the group, eagerness to submit to authority, hero-worship, the Mob. Anyone who has seen real, effective leadership in action, admires and respects it, and acknowledges its necessity for any kind of group achievement. On the other hand, the German word for “leader” is Führer, and it takes some unusual measure of selflessness to fly a plane into a building.

(In the long shadow of WW2, Arthur Koestler wrote a book about this, concluding with the recommendation that late-20th-century pharmacologists bend their efforts to making a drug that would eliminate, or at least suppress, the groupish emotions — the source of too many human catastrophes, according to Koestler. Fortunately — according to me — nobody paid attention.)

If you hang out with race-realist types a lot — and yes, I do, and count myself one — a thing you notice is that a high proportion of them, of us, are antisocial loners. Trust me, it’s not just because of their opinions that race realists don’t win any popularity prizes. (And as a corollary, not many of them, of us, are successful in a worldly way. Poor social skills. Jim Watson, though world-famous for what he did, fits the pattern. Talk to anyone who knows him and expressions like “difficult,” “prickly,” and “loose cannon” soon turn up.)

Like every other feature of human nature, the groupish emotions are unevenly distributed. Some individuals are richly endowed with them. They are plunged into despair when their baseball team loses; they bristle to hear their religion criticized; they are furious at insults to their nation; if of eccentric sexual preference, they may swear brotherhood with those similarly disposed; and yes, they are mad as hell to hear their race described as failed, even though they understand at some level that it’s an abstract statistical description that does not reflect on them personally, any more than their baseball team’s losing the World Series does.

Your antisocial loner isn’t like that. He probably has no strong opinion about the relative merits of Yankees and Mets. If he goes to church, it’s for personal and metaphysical reasons, not social ones. He’s a poor employee and a feeble team-sports participant. He may like his country, and be willing to fight for it, but exuberant expressions of patriotism embarrass him. He’s more likely than the average to marry someone of a different race. (Am I describing anyone in particular here? No! Absolutely not!) Tell him he belongs to a failed race and he’ll probably say: “Yes, I guess so. It’s sad. But hey, I’m doing okay…”

To the degree that he has any preference, the antisocial loner is an Americanophile. The U.S.A. advertises itself as the nation of individualism, where you judge a man, and he judges himself, by what he can accomplish — by, as somebody once said “the content of his character” — not by which group he belongs to.

If you are not that type — and most people, even most Americans, are not — it’s much more difficult for you to discuss human-group differences. Too much groupish emotion gets in the way. It was hard not to notice, in the recent kerfuffles about illegal immigration, how many people on the pro-illegals side had names like Rivera, Chavez, Sanchez,…

But see, as I’ve just pointed out, people strongly susceptible to group identification do better in the world — are more successful. It’s a social world, success-wise, and they’re social people. What is social success, but identifying with groups and securing high status within them? Having a set of good robust groupish emotions will do that for ya. Thus, race realists don’t get much of a hearing; and when they pipe up, their views sound strange and eccentric. They heat up the groupish emotions of the majority — of most normal human beings — and shouting breaks out.

The kind of cool, antisocial personality to whom race realism makes sense is not likely to attain the commanding heights of a field like, say, opinion journalism, so when the shouting starts up he’s at a natural disadvantage — a small playa being shouted down by big playas.

The truth content of the argument? Oh, that just gets lost in the shouting. Who cares about truth when careers and money and within-group status are at stake? Not many, I’m afraid; and most of those who do care are quirky loner types that nobody much likes anyway.

Q: Is any of this really worth worrying about? Won’t we just science our way out of it all somehow, with genetic engineering, or embryo selection, or something no-one’s thought of yet?

A: Maybe. Possibly we shall turn up some harmless compound we can put in the water supply, like fluoride, that levels out the I.Q. profiles of all groups. You never know. Personally I’d rank the prospect down there with Arthur Koestler’s groupish-emotions-elimination pill, but you never know.

Genetic engineering? I’m sure something will come of it. It shouldn’t be that hard. Noah Millman suggests that our hopes for genetic engineering are overblown, in the way that hopes for social engineering were 100 years ago, leading to all the well-known failures of state socialism.

I disagree. To be sure, a human being, or just a human brain, is an extremely complicated thing, and we shouldn’t underestimate the scientific challenges of genetic tinkering. (I am not aware of any scientists involved in this work who do underestimate them.) A human society, though, is at the next level of complexity up, consisting as it does of millions of human beings! From the fact that we screwed up the engineering of societies (and, as Noah concedes, we didn’t make a total pig’s ear of it — we tamed the business cycle, for instance) it does not follow that we’ll screw up the engineering of the genome.

I’m sure there will be some false steps and a few disasters, but probably we’ll get it right at last and genetic engineering will deliver something that improves our lives and societies.

The catch there is the word “our.” Who’s going to be doing this? To whom? Private consumers, to their own germlines? State authorities, to bamboozled or bribed client groups? Mad dictators intent on creating zombie armies? Who, whom? No social advance is free of these considerations, but they’ll be unusually acute if genetic engineering takes off.

Even without genetic engineering, a lot of what is hoped for can be accomplished by germline screening and selection. This has already started up. The who-whom factor is present here, too, though in a muted form, as you are working with variations that currently exist, not deliberately manufactured, never-before-seen variations.

Another possibility you don’t see discussed much is that human intelligence may just cease to matter. It matters now, (a) for individuals — it’s a very good predictor of your life outcome — and (b) for nations, since your population’s I.Q. profile correlates strongly with stability and success.

Suppose, however, that our clever machines were to get really clever — cleverer than us ourselves, so that there wasn’t much useful work left for us to do. Clever enough to do our manufacturing and lawyering and doctoring and legislating and administrating, leaving us to sit under palm trees strumming ukeleles while we wait for the robo-butler to bring us mint juleps. What would human I.Q. matter in a lotus-eating world like that?

Some researchers think that the high I.Q. of “Arctic” populations — East Asians, Europeans — is a consequence of a challenging lifestyle back in the paleolithic — having to hunt big game across frozen tundra in competition with other large carnivores. In places where the population just had to lounge around waiting for breadfruit to fall from trees, natural selection was not so intense. Possibly — the world-I.Q. map does bear an uncanny resemblance to your high-school climate-zones chart: frigid, temperate, tropical. (But then, why aren’t Eskimos all chess champions? They’re not.)

So perhaps in a lotus-eating world I.Q. will just cease to matter, as physical strength ceased to matter when we all quit pitching hay or shoveling coal and went to work tapping keyboards in office cubes. Perhaps we’ll keep up our smarts anyway for cosmetic, mating-display purposes, as sedentary office-wallahs nowadays work out at the gym, but it won’t matter.

Yes: with some luck, and a bit of sense, and — hey! — enhanced intelligence, either human or artificial, we probably will science our way out of it. All the shrieking and pointing and jumping on chairs while clutching our skirts will likely look pretty silly to our grandkids.

A precondition for that to come about, though, is that at some point we actually stop the shrieking, pointing, and skirt-clutching, and discuss these issues calmly, like rational adults. Is that point about to arrive? I very much hope so.


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