In the latest issue of National Review, John McWhorter has a challenging and thought-provoking essay about the topic of race and IQ — specifically, about whether that topic should even be up for discussion in liberal-arts classrooms and in the media, as opposed to in scientific journals. He suggests not, as there is nothing to gain from discussing it.
I read McWhorter’s essay with special interest because I have violated the norm he proposes. I have written about race and IQ on numerous occasions — and for a general audience, as I am not even a specialist myself. See, for example, my 2013 essay in this space about Jason Richwine’s departure from the Heritage Foundation, as well as my RealClear reviews of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance and Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (on its 20th anniversary).
In light of McWhorter’s essay, I thought it would be worth explaining how I became interested in this topic and why I participate in public discussions of it. Here goes.
I suppose I can blame this on my wife. Back when we were dating in college — and she was a self-described socialist, and I thought democratizing Iraq sounded like a fantastic idea — she insisted I take a class offered by the sociology department called “Social Inequality.” It would open my mind.
I don’t even remember what led up to it, but at one point the professor informed us that some amorphous “they” had proven that “race isn’t genetic.” Murmurs of amazement spread among my classmates. “That sounds like bullsh**,” I thought.
Back at my dorm I turned to Google and quickly sussed out one of the basic truths McWhorter mentions: Categorical claims that “race isn’t genetic” amount to either bad science or word games. One of my most amusing discoveries that day was the argument that when forensic anthropologists identify someone’s race from nothing but a skeleton, all they’re really identifying is the region the person’s ancestors came from, which is totally different. I later learned that, if given a collection of DNA samples, scientists can predict the racial self-identifications of the people the samples come from with nearly 100 percent accuracy.
Are the precise boundaries we draw between racial categories subjective? Of course. But even our casual classifications strongly reflect ancestry, and people with different ancestries have recognizably different genetic profiles. To insist otherwise is ridiculous.
That wasn’t the only thing that eventually led me down the race-and-IQ rabbit hole, though. Lefty journalist Eric Alterman also gets some of the blame, as his 2003 book What Liberal Media? featured a long diatribe against that evil pseudoscientist Charles Murray, which naturally piqued my interest. As did the fellow student who denounced a controversial race-and-IQ-focused blogger in a journalism-class discussion, leading me straight to Google after that instructional session as well.
At any rate, one year around 2005 or so I pulled out all the stops. I read The Bell Curve, including all the technical appendices. I read not one but two essay collections responding to The Bell Curve. I read a bunch of other stuff online. And on the underlying scientific issue here, I came to the same conclusion McWhorter does: The evidence doesn’t justify a verdict one way or the other. Genes do differ among racial groups, measured IQs differ on average as well, and some of the genes that differ might affect IQ. There’s no reason this can’t be the case. We just don’t know whether it is yet.
My experience provides a window into (a) how it is that people become interested in this topic and (b) what material is available to those who do. Regarding (a), it’s certainly true that if three different people had taken McWhorter’s advice and simply steered clear of the issue — my sociology professor, Eric Alterman, and my classmate — I might never have become so intrigued.
But I rather doubt that an effort to further stigmatize the discussion of race and IQ could have more than a minor effect on how often people actually discuss it. And even if people did stop discussing it openly, I suspect many would still become curious about the topic and research it online, where people feel considerably freer to explore the taboo. This subject sits at the nexus of numerous others that are inherently interesting, for perfectly legitimate reasons. How did evolution shape humanity as a whole, and to what extent did it shape different populations differently? Why do we have such stark inequality among different groups of people, and not just blacks and whites in the U.S.?
So regarding (b) above, the big question is: When people start hunting around for information online, what do you want them to find? If mainstream outlets decline to cover the subject, all that will be left are what McWhorter calls “dense, obscure academic journals” — and fringe websites whose proprietors don’t feel bound by society’s norms. Do you think the typical Googler is going to wade through the technical pros and cons of the “method of correlated vectors” (a heavily criticized technique suggesting that the best measures of “general intelligence” also have the biggest black–white gaps), or do you think he’ll turn to the more accessible option, especially if it’s at least presented in a reasoned tone?
I, for one, am glad I was able to find a wealth of material explaining both sides of the issue in terms that even a journalism major could understand (before I decided to dig into those dense, obscure academic journals myself). And that’s one reason I’ve created such material myself in the years since I entered the media.
There’s another reason too: Whether we like it or not, scientists are going to answer these questions sooner or later. They are already in the process of figuring out exactly what genes shape our brains and how they differ among individuals and groups; even McWhorter would not stop this research, and it will be carried out in other countries if American scientists keep away from it. I think we should be intellectually prepared for the possibility that this line of work won’t turn out the way we want.
Whether we like it or not, scientists are going to answer these questions sooner or later.
As I said, I’m not at all convinced that there is a genetic component to the black–white IQ gap. There is a stark environmental gap between blacks and whites in the U.S. — blacks have nearly triple the poverty rate of whites, and even blacks who aren’t poor are more likely than similarly situated whites to live in poor neighborhoods. As McWhorter writes, there are important cultural differences as well, regardless of class. I see no reason it can’t be the case that these environmental and cultural differences cause the entirety of the observed IQ gap.
I’m doubtful, however, that we will find no genetic group differences in any important trait whatsoever. There are countless social patterns besides the black–white IQ gap that could conceivably have genetic causes. East Asians and Ashkenazi Jews have higher average IQ scores than gentile whites. There are different levels of violence in different racial groups. Some societies have trouble setting up functional economies, a problem that seems to have “deep roots.”
Looking at the possibilities from a different angle, humanity spread out to every corner of the globe over the course of tens of thousands of years, facing radically different environmental challenges everywhere it went and evolving in lots of disparate ways when it came to skin color, bone structure, disease risks (including alcoholism), etc. In those environments humans set up radically different cultures as well, which can themselves drive genetic changes. What’s the chance that mental abilities and behavioral tendencies were completely unaffected by all these processes?
Not too high, I would wager. And even if all human populations did evolve exactly the same mental traits, modern travel can create new, local genetic differences between groups in an instant — such as when high- or low-IQ people from one society are disproportionately likely to move to another one. Immigrants to the U.S. are not a representative cross-section of the countries they come from, for instance; they are a self-selected group. To invent a fictional example, it’s possible that Freedonians in general have the same mix of IQ genes as anyone else, but Freedonian-Americans were skimmed off the top of that society, and that’s why their kids do so well in school here.
I think it’s good to have a robust discussion about these issues now, while the science is uncertain — because if we are not prepared for it, conclusive proof of genetic differences that drive socially important racial gaps could lead us down a dangerous path. Even some very smart and well-meaning people seem to assume that if racial groups differed in meaningful ways owing to their DNA, that would justify horrifying practices.
In A Dream Deferred, Shelby Steele wrote that it would have “far-right and, I have to say, even fascistic ideological implications” if genes contributed to the black–white IQ gap. Responding to my above-mentioned piece about Jason Richwine, Will Wilkinson of The Economist wrote that if genetic, group-level IQ differences exist, it forces us to “acknowledge that the racists were right all along — that racism has, to some extent, a valid scientific basis.”
I submit that it’s better to establish why these conclusions are wrong before scientists uncover any bombshells about IQ or other sensitive traits. They are wrong because population-level averages cannot justify discrimination against individuals, and because genetic abilities and propensities — measured at the group or individual level — cannot justify inhumane treatment. After all, we stopped sterilizing low-IQ individuals long ago, despite a wealth of research showing that individual-level differences in IQ are roughly half genetic. The immorality of fascism and racism stems from the moral equality of all human beings; it cannot rest on an assumption that all human beings or groups of them are exactly the same.
I don’t think these are difficult concepts. But they don’t come naturally to many, and it’s hard to explain them without talking about race and IQ openly in the first place.
That’s not to say there would be no policy implications whatsoever if the black–white IQ gap were partly genetic, and that is my final point of disagreement with McWhorter.
One of three hypothetical rationales for discussing race and IQ that McWhorter explores is that “society should accept that a disproportionate number of black people will labor at the bottom of the occupational scale and that in general black people will be underrepresented in the higher echelons of society.” He calls this a “brutally open, race-based meritocratic consensus” that stands no chance thanks to the West’s “bulwark against complacently accepting racial stratification.”
Well, when you put it like that . . .
In the short term, I believe a finding that the black–white IQ gap is partly genetic would require us to change almost nothing, because there would still be the other part to deal with. (Even The Bell Curve argued the gap was part genetic and part environmental.) We would still have the project of helping all Americans fulfil their genetic potential regardless of race, which would mean addressing the substandard schools, lingering racial discrimination, and countless other environmental factors that disproportionately weigh down black Americans.
If we achieve that, though, what we should aspire to is not a “brutally open, race-based meritocratic consensus” but an end to racial bean-counting. If Americans of all races have the opportunity to achieve what their natural talents make possible, any remaining statistical gaps among races should become a non-issue. In other words, it’s at that point we should stop talking about all this, and I think we very well might.
Some on the left would no doubt continue to treat racial gaps as a moral emergency even if such inequalities narrowed to the point where they reflected only genetic differences, but I doubt they’d find too much traction in this country. Americans overwhelmingly reject bluntly race-based policies such as affirmative action and reparations — the only tools that could really address a statistical inequality that sprang from genes rather than poverty, culture, or discrimination. We still would want to find a place in society for people of all cognitive-ability levels, of course, and to help all individuals develop their skills. But the more specific problem of racial gaps will have been solved to the extent it can be.
I’ll be the first to say that any discussion of race and IQ should be careful and respectful, and ideally written and considered rather than spoken off the cuff. But I believe there’s more to gain from having this discussion in view of the general public than from trying to confine it to scholarly journals.