I see that a story on AlterNet, by Anneli Rufus, entitled, “IQ Blackout: Why Did Studying Intelligence Become Taboo?” has been making the rounds. Popular Daily Beast blogger, Andrew Sullivan, picked up on the piece, prompting a back and forth exchange between him and Atlantic blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates. The issue of race and intelligence, or more specifically IQ, is something that seems to reappear over and over despite being a remarkably unproductive topic. It is an issue of considerable cultural significance because of its near ubiquitous relevance – nearly everyone has some general opinion or thoughts on the topic – and therefore something I teach a unit on in my Race and Human Biological Variation course. Before getting into my own thoughts on the issue, it is worth looking at what the three writers above say, as it features many of the points common to discussions on the topic.
The AlterNet story begins:
Scholars used to avidly study human intelligence. They measured cranial capacity. They administered IQ tests. They sought to define what intelligence was and who had more or less of it and why.
These days, not so much.
The story might as well end there. It is not a bad thing “scholars” don’t spend a lot of time on these topics these days….there is not much to be said or gained from looking into them (see below). Most of the remainder of the article consists of quotes from Dennis Garlick, a UCLA postdoc and author of Intelligence and the Brain (Aesop 2010), largely focusing on the work of former Berkeley psychologist, Arthur Jensen.
In his pick up of the story, Andrew Sullivan comments:
The right response to unsettling data is to probe, experiment and attempt to disprove them – not to run away in racial panic.
This comment ignores a reality that, in fact, there was a huge response to Jensen’s work. The response was not to look deeper into the research begun by Jensen, but instead to reject the nature of the research and point out the flaws of it on first principles.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, responding to his former colleague (and boss, I believe), makes an astute observation:
With that said, Andrew’s ahistorical approach to race and intelligence has always amazed. The contention, for instance, that “research is not about helping people; it’s about finding out stuff,” may well be true in some limited sense. But it’s never been true, in any sense, of race and intelligence. In the 19th century helping out white people (however that is defined) was very much the point of intelligence research. Into the early 20th century, the rise of eugenics was equally linked the field to the advancement of “people.” Even the intelligence theorists whom Andrew, himself, has advanced over the years are motivated by a desire to presumably help people, if only in the form of deciding how a society should expend its limited resources.
This prompts a reply from Sullivan:
This is roughly the quality of the responses to The Bell Curve when it came out, but with added inaccuracy. No one is arguing that “that black people are dumber than white,” just that the distribution of IQ is slightly different among different racial populations, and these differences also hold true for all broad racial groups
Finally (or not…I’m sure this will go on in some form or another), Coates responds:
On the broad question–Should researchers be free to explore the nexus of race, IQ and intelligence?—Andrew and I are in harmony. Onward, indeed. Where we differ is the following: Andrew, like most conservatives who write about race, is more concerned with a vague p.c. egalitarianism than the forces that birthed such things. (Unlike “political correctness” those forces can actually be quantified, and their impact demonstrated.)
That his contention has long been linked to one of the ugliest strains of American thought, that it continues to be linked to actual white supremacists, is not particularly troublesome to Andrew. But that others might find it troublesome is deeply distressing. I don’t charge Andrew with defending slavery or sterilization. I charge him with bumbling through the ICU, tinkering with machinery, and wondering why everyone is so uptight and stuff.
People are biologically different from each other. Part of this biological difference is certainly both genetic and developmental differences that affect how our brain processes and utilizes information gathered from the world we live in. Additionally, these biological differences are almost certainly structured by evolutionary and demographic forces acting throughout the history of human evolution. However, as a plethora of work has shown, these differences are greater within (even appropriately categorized) groups than between them. But the larger point, and the flaw with Jensen’s work, is there is no really good way to measure this, or indeed, make anything meaningful out of it.
If you ask people to define intelligence, you almost inevitably get some assortment of statements about “how smart people are” or the “ability of people to do things well.” A criticism of IQ testing, of course, is that it is inherently context specific. The reality is probably that intelligence itself is context specific. I was thinking of this earlier today in writing about the use of fire in the archaeological record. One of our limitations in studying paleo-fire today is that we are somewhat limited by what we know about how fire works and how to control it. Just because we can step in the backyard and turn on a gas-powered grill doesn’t mean we have more intelligence with respect to fire. A couple years ago I sat amazed in a talk listening to an archaeologist describe how populations in Southern Africa more than 60,000 years ago developed techniques involving slow heating of lithic material under controlled temperatures (more than 36 hours!) in order to achieve proper lithic properties to allow for tool production. I would have very little idea how to do that. This might be an example of knowledge versus intelligence, but I think it is an example that reflects the broader issue of problem solving. We are almost certainly “smarter” in nearly every way that matters than our ancestors 60,000 years ago….but don’t expect to win in a head-to-head competition on their soil. Intelligence is inherently context specific.
And if your measure of intelligence is something more basal about the operations of the brain at the cellular level…people are doing that research. The rise of neurosciences is one of the biggest changes in the landscape of the biological sciences over the past 50 years. But even with those studies, intelligence as it matters to people is largely what we do in action not what can be measured in theory. And what we do in action is largely structured by issues above anything about our basic biology.