Race and IQ. Can’t we all just get along?


Jason Richwine resigned from the conservative Heritage Foundation a few weeks ago because his PhD thesis titled IQ and Immigration Policy came to light with this choice media quote: “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” This kicked off predictable diatribes on race and IQ from both sides. So what’s new? Especially since I’ve already posted on genetics and intelligence before. Well the last major go round from 1994’s The Bell Curve was pre-twitter/early blog. So following this round live in the blogosphere gave a more nuanced view of where people are coming from. Hence the modest goal of this post is outlining the stronger arguments on race and IQ from both liberals and conservatives. Though with little expectation of changing anyone’s mind, including my own. Maybe I’m just getting old, but nowadays I’m feeling a deeper and deeper sympathy for Rodney King’s famous line pictured above.

Let’s kick this off with some choice tweets. Below is one of my favorite bloggers, progressive Matthew Yglesias. He’s referencing Charles Murray, who wrote The Bell Curve, as well as being a PhD adviser to the now jobless Jason Richwine. Gotta love the snarky reply from Timothy Noah.


And now here’s Charles Murray about Richwine’s lack of backing from the Heritage Foundation:


So you get the idea. Minds and hearts are not being won. Instead we’re talking about balls or the lack thereof. With that context let’s start by outlining the main tenets of each side.

Liberal position on race and IQ:

  • race is a social construct
  • differences within races, to the extent the term means anything at all, are larger than differences between races
  • studying race and intelligence has a long and sordid pedigree, it’s not daring and novel
  • intelligence is impossible to define

Conservative position on race and IQ:

  • race is biological
  • IQ measures something real and important to life success
  • IQ is very roughly heritable. A typical estimate is 70% genetics/30% environmental.
  • liberal public policy is misguided since it pretends innate differences in intellectual capacity don’t exist

To better understand these points let’s cover some basic terms and genetics. The term race is used in two ways. The liberal and historical usage is race as a social construct. For example from a recent post by Ta-nehisi Coates see the photo below of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, the first black president of Howard University. You are black if society says you are.


But there’s also a biological usage of the term, meaning commonality of descent from ancestral populations. And it’s cheap and easy (costs $100) to determine your percentage ancestry. With that you also get some medical risks assessed. For example sickle-cell anemia affects blacks more than whites because of ancestry. Or Ashkenazi Jews are at higher risk of carrying Tay-Sachs genes. Call this meaning of the term “biological race” or “genetic ancestry of sub-populations.”

One well understood scientific fact about biological race is there’s more genetic variation within races (ancestral sub-populations) than between them. Liberals tend to misunderstand this to mean that biological race is meaningless since every race contains nearly all genetic variation. Or alternatively that people within a racial population are not more related than people in outgroups. These are both false, and are examples of Lewontin’s fallacy. To understand this and other common misconceptions numbered below, let’s use height as an analogy to intelligence since they have similar genetics. Both are highly polygenetic (a composite trait caused by the interaction of many genes) and have similar heritability (roughly 75% genetics/25% environment).

Arguments to avoid on race and IQ:

  1. Avoid Lewontin’s fallacy, just mentioned. An example would be claiming men and woman must have identical average height since they share over 99% of their genes. Ancestral subpopulations (biological races) have different genetics and health risks, just as men and woman do.
  2. But still understand Lewontin’s point. Within group variation still dominates. Liberals tend to overplay Lewontin ending up with Lewontin’s fallacy. Conservatives and racists on the other hand tend to be ignorant of Lewontin, assuming races don’t have massive genetic overlap. An example would be claiming all men are taller than all woman since they have at least a few different genes.
  3. Avoid conflating the social construct meaning of race with the biological meaning (genetic ancestry). In normal usage race is understood as a social construct. But it’s a fallacy to argue because race is a social construct therefore there are no meaningful genetic differences between groups. That’s conflating the meanings to win an argument.
  4. The biological sense of race (ancestral sub-populations) has useful meaning, especially and increasingly for medicine.
  5. Intelligence is heritable is the position of the American Psychological Association. It exists. One way to see this is to realize that IQ just an ability to do well on multiple choice tests. And doing well on multiple choice tests predicts chances for life outcomes, at least in a statistical sense. With that said, there’s no agreement on causes of between group differences. It’s hard to tease out how much is culture, history, unequal opportunity.
  6. Avoid pretending it’s daring to talk about race and IQ. Don’t be surprised if you get smacked when you do. I have to quote an eloquent passage by Coates: “Far from being relegated to some musty corner of intellectual life, the Stoddard tradition, the tradition in which Jason Richwine stands, proved to be an influential force in world history. The Stoddard tradition gave us forced sterilization, “euthanasia” programs, miscegenation bans, and, ultimately, the Holocaust. One might oppose the Stoddard tradition strictly on its tendency to birth suffering, misery, and catastrophe. But one can oppose it for simpler reasons — its practitioners have a nasty habit of being wrong.
  7. With that said, let’s also recognize it’s far easier to get fired in a university setting today for speaking about race differences than arguing they don’t exist. Harvard students are signing petitions against Richwine with fairly explicit calls against intellectual inquiry into race and intelligence.
  8. Avoid genetic determinism. Genes aren’t destiny.

This last point is key. Racist like to believe genes are destiny because they conclude their superior genes give them power and privilege. But this genetic destiny misunderstanding is shared by liberals as well. In reality the conclusions of genetic science are mostly banal. Children are like their parents. Environment and personal choice play a critical role. If you want to know if someone has big muscles you can look at their genes, but will learn far more by finding out if they lift weights. Even with the best genetic technology you’ll find out more about someone by going to a family reunion than by sending their saliva out for a genetics test.

Ta-nehisi Coates interviewed a geneticist and got this nice quote: “So, in my view, at this point, any comment about the etiology of group differences, for “intelligence” or anything else, in the absence of specific identified genes (or environmental factors, for that matter), is speculation.” In other words, unless you actually understand the genetic biology behind a trait, be cautious about assuming it’s genetic. This is really the strongest and most cautious form of the liberal view on race and intelligence. And it’s a fair enough position given the sordid history of race relations. But the conservative critique here is obvious. By this standard we should avoid believing height is heritable, since it’s also a polygenetic trait whose genetics we don’t fully understand.

The future is rushing toward us, and genetics is moving fast enough that the genes of height should be isolated in the lifetimes of people alive today. Brain function will undoubtedly follow. What happens when the genetics of intelligence are understood? Ironically, given the duration of the centuries long battle on race and intelligence, very little. Charles Murray’s latest book Coming Apart properly cites the modern stratification of the 1% versus the 99% as the primary moral and public policy failure of our time. Nonetheless, Murray (actually a libertarian) has few policy  suggestions distinct from the current Republican party. And many within Republican party itself would undoubtedly use innate genetic differences to argue for reducing government programs to help the poor, just as they do today. No change. And I suspect liberal policies would be unchanged as well. We’d still see a strong push for affirmative action, cultural diversity (perhaps even genetic diversity?), helping the poor and equal opportunity.

Back to the liberal/conservative points listed at top, to my eye most are mutually compatible if contextually understand. The real difference lies in the value judgments behind the propositions, which remain miles apart. Is social equality or freedom/independence a higher moral value? And this perennial debate will continue, long after the genetics of intelligence are understood. In short, it would be great if we can all get just along. Even if no one changes their minds.

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at http://praxtime.com on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.

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