Welcome to the beta version of newint.org — we have just redesigned it — more features coming soon!
We care about your opinion. Let us know what you think, or report any problems. Feedback »

Race science rears its ugly head


Pseudo-science: in Nazi Germany, head-measuring to test for 'Aryan qualities' was part of a wider, devastating eugenics policy © The Art Archive / Alamy

'We remain the same species, just as a poodle and a beagle are of the same species. But poodles, in general, are smarter than beagles, and beagles have a much better sense of smell.' - Andrew Sullivan, Race and IQ. Again, 2013

Things I've read recently: Europeans evolved to be smarter than Africans because of the ice age; there's a gene variant making sub-Saharans less intelligent; the reason poor people are poor is because they are inherently stupid, which is why there are more poor black people; the prime cause of poor health is low IQ, which is why Africa suffers; infectious diseases affected the genomes of Africans, making them innately stupider; the brightest people on earth are Ashkenazi Jews and the dumbest, 'Bushmen'.

After a post-Holocaust lull, the ancient habit of race science has returned in brazen form in the 21st century, with proselytizers from British and US universities taking the lead.

The most recent blast comes from science writer Nicholas Wade whose book, A Troublesome Inheritance, tells us that African tribalism (along with English enterprise, Japanese authoritarianism and Finnish drinking) has a 'genetic basis' and that the 'adaptation of Jews to capitalism is another such evolutionary process'. Wade, by the way, insists he is not a racist.

In recent years, racial science has arrived in four related forms. At the top of the feeding chain are the big promotion books like Wade's, and Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, the 1990s book regarded as the bible of this calling.

Saying Africans were stupid in an academic journal was OK... saying black women were ugly in a magazine was a bit too much

Second come the respected academic journals, where race science papers are occasionally published, only to be discredited once the experts review them (with the critiques always enjoying far less media attention than the original articles).

Third, a branch of evolutionary psychology, with its fundamentalist faith in genetic determinism, periodically spills into racial territory. Their papers, often published in their own house journals, are peer reviewed by others of their persuasion.

Fourth, at the bottom of the feeding chain is the perpetual stream of articles and books published by the race-obsessed Right, which seem immune to counter-argument.1 Articles by the pitch-forkers of race science, like University of Ulster evolutionary psychologist Richard Lynn, play a major supply role for the higher levels.

What all these have in common is the part played by universities. Most of the main players in race science are tenured academics, and the rest retain close links with their alma maters, which, inadvertently, give them protective cover.

The universities' approach to academic freedom - of leaving tenured academics to their own devices and not interfering with papers published in refereed journals - can lead to curious results.

When the London School of Economics-based evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa wrote in the British Journal of Health Psychology that intrinsically low intelligence was why sub-Saharan Africans were unhealthy, LSE turned a blind eye.

However, when he wrote in Psychology Today that black woman evolved to be unattractive, they slapped him on the wrist. Saying Africans were stupid in an academic journal was OK; saying black women were ugly in a magazine was a bit too much.

Rants and flaws

Yet articles in refereed journals can be no less troublesome than magazine rants. Take the much-trumpeted academic paper by a team of Utah anthropologists who claimed that Ashkenazi Jews were inherently more intelligent than anyone else.

Oddly, this is often assumed to be a relatively benign contention, somehow different from saying a particular group is innately less intelligent, even though one follows from the other.

It is based on the view that the Ashkenazim were genetically isolated, but contemporary research shows otherwise: a recent gene-search by 19 scientists found that European women were the main female founders of the Ashkenazi population, suggesting inter-marriage between Jewish men and non-Jewish women was commonplace.

The paper's other genetic and historical contentions have also been lambasted by academic critics but it continues to be cited.

As with almost all of the recent examples of race science, its key flaw comes from its misplaced faith in IQ tests. There's certainly legitimate debate about the heritability of IQ within a given population, but scant room for dispute when it comes to variation between populations.

The reason relates to the 'Flynn Effect', named after intelligence theorist Jim Flynn. This shows that IQs have risen steadily over the past century, making IQ tests ever more difficult. This has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with environment - particularly increased exposure to abstract logic.

The IQs of some groups have therefore risen faster than others - the Ashkenazi average early in the 20th century was well below the 100 mean, whereas now it is well above, and recently it has been Kenyans who have shown the fastest IQ growth. This illustrates how facile it is to compare scores of different 'races' - the silliest being Richard Lynn's claim that the average 'Bushman' IQ is 54, based on apartheid data.

Lynn insists cold European weather prompted selection for intelligence 40,000 years ago. This is a view discredited by recent archaeological studies showing that cave art, and other signs of modern cognition, was flourishing in Africa 100,000 years back - a clear indicator that our intelligence evolved far earlier than previously realized.

Human populations have certainly evolved in other ways (skin colour, ethnic diseases, lactose tolerance, etc) but these usually involve single genetic mutations. Intelligence involves networks of thousands of genes.

Despite this weight of evidence, it looks likely that the flow of papers and books punting race-based science will continue, as will their exposure in a media climate that latches on to claims of difference based on misplaced faith that genetics can explain behaviour.

What has changed is that in the past race science was fervently opposed, particularly in academic circles. When Arthur Jensen published a now-infamous paper on black American intelligence in the Harvard Educational Review in 1969, it was met by 29 academic rebuttals and a wave of student protest, prompting the publication to refuse reprints or even to allow him to respond to letters of criticism.

When a chapter in The Bell Curve was published by The New Republic in 1994, the staff threatened editor Andrew Sullivan with mass resignation and were only appeased when he agreed to published rebuttals by 19 writers, while scores of leading academics ripped to shreds the book's contentions.

In contrast, in 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance arrived with a Wade-penned cover story in The Spectator and an amused Newsnight Review interview with Jeremy Paxman. Six months later 139 of the world's leading evolutionary theorists signed a New York Times letter refuting Wade's premises and conclusions, but by then it was too late.

The implication of not challenging these views immediately and robustly is worrying in all sorts of ways, quite aside from the flawed science.

To take just one: if opinion-makers come to accept that poor Africans (or poor anybody) are poor because they are inherently stupid, then they might also conclude that there's little point trying to undo the damage - a prejudice that in one form or another takes us back to slavery and beyond.

Gavin Evans lectures at Birkbeck College, University of London. His latest book, Black Brain, White Brain: Is intelligence skin-deep? is published by Thistle and Jonathan Ball.

In their own words...

'We remain the same species, just as a poodle and a beagle are of the same species. But poodles, in general, are smarter than beagles, and beagles have a much better sense of smell.'
Andrew Sullivan, Race and IQ. Again, 2013.

'[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [since] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas testing says not really.'
James Watson, quoted in The Sunday Times, 2007.

'[I]ndividuals in wealthier and more egalitarian societies live longer and stay healthier, not because they are wealthier and more egalitarian but because they are more intelligent.'
Satoshi Kanawawa, 'Mind the gap... in intelligence: re-examining the relationship between inequality and health', British Journal of Health Psychology, 2006.

  • In particular, Mankind Quarterly, Personality and Individual Differences and Washington Summit Publishers.