Race And Intelligence, Again, Ctd

A reader writes:

Haven't these questions already been settled?  In the same breath that Volokh demands scientific consensus as proof, he decries the current consensus as "not enough".  Why not?  Because, he says, the free exchange of views on the subject is "too dangerous".  I was not aware that Murray or Hernstein had been assassinated for their work arguing that race is a determiner of intelligence.  In fact, I was under the opposite impression that numerous studies, peer-reviewed as The Bell Curve was not, were produced following its publication showing its methodology and conclusions to be incorrect, subjective and illogically drawn from the evidence, and exposing the underlying flawed assumptions that drive the work. 

In other words, I was under the impression that, in this case, the academic and scientific community did what it does regarding all ideas; held it up to scrutiny, put the evidence to the test, and found their arguments wanting, as these genetic arguments for intelligence have consistently been found wanting since the early days of eugenic thought.  We don't typically have a free exchange of views regarding flat-earth theory either, and for similar reasons; because it is demonstrably false.  Again and again it has been shown to be false, just as, again and again, there has not been shown any statistically significant difference in intelligence between different "racial" - what does that word even mean, anyway? - groups.  Really, how many times does the question need to be answered before those asking the question are satisfied?

Another writes:

As a clinical psychologist married to a biophysicist/physiologist and thus aware of a lot of the work done on this in both fields, I'd like to start with a very brief summary of what is now known about the human genome.  And that is that the various clades, or groups of people carrying similar genes whose migrations have been traced, do not really correspond well with what we think of as race, which ends up being a social or sociological construct more than a physical reality.

Now as to intelligence:  first off, it was originally hypothesized as a single entity or construct and the original tests were validated against -- wait for it -- school performance.  It doesn't take much to recognize there is a pretty solid class bias there and yes, it was borne out:  how many people today could imagine their grandparents being able to define the word parterre, let alone know it themselves?  Back when I learned this stuff, the best predictor of IQ was having an encyclopedia in the home.

More to the point, the best recent studies have shown that when environment is held constant at what would be considered a middle-to-upper-middle class level in terms of enrichment, that is the point where genetic differences *between children* begin to emerge.  And the *between children* part of the equation is also significant since, even if you want to use our notions of race as a way to group children, the variance AMONG each group is, BY DEFINITION (each group's own "normal curve"), vastly greater than the variance BETWEEN the groups.

Finally, with regard to Ms. Grace, while her beauty may rest in the eyes of beholders other than I, her blanket statements with little data behind them strongly suggest she doesn't grasp the basic underpinnings of how IQ is assessed or what the word does and does not mean.  Therefore, even without the statistical concept of regression towards the mean reinforcing the common observation that smart parents don't always have smart kids, she might be surprised at both her own IQ and, down the road, the looks and intelligence of her children.


The bias of numerous writers and bloggers on the subject of race and intelligence is showing.  If the issue were truly about science then they would ask the equally valid question "are blacks smarter than whites?"  They'd also ask "are Asians smarter than whites?" and "are native Americans smarter than whites?" and so on.  The fact that those questions generally aren't asked is a sign to me that they're looking for science to back up their preconceived notions, often despite the fact that socially-constructed racial delineations don't have a basis in genetics.


I understand your intellectual sympathies with this particular law student's argument and your desire to at least have the discussion about whether there are links between race, genetics and intelligence. However, the arguments that Volokh was advancing in her defense, were incredibly disingenuous.

First, he says that it’s possible to discuss the fact of genetic differences in intelligence between racial groups without encroaching on the “moral question about what we should do about those differences, if they exist.” This is, an incredibly naïve statement; scientific experiments may happen in a sterile lab environment, but the conclusions can take on a life of their own.

For example, it has long been known that Jews do better in school and on IQ tests than non-Jews. However, no one takes this fact and decides to conclude that non-Jews are genetically inferior to Jews. There are no books, or roundtables dedicated to the “Gentile Crisis.” Conversely, why is there no research investigating the genetic reasons for this “superiority”? Moreover, in the early part of the century, Jews did so poorly on IQ tests that scientists testified as to their ‘genetic inferiority’ before the US Congress. Using this as a rationale, Congress passed restrictive legislation in the 1920s that reduced the immigration of Jews. Not only does this little anecdote demonstrate how difficult it is to separate out statements of fact from statements of judgment, but it also begs the question as to how you measure intelligence. Since it’s unlikely that Jews as a group got massively smarter in the last 90 years, this suggests that changes as to how IQ tests are constructed and administered are the source for this change.

Second, Volokh says that we cannot trust the scientific consensus because scientists are not “free to espouse all rival views.” This is absolute bunk. This 3L law student is neither a biologist nor a scientist, nor for that matter is Volokh. This is pseudoscience. A brief look at the literature would show that there is no credible scientific evidence for any sort of biological basis for race (see for example, Chapter 5 of Racism: A Short History); as a result, it would seem difficult to ascribe differences between racial groups to genetics, given that there is more genetic variation WITHIN racial groups than BETWEEN racial groups.

Richard Lewontin, a geneticist, has revealed that 85% of genetic variation among humans is between individuals in the same population; another 9% of the variation is between populations that have been regarded as part of the same race. Moreover, in the US in particular the amount of racial mixing (as Henry Louis Gates has shown, most white people have at least some African American ancestry) makes it even more difficult to rely on skin color as a taxonomic category for anything.

Finally, the reason there has been so much outrage directed at this 3L student is because someone who has made it to Harvard Law School, and will in all likelihood hold an important position in the legal system some day, should be aware not only of how these ideas supported the oppressive legal regime of Jim Crow but also of things like, for example, the persistent racial disparities in how sentences are handed down (e.g. mandatory minimums). Mostly, we believed that pseudoscientific speculations about the ‘probable biological inferiority of African Americans’ by graduates of Princeton and Harvard ended along with the nineteenth-century.


Thoreau's argument posits that "you can’t point to a few philosophers in the gene pool to argue for some sort of difference between descendants of Greek wheat growers and the descendants of Mexican corn growers, or descendants of fishermen on Crete and descendants of fishermen from the coast of Africa." That is a valid point, but I think it fails to take into account an important historic reality.

The "descendants of fishermen from the coast of Africa" who came to North America weren't a natural population in any sense of that term. They were slaves. They were selected, either for their physical strength, or because they lacked the skills necessary to escape capture. These Africans were brought here for hundreds of years, prevented, by law, from intermarrying with the non-African population and were segregated from the general population by law and custom until very recently.

If we are looking at IQ differences between blacks and whites in the U.S., I think the fact that the black population was not natural, nor allowed to expand naturally, can explain such differences. This makes better sense, I think, then just saying that populations spread and interbreed and thus, there is no such difference. Testing for decades finds the difference. It's there. Lets find out why.

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

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