disentangling race from intelligence and genetics, or how to rescue behavioral genetics from racists

Here are two things that I believe to be true:

  • Bigoted ideas about fundamental intellectual inequalities between demographic groups are wrong. Black people aren’t less intelligent than white, women aren’t bad at science, Asian people do not have natural facility for math, etc.
  • Genetics play a substantial role in essentially all human outcomes, including what we define as “intelligence” or academic ability.

Both of these things, I think, are true. The evidence for both seems very strong to me. And in fact it’s not hard at all to believe both of them at the same time. Yet I find it almost impossible for some progressive people to recognize that we can believe both things at the same time.

Take this recent Vox.com piece about pseudoscientific racism. The author, Nicole Hemmer, is typical in that she seems to think that any discussion of genetics and intelligence implies racist notions of inherent inequalities between racial groups. At the very least, she does nothing to separate a belief in genetic influences on IQ from the notion that some races are inherently more intelligent than others, when those ideas must be carefully separated. Here’s a typical passage.

Murray and Herrnstein’s book, The Bell Curve, was published in 1994, generating immediate controversy for its arguments that IQ was heritable, to a significant degree, and unchangeable to that extent; that it was correlated to both race and to negative social behaviors; and that social policy should take those correlations into account.

I kept waiting for Hemmer to pull these separate claims apart and show what’s correct and what’s wrong, but she never does. Throughout the piece she moves through the claims of people like Charles Murray without bothering to identify the truths on which they then build lies. That’s perhaps understandable, as it’s easy to simply want to wash our hands of the whole thing. But that’s a mistake. That some races are genetically superior to others is a racist fiction. That IQ is significantly heritable and unchangeable is a empirical fact. On this essential intellectual task – untangling the difference between racist pseudoscience and the science of genetic influence on human psychological outcomes – Hemmer is silent. And she’s joined in that failure by far too many liberals I know, who often get visibly anxious any time genetics and intelligence are discussed at all, as if racist conclusions must necessarily follow. This is a problem.

I am, for context, not at all a genetic determinist, compared to many other people who talk about these issues. The world is filled with people who argue as if genetics is destiny. I’m largely an amateur when it comes to these questions, but I’m willing to say that I am skeptical of the confidence and universality with which some researchers assert genetic causes for human outcomes. And there are some real methodological challenges to typical procedures for identifying genetic influences. Still, as someone with a background in academic assessment and educational testing, I find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that there is significant genetic influence on essentially all measurable human traits, including academic outcomes. In particular, that IQ is significantly heritable is one of the most robust and well-replicated findings in the history of social science. That’s the reality.

If you’d like a recent study that aggregates a lot of the evidence, this by Plomin and Deary is a great place to start. If you’d like a broad overview of what genetics research has – and crucially, has not – found in recent years, I highly recommend this article by Eric Turkheimer on the weak genetic explanation, even for those without any background in psychometrics. Turkheimer is a poised and measured writer, one who has never spoken with the zealotry common to genetic behaviorists. I encourage you to read the article.

As time goes on, the evidence for the influence of genetics on individual human variation only grows. That includes intelligence and much more. Do racist conclusions necessarily follow? Not at all. Genetics is about parentage, not race. If I claim that a trait is heritable, I am making a claim about the transmission of that trait through biological parentage – mother and father to daughter and son. Extrapolating to the socially-mediate construct of race is irresponsible and unwarranted.

Simply consider the differences in the paths of genetic information we’re talking about here. While unsolved questions still abound in genetic research, the general mechanisms through which genetic information is passed down within families have been well understood for decades. We know how parents contribute genetic material to children, and we thus know how grandparents and great-grandparents influence genotype too. If we say that a particular trait runs in families, we can look through very clear lines of descent to show how genetic information is pass along. We know more or less how an individual genotype is formed, we know how various generational connections contribute different pieces of genetic data, and we know more and more about how genotype defines phenotype.

Contrast that with the construct of race. What does it mean to call two people “Asian”? The connection between, say, a third generation Hmong American college student whose family came to Santa Barbara as refugees from Vietnam and a Indian IT specialist whose family has lived in Madurai for generations seems, uh, unclear to me. Yes, I understand that there are phenotypical markers which often (but not always) indicate closer common ancestry between individuals. But “closer” here still can mean people whose families branched off the family tree hundreds of generations ago, making the genetic connections extremely distant. Low-cost genetic testing has revealed vast complexity in the genealogy of individuals and groups, with once simple stories of descent everywhere complicated by intermixing and the tangled lines of history. (I have bad news for the alt-right: the volk does not exist and never did.) Meanwhile, the concept of race entails vastly more baggage than just genetic lineage, all of the cultural and social and linguistic and political markers that we have, as a species, decided to package with certain phenotypical markers, historically for the purpose of maintaining white supremacy. To suggest that this process of racialization must be implied by acknowledging genetic influences on individual human outcomes is, well, thinking like Charles Murray.

If nothing else, I think it’s profoundly important that everyone understands that the belief that genetics influence intelligence does not imply a belief in “scientific” racism. In fact, most of the world’s foremost experts on genetic behaviorism believe the former and not the latter.

None of this is to deny that intelligence itself is a socially-mediated concept. What we think of as intelligence is always impacted by social and economic values. When Jews began to enter elite American colleges in large numbers, those colleges suddenly discovered the importance of “character” as a part of intelligence, conveniently grafting culture-specific ideas about what it means to be intelligent into their admissions processes in order to ensure that enough WASP men from “the right families” made it in. Right now, we favor a definition of intelligence that is high on the kind of raw abstract processing that enables one to make a living on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. That we have disregarded emotional intelligence, social consciousness, or ethical reasoning tells you a lot about why those industries are filled with sociopathic profiteers. This does not mean that IQ testing doesn’t tell us anything meaningful; IQ tests measures consistent and durable traits and are predictive of a number of academic and social outcomes related to those traits. It does mean, though, that our decision to reward this particular set of abilities is a choice, and one that I would argue has had deeply pernicious impacts on our society. The ability to score highly on Raven’s Progressive Matrices does tell us something about the likelihood that you will pass high school algebra or be good at chess. It does not tell us your worth as a human being, as worth is a concept created by humans. We decide who has value. That we distribute that designation so stingily is a product of capitalism, not of genetics.

Nor do you have to adopt a depressing, Gattacastyle assumption that genes are destiny. Read the Plomin and Deary; read the Turkheimer. As Turkheimer points out, the strong explanation – “a gene for X” – has largely not come true. As Plomin and Deary point out, no traits are 100% heritable, with environment, opportunity, privilege, and chance all playing a role in outcomes. Besides, inherited human traits tend to be the product of the interaction between many genes. For this reason, geniuses are often the children of parents with no particularly unusual intellectual aptitude. We live in a world of variability. Nothing is certain. And again, one of our crucial social and political tasks must be to fight against the assumption that only those who can do complex equations are worthwhile human beings. No matter how hard I worked, I could never have been a research physicist; I simply do not have the facility for advanced math. Yet I maintain a stubborn belief that I have value and can contribute to the human race. So can everybody else, in their own particular ways. There are so many ways to be a good human being, but we reward very few, and to our shame. (And by the way: human quantitative processing powers are the most likely to be replaced by automation in the workplace of the future, so don’t get too comfortable, smarties.)

I also think people sometimes avoid this topic because they’re afraid it leads to conservative political conclusions. Some conservatives seem to think that too. I find that bizarre: if intellectual talent leads to financial security under capitalism, and intellectual talent is largely outside of the control of individuals, that amounts to one of the most powerful arguments for socialism I can imagine. An outcome individuals cannot control cannot morally be used to determine their basic material conditions.

In any event: as long as we value intelligence in the way we do, progressive people must be willing to be honest about the existence of inherent differences between individuals in academic traits. When we act as if good schooling and committed teachers can bring any student to the pinnacle of academic achievement, we are creating entirely unfair expectations. Meanwhile, failure to recognize the impact of genetics on academic outcomes leaves us unable to combat an increasingly rigid social hierarchy. I often ask people, what happens after we close the racial achievement gap? What becomes the task then? Precisely because I don’t believe in pseudoscientific racism, I believe that we will eventually close the racial achievement gap, if we are willing to confront socioeconomic inequality directly and with government intervention. But what happens then? We will still have a distribution of academic talent. It will simply be a distribution with proportional numbers of black people, of women, of LGBTQ people…. Does it therefore follow that those on the bottom of the talent distribution will deserve poverty, hopelessness, and marginalization? I can’t imagine how that could be perceived as a just outcome. But if progressive people fear getting involved in these discussions out of a vague sense that any link between genetics and academic ability is racist, they will not be able to help shape the future.

Liberals have flattered themselves, since the election, as the party of facts, truth tellers who are laboring against those who have rejected reason itself. And, on certain issues, I suspect they are right. But let’s be clear: the denial of the impact of genetics on human academic outcomes is fake news. It’s alternative facts. It’s not the sort of thing the reality-based community should be trafficking in. As I said, I’m not a zealot on these topics. I read critical pieces about genetic behaviorism with care. I find a lot of genetic determinists and IQ absolutists frustrating, occasionally downright creepy. And I am willing to surprised by new evidence. But the strength of the current evidence is overwhelming. Denying that IQ and other metrics of academic and intellectual ability are substantially heritable is as contrary to scientific consensus as the denial of global warming. This belief does not at all imply belief in racist pseudoscience. It does, however, imply a willingness to trust scientific evidence in precisely the way progressive people insist we must.

Update: Do you have questions? I have answers.