May 16, 2013
The old issue of genes, race and intelligence has exploded once again. The trigger this time is social scientist Jason Richwine, who recently co-authored a study of immigration for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The study contended that granting amnesty to illegal immigrants could cost the U.S. more than $5 trillion.
After the study’s release, The Washington Post reported that Richwine asserted in his 2009 Harvard Ph.D. thesis, “IQ and Immigration Policy,” that the average IQ of U.S. immigrants “is substantially lower than that of the white native population.” Arguing that “the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ,” Richwine added, “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.” Richwine proposed that IQ be considered as a factor for screening immigrants.
So there it is, a neo-eugenics program, proposed by a Harvard-minted scholar employed by a prominent think tank. The Heritage Foundation quickly distanced itself from Richwine, stating that the claims of his Harvard thesis “in no way reflect the positions of The Heritage Foundation.” Richwine resigned from the foundation last week.
Some pundits applauded Richwine’s downfall and attacked his Harvard research. I especially like how The Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates compiled historical evidence that race is more a social than biological phenomenon. Others defended the premise of Richwine’s thesis—that genes account for at least some of the differences in IQ scores between different ethnic groups—and deplored attacks on him as threats to freedom of speech and scientific inquiry. Journalist Andrew Sullivan says that the “effective firing” of Richwine “should immediately send up red flags about intellectual freedom.”
These are the same sorts of things said in 1994 when Harvard researchers Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray argued in The Bell Curve that programs to boost black academic performance might be futile because blacks are innately less intelligent than whites; and in 2007 when geneticist and Nobel laureate James Watson ascribed Africa’s social problems to Africans’ genetic inferiority. (Watson is also a former Harvard professor. What is it with Harvard? Could there be something in the drinking water?)
I’m torn over how to respond to research on race and intelligence. Part of me wants to scientifically rebut the IQ-related claims of Herrnstein, Murray, Watson and Richwine. For example, to my mind the single most important finding related to the debate over IQ and heredity is the dramatic rise in IQ scores over the past century. This so-called Flynn effect, which was discovered by psychologist James Flynn, undercuts claims that intelligence stems primarily from nature and not nurture.
But another part of me wonders whether research on race and intelligence—given the persistence of racism in the U.S. and elsewhere–should simply be banned. I don’t say this lightly. For the most part, I am a hard-core defender of freedom of speech and science. But research on race and intelligence—no matter what its conclusions are—seems to me to have no redeeming value.
Far from it. The claims of researchers like Murray, Herrnstein and Richwine could easily become self-fulfilling, by bolstering the confirmation bias of racists and by convincing minority children, their parents and teachers that the children are innately, immutably inferior. (See Post-postscript below.)
Why, given all the world’s problems and needs, would someone choose to investigate this thesis? What good could come of it? Are we really going to base policies on immigration, education and other social programs on allegedly innate racial differences? Not even the Heritage Foundation advocates a return to such eugenicist policies.
Perhaps instead of arguing over the evidence for or against theories linking race and IQ we should see them as simply irrelevant to serious intellectual discourse. I’m sympathetic toward the position spelled out by Noam Chomsky in his usual blunt fashion in his 1987 book Language and Problems of Knowledge:
“Surely people differ in their biologically determined qualities. The world would be too horrible to contemplate if they did not. But discovery of a correlation between some of these qualities is of no scientific interest and of no social significance, except to racists, sexists and the like. Those who argue that there is a correlation between race and IQ and those who deny this claim are contributing to racism and other disorders, because what they are saying is based on the assumption that the answer to the question makes a difference; it does not, except to racists, sexists and the like.”