In a Slate series on “Human Nature,” William Saletan makes extraordinary and disturbing claims about genetics and race. He equates the notion that racial differences in IQ are wholly environmentally caused with creationism, and with the belief that the “surge” in Iraq is working. His implication is that it is an article of empirically unsupported faith to deny that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. Saletan’s argument, based on a 2005 research summary in Psychology, Public Policy and Law, is that racial differences in average IQ can be partially attributed to differences in brain size between black, white, and asian people, and that such variation is attributable to the work of natural selection in these different populations (Rushton and Jensen, Public Policy and Law: 2005). His aim is not to show that racial differences in IQ are wholly determined by differences in genetics, but rather that genetics play an important role.
Richard E. Nisbett does a very thorough job of refuting the literature review Saletan cites. His article argues that
“J.P. Rushton and A.R. Jensen (2005) ignore or misinterpret most the evidence of greatest relevance to the question of heritability of the Black—White IQ gap. A dispassionate reading of the evidence on the association on the association of IQ with degree of European ancestry for members of Black populations, convergence of Black and White IQ in recent years, alterability of Black IQ by intervention programs, and adoptions studies lend no support to a hereditarian interpretation of the Black—White IQ gap. On the contrary, the evidence most relevant to the question indicates that the genetic contribution to the Black—White gap is nil” (Nisbett, Psychology Public Policy and Law: 2005).
Even if Nisbett’s critique is wrong, and the research is inconclusive, this does not mean we should assume, as Saletan does, that there probably is some genetic basis for racial difference in IQ. It means we don’t know, and pundits who don’t know anything about science should keep quiet until we do.
But as long as Saletan continues to blather on about head size, genetics, race, and IQ, his arguments must be engaged. Robert Farley has led the charge on this front. He points out that: (1) IQ is not necessarily an accurate measure of intelligence; (2) the legal and social scientific category of “race” is totally different from “populations,” which is genetic science’s only valid unit of social analysis; (3) since Africans, Asians, and Europeans lived in very similar economic and agricultural conditions up to about 200 years ago, it is unlikely that their respective environments would have selected for different levels of intelligence in that short period of time; and (4) if indeed inherited intelligence can change that quickly, it suggests that genetic differences in race are extraordinarily historically transient, and therefore the notion that there are stable, fixed, or inherent racial traits is nonsensical.
Saletan is not merely wrong; he is, wittingly or unwittingly aiding and abetting the cause of racist politics. Because the research he cites was published in a public policy and law journal, the authors give us an unusually candid appraisal of what kinds of policy prescriptions these alleged biological facts would entail. Rushton and Jensen assert that because racial differences in IQ appear to have a genetic basis,
“a demonstration of differential racial performance (good or bad) could not, by itself, be offered as proof of racial discrimination because, as the evidence review in this article demonstrates, genetic factors play a role in producing these differences. Rather, the burden would be on the plaintiffs to prove that the defendants had discriminated on the basis of race and not educational or vocational performance associated with race” (282).
Rushton and Jensen wrongly imply that a demonstration of differential racial performance can, by itself, be offered as legal proof of racial discrimination. The law currently requires proof of intent. So Rushton and Jensen’s proposal would make discrimination cases based on racial disparity virtually impossible to prove, since the plaintiff would have to prove, first, that the disparity cannot be accounted for by genetic racial inferiority, and, second, that the disparity was the result of intentional discrimination. If Rushton and Jensen have their way, there would be no recourse to discrimination law for even severe racial disparity in health, education, or income level, or wealth. Further, through their research, Rushton and Jensen explicitly aim to discredit affirmative action, and criticism of racial bias in standardized testing (282-3).
Rushton and Jensen also aim to show that racial disparity is not an indicator of racial injustice. They worry that “the view that one segment of the population is largely to blame for the problems of another segment of the population can be...harmful to racial harmony” (282). In other words, we cannot suggest that racism has made blacks disadvantaged, because such a suggestion might make people angry. Racists have been sounding the racial disharmony alarm since debates over abolition before the Civil War. We shouldn’t talk about white privilege, so the argument goes, because it will destroy the wonderful and delicate harmony of races we have created. With the genetics argument, Rushton and Jensen offer a way to avoid attributions of blame for racial inequality, by positing that such inequality is caused by nature, rather than structural, institutional, and individual racism.
Rushton and Jensen thus suggest that we should educate people about the immutability of racial disparity, in order to innoculate society from the suggestion that it is anything but equitable and just: “ultimately, the public must accept the pragmatic reality that some groups will be overrepresented and other groups underrepresented in various socially valued outcomes.” In other words, they suggest that we accept that black people will always be poorer, less healthy, and less education than whites, since their genes have made them that way.
From Rushton and Jensen’s review of the implications of their assessment, it is clear what the intent of such research is: to ground racial inequity in the facts of nature so as to foreclose charges of socially-wrought inequity, and policies that aim to redress them. In championing this research, Saletan thus joins in a long and infamous heritage of non-scientists eager to enlist politically-motivated science in defense of racism.