The problem of race science returns

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The problem of race science returns

Gavin Evans asks, Why don’t universities question academics about their dangerous ideas and their bad science?


Bad science: in Nazi Germany: measuring peoples’ heads to test for 'Aryan qualities' © The Art Archive / Alamy

Here are some things I read recently:

Europeans became more intelligent than Africans because of the ice age. A gene is making sub-Saharans less intelligent.

Poor people are poor because they are stupid and this is why there are more poor black people.

The biggest cause of poor health is low IQ and this is why Africa suffers.

Infectious diseases affected the genes of Africans and made them more stupid.

The most intelligent people on earth are Ashkenazi Jews and the most stupid are ‘Bushmen’.

After the Holocaust race science went away. Now race science has returned in the 21st century. British and US universities are leading the way. Nicholas Wade is a science writer. In his book, A Troublesome Inheritance, he says that African tribalism, English enterprise, Japanese authoritarianism and Finnish drinking have a ‘genetic basis’. And he says that the Jews becoming capitalist is another example. But Nicholas Wade says he is not a racist.

Race science has arrived in four forms.

First, there are the big books like Nicholas Wade’s, and Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, from the 1990s.

Second there are the academic journals with some articles on race science. Experts review and criticise the articles, but people pay more attention to the articles than the reviews.

Third, there is a part of evolutionary psychology. Its ideas are that genes control people and they sometimes include race in this.

They publish their articles in their own journals and writers with the same ideas review them.

Fourth, there are many articles and books published by the Right with their racist ideas.

The universities play a part in all of these. The universities support academic freedom and allow academics to write what they like. This can lead to strange results.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics. In the British Journal of Health Psychology he wrote that sub-Saharan Africans are unhealthy because they are naturally unintelligent. The London School of Economics did not criticise the idea. But when he wrote in Psychology Today that over time black women naturally became ugly, they criticised him. It seems that saying Africans are stupid in an academic journal is OK. But saying black women are ugly in a magazine is not OK!

Mistakes and bad ideas

Articles in journals can also be a problem like articles in magazines. For example, there is the article by a team of Utah anthropologists who said that Ashkenazi Jews are naturally more intelligent. This seems to be OK and different from saying that a group of people is less intelligent. The opinion about the Ashkenazi Jews comes from the view that they were genetically isolated. But new research has a different idea. In gene research 19 scientists found that European women were the main female founders of the Ashkenazi people and that Jewish men and non-Jewish women often married. Like most examples of race science, the mistake comes from relying on IQ tests. People disagree about the idea that IQ is inherited in a population but they do not disagree very much about the idea that IQ is different between populations.

The reason comes from the ‘Flynn Effect’, named after Jim Flynn. This shows that IQs have risen steadily over the past century, making IQ tests more and more difficult. This has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with environment - especially when people see more abstract thinking.

So the IQs of some groups have risen faster than others. In the early 20th century the Ashkenazi average was well below the 100 mean, but it is now well above the 100 mean. And now Kenyans have shown the fastest IQ growth. This shows that it is not a good idea to compare scores of different ‘races’ - the worst idea is Richard Lynn saying that the average ‘Bushman’ IQ is 54, based on apartheid data.

Lynn is sure that cold European weather is the reason for intelligence 40,000 years ago. But recent archaeological studies show that there was a lot of cave art in Africa 100,000 years ago. This shows our intelligence grew earlier. Human populations have changed in other ways (skin colour, ethnic diseases, lactose tolerance, etc) but these usually involve a change in one gene. Intelligence involves thousands of genes.

But it seems that articles and books on race science will continue. It seems too that the media will continue to talk about them with the idea that genetics can explain what people do.

In the past people were against race science especially in universities. In 1969 Arthur Jensen published an article on black American intelligence in the Harvard Educational Review. 29 academics were against it and there was student protest. Then the article was not reprinted and Arthur Jensen was not allowed to answer the letters of criticism.

In 1994 The New Republic published a chapter from The Bell Curve. The staff told Andrew Sullivan, the editor, that they would stop working for him. So he agreed to publish the 19 writers’ criticisms.

In 2014 The Spectator published a story by Nicholas Wade and a Newsnight Review interview with BBC's Jeremy Paxman. Six months later 139 of the world’s leading evolutionary scientists signed a letter in the New York Times and disagreed with Wade’s ideas. But it was too late. It seems it is very important to criticise these ideas immediately.

For example, if people accept that poor Africans (or all poor people) are poor because they are naturally stupid, then it is possible they will think that there’s no reason to change the situation. This takes us back to slavery.

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

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).