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reader comments: IQ and Race

12 Jan 2000 
I feel I really must respond to your comments in the 'race and IQ' section. Like other readers I feel that this entry differs markedly from your others. It seems far from skeptical in some respects, and you either misunderstand or misrepresent some of the criticisms that have already been posted. On two occasions you make the same point. You say in the main article that:

"The genes which affect musical talent, the power to visualize or to think abstractly, for example, are not established as the same ones which affect those characteristics which are associated with being Caucasian, mongoloid or Negroid."

In response to a criticism you say that:

"The issue is whether a collection of physical features that are genetically determined should be taken as defining one's 'race' and whether those genetic determinants are the same ones that determine such things as language skills, mechanical ability, musical adeptness, etc., i.e., all those things we take as signs of intelligence."

But no sensible person is claiming that the genes which determine (say) skin colour are 'the same ones' that determine intelligence. Only the eccentric fringe of the Afrocentrist movement argue such things ( e.g. that melanin has some unexplained effect on the mind). What is argued is that the physical features which identify race are signs of common ancestry over many generations and that the totality of genes inherited from that ancestry may have some effect on the way the brain develops. This may be one cause of statistical differences between races in those behaviours we call 'intelligent'. In other words 'intelligence' may, to some degree, be biologically correlated to 'race'. It is the same as saying that different 'breeds' of dog both look different and behave differently, but no-one is saying that the gene that causes a short tail is the same one that causes docility. Whether or not any such correlations exist in humans is arguable. Even if they do exist they are likely to be trivial: only given importance because of the politics of race. Anyway, knowing about them is no help. We still have a social duty to help everyone develop to their full capacity and to ensure individuals are not discriminated against because of a group (however defined) to which they belong.

note: 1. I don't understand the phrase 'not established as' in the first sentence I quoted from you. This seems to be a way of evading saying 'the same ones'. Since I know of only one way that genes are 'established' - by inheritance - I have ignored this phrase. If there is a specific meaning to this phrase, I'm sure you will enlighten me. 2. The phrase 'collection of physical features' in the second quote could be misleading. No-one determines 'race' BY physical features. These are simply signs of common ancestry. It is perfectly possible to look 'Chinese' without have Chinese ancestry. That is an irrelevance. It is only historically important, as this is the kind of 'race' research conducted by the Nazis when attempting to define the mythical Aryan race.

Paul Barlow (Newcastle, UK)

reply: I'll try it again. I'll be as succinct as I can be. There is no such thing as race and there is no such thing as intelligence. Both are fictions, chimeras. The purpose of such concepts is purely political and philosophical. (For an explanation, reread the entry.)

Mr. Barlow replies to the reply:

18 Jan 2000 
You were succinct alright, but did nothing more than insistently repeat your assertions. You can repeat 'reread my article' as often as someone else might say 'read the Bible'. That gets us nowhere. I produced arguments which criticize the assertions you repeat. Since you failed to address the same arguments when clearly stated in Mr. Cooney's 1998 letter, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you fail to address them now. I just find that very disappointing.

reply: You and the other writers you cite claim that the real issue is, as you put it, that

the physical features which identify race are signs of common ancestry over many generations and that the totality of genes inherited from that ancestry may have some effect on the way the brain develops. This may be one cause of statistical differences between races in those behaviours we call 'intelligent'. In other words 'intelligence' may, to some degree, be biologically correlated to 'race'. It is the same as saying that different 'breeds' of dog both look different and behave differently, but no-one is saying that the gene that causes a short tail is the same one that causes docility.

1. The physical features that are used to identify race were used long before anybody even knew there were such things as genes.

2. The identification of some races as being less intelligent than others also antedates the discovery of genes.

3. It is agreed that correlations have been established by certain social scientists between "race" and "I.Q."

4. The analogy of breeds of dogs with races of people is not only repulsive, it is very misleading. Races are not bred using eugenics the way dog breeding does. There are no certificates for being a "pure bred Aryan" or "Mongoloid" or "Negroid" or any other human grouping. Any person of one race is likely to share some 60 percent of its genes with a randomly chosen member of a different race. This also means that any given member of a race is likely not to share a large percentage of his or her genes with any given member of the same race. To assert that some unknown combo of genes in breeds of dogs or races of people can be assumed to account for a difference in intelligence of a "race" as measured by this or that standard using this or that definition of 'race' and 'I.Q.' is political, not scientific, and has no other basis

5. No one doubts that ancestry has an effect on the way the brain develops, or the leg or the esophagus, etc. More important to the development of the individual brain, however, is its development in the womb and in early childhood. Those factors are environmental, not genetic. Of course, you can assume that since Italians look different than Norwegians, there just might be some genetic difference that just might correlate with one or the other nationalities being more "intelligent" than the other as measured by some standard using some definition of 'nationality' and 'intelligence,' but why bother unless you have some political agenda you can't justify otherwise?

6. Before anything was known about genetics it was argued by people from colder climates (Europe) that people in warmer climates (e.g., Africa) were not as intelligent because life was too easy in the warmer climates. Only in an environment that was threatening and difficult would people be challenged to use their brains. People in temperate zones would tend to be lazy because industry was not required of them for survival or for the enjoyment of life. By this measure, I suppose, the Laplanders should be some of the smartest people on earth and the Silicon Valley should be full of indolent morons.

7. Why give much weight to what may be the case, when the only reason for positing a scenario is that it fits well with one's political agenda and beliefs?

Mr. Barlow replies:

1. True, but irrelevant to any of the points I made.

2. Also true, and also irrelevant to my points. 

3. Well, yes they have, but the usefulness of 'IQ' as a means to 'measure' intelligence, or of the concept of race when used as a social label formed no part of my argument against the assertions you made in the passages I quoted (there is obviously no such 'race' as 'black people' - which would mean that Africans and native Australians were of the same race!). 

4. I object to your charactisation of my dog analogy as 'repulsive.' You know perfectly well that I wasn't saying 'people are like dogs', with all that that connotes. As it happens, I thought for a while before using the analogy, because it occurred to me that it might engender just this reaction. But 'No', I thought, 'this is supposed to a site devoted to rational argument. This is simplest and clearest analogy I can think of to make this point succinctly. Surely it will be interpreted as such.'. Sadly not. Up rises the specter of Eugenics and I get a lot of stuff about 'pure bred Aryans'! The fact that dogs are bred for a purpose whereas human breeding occurs without an intended outcome as a result of natural and sexual selection does not affect the point. The concept of 'purity' is also irrelevant. Either there are inherited physical differences between peoples around the world or there are not. We all know that there are. This may have no or minimal biological relation to the behaviours we call 'intelligent'. I don't claim to know. I don't understand the point of the percentage variations you quote. We would have to know about relevant genes, not total numbers. 

5. Brain development 'in the womb and in childhood' is 'more important' than genetic differences. Well, it's true that if you have an alcoholic, chain smoking mother who then ignores you after you're born, the effect of that on the development of the brain is going to be greater than any piddling genetic differences. I won't argue with that. I just don't see how it makes genetic differences go away. 

6. Quite what all this has to do with anything I wrote, I don't know. For all I know Laplanders ARE the smartest people on earth. However much I might wish to consider the denizens of Silicon Valley a separate race, I don't think they've been interbreeding for generations. 

7. If I had a 'political' motivation it was the politics of rational argument, as I objected your posting of statements which I believed (perhaps wrongly, of course) to be illogical and misleading. Having read the exchange between yourself and Mr. Cooney I thought you had ignored his arguments. It seemed to me that you had been led to produce some dubious arguments to squash claims that you objected to on political grounds. The fact that you wheel out Aryans and 'racial purity' in response to my points, while also advising me of the pre-twentieth century history of racial theories only confirms that feeling. I had thought that I had made my own political position fairly clear in the last sentence of my letter.


27 Jan 2000
I just wanted to express my admiration for your patience in responding to your Readers' Comments. This was prompted by your replies to the IQ and Race comments, but applies to all the articles. Also, let me take this opportunity to say that I have enjoyed your site for some time now and often refer people to your articles when relevant. Well done, sir.

Todd Pellman


Your 'Bell Curve' article seems to stick out amongst the other articles on your site. Specifically, your use of controversial science to dispute the claims of the book. I am in agreement with many of the more conservative critics of the book, in that I think it is impossible to distinguish between environmental and genetic causes for differences between races on intelligence tests, college admission, etc. I find it disturbing that you resort to more controversial science to shore up this perfectly good defense, as it smacks of exactly the kind of fuzzy argument you claim to dislike.

reply: Whatever gave you the idea that I dislike fuzzy arguments, much less controversial science?  You may not like what the biologists are saying, but to try to discredit them by implying that their views are "controversial" is a pretty fuzzy approach to argument, if you ask me.  These days it seems like it is the views of J. Philippe Rushton (Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1995)) that are controversial. But what difference does that make? You make being "controversial" sound like having bad manners.  Since you don't seem to like controversy you probably would not enjoy reading "Bringing the Centaur Back In: Race, Ethnicity and Biological Myth" by Garry L. Rolison.

First of all, your citing claims that biologists find no real genetic evidence for racial differences. Is this position really widely accepted in the scientific community? If so, could you please list sources in widely accepted texts on the subject which agree with this claim, or cite major institutions who members officially support this idea. Citing the opinion of one or two experts is hardly enough to support such an extraordinary claim.

reply: Actually, the scientists I cited are associated with major institutions and there would be no need for a book like Rushton's if his were the common and dominant view these days.

Though I am familiar with the idea that there is less genetic variation between the races than between individuals within a race, I was not aware that this automatically led to the conclusion that there was no genetic basis for race. I had assumed that the genes of most organisms contained large areas of inactive codes, where mutations randomly accumulated once the selection pressures associated with the codes original role in the organism disappeared. Is this not the widely accepted reason for the greater genetic differences between any two individual beyond that of any two members of differing races?

Secondly, it seems to me you are setting up the arguments of the authors of the bell curve as a straw man when you argue that the genes associated with skin color show no evidence of being related to intelligence. As far as I understand it, their argument is not that having an excess of melanin, or thicker skin, etc. directly affects intelligence. They are simply stating that intelligence as measured by IQ tests is among the characteristics that strongly correlate with the race of the individual.

Thirdly, I think it is a mistake to assign the truth, as discovered by science, to be necessarily beneficial. Your later arguments in your article seem to make this implicit assumption: science is good, therefore, the results of true science, and therefore truth, must also be good and constructive, and not bad and destructive. It is quite possible for the truth to be destructive, as in this particular case. No possible good, and a great deal of harm, can come from the assertions made in the 'Bell Curve' being true. This, of course, has absolutely no bearing on whether they actually are, or are not true. Only empirical evidence and time can determine that. It may be, in this particular instance, that it is better for us not to know the truth (in the unlikely event that the assertions made in the Bell Curve really are true), and choose to believe what is best for society at large. If this is the case, what makes those who take this position any different than those who choose to believe in God, or any other artificial creation of the mind for some small personal or social benefit.
Ben Cooley

reply: I stand by what I said: "There is no such thing as a racial gene or set of genes any more than there is such a thing as an intelligence gene or set of  genes. " You can twist this around all you like to mean what you want it to mean, but I think it is pretty clear.  Furthermore, I nowhere say nor mean to imply that scientific truth is necessarily beneficial. That issue is a red herring.   The issue here is the validity of the concepts of  'race' and 'IQ'.  I argue my case without anywhere claiming that genetics has "nothing to do with" either race or IQ. Finally, I think it is you who has created a straw man by your misrepresentation of my argument.

By the way, what "race" is Tiger Woods and how intelligent is unabomber Theodore Kaczynski (whose IQ score is allegedly 170+)?


18 May 1998 - Mr Cooley replies:

First of all, let me state that I agree that The Bell Curve is garbage.

reply: First, let me state that you are not agreeing with me, since I never say such a thing. In fact, I will state categorically that The Bell Curve is not garbage. You have misunderstood me.

I categorically do not wish to be seen as defending it. My argument is solely with your statement of the nonexistence of the genetic basis for race, and the attack on the concept of intelligence.

I dislike fuzzy arguments. Fuzzy arguments fail to convince, and often are the hallmarks of fuzzy or wrongheaded thinking. I like clear, concise, and well-supported arguments. Your dictionary seems to be packed full of such well-conceived and supported arguments, such that the Race and I.Q. section is conspicuous by the absence of the same. The only good thing about a fuzzy argument is that it makes an attractive target.

reply: Once again you have misunderstood me. My comments on "fuzzy" arguments are clearly not intended as an argument is support of fuzzy thinking. Focusing on this comment is a diversion.

It's perfectly legitimate to attempt to discredit the opinion of an authority by explaining that many (or most) of his peers disagree with him. If this is form of fuzzy argument, it's new to me. From "How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for A New Age," [Schick, Jr., Theodore, and Lewis Vaughn. (Mountainview, CA Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995).] it states that when experts disagree on a subject, it is better to reserve judgement. As I am not claiming the truth of my argument, only the very lean proof for yours, my argument is completely sound.

reply: Your argument is quite clear but wrong. Opinions are not established by popularity or authority. The popularity of an idea or its acceptance by authorities is irrelevant to the legitimacy of the idea. Appealing to an authority (Schick and Vaughn, whom, by the way, you also misunderstand) to justify appealing to popularity and authority is also fallaciously irrelevant. It is legitimate to appeal to authorities when the authorities are really authorities in the field at issue AND there is general agreement among the authorities in the field (consensus of the experts). This does not mean that if there is agreement among one group of experts, it is legitimate to cite them as evidence you are right. If that were the case, then we are both right because we can both produce lists of competent experts to support our view. That would mean that contradictory viewpoints are both correct, which is absurd. In such cases where a point is controversial among the experts, one must decide for oneself which side has the best arguments. We've done that and have come down on different sides.

Your last comment is delicious. Fallacies of irrelevance don't become relevant when you are refuting rather than defending a position. A fallacy is a fallacy is a fallacy.

About your misunderstanding of Shermer, let me ask you this: the experts in controversial fields such as astrology and graphology always disagree. There will always be equally competent psychologists who will disagree on signifanct issues for which there is abundant data from which to make a competent evaluation. Do you really believe that the wise thing to do is to suspend judgment whenever experts disagree? If so, you are a true skeptic in the most ancient of traditions. But your position is not one I would advocate. (See my entry on "philosophical skepticism" for what I advocate. Study it carefully so you don't misunderstand it. Let me summarize my point: it is reasonable to suspend judgment when you know nothing about a subject, when nothing can be known about a subject, and when very little is known about a subject. If you can understand the arguments of the "experts" then you can make up your own mind as to which side seems stronger to you. Your argument on this point, by the way, seems disingenuous, since you clearly side with the experts I disagree with.)

[You write:] "These days it seems like it is the views of J. Philippe Rushton (Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1995)) that are controversial." As well they should be. It is just too difficult to separate actual scientific truth from hidden racism in this kind of research. If Mr. Rushton is in fact entirely innocent of such closet tendencies, the validity of his research, as with the claims of 'The Bell Curve', are tainted by the many disingenuous researchers that have preceded him.

[You also write]: "But what difference does that make? You make being "controversial" sound like having bad manners. Since you don't seem to like controversy you probably would not enjoy reading "Bringing the Centaur Back In: Race, Ethnicity and Biological Myth" by Garry L. Rolison."

I enjoyed it very much, thank you, though not being well versed in the jargon I had to read very carefully.

In fact, are you quite sure that you have read this yourself? It seems to me to be a very well reasoned, concise, and more or less clear examination of the difference and similarities between ethnicity and race as sociological, political, and cultural concepts. In the first paragraph, it refutes your position (as I understand it) stating that race is indeed a valid and separate entity from ethnicity. In fact, the author states that the primary reason for writing the paper is that he disagrees with the view that race and ethnicity are in fact one and the same. If this is controversy, it seems it's at the opposite end of the spectrum from where you are.

reply: I suggest that you find Rolison's argument so much more reasonable than mine is because he agrees with your understanding of the genetic basis for the concept of race.

Furthermore, he does not refute my position on race and ethnicity. He doesn't even disagree with it. Once again you have misunderstood my position. Where did you get the idea that I identify race with ethnicity?

The author states that ethnicity and race, as the terms are used in discussing political, cultural, and sociological circumstances (but not in the biological sciences) are similar, but distinct. He states that though race is based on biology, what we think of as its cultural, political, and social definition is created when two groups, the dominator and dominated, are forced together on the same territory either through conquest and settlement, or forced immigration. He goes on to state that it is the method of the domination which determines the way 'race' in the cultural context is defined, and he explores the three types: extermination, incorporation, and slavery. But he is careful to state that the basis for this cultural context has it's roots in real differences in appearance, which serve to separate the groups.

He also states that the definition of race by the dominators often includes the idea that the races are (somehow?) biologically incompatible, that products of racial mixing are inferior to either so called 'pure' race, and that they go to great lengths to shore up these obviously scientifically incorrect beliefs. It also interestingly states that the dominating race defines its aesthetic view of personal beauty for essentially the same ends, which seemed to be a bit of a stretch to me. Though he describes how the dominant group exaggerates racial differences, and creates false negative attributes, he never states that they actually make up the differences in appearance that separated them in the first place.

All in all, I felt the article was well reasoned, and believable, though it had many unsupported abstractions, categories, and causal relationships that, for me, would need to be supported more thoroughly (i.e. why must there be only three methods by which ethnic or racial groups come into contact.. could there be more.. describe why not? And are all the relationships between the concepts of race that are held by the dominated and dominator truly derived from this all encompassing central concept, or are there other factors that are at work.) But clearly, except for possible statements taken out of context (which you of course would never do), I fail to see how this article supports your position, or is even controversial except in deconstructionist/postmodernist circles.

reply: What gave you the idea that I referred to this article to support my position? I hoped you might recognize from what I have written in the entry on race and IQ that I would not agree with this article, that I would consider it controversial, and that being controversial is irrelevant to your notions of fuzziness, reasonableness, validity, etc.

In any case, controversial science when used in an argument isn't bad manners, it's just bad argument. To fight controversy with more controversy is pointless. It's like saying that reported sightings of Elvis couldn't possibly be true because he had obviously been kidnapped by aliens years ago.

reply: I can follow most of your comments, but this one escapes me.

[You write:] "Actually, the scientists I cited are associated with major institutions and there would be no need for a book like Rushton's if this were the common and dominant view these days."

Both of these are very weak. First, being associated with a major institution, and being representative of the larger majority of one's peers are two completely different things. I hadn't realized this before, but this subject does seem to be on the periphery of the deconstructivist, post-modernist phenomena, over which a large academic war is being waged. Second, lots of books are published all the time supporting or attacking a variety of valid and invalid ideas. Why should I believe that a book by this Rushton means that the majority are against him? In any case, from what I read of Rushton, I'm not even sure he's even the 'dominant view' we're talking about (i.e. race exists apart from a social construct, and is genetically passed to descendants).

In any case, you had a perfect opportunity to slam dunk your point by inundating me with references and links, to which, after I had read them, I would have said "Ahh yes.. there is a broad consensus amongst scientists that what you're saying is actually true."

reply: Not all of us are as impressed as you are by appeals to popularity and authority.

[You write:] "I stand by what I said: 'There is no such thing as a racial gene or set of genes any more than there is such a thing as an intelligence gene or set of genes. " You can twist this around all you like to mean what you want it to mean, but I think it is pretty clear. Furthermore, I nowhere say nor mean to imply that scientific truth is necessarily beneficial. That issue is a red herring. The issue here is the validity of the concepts of 'race' and 'IQ'. I argue my case without anywhere claiming that genetics has "nothing to do with" either race or IQ. Finally, I think it is you who has created a straw man by your misrepresentation of my argument. Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski (whose IQ score is allegedly 170+)?"

Well, I twisted it around as much as I could, but it still came out nonsense. Okay, since it is as clear as you say, I'll try and see if I can't clear it up even more. Correct me if I've got it wrong. [You say] "There is no such thing as a racial gene or set of genes..."

Meaning "Sure, we know there are different racial characteristics, and that they seem to be passed reliably from one generation to the next, and the only way that can be is through the passing of at least some genetic information that is distinct for different races, but the general consensus as to the definition of the term 'race' is meaningless, and therefore all this genetic stuff just doesn't count."

If this is an accurate representation of what you mean, then we're left with trying to find a new word for what we call race now, and determine what old word 'race' is now good for. This is simply an argument of semantics, and is pointless. And if you're trying to say that your 'race' is a social, political, or cultural construct, please be clear and say exactly that. According to science however, there IS such a thing as racial genes, or sets of genes, there being no other way to pass the common group of characteristics we have all given the convenient label of 'race' from one generation to another.

reply: Some readers are clever enough to draw their own inferences. They don't need everything spelled out for them. At least you seem to have figured out my point correctly on one issue: the concept of race is a social/political/cultural construct. Your assertion that science supports your view and not mine begs the question. By the way, the issue is not whether characteristics we associate with race such as skin color or shape of the eyes are genetically determined or not. We all know they are. The issues is whether a collection of physical features that are genetically determined should be taken as defining one's 'race' and whether those genetic determinants are the same ones that determine such things as language skills, mechanical ability, musical adeptness, etc., i.e., all those things we take as signs of intelligence.

If your argument is that "the concept of race, like I.Q., is complex and therefore not measurable", your quite wrong.

reply: It isn't, so I guess I'm not.

I also disagree with your view that the term 'intelligence' is to all intents and purposes meaningless. In your article, you state "...some people are more intelligent than others. But the myth is in thinking that only one type or set of behaviors counts as 'intelligence.'"

Finally, to illustrate my point, I'll answer your last two questions. Tiger Woods has Asian and Negro ancestry as far as I know, and I'd say that Theodore Kaczynski has an I.Q. of 170+, is extremely intelligent, and is also a sociopath.
Ben Cooley

P.S. I'm sure you won't take this kind of rhetorical drubbing sitting down. I hope the response (if you choose to reply) will be as witty and entertaining as the rest of your writing.

reply: That's a safe observation. Anyway, I didn't ask you what Tiger Woods' ancestry is. I asked what is his race? Kaczynski is not very intelligent except in math. It does not take much intelligence to do what he did or write what he wrote as the Unabomber. What he accomplished many years ago in math establishes him as a brilliant mathematician. Whatever his I.Q. might be, I would not say his behavior over the past twenty years demonstrates intelligence. Is there a racial connection to his mathematics abilities? How about to his brain disorder?

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