Brains and Banditry in the Age of In Vitro

Brains photo by neil conway

Tommy Raskin looks at the complexities of IQ, from the historical to implications for the future.

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There will likely come a point in the next couple centuries when our technology surpasses the limits of our current doctrine of “technological ethics.”  At this juncture, we will be capable of fundamentally altering the quality of human life, not just with newly advanced medicine, but also with unprecedented prenatal modifications to the human genome.  Once we are all able to select certain traits—gender, eye color, hair texture, height—in our future offspring, we will have to decide whether, and how, to make use of this radically new opportunity, both in individual and social terms.

When we discuss whether there is value in allowing parents, en masse, to opt for certain characteristics in their future children, we will inevitably debate the social utility of the traits in question. We will discuss whether there’s a universal benefit to creating a society distinctively taller, more blue-eyed, and more straight-haired than its predecessors.  Discussions surrounding the possibility of parents engendering more boys than girls, or vice versa, will intensify.

But perhaps the fieriest debate will relate to the manipulation of human intelligence, one of the most nebulous and historically controversial “traits” of the bunch, and the ramifications of everyone checking the “high IQ” box when they go “design” their babies.  Some will suggest, as many people do today, that eradicating many social ills is as simple as selecting against “low intelligence.”  Others will view the use of this technological development as “tampering with God” and a seedbed for dangerous eugenic discrimination.

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Though the need for this discourse may seem far off, the discussion has, in some manifestation, always existed and is simply evolving. Although our great-grandparents weren’t familiar with in vitro fertilization, they were engrossed in discussions of sterilization and the deliberate “weeding out” of “the feeble-minded.”  Handing down the 1927 majority decision in Buck v. Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. argued, “it is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”  Such language could very easily fit the opinion of a future Supreme Court justice ruling on the constitutionality of compulsory prenatal modifications to human intelligence.

Even if we are not all around to participate in this debate, its participants will likely study our works to determine the historical implications of IQ and the results of various societal approaches to intelligence. Commendably, some scholars, like Harvard’s Michael Sandel, have already weighed in on the ethics of future biotechnology, but we need not go that far to make our mark in this debate; if we simply discuss the utility of eternal human traits, we can provide our descendants with some framework for thinking about genetic manipulation.

IQ, as a simple measurement of a universal human attribute, like height or weight, is not inherently immoral. But in trying to reduce so much of human behavior and ability to a single score, its votaries have spawned a cultish field of thought that would actually be risible if it weren’t so influential. It has been used inappropriately to explain away disparate social outcomes as the stuff of “biological inevitability,” and to justify societal disregard for egregiously unfair social conditions that produce failure. Specifically, it has been exploited to paint a portrait of an immutable “criminal underclass” of stupid people, to make the case that adjustments to the social order (short of breeding “highly gifted” humans) can do very little to reduce crime. To abate the influence of these “IQ reductionists” in future discussions of reprogenetic technologies, it is crucial that we now debunk the long-accepted falsifications and fabrications about IQ and crime, if for no other reason than to steer society away from investing in the prenatal selection of high IQ to deal with criminal behavior.

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When we explore the role that germinal choice technology should play in the proliferation of intelligence, books like “The Bell Curve” will be used to support the view that the distribution of criminal IQ scores “differs from that of the population at large” and that “the relationship of IQ to criminality is especially pronounced in the small fraction of the population… who constitute the chronic criminals that account for a disproportionate amount of crime.”  In every generation in which this view is propagated, its take-aways are roughly reducible to these few key ideas:

(1) low IQ groups have a greater propensity to commit crime (which is revealed by the disproportionate number of low IQ prisoners)

(2) low IQ groups are more likely to victimize high IQ groups than vice versa (for example, Aryan Germans slaughtering Ashkenazi Jews, as Steve Farron details in “The Affirmative Action Hoax”)

(3)  high IQ people are more pro-social

The first argument’s propagators, like psychologist J. Philippe Rushton, cognizant of the black-white IQ disparity, often conclude that there is an unalterable African-American predisposition to commit crime, and thus examine African-American behavior in order to elucidate the tendencies of “lower IQ groups.”  Because there indeed exists a persistent racial gap in IQ scores, it is fine for us to also use “Whites” and “African-Americans” for purposes of comparing the criminal behavior of a high IQ group to a lower-than-average one.  (Of course, our use of this comparison does not presuppose that group IQ is permanent or that “race” is even a valid biological category, but rather that, right now, two indefinite groups produce disparate test scores.)

Claims that Blacks, as a lower IQ group, “are more prone than Whites to commit crime” are over-simplifications at best, and dangerously false at worst.  Claimants usually discuss crime in a non-nuanced way, without regard for its different types and for the crimes that prison statistics fail to reflect.  With respect to the first of these two shortcomings, IQ reductionists ignore the disproportionate rates at which white males engage in certain criminal behaviors, like drunk driving.  Whereas 12.7 percent of white male high school students have driven drunk, only 8.7 percent of their black male counterparts have done the same.  The black-white disparity in teenaged drunk driving persists when girls enter the equation, and when Latinos are included, Whites still offend the most.  A surprising result, to say the least, for a group presumed to be “more intelligent.”

It might be easier to attribute white transgressions to the lower end of the white IQ bell curve were it not for consistent racial disparities in illegal drug use among smarter-than-average college students. “White students are likelier to use and abuse all forms of drugs than are minority students,” finds Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, and, specifically, “White students are more than twice as likely as non-white students to use illicit drugs including marijuana and Ecstasy.”  Furthermore, irrespective of race, “‘very bright’ individuals (with IQs above 125) are roughly three-tenths of a standard deviation more likely to consume psychoactive drugs than ‘very dull’ individuals.”  One must wonder why, in these instances, high IQ doesn’t keep the gifted few from acting self-destructively and, indeed, criminally.

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Perhaps IQ reductionists are more concerned about maliciously violent offenses, and, for this reason, rely on statistics that reveal disproportionate rates of violent crime among racial minorities. If so, they bring us to their second key idea, that low IQ groups violently victimize high IQ groups more than the intelligent victimize “the dull.”  People stuck on this strange point like to evoke comparisons between the rates of black-on-white crime and white-on-black crime, and, when trying cleverly to distance themselves from mere white supremacist hysteria and unvarnished Nazism, condemn the Holocaust perpetrated by the “fairly intelligent” Aryans against the “extremely intelligent” Jews.  Interestingly, they never interpret the ethnic cleansing of the American Indians or the enslavement of African-Americans as an act perpetrated by a less-intelligent, violence-obsessed racial group against an intellectually and ethically superior group.

The claim that the “less intelligent” more frequently attack the intelligent is not a scientific claim, but a rhetorical ploy.  Powerful elites have always differentiated between communities, labeling some “savage” and some “refined,” some “unintelligent” and some “intelligent,” in order to justify oppression of the out-groups.  The historical promulgation of “intelligence” as a definitive and objective concept was not primarily undertaken out of reverence for intellectual values, but instead to justify subjugation of ethnic minorities, the disabled, and economically disadvantaged people.  Of course, it is true that low IQ people have also antagonized (and continue to antagonize) the intelligent, that air-headed bullies pick on “nerds,” that cognitively impaired gunmen shoot intelligent pedestrians, and that the “average” person may regularly shout slurs at the “genius” of whom he is jealous.  But it remains the case that there have been no systematic efforts among “unintelligent” people, organizing on that basis, to brutalize, enslave, or eradicate those with higher IQs.

Those of us who make these arguments are accustomed to being pulled over and asked, effectively, “You talk a nice talk, but you don’t really believe that intelligence is purely subjective, that there are no hierarchies in ability, that everyone’s equally good at everything, and that high IQ makes people evil, do you?”  Of course, the answer, on all fronts, is no—mathematical ability is a better measure of intellect than, say, blinking ability; Albert Einstein was a more gifted physicist than most; Duke Ellington was one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time; and there’s no reason to think that high IQ makes people evil.  Although we believe that science demands a more inclusive view of intelligence, we never deny the existence of human differences, or that certain skills are more valuable than others.

We instead reject the socially constructed systems of oppression, built around certain aptitudes, which disadvantage a lot of the population so that a powerful minority can thrive.  We do not contest that some people score higher than others on IQ tests, but take issue with the way those scores are used to allow “gifted people” disproportionate access to resources in society, to excuse the way those deemed “intelligent” have perpetuated systems of racial, socioeconomic, able-bodied, and gender domination over the “dull.”  Even though high IQ doesn’t itself make people evil, there’s ample reason to believe that it doesn’t very well stop its possessors from becoming evil for other reasons.

If it were the case that “the dull” victimize “the bright,” then Native-Americans would have ethnically cleansed the higher-IQ European colonizers.  As we know, the opposite occurred; not only did the white colonists expel the Natives from their land, they used the latter’s unsophistication and “savagery” as a basis for doing so.  There were not at that point modern IQ tests, but it’s fair to assume that the Cherokee who lost their lives during the Trail of Tears were, by European standards, less “intelligent” than the white men who introduced the Indian Removal Act, forced Native American children into boarding schools replete with sexual abuse perpetrated by “bright” teachers, and sterilized thousands of Native American women to prevent the production of “dysgenic” offspring.

And, if history were backwards, it would have been “mentally retarded” justices on the US Supreme Court declaring it constitutional to restrict the movement of and forcibly sterilize those with above-average IQs.  But, once again, the reality is at odds with the IQ propagandists’ narrative, as an eight-justice majority of highly “intelligent” justices alternatively ruled it proper in Buck v. Bell to lock up cognitively disabled women, against their will, and prevent them from reproducing.  By the end of the 1970s, structural violence waged against the “feebleminded” had impinged the autonomy of over 66,000 Americans who were involuntarily sterilized.

Let us too look at Tasmania, where higher-IQ “Europeans on horse-back hunted native peoples for sport,” or South Africa, where hundreds of innocent native Africans under apartheid were murdered by higher-IQ, European-descended Afrikaners during the Soweto Uprising, or the Jim Crow South, where the lynchings of innocent black men were recreational spectacles for the “intelligent” white population.

Let us also dissect the flaunted “counterexample” of Nazi Germany, a case that, at first glance, may seem to fit the mold of “low IQ criminality against the gifted,” but that, upon deeper examination, only provides further evidence of the “gifted” oppressing the “dull.”  If it were actually the case that the Nazis were trying to uplift the “cognitively disadvantaged” in a rebellion against high IQ, then why did they initiate Action T4 to euthanize some 275,000 physically and cognitively disabled people, many of whom had Down syndrome?  Some Nazis did actually inveigh against IQ tests, but that’s only because high IQ was associated with Jewry, a population that was already being demonized for its religious differentness, its imaginary “role” in Germany’s loss in WWI, and for cruel medieval myths about money-laundering, blood libel, and the murder of Jesus Christ that never lost their hold.

IQ reductionism often evokes consideration of parties in the Israeli-Arab conflict as well.  On this front, reductionists try to portray the conflict as a simple litany of offenses perpetrated by the less intelligent, envious Natives against the Jews.  This is, in fact, the basis of a rather common narrative in some Zionist circles.  The Shiloh Institute’s Rabbi David Bar-Hayim contends that the Jews, “with their labor and intellect, strived and succeeded where Moslems had only failed,” and thus concludes that the Moslems in Palestine, mad with resentment, are prone to take “an explosive vest, catch a bus, and blow up some Jews.”  Once again, we find an overly simplistic explanation for an intractably complex social problem.

Although Israeli Jews have long faced invidious anti-Semitism from extremist Palestinian factions, there is too an ignominious and well-established history of Zionist-inspired violence against the purportedly “primitive, stupid” Arabs. For example, during the 1948 Nahshon Operation, the Lehi and Etzel entered Deir Yassin to slaughter upwards of 100 Arab civilians, including children, with presumably lower IQs than the Jews who murdered them. Frightening many nearby Arabs, the attack helped precipitate the 1948 Palestinian Exodus, which was itself replete with violent dispossession at the behest of Haganah members, who, as mostly Ashkenazi Jews, would have scored substantially higher than average on IQ tests. Again, this history does not preclude the existence (or sheer depravity) of Palestinian suicide missions, but nonetheless undercuts the fabricated association between super-high IQ and non-criminality.

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The last of the IQ reductionists’ premises maintains the riff about low IQ thugs, but takes us one further: smart people are not only less likely to commit crime, but are also more likely, because of their neurological composition, to do good things for the world.  They’re natural “anti-criminals,” and should perhaps, by that token, be favored once it comes time to design children.

Even though high IQ people have undoubtedly done a lot of good, there’s no reason to think that people’s IQs cause them to be moral or immoral. As a telling example, a young Martin Luther King Jr. turned up below average results on the GRE verbal section; had his morality correlated with his test score, he would have been something of an apathetic jerk.  The general body of African-American students, whose average test scores fall below the white average, are also “more likely than white students to report working on various social projects with church groups, helping disadvantaged families, working with homeless people, or helping illiterate adults learn to read or write.” In that vein, it has been shown that wealthy white students, with high average test scores, are more inclined to affirm the permissibility of cheating on academic tests. (It’s unfortunate that, instead of decrying the corrosive culture of standardized testing itself, these students cheat their way to the top of our current system’s morally dubious academic hierarchy.)

What the future holds is never determinable, but if the past is any indication, there will forever exist groups, perhaps powerful ones, that will advocate “rectifying” social ills by manipulating humanity’s genetic composition. In the era of rapidly evolving prenatal care, these factions will almost invariably promise that which is manifestly impossible, as American eugenicists before them did: the creation of a higher moral order of “highly efficient people” predicated on the genetic eradication of “the feeble-minded.”  The creation of this sort of “higher” moral order would itself be immoral, and would therefore fail from its inception.  Cruelty and rule-breaking emerge from a wide variety of influential social sources, and may humans forever remember that the flexible thing called “IQ” simply isn’t one of them.

Photo: Neil Conway / Flickr 

 

 

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About Tommy Raskin

Tommy is a frequent contributor to The Nation online and a co-host of The Angle on WAMH 89.3 FM.  He tweets @TommyRaskin and blogs at tommyraskin.org.

Comments

  1. Tommy

    I though measurement of g ( IQ ) was simply a measure , a prediction of how well you will succeed in school.
    When was moral , good and evil brought into that measurement?

    But countries and whole continents average score on IQ test are arguments in debate about immigration.
    Anti immigration activists return again and again to arguments about the IQ in Africa south of Sahara.
    ..
    Do America screen immigrants and pick out those with a high IQ?
    Higher education tell that a person is not below the average .
    Do America allow immigrants, of persons without education , person that can not read and write, that come from countries that measure low on the IQ scale?

    • Kim,

      Thank you for your comment and question. With respect to your first point, I should again refer you to prominent authors– Charles Murray, J. Phillipe Rushton, and (on the fringe) Jared Taylor– who have inappropriately used IQ to explain criminal phenomena. I would much prefer to “laugh off” their ravings, but alas, their ideas have accrued too much social influence to not be substantively examined and refuted.

      Does the US only let in would-be immigrants with high IQ scores? No, but IQ still plays a large role in immigration-related discourse. For example, the influential bestseller “The Bell Curve” contends that the influx of Latino immigrants is lowering the average IQ of US residents. The book’s (erroneous) characterization of low IQ groups as immutably “dull” and more “criminally inclined” would therefore suggest that Latino immigration is an especially dangerous proposition.

      For an even more recent example of IQ’s role in immigration discussions, check out this article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/05/08/heritage-study-co-author-opposed-letting-in-immigrants-with-low-iqs/

      Best,
      Tommy

      • Tommy
        Thank you for your courage to write about this taboo issue.
        The article is interesting ,but the comments below , even more so:

        ❞No, you’re wrong. His paper is definitely not “irrefutable.” I’ve read it. I have the statistical and
        empirical background that makes me a pretty good judge of these sort of things (I’m a
        professor of statistics and econometrics)…….
        As for his paper, yeah, I could nit-pick his technique, but for me, that’s not the issue. For me,
        the real kicker is the “social capital” section where he argues that racial diversity leads to
        less trust (and lower levels of social capital) and therefore we should stop increasing
        diversity. Since he believes IQ and race are correlated, we can do that by IQ-based
        restrictions. The argument is explicitly race-based, not intelligence-based, and he’s quite
        clear that he’s only using IQ because it’s more politically palatable. Note, this is not the main point of his paper. Granted, his own data says we should increase the number of immigrants from east Asia if
        he’s truly making an IQ argument, but that would contradict his “diversity” argument (since he
        explicitly states Asians, along with blacks and hispanics) as the groups whose presence
        causes the diversity/trust problem. The way he argues against one minority based on IQ, but
        not for another minority based on IQ suggests that he’s not actually after the highest IQ
        immigrants, but rather simply doesn’t want any more Mexicans in the US.❞

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