Conservatives have taken to "reconfiguring" science to agree with their ideology. The creationists relabeled their beliefs to "intelligent design" and festooned it with pseudo-scientific garlands. They constructed Potemkin villages from falsehoods to deny the science of climate change. Their latest venture is the rebranding of racism under the oh-so scientific-sounding label "Human Biodiversity", or HBD. Herewith an explanation of yet another ideological foray into science.
Ever since the amassing of data from IQ tests in the 20s and 30s, people have noticed a strong, clear difference between the scores of Caucasians and blacks. The difference is typically about 15 points, or one standard deviation. Statistically, there is absolutely no question that blacks score poorly on these tests.
This has always served as an embarrassment to the designers of IQ tests, and they have made many efforts to revise the tests to diminish that difference, but despite many decades of effort, have never succeeded in this endeavor.
Why the difference? There are some obvious explanations: environment, pre-natal health conditions, educational opportunities, and so on. But the explanation that won't go away is genetics: could it be that blacks are genetically predisposed to poor IQ test scores?
William Shockley helped invent the transistor and shared a Nobel Prize for his achievement. In the 1960s and 1970s, he used IQ test data to claim that blacks constituted a eugenic threat to humanity and should volunteer for sterilization. Racists piled onto the bandwagon he built, but society in general rejected him as a nutcase.
1994 saw the publication of The Bell Curve, which again argued that different IQ test scores demonstrated low intelligence in blacks. The authors provided more scientifically sophisticated arguments, and explained a number of other issues arising from human genetics. It generated considerable controversy.
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The ideologically-driven "science" of these efforts generated an equal and opposite reaction in the form of an ideologically-driven rejection of ANY genetic component in human behavior. The eminent scientist E.O.Wilson was the world's leading authority on the behavior of ants when, in the 1970s, he proposed that evolutionary selection pressures acted on behavior as well as the body, leading to genetic factors in behavior. His work with ants demonstrated the basic concept beyond question, but when he extended his ideas to humans, he triggered a shitstorm of outrage, and was treated quite badly. Wilson's work was impeccable, but because it was distantly analogous to the racist IQ claims, his ideas (which he termed "sociobiology") were lumped together with that odious ideology.
In the 70s and 80s, a strict intolerance for the racist abuse of science mushroomed into something entirely different: an ideological rejection of the notion that genetics played any role in human behavior. This school of thought was so dominant that many scientists were frightened away from any research remotely related to such matters.
But you can't deny reality. As one scientist wrote, "Evolution didn't stop at the neck." Human mental evolution was strongly influenced by selection pressures, which manifested themselves in human behavior. Genetics really does influence behavior, but it took a while for scientists to re-assert that basic principle. Two scientists, Cosmides and Tooby, began an extremely rigorous program of experiments that demonstrated beyond question that there were oddities of human cognition that could not be explained by any environmental factors. They christened their field of research "evolutionary psychology". For many years they attracted considerable opprobrium, but their research was flawless and now evolutionary psychology is a respected field of research.
In 2002 the renowned scientist Steven Pinker published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which forcefully attacked the ideological belief that all human behavior is determined by environmental factors. In terms of "nature versus nurture", he came down hard on the notion that it's all nurture, arguing with overwhelming evidence that nature constitutes an important component of human behavior.
In the scientific community the "all-environment" school has pretty much been annihilated and the doors have been opened to extensive research on the genetic components of human behavior. Much has been learned, much of which will come as a surprise to the general public. To boil down volumes of research into a single grand overstated generalization, about 50% of human behavior is determined by genetic factors. Obviously, this statement fails to include a great many intricacies, qualifiers, and exceptions, but for the purposes of this short essay, it's adequate; an explanation of all those intricacies, qualifiers, and exceptions would drag on for hundreds of pages.
I must emphasize that the great bulk of this work has been rigorously vetted by a properly ferocious peer review process. Most of these results are genuinely reliable.
However, riding on the coattails of this respectable work is the HBD movement, populated mostly by eager amateurs rather than professional scientists. The HBD movement covers a broad range of ideas, from the genuinely scientific to the nakedly racist. At the scientific end of the range we have people like HBD Chick, who aggregate lots of evidence on matters anthropological and genetic as they relate to human behavior. At the other extreme we have Steve Sailor, a conservative who promulgates racist ideas.
There's an easy way to differentiate the scientific side of HBD from the racist side: fixation on IQ. These people love to wring the IQ data for every ounce of scientific justification they can find for their racism. They analyze IQ scores by race, religion, gender, national origin, and lots of other factors; I wouldn't be surprised if one of them hasn't calculated the correlation coefficient of IQ score with aversion to broccoli. They triumphantly trumpet the results that support their prejudices and quietly ignore results that undermine their prejudices, such as the finding that national IQ scores are correlated with GDP per capita.
I caution the reader that the science surrounding IQ test scores is immensely complicated. On the one hand, it is unquestionably predictive of academic and financial success in Westernized nations. On the other hand, there's plenty of evidence that cultural factors strongly influence IQ scores. And there are hundreds of other hands to consider as well.
My greatest objection to the use of IQ scores is that human cognitive performance cannot be adequately measured in a single dimension. The cognitive talents that make a great violinist are in no wise comparable with the cognitive talents that make a great mathematician. Yet most of the IQ aficionados are certain that a single number -- sometimes they call it "g" and sometimes they call it "gma", but when speaking loosely they call it "intelligence" -- does a good job of explaining most cognitive performance.
The concept of intelligence is akin to the concept of physical strength. It is certainly reasonable to argue that a man in his 20s is stronger than he was in his childhood, and stronger than he will be in his 80s. But a weightlifter is not necessarily a good runner; a gold medal Olympic discus thrower is not likely to be a great swimmer. Strength arises from different muscle groups and strength in one muscle group does not necessarily imply strength in any other muscle group. And what are we to make of physical performance requiring the tight integration of all muscles, such as gymnastics? Would Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime have done well against Nadia Comăneci on the balance beam?
Moreover, cultural factors remain a crucial confound in any discussion of IQ scores. On this matter, the IQ aficionados demonstrate their sophomorism. They know everything about the statistical analyses, but the differences between Asian styles of thinking and Western styles of thinking are beyond their ken; their cultural backgrounds are so narrow that they simply cannot conceive the notion that other people can think in ways unlike their own and still be intelligent.
But of course, racism is always born of stupidity.
Finally, I caution the reader to subordinate personal preference for scientific objectivity in this question. I fervently believe that "All men are created equal", but I am willing to entertain the hypothesis that some men are born with lesser cognitive talents than others. If solid evidence arises that blacks are cognitively less capable than whites, then I shall accept the hypothesis and move on to asking how we reconcile scientific conclusions with political theory. So far, however, the evidence I have seen is completely inadequate to support the hypothesis.
Epilogue, January 15th:
Commentary has died out, so I think it useful to summarize the discussion that took place in response to this essay. Basically, there were four categories of response. First, there were lots of people tossing in minor comments, additions, corrections, and assorted other commentary that made for interesting reading. Second, there were a few "blank slate" people who deny that genetic factors have any influence on inclinations to behavior. Third, there were three HBDers who showed up to defend their field. Finally, there was me; I wrote a LOT of responses to the attacks coming from both sides.
Here's my characterization of the three-way debate between blank slaters, HBDers, and me:
The blank slaters were absolutely sure of themselves, rather uncivil, and didn't feel much need to cite evidence to support their claims. For the most part, they simply dismissed counterarguments with varying degrees of vitriol.
The HBDers were quite civil and often presented evidence to support their claims. They argued their case pretty well, In My Arrogant Opinion. In fact, within the confines of their case, they did a great job. Their weakness lay in the fact that the confines of their case are quite narrow. While they've really nailed down a vast amount of information about IQ tests, they are quite blind to anything else. For example, when I challenged them about such things as intuition or social reasoning, they simply declared that these things most certainly conform to their theory, even though they could offer not a shred of evidence that IQ tests measure intuition or social reasoning. They also demonstrated little knowledge of linguistics, anthropology, or history whenever these subjects were raised in conjunction with the discussion. When I raised points about the differences between East Asian thinking styles and Western thinking styles, their silence was telling. My overall impression is that they know a great deal about very little, and suffer from severe sophomorism in thinking that their IQ tests span the space of human cognitive behavior. Ultimately, they simply gave up and disappeared or, in one case, ended up stoutly defending a personal version of science that the commentator felt was superior to the science promulgated by all those, you know, ignorant professional scientists.
So, is HBD really racist? I stick with my original characterization: much of HBD is solid science, but when you get to the subfield devoted to IQ test scores, you run into people who are "gentleman racists". They don't hate blacks, they simply consider them inferior. They'd have no reservations about taking a black out to lunch, and they happily acknowledge that some blacks are smarter than some whites, but all in all, they see blacks as a group to be less intelligent than whites as a group. The dead giveaway comes when value-laden terminology slips into their writings. They absent-mindedly let slip a comment that whites are "superior" to blacks in IQ scores. A scientist would use more objective wording: "whites tend to score higher on IQ tests than blacks".
A last telling note: I offered to debate one of the HBDers on his own site, presenting the argument I present here for open debate. He chose not to accept my offer.