Eugenics in black and white

  • 30/12/1994

Eugenics in black and white THE ghost of racism has this nasty habit of popping its head up off and on --- as televised hate talk in Russia; as neo-Nazi muggings in eastern Europe; as a hyperactive police baton in Los Angeles. Philistines and skinheads the world over keep repeating history. But it is all the more disturbing to see some scientists trying give racism a new veil of sanctity, long after those dubious experiments of eugenics that tried to glorify the Aryan race before and during World War II. In a controversial book that awaits publication, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America (Free Press, New York), authors Charles Murray, an American social scientist, and the late Richard Herrnstein, a Harvard psychology professor, have reinstated that old dictum: intelligence is invariably linked to genes and race.

In 845 pages of science, statistics and sheer provocation, the authors try to drive home the idea that intelligence as measured by IQ is largely -- that is, 60 per cent or more -- inherited. The trouble starts when they state that Blacks score lower in IQ tests than Whites (the graph of the test results form a bell curve); that it is almost impossible to push somebody's IQ after his or her early childhood; that the U S government's "affirmative action" to do so by encouraging disadvantaged groups in education and jobs have failed. The explosive part of the story lies in the conclusion - that, given the above reasons, let us abandon such remedial measures.

As the line of logic progresses, the seriousness as well as stupidity of the fallacies also increase. To begin with, IQ is an approximation of kind, not a well-defined standard like the GNP. And it is irrelevant in matters of social welfare and poverty alleviation. They are remedial measures meant to promote the social status of the poor, to create equal opportunities for them; they are not IQ-boosting shots.
IQ's social trappings

However, IQ does play an important role in determining a person's social success. The Bell Curve shows that those at the pinnacle of social success form the "cognitive elite" who run the United States. And any amount of affirmative action, as in preferential university recruitments and other privileges, would not help improve the IQ and social status of the underprivileged beyond a certain point. They do, however, recognise that IQ can be nurtured in adults, but efforts to this effect have failed. In plainspeak, the argument is that those who do not belong to the exclusive club are out, that meritocracy is dynastic. As Murray complains: "The country has for a long time been in almost hysterical denial that genes can play any role whatsoever."

This gene play is an old ploy. In one fell sweep, the authors seemed to have shoved under the carpet the sheaves of information that emerged from a whole century of scientific research -- about the fallacy of the inherited intelligence theory; about ethnic diversities; and about the links between environment and the intellectual development of the child.
Concerning the last point, there is any amount of scientific evidence to prove that deprivation and difficulties during pregnancy and early childhood stunt the intellectual growth of the child, much more so than its physical growth. American Blacks often do not share the same childhood environment as Whites. Welfare foodstamps, which the U S government provides to underprivileged mothers, cannot compensate for the lack of a nurturing atmosphere in shantytowns and poor neighbourhoods. Affirmative action, in fact, goes a step forward by opening up educational opportunities for the underprivileged. Like any social welfare measure in the world, it has inadequacies, certain inappropriateness, and it cannot straighten out the bell curve, despite the best of intentions. What are needed, of course, are better efforts.

As such, intelligence tests on different races are also old hat; if not as old, at least as stupid as the myths about the cephalic index and size of the brain cavity denoting the mental and spiritual superiority of the Aryan race. The early evolutionists thought that man had evolved from apes in a straight line, with increasing brain size, receding hairline and narrower nose. By stretching this theory, they believed that the White race was perched on the top rung of the evolutionary ladder, Black grappling down there. The myth was destroyed with later evidence of simultaneous evolution in many places of the globe. The story on brain sizes did not hold water either, as all brain sizes were noticed all over the globe, and many geniuses proved to have smaller brains.

Then, psychological tests came as a more sophisticated tool. Till World War II, a long series of such tests were conducted. During the World War I, Binet tests (the forerunner of IQ), to determine innate intelligence, were conducted on American soldiers. The results were rudely classified into racial groups. The White race performed well, and the Black poorly, with only a little overlapping. Northern Europeans fared better than those from the south. The conclusion: Nordics were superior to the Alpines and the Mediterraneans. And the Blacks were congenitally inferior. School tests showed similar results. But Blacks who migrated to the northern US states fared better that the ones from the southern states, giving credence to the idea that environment did change performance. But by the '30s and '40s, more research into ethnic diversities blew the lid off the White claim to racial superiority. The thinking pattern of ethnic minority groups often does not make sense to the Western mindset, tests or education. For instance, for a Balinese child, uninfluenced by the West, a rainbow is a continuous spectrum of hues, not 7 colours, says Ruth Benedict in Race and Racism. He may refuse to identify a colour as yellow, which he knows is "young leaves colour", and end up scoring nil. Native American children are often taught to keep quiet about things that they do not fully know: they may refuse to interpret a picture if it includes a Western Union envelope, which he has never seen. Proud Blacks cling to their ancestral beliefs and ways of life, which give them a distinct cultural identity, even in the midst of Western influences.

Approximation tests gave predictable results, reinforcing notions about the inferiority of minorities. T R Garth, who spent most of his life looking for "clear-cut racial differences in mental processes", concluded in his famous reference book Race Psychology way back in 1931: "It is useless to speak of the worthlessness of so-called worthless people when their worth has never been established by a fair test." Adventure tales are always written by poachers, not tigers. QED.

However, using such devices, scientists, psuedoscientists and propagandists have done many kinds of acrobatics to prove one races's superiority over another. Here, Europe before World War II was one up. It earnestly promoted the aristocratic idea that talent ran in families, as British scientist Francis Galto claimed in his 1883 book, Hereditary Genius. Nazis used the "findings" of British mathematician Karl Pearson that mental and emotional qualities were inherited; and the high birth rate of the poor people who lack these qualities was a threat to civilisation. Hitler even tried the ultimate in eugenics by trying inbreed an elite class. Eugenics (meaning "good birth") research became anathema to scientists, till some doughty ones started tinkering with genes again recently.

Obviously, in Europe and the US, social and economic factors forced Blacks and Jews towards the receiving end of White man's research.

At the simplest level, the "findings" work. Broad classifications and approximations about the relative merits of races easily become tools of oppression and segregation. American scientist Charles B Davenport had "proved" that criminality was inherited, and later some insurance companies denied cover to Blacks, considered "crime-prone" by White racists. Scientists even associated Black superiority in sports with animal instincts, not muscletone and power. Whites -- the more sophisticated ones -- fared well in games, they said.

Equal opportunities
As The Bell Curve says, the scrapping of the privileges will obviously run against the spirit of equal opportunities in the US. But, sadly, many people want to do the same. As US labour secretary Robert Reich commented in Time (October 31, 1994): "I am afraid their ideas will give solace to those in our society who are looking for every excuse to do less and less for those who are less fortunate."

The background of the authors also gives credence to suspicions of ignoble motives behind the book. Herrnstein had written in 1971 in Atlantic Monthly about a hereditary upper class emerging as the cognitive elite at the top of the American meritocracy, and reportedly attracted a students' boycott in Harvard. Murray's 1984 book Losing Ground argued that poverty programmes worsened poverty, and arch-conservatives used it to reduce the social security budget.

Nobody stops anybody from publishing well-researched data. But the case for an exclusive elite club where membership is determined strictly by birth is questionable. It may a welcome idea to racists worldwide, which is all the more reason to stand the argument on its head. Such notions are dangerous- whether it be in the formation of a cognitive elite in the US or an elite elsewhere in the world.

Related Content