“Race” and “IQ” Yet Again

A essay by David Reich, prominently displayed in the New York Times, provoked yet another storm of controversy.
Biopolitical Times
Scientist weighing black and white in test tubes

David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard, is the author of a new best-selling book, Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. It was reviewed in Nature as a “thrilling account of mapping humans through time and place.” On March 23, Reich had the great good fortune to promote it with a 2500-word essay on the front page of The New York Times Sunday Review. That was titled:

How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’

It is possible that an editor rather than the author came up with the title, but in any event it accurately describes the content and the essay certainly provoked controversy, which was presumably the point. Reich explicitly criticized the likes of Nicholas Wade and James Watson for holding and promoting insidious racist stereotypes, and yet he ultimately reinforced them by conflating races and populations, as in this paragraph:

Is performance on an intelligence test or the number of years of school a person attends shaped by the way a person is brought up? Of course. But does it measure something having to do with some aspect of behavior or cognition? Almost certainly. And since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.

He also, rather confusingly and without subtlety, discusses gender:

How do we accommodate the biological differences between men and women? I think the answer is obvious: We should both recognize that genetic differences between males and females exist and we should accord each sex the same freedoms and opportunities regardless of those differences.

Did Reich really not see how racists and sexists could twist his thinking? Or does he in fact on some level share their prejudices? His discussion of gender is explicitly intended to guide social responses to “biological differences.” And they, he insists, do exist:

I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.”

Racism is effectively taboo in civilized society: Relatively few people are self-acknowledged racists, though the Southern Poverty Law Center tracks 954 “Hate Groups” of all kinds. Far more common are systemic racism and unacknowledged racism — the kind that fuel racial injustice and health disparities, and lead to grotesque disparities in prison populations. It is extremely likely that the judges applying differential sentences actually believe they are not racist; they clearly are.

So too are some scientists. The appalling history of IQ tests reveals the racism of formerly distinguished scientists. The application of eugenic principles to immigration law was committed in the name of science. Modern scientists are more technologically adept, but there is no reason to believe all of them are more self-aware than their predecessors.

In response to Reich’s essay, a group of 67 scientists and researchers  wrote a 1500-word rebuttal, which The Times declined to publish. The paper did, however, print a brief letter, signed by CGS Executive Director Marcy Darnovsky and Alan Goodman, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Hampshire College. (Also a letter from Nicholas Wade, who still insists he is not a racist.)

The longer rebuttal was published at Buzzfeed on March 30, and is well worth reading in its entirety. (It is signed by, among others, Marcy Darnovsky, CGS Senior Fellow and UC Berkeley Professor of Bioethics Osagie Obasogie, and CGS Advisory Board member and University of Pennsylvania Professor of Law and Sociology Dorothy Roberts.)

There it might have ended, except that controversies involving race and IQ never end. Just after Reich’s article was published, Sam Harris, the atheist controversialist who fancies himself a “public intellectual” noted a tweet from Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve, and tweeted provocatively at Ezra Klein of Vox:

I hope @ezraklein is on the case. Scientismic, neo-racialist thought crime never sleeps...

Andrew Sullivan, the editor who did more than anyone to promote The Bell Curve, jumped in quickly. The following week, Klein was finally persuaded to debate Harris, in a podcast they both published (link and transcript here). It’s worth reading, or perhaps listening to, because, as Klein wrote in his introduction, “this discussion goes to some important questions in American life — questions that drive our culture and politics today.”

An even more useful contribution came from Klein’s compadre Matthew Yglesias:

The Bell Curve is about policy. And it’s wrong.

But, really, none of this is either new or conclusive. One of the annoying but recurring themes of these repetitive debates is that the defense of the supposed links between race and IQ is regularly (as in Reich’s piece) presented as a challenge to “orthodoxy,” a brave rebellion against political correctness conducted by courageously independent thinkers. Who just happen to share certain conceptions with racists.

As the back-and-forth heated up, Mano Singham, a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University, wearily commented on “the drearily predictable resurgence of the race and IQ debate.” He included a long excerpt from an even longer piece he wrote in 1995, saying in part:

So what are we to make of the periodic bursts of interest in this topic in the absence of any real advances in research? Each of these epochs was contemporaneous with a period of social stress and increasing racial tension. The fuss over The Bell Curve says less about the merits of the book than about the times we live in. Unfortunately, the only thing we can be sure about is that the same ground will be covered the next time issues of race and immigration come to the boiling point.

As he notes, this was prescient, although “it is such an obvious prediction that I do not deserve any credit for it.” That seems unduly modest. This does keep happening. And every time, the effects are pernicious, as racism is normalized (again) and needs to be combatted (still). Eugenics is on the rise again, sometimes implicitly advocated, sometimes explicitly. That may well be, in part, due to cumulative effects of the damage caused by the recurrence of these baseless and ultimately racist-enabling claims.