Sunday, May 02, 2010

Finding humor in racial controversy

A third year law student @ Harvard got herself into some hot water for
the following remarks:

"I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans
are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I
could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right
variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as
white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things
are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people
are more likely to have red hair."

Obviously, there is an academic taboo on the questioning of any
group's average intelligence. And, as much as I am a person who
generally doesn't like thought taboos, this one is a relatively
acceptable one because when a cause for a problem is found, the search
for other causes might also cease. I went to the London museum once
and read a quote by a rich man who was convinced that the poor
vagabonds and riff-raff on the streets were just the unintelligent
half of Londoners. But amazingly, some of these people were sent to
Australia and prospered. The problem wasn't intelligence, it was a
lack of opportunity. Similarly, up until about 1980 China was dirt
poor and experiencing no economic growth. To have assumed that the
cause was a lack of average intelligence among Chinese would have been
clearly incorrect.

At any rate, I laugh at the outrage of this comment by this Harvard 3L
because the strict, literal interpretation of what she said is
actually, undoubtedly, and unquestionably true. The whole concept of
race, from a genetic point of view, isn't particularly water tight.
That being said, we can still attempt categorize human populations at
least from a basis of recent shared ancestry since some groups of
people split off and multiplied in relative isolation. The legend is
that the Japanese were originated from 1000 Chinese sent to the island
by the emperor. Those 1000 Japanese were of course genetically
Chinese, but by sheer luck some genes among those 1000 might be over
represented or under represented; furthermore, you have other
indigenous groups that those 1000 may have had contact with. This is
known in evolutionary biology as the founder effect, and its an
important cause of diversity. Thus the modern population of people of
Japanese descent undoubtedly has a different genetic composition, on
average, than people from mainland China - again, by sheer luck.

We could classify groups of humans in any numbers of ways (which as a
complicated variable is part of the reason this can be so touchy -
because people with ulterior motives can draw the maps based on their
biases), and then *in theory* we could quantify the attributes of
those groups. And the averages would undoubtedly be different,
probably ever so slightly. Nobody of course gets into hot water when
they remark that the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, but
there are genes for height as well as for intelligence. And in fact,
to deny that intelligence lacks a genetic component is actually to
deny the theory of evolution. The entire theory of evolution is based
around the principle that advantageous genes get selected and
propagated. If intelligence wasn't at least partially genetic in
character, it never could have been selected upon, and humans never
would have had the runaway growth in intelligence that we saw in human

So cut up the human species any way you like...say by those whose name
starts with "K" rather than "L", and you'll find slight genetic
variation among the averages. How useful is this? Well, not very
useful. For one, as I mentioned above, the separation in the first
place is very arbitrary. Second of all, while height is very easy to
quantify, intelligence is not. I for one am convinced that there are
probably dozens of subcategories of intelligence. Some people are
more creative, some people are more street smart, some people are more
book smart, some people are better at reading emotions, more musical,
better at organizing, or whatever. We really can't quantify
intelligence in a meaningful way, so at least until we can its not a
very promising place to be looking for the source of our problems.

So back to this law student's original statement. Taken literally, in
the first sentence she said something that is undeniably true: it is
possible that African Americans are less intelligent. But of course,
its also possible that they are more intelligent. And it also depends
on what aspect of human mental function we are analyzing, and it
assumes we can measure that function with perfect accuracy, and that
we know the complex relationship of nature and nurture in the
formation of intelligence. Since we don't know any of those things,
its kinda silly to say one way or another. Actually, it was her
second sentence that really struck me as the racist one, not the first
one. In the second sentence, she sets white people as this sort of
intelligence benchmark that maybe African Americans could hope to get
close to or even reach.

Moral of the story. Intelligence is at least in part genetic, and
there will undeniably be at least some differences in intelligence
between groups depending on how you chop humanity up. But
intelligence is a really complicated thing, and so is anthropology,
and we cannot even begin to quantify intelligence, or to categorize
humanity in a meaningful way. Thus, to tie the two together when
making social observations is unscientific, and probably ill advised.

No comments: