Even though it’s a very crude marker, references to racial groups are simply inevitable in looming debates about science and genetics and politics:
The invisible hand of the market will inevitably nudge us toward the use of categories with the most cultural traction and that represents the biggest social groups. So, when genetic research leads to the development of a drug designed for a specific population, the marketing campaign will, naturally, be aimed at a visible racial category as opposed to the more precise sub-population. For example, marketing to "Blacks" is easier than marketing to individuals with Western African ancestry.
Hat tip: Matthew Nisbet.
Gladwell summarizes some of James Flynn’s findings:
Flynn then talked about what we’ve learned from studies of adoption and mixed-race children – and that evidence didn’t fit a genetic model, either. If I.Q. is innate, it shouldn’t make a difference whether it’s a mixed-race child’s mother or father who is black. But it does: children with a white mother and a black father have an eight-point I.Q. advantage over those with a black mother and a white father. And it shouldn’t make much of a difference where a mixed-race child is born. But, again, it does: the children fathered by black American G.I.s in postwar Germany and brought up by their German mothers have the same I.Q.s as the children of white American G.I.s and German mothers.
The difference, in that case, was not the fact of the children’s blackness, as a fundamentalist would say. It was the fact of their Germanness – of their being brought up in a different culture, under different circumstances. "The mind is much more like a muscle than we’ve ever realized," Flynn said. "It needs to get cognitive exercise. It’s not some piece of clay on which you put an indelible mark." The lesson to be drawn from black and white differences was the same as the lesson from the Netherlands years ago: I.Q. measures not just the quality of a person’s mind but the quality of the world that person lives in.
This seems indisputable to me. The question is whether race has any genetic salience with respect to IQ. And the further question is: if race as genetics and race as environment are hopelessly conflated, as they are in America, what can we actually do about it? Do we have another Lamarckian phenomenon here?
It proves nothing about anything, but it’s up there in the irony stakes.
James Flynn is one of the most respected scientists in the field, the man who showed that we’re all getting smarter, i.e. the "Flynn Effect." Here’s a piece that focuses on the race and IQ questions, and the interaction between genes and environment. Money quote:
There is still the puzzle of how environmental differences can be so weak when we compare individuals born at the same time, but so strong over time. The key, which Flynn attributes to fruitful discussions with his collaborator, William Dickens, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Flynn’s hometown of Washington, DC, lies in the observation that superior genes cause superior performance by co-opting superior environments…
Flynn’s thesis … points towards a satisfying answer to his original question: why do black Americans still perform worse on IQ tests than whites do, even when matched for poverty and other disadvantages? It is perfectly possible that in a still-biased society their genes can only co-opt inferior environments.
ZenPundit comments here. Ten questions for Flynn here.
The ever-vigilant Reihan pointed me to this succinct and highly informed blog-post on the subject by Jim Manzi. I’ve read a lot about this over the years, but this is one of the best and fairest analyses of the debate I’ve come across. And it’s highly disappointing if you’re hoping for some sort of resolution:
Given our current datasets and analytical tools, when we use econometric methods to try to understand the causes of group differences in intelligence, we are like cavemen trying to figure out how a computer works by poking at it with sharpened sticks.
Do genetic differences accounts for any material portion of the difference in IQ scores by self-identified racial groups in the US? The only honest answer is that we don’t know. This, not political correctness is why the American Psychological Association’s formal consensus point of view on this question is stated without qualification: “At present, this question has no scientific answer.”
He’s surely right as a simple empirical matter. A chastened Will Saletan – who deserves mad props for raising this important but frustrating issue – also concludes:
I outlined the evidence primarily to illustrate the limits of the genetic hypothesis. If it turns out to be true, it will be in a less threatening form than you might imagine. As to whether it’s true, you’ll have to judge the evidence for yourself. Every responsible scholar I know says we should wait many years before drawing conclusions.
So wait we shall.
Ezra Klein splutters in his inimitable fashion:
So what’s the point of all this? What’re the implications? So far as I can tell, there are none. We don’t deal with people in aggregate groups. We deal with them as individuals. If "individual IQ can’t be predicted from race," then none of this actually matters. One could argue that improving group IQ should be a societal goal and thus we need this data, but since Saletan is arguing for an immutable, racial, component to IQ, that obviously isn’t an option. If the various races were moving in opposite directions on IQ scales, we could get really worried about that, but instead, we’re seeing convergence, and everyone expects more as cultural/economic/educational disparities improve. So, again, what’s the implication here?
There is none.
Two words: affirmative action. That policy asserts as an irrefutable fact that any racial discrepancies in college selection are a function of either college-imposed or societal racism. Once the left put the blank slate on the table, and actively supported racial discrimination as public policy as a consequence, they begged the question of whether they had the empirical data to back up their social engineering. Over to Will. Abolish affirmative action and these questions can and will become less salient. How about it?