December 2007

Race and Intelligence

by Jonathan Wallace

The first issue of The Ethical Spectacle appeared in January 1995. Since then, I have uploaded a new issue every month for 156 months (including this one, if I counted correctly). Each issue has contained at least one of my own essays, sometimes several. In all that time, however, there are two issues I have never written about of overwhelming import in our lives. One is race and the other is abortion.

I never wrote about abortion because my thoughts about it are conflicted and rather murky. Race is a completely different problem: it is so easy to say the wrong thing and alienate people you like. On the receiving end, I don't take it well when people drop comments like "I have many Jewish friends" or "I love Jewish food". (I don't understand why anyone would love Jewish food, with its liberal use of fats and creams. I don't like the first statement even when truthful, but always suspect the veracity of the second.)

The following is not my definitive article about race, but its a start.

This week, we are having the flap about whether intelligence is genetically predisposed and whether Caucasians are fundamentally more intelligent than black people. The debate has a relatively new corrolary proposition, that Asian people are more intelligent than Caucasians.

This is silly season business that crops up every few years in a slow news week. I have now witnessed forty years of these controversies, which usually start when a formerly respected scientist makes a dumb remark, or a Cabinet member or other public figure blurts something stupid, or when a fringe scientist using questionable methods releases some highly challenged results. This time around it wasn't any different.

This debate is a wonderful illustration of the dangers of language, which I have long characterized as a highly overrated means of communication. Words lend an apparent precision to topics where none exists. Witness the elaborate, lifelong efforts of philosophers and primitive scientists of earlier centuries (there was no distinction between these professions until about the seventeenth century AD). Their researches into topics such as the Philosopher's Stone or the heliocentric universe claimed a precision that did not exist. Similiarly, theologians studying angels, later scientists compounding theories of the "ether" around us, or people writing about ghosts or aliens can create entire classifications and lexicons and can sound as sure of themselves as any "mainstream" scientist. A few seconds of searching on Google disclosed a page listing known types of space aliens which includes the following amusing classification:

GREY TYPE C: These are the shortest of the greys and tend to be about 3.5 ft. tall. Their facial features are very similar to the Zeta Reticuli greys and are of the same "root race.". They are just as hostile to humans as the Zetas. They are from a star system near the shoulder of Orion called Bellatrax.

This is grammatical, detailed, written with great assurance and probably completely nonsensical. (Can I say for sure?) We can get into the usual debate here about the greater credence that should be awarded to mainstream scientists. I already hear you saying, "Do you award as much credence to a Creationist paragraph as one of Darwin's if it is equally well-formulated?" The answer is, no I don't--but I do take all received wisdom with a huge grain of salt, and believe you should too.

Even when we think we understand something, frequently we do not. Most of us have spent entire lifetimes counting calories or aware of them. I read the labels on two ice cream bars at the store, and buy the one which has only seventy calories rather than 120. But in a recent, delightful documentary, "SuperSize Me", Morgan Spurlock asked passersby on the street to define the word "calorie" and nobody could. I realized I can't either. An amazing number of the words we think we know are really just synonyms for "good" or "bad".

In my forty years of adult sentience (I am fifty-three years old), I have seen mainstream science take a number of important flip-flops. For years, I took folic acid for my heart until a new study said it was potentially harmful. I continued taking a Vitamin E complex for another few years until studies also reported that it was dangerous.In reality, I could never have told you what either compound was or what it did. Each of them morphed from a synonym for "good" to one for "bad".

Here's a new scientific parable, "Schrodinger's Gene", which simultaneously has a malign, neutral and beneficial effect on you until the box of certainty is opened. The question is whether humans, with our limited equipment, can ever open it. (Grammatical, self-assured researchers have postulated that our entire species is genetically far less intelligent than the grey aliens, even those which are just 3.5 feet tall.)

The effects of a single gene, by itself or in conjunction with others, are amazingly complex and just beginning to be decoded. The uneducated, a category in which I include myself and ninety-nine percent of the population, tend to think, on the basis of popular news reports, that genes are a binary switch. If you have a particular gene in your make-up, you are smart, or beautiful, or like Brussels sprouts, or will die of heart disease.

In reality, genetic interactions are so complex we should be really humble about claiming to understand them in their full complexity. Also--very important statement coming up--the binary switch approach totally ignores the importance of environment and nurture in creating conditions for which we blame genes--or to counteract genetic predispositions where they exist.

Time to talk about race at last. Lets start with the proposition that race is a semantic category with little or no scientific relevance. There is significant support for this idea in the scientific community, and also a counter-accusation that scientists holding this view are actually liberal theologians who believe that color-blindness is the best political and ethical position.

During the slavery years in America,female slaves, never in a position to safely refuse consent, bore a lot of their master's children. (To contemplate slavery unabashedly without deflecting away from it, without saying, "That was the culture, everyone did it at the time", is to be forced to recognize what terrible people the founders of our country were, for countenancing slavery or owning slaves.) This means that the people who self-identify, or whom we identify, as African Americans come in a very wide variety of skin shades and genetic make-ups.

I once had the remarkable experience of working on an ambulance with a white man with a Jewish surname who talked nonstop all day about racism against black people. It was nearly evening time before I finally realized that he identified as black (he had been adopted by a Jewish couple). By the way, one thing I have learned in recent years is that I myself am much slower on the uptake than I ever knew.

There are fewer, but highly interesting, stories, of people like Anatole Broyard's family who identified as white until discovering they had African American blood.

Given the slave-owners' history of what was effectively rape even when it didn't involve physical force, and the resulting mixture of genes, it is hard to see what a broad-based genetic study could really determine about the relative performance of "black" people and "white" people. This is true before you even factor in the highly significant effects of nurture and culture. I believe today I got a very significant boost in life by being raised to believe I was much smarter than I actually was. Conversely, you tell a child enough times that he is worthless garbage, while red-lining him into neighborhoods of extreme poverty and crime, with bad schools, and it doesn't take a genius to predict that the child will wind up believing, and living, the evaluation. A closely related topic I hope to write about one day is that the "get over it" school of supposed racial reconciliation completely ignores the continuing, devastating effects of slavery in this country.

In 1995, I had a fascinating conversation aboard a cruise ship in the Galapagos with a woman involved in a program at an exclusive private girls' school to bring students from an American Indian reservation. She commented that they always flunked out and went home. It was self-evident to me that when you take an under-educated child from a desperately poor environment ridden with crime and alcoholism, and drop them into a privileged surrounding, they will have a really hard time coping with the change and the new demands on them. They haven't received the necessary preparation or tools the rest of us take for granted. You really don't need to seek any genetic explanations; the obvious conclusion is you need to solve the problem upstream, on the reservation.

The ten years I spent in the computer industry and five years working as an emergency medical technician on New York City ambulances have included some interesting race-related experiences. In the computer industry, I employed a number of African American and African people who were objectively much smarter than I am, able to learn and apply programming languages at a level to which I could never aspire. One of these African American employees was at work on a PhD thesis in string theory, a discipline I cannnot even begin to comprehend.

Probably the most important aspect of my ambulance experience was the opportunity, for the first time in my life, to meet a large number of African American, Carribean and Latino people--and not as their employer but as a peer or subordinate. Although I believed (or hoped) for much of my earlier life that I wasn't racist, there is no intellectual or educational experience which is even remotely equivalent to knowing and living with other people on a daily basis. After five years on ambulances, I understand on a very fundamental level that there are no important differences between people from different "racial" backgrounds. I could tell you a lot of stories in which two EMT's approach a patient and one is much dumber than the other, in terms of making a diagnosis or solving a difficult problem of splinting or protecting the patient's spine. But in those stories, the stupider person is inevitably me, not my African American or Latino partner.

Many of the white people who are most outspoken about racial issues have never really known any black people. This is still a highly segregated country. I will never forget going to see a new Spike Lee movie on opening night in midtown Manhattan in the early '90's. A large part of the audience consisted of young African American people much better dressed than I was--an entire black middle class I simply never met on a daily basis.

Meeting people of different races who work in the same jobs you do, live in a house like yours, have similar interests and speak the same way, leads to the insight that much racial prejudice among whites is actually disguised class prejudice. When you live in a large Northeastern city, the only poor people you meet tend to be members of different races. An interesting thought experiment is first to determine whether someone is uncomfortable at the thought of their daughter dating a black person. Then ask if they would feel the same way if it was Denzel Washington. Sometimes the answer will be quite different.

I am of course aware of the common pitfall of using anecdotal evidence to challenge scientific propositions. I am not categorizing anecdotes as being the same as rigorously obtained scientific data. I am using them instead as a rhetorical device, to shake people up and challenge preconceptions--while arguing that so-called "scientific evidence" is often not very reliable or probative, due to the semantic and psychological problems analyzed above.

The most pernicious effect of theorizing about genetic predispositions is that, because we are all stupidly binary, we will stop thinking about or trying to solve objective real world problems. Scientific propositions, presented as fact, become excuses. If we can find a scientific hook on which to hang a primitive, thoughtless and malign racism, we can stop trying to solve the social problems on the reservation or in the Bronx.

For this reason, I don't think that looking for genetic differences between the "races" is a useful scientific endeavor. Such differences as we find--Jews are more prone to Tay-Sachs, African Americans to sickle cell, etc.--should not be blown up as being of overweening importance and should not form the basis of any kind of social policy more significant than funding projects for the elimination of these diseases.

I want to conclude with another thought experiment which will doubtlessly offend some of my readers. (One of my unwritten criteria for an effective Spectacle essay is that it should greatly annoy somebody.) My whole life I have identified as Jewish while always believing this to be more of a cultural than racial status. (For me it is not a religious one.) There is a saying I have heard about blonde-haired, blue eyed Jews that in their ancestry "somebody got raped by a Cossack". To the extent Jews were ever in recent history a race-based grouping, there has to be a significant ambiguity in today's genetic make-up as there is with African Americans.

I can however come up with a few anecdotally-based propositions about Jewish people. The Jews I knew tended to go to Ivy League schools, as I did myself, or to be high performers at state schools. They gravitated to the professions, such as law and medicine, or to the business and academic world. Getting to more controversial propositions, I often had the feeling that many Jewish women had stronger personalities than Jewish men. Finally, I have met a few Jewish people in my life who were "cheap", in that they were obsessively concerned with accumulating money while spending as little as possible.

I can easily imagine environmental causes for each of the propositions I advanced above, without seeking any genetic basis. In the ghettos we lived in for two thousand years in Europe, we were forced to live by our wits; most other professions than money-lending were foreclosed; hoarding valuables was a survival measure; I can even postulate that Jewish men adopting a soft, flexible, servile manner to the powerful Christians around them survived better than those who were angry and proud, while the women, behind closed doors, not coming into daily contact with outsiders, could be as strong and proud as they pleased.

Note an ambiguity here. Such factors could either explain a multi-generational (multi-millenial, really) cultural predisposition, or could be interpreted in a strictly Darwinian genetic fashion (men with a pride or anger gene were killed, men with a servility gene survived). (Note: I don't understand evolutionary biology well enough to know what the overall effect would be of a gene which was a neutral or positive factor in the female but a negative one in the male. Would it die off in both sexes as a result or continue to propagate in the female line? )

Here is the question to which my thought experiment leads: Let's postulate for a moment that there is a gene which predisposes "cheap" behavior. Do I care? What have I learned if someone isolates it? Can it not be countered by nurture? Does it not lead to an extreme risk of being misunderstood and blown up into something much more important than it is? Won't it be used as a justification for prejudice?

One slow day, when I was working in the ambulance company office, I enjoyed an hour of conversation with my co-workers and two visiting managers, all of whom I regarded as friends. A young Italian American employee came into the office, behaved nervously, and left. One of the managers made a comment (using an epithet) that the guy who just left was nervous around black people. I realized something of which I had become completely unaware: I was the only white person in the room. I had been for all that day and many others. Earlier in my life, I never imagined it would have been possible completely to forget about race. When it happened, it felt really wonderful.