Calling People Niggers and Wogs — the Science of IQ

Racism is intimately connected with imperialism and serves as one of its ideological underpinnings. The growth of racism in the West has been historically co-terminus with the growth of colonialism. Colonising Africa, Asia and the “New World” was accompanied by slavery, genocide and plunder. The justification for this was simple — the white races were superior and destined to rule — the other races had to give way before the master race. While such theories were initially sought to be justified using religion, the induction of science in the debate took place in the 19th century and gave these arguments a qualitatively new spin.

Science is quite often asked to play the role of religion in today’s societies. The earlier claims for the superior order were backed by religion — the sons of Ham being cursed by god and therefore blackened, the kings ruled by divine right, the upper castes are twice born and therefore superior, etc. Modern societies however, require different kinds of legitimisation. Thus the view that the vast underclass spawned by the post industrial order is condemned to a subordinate position by virtue of inferior intelligence. Adding to this, is the racial component of the theory — blacks are naturally inferior while the Caucasian races are superior. The “science” of psychometrics  or Intelligence Quotient (IQ) measurement is pulled out to justify this unequal social order. It is this variant racism which is dominant today. The arguments about racial differences in intelligence — the Bell Curve Debate — evolutionary theories that propose that some races have originated earlier than others from the our common ancestors, are all a part of this rubric. With Darwin’s theory of evolution, social Darwinism — the survival of the fittest means that the rich go the top of the heap as they are intrinsically superior — is added as an ideological justification of a class society. Coupled with this is social Darwinism as applied to the racial divide — blacks and browns are economically inferior as they are less intelligent — a hierarchy of races that reflect the current unequal international order.

 Lest we feel superior to the West on these counts, we must realise that these ideological underpinnings are very much a part of the structure of justification of social inequalities in India too. Caste structure, a part of the class structure of the past, is today supported not by appeal to religion alone but also to inherent superiority of the upper castes. And when it comes to Africans, Indian racism mimics its western counterparts (except that India’s encounter with Africa has been far less intense). That is why the theories of Aryan superiority and the “final solution” proposed by Hitler struck such a sympathetic chord in the founders of the RSS. The Golwalkars and Savarkars were deeply enamoured of Hitler and saw themselves as true Aryans. They were after all the Chitpavan Brahmins. It is not an accident that the Nagpur hierarchy of the RSS has been dominated by the upper castes, particularly the Chitpavan Brahmins. The myth of Aryan superiority is not only living in the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis in the West, but also closer at home.

Racial differences, particularly with regards to intelligence, are central to much of this “scientific” racism. Thus, a number of studies have been conducted to show that races have differences in intelligence as measured by IQ. IQ is the bed rock on which most of these claims rest. The tragedy of IQ is that it has been used for expressly opposite purpose to what it was originally constructed. A French educator, Alfred Binet developed this concept in late 19th century and used certain tests to identify educationally backward children. He expressly warned that it should not be used to quantify intelligence but was a merely a device to identify the educationally handicapped. In a few decades, it was used to justify the eugenic Nazi program, sterilisation of the “feeble minded,” new immigration laws in US —– keeping out the Jewish, Irish and Slavic people — and excluding the majority of children in UK from higher education. So rarely has a so called scientific principle used to wreak so much social havoc.

It is not realised that the eugenic program so popular with the Nazis had wide support from the intelligentsia in Europe and America. The use of mental testing in US Army had “scientifically proved” that the Jews, Slavs and Mediterranean stock were inferior to the Nordic. Henry Goddard, one of the fathers of IQ testing “showed” that 80% of the Jews, Italians and Hungarians and 90% of the Russians were “feeble minded.” The differences in IQs between these races and the Nordic were of the same order as between blacks and whites today, the basis of the current racial theorists of IQ like Eysenk, Jenson, Murray and Herrnstein. The papers, the discussions and views of that period give a complete sense of déjà vu when we read the views of similar “scientists” and “social scientists” today. Eugenics became illegitimate because of the revulsion to Nazism and not because the people who espoused eugenics saw the scientific error of their ways.

In the view of heriditarians –those who believe that intelligence is largely hereditary — intelligence is a measurable quantity and is passed on genetically. Obviously, heriditarians support the existing unequal social order. The unjust order, according to them, is the “natural” result of intelligence being genetically unevenly distributed in the population. The eugenic program logically follows — the less endowed should be allowed to die out to improve the genetic stock. Intervention by the state therefore, according to the hereditarians, against “nature”. If racial differences of intelligence can be found, then the eugenic program would also argue for racial cleansing. This was the basis of the Nazi death camps and therefore not so distant from the current theoretical discussions on IQ, race and intelligence.

The environmentalist argument is that intelligence, even if it can be measured, is a product of the environment, both physical and social. Thus, poverty produces poor IQs rather than the other way around. Not surprisingly, the environmentalist program is socially progressive and in favour of state intervention.
The importance of IQ therefore comes not from its intrinsic value, but from the social construction put on it. If  IQ is a measure of intelligence and genetically linked, then much of the argument for a conservative agenda can be legitimised. But is intelligence measured by the IQ scores? And what does heritability of intelligence mean? Finally, if IQ is genetically marked, can it also be race specific?

Intelligence is one of the most subtle of human characteristics. We routinely make judgements of peoples’ intelligence from a variety of responses that people have to differing situations and have convinced ourselves that intelligence is a physical number expressing in some sense the computing power of the brain. Current research from a host of disciplines — from artificial intelligence to psychology — has shown that the ability called intelligence depends on the amount of information the people have been exposed to and their practice on solving the problems they are confronted with. Research has also shown that intelligence is not one number:  we have many kinds of intelligence rather than just one. Human beings are complex, they have verbal, mathematical and many other forms of intelligence than just one number summing up all their intellectual capacities. Thus reduction of intelligence to just one number has more to do with its social use then a measure of intelligence.

The second part of intelligence is how genetically linked is it? Though hereditarians have propounded that intelligence is linked genetically to the tune of 60-80%, the data is open to multiple interpretations. Simply put, if poor people have a poor environment, then their children would show poorer IQs. The nature versus nurture debate focused on identical twin studies — twins who had been separated at birth. It is argued that if twins who are genetically identical but exposed to different environments show similar IQs, then this would prove that IQ is determined largely genetically.

Much of the identical twin studies were found to have been fabricated by Cyril Burt, who was the architect for keeping the poor out of higher education in England. After Burt’s fall from grace, it took some time for the IQ theorists to bounce back. However, recently an interesting study in the University of Pittsburgh has called into question the fundamental premise of the identical twin studies. It is now known that pre-natal environment is a crucial factor in development of intelligence. Children of mothers who suffer from malnutrition tend to have children who have lower IQs. If that is so, then the identical twins though separated at birth still share a common environment — the mother’s womb. Once the results of the identical studies are corrected for this, the 60-80% difference touted by the hereditarians in identical twin studies reduces at best to about 50%.  However, it is interesting to know that even if intelligence is hereditary to the tune of 50%, it is one of the weakest hereditary correlation’s, as properties like height, skin colour, etc., are correlated to the tune of 90% and above.

The last part of the neo-conservative argument is the weakest. It is true that racial differences exist currently in IQ scores. To make the racist construction of the black and white divide more palatable, the Mongolian races currently are being given higher IQ based on flimsy evidence. The crucial argument is of course black IQ scores.

The Afro-Americans and Africans have scores similar to that of the Jews and Russians 50 years back. Nobody now proposes that these differences were due to differences in intelligence. It is now agreed that IQ measurements depend on the questions asked in these tests and these tests are not culturally neutral. If those being tested do not share the same cultural background of the ones setting up the test questions, a lower score will reflect this cultural difference. Thus instead of looking towards these elements for an explanation of the difference in IQ test scores, the attempt is to derive racial stereotypes.

The other refutation of racial links to IQ has come from genetics. Current genetic research (The Human Genome Project) has shown that genetic differences between races are less than 1% while differences within each individual race are very much larger. Even if intelligence is genetically linked, IQ scores cannot be used to show its relationship with any race. For example, height is known to be genetically linked, thus taller parents in the US and India will tend to have taller children. However, the average height difference between the US and Indians is still likely to be nutritional and not genetic, even though height is a genetically linked characteristic.

Attempts to find scientific validity for social prejudice are nothing new. In the 19th century, leading anatomists and anthropologists such as Brocca, and Cuvier, measured brain sizes and shapes and called it phrenology. The “science” of phrenology was used to argue for gender and race differences in intelligence and for “criminal types”. They also implicitly believed in the superiority of the white races and produced data to conform to such beliefs. Stephen Jay Gould, the noted palaeontologist, went through Brocca’s and Cuvier’s data and found that they neglected obvious elementary factors in these calculations. Thus body size, expected to be highly correlated to brain size, was not taken into account. Even more interesting were the subjective factors involved. Thus Brocca and Cuvier systematically made errors of measurement, always in favour of their beliefs. Gould observes that it is difficult to believe that they consciously fudged data. However, they were so convinced of the truth of racial superiority that subconsciously, they erred in favour of their convictions. Of course, phrenology became discredited with increased understanding of the brain and realisation that the various bumps on the head had very little to do with either intelligence or criminality.

Brain sizes are no longer used to justify social discrimination. Instead, we have IQ measurements. One perceptive observer described the racial use of IQ as another way of calling some people “niggers and wogs.” Indian intelligentsia also finds the IQ construct comfortable as it fits into the meritocratic framework of the caste system. Affirmative action in either US or in India in terms of reservations cannot be popular with the privileged. Thus a class, caste or racial elite will seek to legitimise its privileged position on its supposedly higher innate intelligence. It is the social order that determines the “science” of IQ. Earlier, to justify social and racial differences, they measured skulls and called this “science” phrenology. Now we have IQ and psychometrics to back up social prejudice and privilege. Calling people niggers, wogs and Sudras is still the game — only the veneer is scientific.