Update: Added a couple sentences to clarify that I’m not attacking psychology or psychometrics, but rather the simple-minded attempts distort these fields to justify racism. Also revised my statements about Derbyshire’s particular claims, to be more explicit about the flaws in his “intelligence = IQ” argument.
Pretty much the entire internet is outraged, rightly, at a recent post by the odious National Review columnist John Derbyshire, who a few days ago penned a remarkably racist screed in Taki’s Magazine titled “The Talk: Nonblack version”.
Some background: in the aftermath of the truly appalling and unjustified murder of Trayvon Martin, a young black man, many black parents have revived “The Talk“. A practice that goes back to the Civil War era, “The Talk” might be summarized as explaining to a black man that: “At any time, I could encounter a stranger who believes he knows me, knows my character, and my motives, based on my appearance alone”. It is a sad reminder that African-Americans must take extra care in their interactions with others, especially armed authority figures.
This idea set off Derbyshire, who came up with the “Nonblack version” of “The Talk”, which includes such blatantly racist nuggets as:
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
There’s plenty to be said about such idiocy, but what really concerns me is the following:
(11) The mean intelligence of blacks is much lower than for whites. The least intelligent ten percent of whites have IQs below 81; forty percent of blacks have IQs that low. Only one black in six is more intelligent than the average white; five whites out of six are more intelligent than the average black. These differences show in every test of general cognitive ability that anyone, of any race or nationality, has yet been able to devise. They are reflected in countless everyday situations. “Life is an IQ test.”
There it is: Derbyshire really thinks that black people are simply dumber than white people.
Plenty of folks are shredding Derbyshire’s idiocy: for instance, see Angry Black Lady’s post on Raw Story savaging him. But I want to take another tack here, and point out that the sort of pseudoscientific tripe that he’s peddling about black intelligence has been around, and criticized, for a long, long, long time. To demonstrate this, I want to take a look at a paper that was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London way back in eighteen-hundred-and-fucking-thirty-six, and whose author demonstrated better science, intelligence and morality than Derbyshire ever will. The paper, by Friedrich Tiedemann, is titled, “On the Brain of the Negro, Compared with That of the European and the Orang-Outang,” and argues against the prevailing view of the time that blacks are inherently unintelligent and much more kin with apes.
A little context regarding race views of Tiedemann’s time seems appropriate here. In 1836, slavery was still very much alive in the Western world: the United States, of course, would not abolish slavery until the 13th amendment of the Constitution was passed in 1865 in the wake of the Civil War. In the United Kingdom proper, slavery had long been banned, but it was only outlawed in the British colonies in 1831.
It is not surprising, then, that many people at the time were eager to maintain the status quo and the “superiority” of the European peoples. Even scientists, some quite prominent, looked for “scientific” justification for their views. For instance, the French zoologist Georges Cuvier argued that the white race is superior to all others:
The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilised people of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by its genius, courage and activity.
It was in this atmosphere that Friedrich Tiedemann (1781-1861) undertook his studies. Originally trained in zoology, anatomy and anthropology, he turned his attention to physiology when he accepted a professorship in Heidelberg in 1816. Somewhere along the line of his physiological researches he began to investigate the differences in size and structure of the nervous systems of whites and blacks. He begins:
I take the liberty of presenting to the Royal Society a paper on a subject which appears to me to be of great importance in the natural history, anatomy, and physiology of Man; interesting also in a political and legislative point of view. Celebrated naturalists, Camper, Soemmerring, and Cuvier, look upon the Negroes as a race inferior to the European in organization and intellectual powers, having much resemblance with the Monkey. Naturalists of less authority have exaggerated this opinion. Were it proved to be correct, the Negro would occupy a different situation in society from that which has so lately been given him by the noble British Government.
I propose in this treatise to examine more minutely the most important part of this doctrine, namely, the structure of the brain, the noblest part of the human body, in reference to its functions. A comparison between the brain of the Negro and that of the European and the Orang-Outang, hitherto much neglected, appeared to me most worthy of attention. I shall first of all try to answer the following two questions.
1st, Is there any important and essential difference between the structure of the brain of the Negro and that of the European? and
2ndly, Has the brain of the Negro more resemblance to that of the Orang-Outang than the brain of the European?
Should our researches induce us to answer these questions in the affirmative, we should then have reason to consider the opinion given above as true, and founded in nature. Should we be able to prove the falsity of this opinion, we should then be allowed to consider it as a mere literary fancy.
Tiedemann was well aware of the implications of his research. If he found that the “Negro” brain was inferior in size, weight, or structure to the European brain, it could justify a strict class system based on race, as many seemed to desire.
His research method was brutally straightforward; he simply compared a large number of specimens from different races:
Comparison alone will enable us to answer these two questions. In order to do which we must first of all consider the size, weight, and dimensions of the objects to be compared. I have taken the materials for such a comparison from, my researches on the brain and skull of Man and lower animals, for which purpose I have consulted the most celebrated anatomical museums, both on the Continent and in Great Britain.
Tiedemann gives an in-depth discussion of his methods and observations, including measurements from hundreds of anatomical specimens. I am not particularly qualified to discuss his methodology in detail (you can read more about his research in a nice article by the late Stephen Jay Gould), and so will jump to his conclusions:
I. The brain of a Negro is upon the whole quite as large as that of the European and other human races. The weight of the brain, its dimensions, and the capacity of the cavum cranii prove this fact. Many anatomists have also incorrectly asserted that Europeans have a larger brain than Negroes.
II. The nerves of the Negro, relatively to the size of the brain, are not thicker than those of Europeans, as Soemmerring and his followers have said.
III. The outward form of the spinal cord, the medulla oblongata, the cerebellum, and cerebrum of the Negro, show no important difference from that of the European.
IV. Nor does the inward structure, the order of the cortical and medullary substance, nor the inward organization of the interior of the Negro brain show any difference from that of the European.
V. The Negro brain does not resemble that of the Orang-Outang more than the European brain, except in the more symmetrical distribution of the gyri and sulci. It is not even certain if this is always the case. We cannot therefore coincide with the opinion of many naturalists, who say that the Negro has more resemblance to Apes than Europeans, in reference to the brain and nervous system. It is true that many ugly and degenerate Negro tribes on the coast show some similarity in their outward form and inward structure to the Ape for instance, in the greater size of the bones of the face, the projecting alveoli and teeth, the prominent cheek-bones, the jaw, the position of the foramen occipitale magnum, the relative greater length of the ossa humeri and the bones of the foramen, the flat foot, and in the length, breadth, shape, and position of the os calcis. Such are the similarities with the Ape mentioned by those authors who have paid more particular attention to the growth and anatomy of the Negro, as Camper, Soemmerring, Cuvier, White, Lawrence, and Virey, These points certainly distinguish many Negro tribes from the Europeans, but they are not common to all the Negroes of the interior of Africa; the greater number of which are well made, and heave handsome features.
The latter sentences are worth an extra comment. Tiedemann argues that the “ugly and degenerate Negro tribes” that show deficiencies in intellect and structure are those that represent “the miserable remains of an enslaved people, bodily and spiritually lowered and degraded by slavery and ill treatment.” To put Tiedemann’s argument in other words, it is “nurture”, not “nature”, that has the strongest influence on one’s intellectual capability.
Of course, such statements are an oversimplification of very complicated issues. One might wonder why I bring up such an old paper at all; certainly more recent research has been done?
There are two reasons this is relevant. First, it is worth noting that even 176 years ago people had studied and discarded the views of people like Derbyshire. Second, the conclusions of Tiedemann’s article give us a unique insight into the motivations of people who attempt to use science to justify racism:
The brain is undoubtedly the organ of the mind. It is the part of our body which gives us the consciousness of our own existence, and through which we receive the impressions made upon the external senses, conducted to the brain by the nerves. Here the perceptions are compared and combined so as to produce ideas. In this organ we think, reason, desire, and will. In short, the brain is the instrument by which all the operations called intellectual are carried on. It is proved by facts and observations that animals partake of feelings, sensations, and intellectual faculties in a higher degree, and approach more nearly to mankind in proportion as their brain resembles more the human brain. An intimate connexion between the structure of the brain and the intellectual faculties in the animal kingdom cannot be doubted. As the facts which we have advanced plainly prove that there are no well-marked and essential differences between the brain of the Negro and European, we must conclude that no innate difference in the intellectual faculties can be admitted to exist between them. This has been denied by philosophers, naturalists, and travellers, who assert that the Ethiopian race is naturally inferior to the European in intellectual and moral powers. The data upon which such an opinion is based are either erroneous suppositions and false deductions from anatomy and physiology, or superficial observations on the intellectual and moral faculties of the Negroes, made by partial or prejudiced travellers.
Emphasis mine. 176 years ago Tiedemann was able to see through bullshit “science” designed with an agenda to justify racism.
Derbyshire is pulling a similar con. His statement is dishonest on multiple levels, as he uses oversimplification, omission, and unjustified unstated assumptions to reach the conclusion that blacks are less intelligent than whites.
It should be noted that Derbyshire’s statement on IQ is accurate: in the U.S., the average IQ score for blacks is significantly lower than whites. However, he then pulls a very egregious swindle when he unequivocally equates IQ with “intelligence”. The definition of “intelligence”, however, is controversial: what, exactly, do we mean by the word? There is no unique definition of intelligence, and it is a concept that can vary even from culture to culture.
An IQ test is an attempt to rate intelligence by the ability to solve a particular class of problems. In technical terms, one would call it a proxy statistic: from a subject’s test-taking ability, we attempt to rate their overall intellect. It has been demonstrated that IQ scores tend to correlate well with a subject’s general success at life. But is it really measuring some sort of absolute degree of “intelligence”, or just measuring one’s ability to deal with a particular set of problems? Nobody knows for certain, but Derbyshire, by omission, implies that IQ is an absolute measure of intelligence.
Anyone who knows anything about tests, however, is that they only measure one thing with certainty: the ability to do well on that particular test. Plenty of factors can cause huge variations in testing ability that have little to do with one’s ability to reason, such as educational background, cultural background, and socioeconomic status. Even practice can improve one’s testing ability, as the massive number of SAT training books and courses demonstrates. That isn’t to say that IQ tests and, more generally, the study of psychometrics, are invalid, but that the assessment of intelligence is far more complicated than a single test can provide. Actual researchers in these fields are well aware of this.
Derbyshire’s other great sin is one of omission: he complete neglects these other possible factors influencing IQ scores. By simply stating that race is correlated with IQ without any caveats, he is implying that IQ is completely determined by race, i.e. that it is biologically determined. It will not be surprising at this point to note that there is no consensus on the degree to which biology influences one’s intelligence. Researchers, faced with an IQ disparity between races, are investigating if this is representative of biological differences or other environmental and societal factors — Derbyshire and his spiritual cohorts have immediately jumped to the unjustified and self-serving conclusion that it is entirely biological. This attitude is not much different from the racists in Tiedemann’s time, who singled out broken-down and enslaved races to draw broad conclusions about racial intelligence.
Keep this in mind whenever you hear someone arguing that racial differences in intelligence have been proven “scientifically”. We don’t really know how to properly measure “intelligence”, if it even makes sense to argue that intelligence can be quantified. Tests are only one indicator of a human’s reasoning and cognitive ability. Folks like John Derbyshire are really looking for an excuse to justify their own innate racism; even without the “science”, they would still hold exactly the same unjustified views.
As of yesterday, Derbyshire had been fired by the National Review; his statements were a little too overtly extreme, even for them. As Tiedemann’s article indicates, however, he wasn’t the first to attempt to cherry-pick science to justify racism, and he certainly won’t be the last.