Sunday, September 26, 2010

Some Truths Are (Or Would Be) Useless

So, in one of my teaching classes we touched a bit on the history of various controversies, and discussed 1994's The Bell Curve a little bit. The debate gave me some thoughts that I'd like to share.

In the past, I have even supported the notion that
eugenics has gotten a bad name and that if we were merely talking about incentivizing "good breeding" among, for example, the could be perfectly moral in Catholic thought, as long we were careful about the attitudes and values behind it.

It is incontrovertible that intelligence ("IQ" if you want to call it that, though I question whether the tests are truly culturally neutral) has a large biological, heritable component. As such, I think we do have to admit that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that different groups of individuals related by closer genetic heritage could have differences in the distribution of intelligence.

Certainly, we all admit in practice that certain families tend to be more intelligent, presumably because they have the genes for higher intelligences. There are even some studies ranking the countries of Europe in terms of mean IQ, and it doesn't seem too controversial to posit that perhaps this is because some nations/ethnicities in Europe have a somewhat higher proportion of the genes for higher intelligence than others (demographically speaking, of course, none of this effects the individual, who may fall anywhere along a distribution).

However, at some point between the level of family and the level of becomes unacceptable (or at the very least, politically incorrect) to posit that there could be demographic differences in mean intelligence that lead to differences in economic development in the world for various groups. Where is that line drawn? I don't exactly know.

Now, let me make it abundantly clear: I do not, in fact, believe that the different levels of development that various races find themselves in has anything to do with different mean intelligence. In reality, I think it has to do with structural exploitation inherent in the capitalist world system. Because, I've heard, the genetic differences
within the same "race" are actually much greater than the genetic differences between the "races" and distinguishing them. Even with something like, say, the sickle cell gene, this is actually related more to smaller sub-populations than to some "African race" generically; some East African groups are actually unlikely to have that gene whereas certain groups of Mediterraneans, Arabs, and Indians are actually more likely to have it. As such, any theory that acts as if "races" can be treated as significantly distinct genetic populations, as opposed to humanity existing on a geographic continuum, are scientifically suspect. The truth is, race is a social construct, not a meaningful genealogical reality.

However, at the same time, this is only something that has been discovered through a lot of genetic research. It is not self-evident. Certainly a person, at least before we started mapping genomes, who believed that races constituted statistically significant clusters...would not have been positing a theory outside the realm of possibility. Some groups of more closely related individuals do, obviously, constitute genetic clusters that are significant. Thus, I think the idea that a certain group could be disadvantaged socially and economically because of its genetic heritage when it comes to intelligence should not be dismissed a priori for merely political reasons. Rather, it should be dismissed for "races" only because science has demonstrated that "races" are simply too large (and too nebulous, and too artificial) of groups for such a suggestion to make any sense for them. But it might, frankly, be a reality on the scale of smaller groups that do constitute real genetic clusters/populations (it is certainly a reality on the level of families and clans).

But the point of this post, the thought I had was...even if it were true, I wouldn't want to know. Or rather, such a truth would be useless. If it were true that a certain group had a mean intelligence that was somewhat lower than other groups, why would this be important? How would it change our behavior? The book in my teaching class suggested that The Bell Curve led to people suggesting that we stop "wasting" our money trying to "fix" the education of blacks, for example, because it "was doomed to fail" or "we can never bring them up to equality as a group." But to me it is this fatalistic attitude that seems the real racism. The mere hypothesis that there could be a genetic correlation among races to intelligence...meh, whatever. That's now been scientifically disproven, as I said, but the idea was not self-evidently impossible either. But the suggestion that such a correlation (even if it did exist) would be reason to stop fighting for those children en that is truly foul.

Because, as I was saying above, any such correlation, even if it did exist, would only be a statistic. It wouldn't say anything about the
individuals who may in fact lie well above the mean of whatever "group" you're putting them in. Even if the mean intelligence for whites was somewhat higher than for blacks...any given black child might still be more intelligent than any given white child. And it's the individual children that educators need to fight for!

It would be ridiculous to stop funding efforts to boost the schools of a certain minority group even if a difference in mean intelligence did make futile the attempt to equalize them as a whole with other groups. Maybe the fight would be impossible. But so what? I'd rather fight an impossible fight for the sake of the principle of giving everyone a fair shot and equal opportunities...than simply despair. Because when you fight that fight, well, even if you don't or can't ever get "the group" to the same level "as a whole"'d still, surely, help many individual members of that group (especially, for example, the ones who were above average).

And that's really all that matters: individuals, not constructed "groups." Individuals still deserve a fair chance. Even if funding programs for certain racial or ethnic groups was "doomed to fail" in an attempt to equalize them "as a group"...who cares?! Why would that matter? It would surely still help some of the children in that group, children who deserve equal opportunities as individuals regardless of whether their "group" was at a natural disadvantage. As such, I'll say it again, the fact of any such natural disadvantage's existence
(though we currently have no evidence for any such disadvantages)...would thus be a useless truth. Perhaps simply better to not even know. Because it wouldn't effect how we should treat individuals in the slightest. And social programs should only ever be viewed as for the sake of individuals, not for the sake of "groups."

1 comment:

sortacatholic said...

As a kid (17 or so) I took the Mensa IQ test and "failed" it by one IQ point. The horrible indignity of living life at the 97.99th IQ percentile! ;-) Quick, hand me the asp!

Seriously, Mensans have a lock on severe high functioning autism. One woman marveled how a party host could fill a bathtub with ice and chill beer. She must've been the life of the party, eh?

Murray and Herrnstein, and Jansen before them, weren't exactly racists. They were racists, elitists, and bores. Has anyone actually plowed through The Bell Curve in toto? You are quite right that much of their book outright consigns minorities as a perpetual and expendable underclass. This bigotry is dressed in academic-ese, as if a forest of footnotes renders hate acceptable. H&M's endless pages of bar graphs and pie charts are merely monochromatic abstractions of earlier popular racist ephemera such as crude caricatures of African-Americans in Jim Crow South.

I do wonder if H&M's insecurities reflect the essential flimsiness of the academic enterprise. Much of academia is based on inflated rewards for dissertations and books that few will read. In writing a book that many read and few agreed on, H&M validated their academic worth on the backs of minorities and those already disadvantaged.