Its defenders claim to be standing up for uncomfortable truths, but race science is still as bogus as ever.
By Gavin Evans
March 2, 2018
One of the strangest ironies of our time is that a body of thoroughly
debunked “science” is being revived by people who claim to be defending
truth against a rising tide of ignorance. The idea that certain races
are inherently more intelligent than others is being trumpeted by a
small group of anthropologists, IQ researchers, psychologists and
pundits who portray themselves as noble dissidents, standing up for
inconvenient facts. Through a surprising mix of fringe and mainstream
media sources, these ideas are reaching a new audience, which regards
them as proof of the superiority of certain races.
The claim that there is a link between race and intelligence
is the main tenet of what is known as “race science” or, in many cases,
“scientific racism”. Race scientists claim there are evolutionary bases
for disparities in social outcomes – such as life expectancy,
educational attainment, wealth, and incarceration rates – between racial
groups. In particular, many of them argue that black people fare worse
than white people because they tend to be less naturally intelligent.
Although race science has been repeatedly debunked by scholarly
research, in recent years it has made a comeback. Many of the keenest
promoters of race science today are stars of the “alt-right”, who like
to use pseudoscience to lend intellectual justification to
ethno-nationalist politics. If you believe that poor people are poor
because they are inherently less intelligent, then it is easy to leap to
the conclusion that liberal remedies, such as affirmative action or
foreign aid, are doomed to fail.
There are scores of recent examples of rightwingers banging the drum
for race science. In July 2016, for example, Steve Bannon, who was then
Breitbart boss and would go on to be Donald Trump’s chief strategist,
wrote an article in which he suggested that some black people who had
been shot by the police might have deserved it. “There are, after all,
in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent,”
Bannon wrote, evoking one of scientific racism’s ugliest contentions:
that black people are more genetically predisposed to violence than
One of the people behind the revival of race science was, not long
ago, a mainstream figure. In 2014, Nicholas Wade, a former New York
Times science correspondent, wrote what must rank as the most toxic book
on race science to appear in the last 20 years. In A Troublesome
Inheritance, he repeated three race-science shibboleths: that the notion
of “race” corresponds to profound biological differences among groups
of humans; that human brains evolved differently from race to race; and
that this is supported by different racial averages in IQ scores.
Wade’s book prompted 139 of the world’s leading population geneticists and evolutionary theorists to sign a letter
in the New York Times accusing Wade of misappropriating research from
their field, and several academics offered more detailed critiques. The
University of Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne described it as “simply bad
science”. Yet some on the right have, perhaps unsurprisingly, latched
on to Wade’s ideas, rebranding him as a paragon of intellectual honesty
who had been silenced not by experts, but by political correctness.
“That attack on my book was purely political,” Wade told Stefan
Molyneux, one of the most popular promoters of the alt-right’s new
scientific racism. They were speaking a month after Trump’s election on
Molyneux’s YouTube show, whose episodes have been viewed tens of
millions of times. Wade continued: “It had no scientific basis whatever
and it showed the more ridiculous side of this herd belief.”
Another of Molyneux’s recent guests was the political scientist Charles Murray, who co-authored The Bell Curve.
The book argued that poor people, and particularly poor black people,
were inherently less intelligent than white or Asian people. When it was
first published in 1994, it became a New York Times bestseller, but
over the next few years it was picked to pieces by academic critics.
As a frequent target for protest on college campuses, Murray has
become a figurehead for conservatives who want to portray progressives
as unthinking hypocrites who have abandoned the principles of open
discourse that underwrite a liberal society. And this logic has prompted
some mainstream cultural figures to embrace Murray as an icon of
scientific debate, or at least as an emblem of their own openness to the
possibility that the truth can, at times, be uncomfortable. Last April,
Murray appeared on the podcast of the popular nonfiction author Sam
Harris. Murray used the platform to claim his liberal academic critics
“lied without any apparent shadow of guilt because, I guess, in their
own minds, they thought they were doing the Lord’s work.” (The podcast
episode was entitled “Forbidden knowledge”.)
Students in Vermont turn their backs to Charles Murray during a lecture in March last year.
In the past, race science has shaped not only political discourse,
but also public policy. The year after The Bell Curve was published, in
the lead-up to a Republican congress slashing benefits for poorer
Americans, Murray gave expert testimony before a Senate committee on
welfare reform; more recently, congressman Paul Ryan, who helped push
the Republicans’ latest tax cuts for the wealthy, has claimed Murray as an expert on poverty.
Now, as race science leaches back into mainstream discourse, it has
also been mainlined into the upper echelons of the US government through
figures such as Bannon. The UK has not been spared this revival: the
London Student newspaper recently exposed
a semi-clandestine conference on intelligence and genetics held for the
last three years at UCL without the university’s knowledge. One of the
participants was the 88-year-old Ulster-based evolutionary psychologist
Richard Lynn, who has described himself as a “scientific racist”.
One of the reasons scientific racism hasn’t gone away is that the
public hears more about the racism than it does about the science. This
has left an opening for people such as Murray and Wade, in conjunction
with their media boosters, to hold themselves up as humble defenders of
rational enquiry. With so much focus on their apparent bias, we’ve done
too little to discuss the science. Which raises the question: why,
exactly, are the race scientists wrong?
like intelligence, is a notoriously slippery concept. Individuals often
share more genes with members of other races than with members of their
own race. Indeed, many academics have argued that race is a social
construct – which is not to deny that there are groups of people
(“population groups”, in the scientific nomenclature) that share a high
amount of genetic inheritance. Race science therefore starts out on
treacherous scientific footing.
The supposed science of race is at least as old as slavery and
colonialism, and it was considered conventional wisdom in many western
countries until 1945. Though it was rejected by a new generation of
scholars and humanists after the Holocaust, it began to bubble up again
in the 1970s, and has returned to mainstream discourse every so often
In 1977, during my final year in state high school in apartheid South
Africa, a sociology lecturer from the local university addressed us and
then took questions. He was asked whether black people were as
intelligent as white people. No, he said: IQ tests show that white
people are more intelligent. He was referring to a paper published in
1969 by Arthur Jensen, an American psychologist who claimed that IQ was
80% a product of our genes rather than our environments, and that the
differences between black and white IQs were largely rooted in genetics.
In apartheid South Africa, the idea that each race had its own
character, personality traits and intellectual potential was part of the
justification for the system of white rule. The subject of race and IQ
was similarly politicised in the US, where Jensen’s paper was used to
oppose welfare schemes, such as the Head Start programme,
which were designed to lift children out of poverty.
But the paper met
with an immediate and overwhelmingly negative reaction – “an
international firestorm,” the New York Times called it 43 years later, in Jensen’s obituary – especially on American university campuses, where academics issued dozens of rebuttals, and students burned him in effigy.
The recent revival of ideas about race and IQ began with a seemingly
benign scientific observation. In 2005, Steven Pinker, one of the
world’s most prominent evolutionary psychologists, began promoting the
view that Ashkenazi Jews are innately particularly intelligent – first
in a lecture to a Jewish studies institute, then in a lengthy article
in the liberal American magazine The New Republic the following year.
This claim has long been the smiling face of race science; if it is true
that Jews are naturally more intelligent, then it’s only logical to say
that others are naturally less so.
The background to Pinker’s essay was a 2005 paper
entitled “Natural history of Ashkenazi intelligence”, written by a trio
of anthropologists at the University of Utah. In their 2005 paper, the
anthropologists argued that high IQ scores among Ashkenazi Jews
indicated that they evolved to be smarter than anyone else (including
other groups of Jews).
This evolutionary development supposedly took root between 800 and
1650 AD, when Ashkenazis, who primarily lived in Europe, were pushed by
antisemitism into money-lending, which was stigmatised among Christians.
This rapid evolution was possible, the paper argued, in part because
the practice of not marrying outside the Jewish community meant a “very
low inward gene flow”. This was also a factor behind the
disproportionate prevalence in Ashkenazi Jews of genetic diseases such
as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher’s, which the researchers claimed were a
byproduct of natural selection for higher intelligence; those carrying
the gene variants, or alleles, for these diseases were said to be
smarter than the rest.
Pinker followed this logic in his New Republic article, and elsewhere
described the Ashkenazi paper as “thorough and well-argued”. He went on
to castigate those who doubted the scientific value of talking about
genetic differences between races, and claimed that “personality traits
are measurable, heritable within a group and slightly different, on
average, between groups”.
In subsequent years, Nicholas Wade, Charles Murray, Richard Lynn, the
increasingly popular Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and others
have all piled in on the Jewish intelligence thesis, using it as ballast
for their views that different population groups inherit different
mental capacities. Another member of this chorus is the journalist
Andrew Sullivan, who was one of the loudest cheerleaders for The Bell
Curve in 1994, featuring it prominently in The New Republic, which he
edited at the time. He returned to the fray in 2011, using his popular
blog, The Dish, to promote the view that population groups had different innate potentials when it came to intelligence.
Sullivan noted that the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic
Jews were “striking in the data”. It was a prime example of the rhetoric
of race science, whose proponents love to claim that they are honouring
the data, not political commitments. The far right has even rebranded
race science with an alternative name that sounds like it was taken
straight from the pages of a university course catalogue: “human
A common theme in the rhetoric of race science is that its opponents
are guilty of wishful thinking about the nature of human equality. “The
IQ literature reveals that which no one would want to be the case,”
Peterson told Molyneux on his YouTube show recently. Even the prominent
social scientist Jonathan Haidt has criticised liberals as “IQ deniers”,
who reject the truth of inherited IQ difference between groups because
of a misguided commitment to the idea that social outcomes depend
entirely on nurture, and are therefore mutable.
Defenders of race science claim they are simply describing the facts
as they are – and the truth isn’t always comfortable. “We remain the
same species, just as a poodle and a beagle are of the same species,”
Sullivan wrote in 2013. “But poodles, in general, are smarter than
beagles, and beagles have a much better sense of smell.”
race “science” that has re-emerged into public discourse today –
whether in the form of outright racism against black people, or
supposedly friendlier claims of Ashkenazis’ superior intelligence –
usually involves at least one of three claims, each of which has no
grounding in scientific fact.
The first claim is that when white Europeans’ Cro-Magnon ancestors
arrived on the continent 45,000 years ago, they faced more trying
conditions than in Africa. Greater environmental challenges led to the
evolution of higher intelligence. Faced with the icy climate of the
north, Richard Lynn wrote in 2006, “less intelligent individuals and
tribes would have died out, leaving as survivors the more intelligent”.
Set aside for a moment the fact that agriculture, towns and alphabets
first emerged in Mesopotamia, a region not known for its cold spells.
There is ample scientific evidence of modern intelligence in prehistoric
sub-Saharan Africa. In the past 15 years, cave finds along the South
African Indian Ocean coastline have shown that, between 70,000 and
100,000 years ago, biologically modern humans were carefully blending
paint by mixing ochre with bone-marrow fat and charcoal, fashioning
beads for self-adornment, and making fish hooks, arrows and other
sophisticated tools, sometimes by heating them to 315C (600F). Those
studying the evidence, such as the South African archaeologist
Christopher Henshilwood, argue that these were intelligent, creative
people – just like us. As he put it: “We’re pushing back the date of symbolic thinking in modern humans – far, far back.”
A 77,000-year-old piece of red ochre with a deliberately engraved design discovered at Blombos Cave, South Africa.
A second plank of the race science case goes like this: human bodies
continued to evolve, at least until recently – with different groups
developing different skin colours, predispositions to certain diseases,
and things such as lactose tolerance. So why wouldn’t human brains
continue evolving, too?
The problem here is that race scientists are not comparing like with
like. Most of these physical changes involve single gene mutations,
which can spread throughout a population in a relatively short span of
evolutionary time. By contrast, intelligence – even the rather specific
version measured by IQ – involves a network of potentially thousands of
genes, which probably takes at least 100 millennia to evolve
Given that so many genes, operating in different parts of the brain,
contribute in some way to intelligence, it is hardly surprising that
there is scant evidence of cognitive advance, at least over the last
100,000 years. The American palaeoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, widely
acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on Cro-Magnons, has
said that long before humans left Africa for Asia and Europe, they had
already reached the end of the evolutionary line in terms of brain
power. “We don’t have the right conditions for any meaningful biological
evolution of the species,” he told an interviewer in 2000.
In fact, when it comes to potential differences in intelligence
between groups, one of the remarkable dimensions of the human genome is
how little genetic variation there is. DNA research conducted in 1987
suggested a common, African ancestor for all humans alive today:
“mitochondrial Eve”, who lived around 200,000 years ago. Because of this
relatively recent (in evolutionary terms) common ancestry, human beings
share a remarkably high proportion of their genes compared to other
mammals. The single subspecies of chimpanzee that lives in central
Africa, for example, has significantly more genetic variation than does
the entire human race.
No one has successfully isolated any genes “for” intelligence at all,
and claims in this direction have turned to dust when subjected to peer
review. As the Edinburgh University cognitive ageing specialist Prof
Ian Deary put it, “It is difficult to name even one gene that is
reliably associated with normal intelligence in young, healthy adults.”
Intelligence doesn’t come neatly packaged and labelled on any single
strand of DNA.
race science depends on a third claim: that different IQ averages
between population groups have a genetic basis. If this case falls, the
whole edifice – from Ashkenazi exceptionalism to the supposed
inevitability of black poverty – collapses with it.
A Brief History of IQ
Before we can properly assess these claims, it is worth looking at
the history of IQ testing. The public perception of IQ tests is that
they provide a measure of unchanging intelligence, but when we look
deeper, a very different picture emerges. Alfred Binet, the modest
Frenchman who invented IQ testing in 1904, knew that intelligence was
too complex to be expressed in a single number. “Intellectual qualities …
cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured,” he insisted,
adding that giving IQ too much significance “may give place to
But Binet’s tests were embraced by Americans who assumed IQ was
innate, and used it to inform immigration, segregationist and eugenic
policies. Early IQ tests were packed with culturally loaded questions.
(“The number of a Kaffir’s legs is: 2, 4, 6, 8?” was one of the
questions in IQ tests given to US soldiers during the first world war.)
Over time, the tests became less skewed and began to prove useful in
measuring some forms of mental aptitude. But this tells us nothing about
whether scores are mainly the product of genes or of environment.
Further information is needed.
One way to test this hypothesis would be to see if you can increase
IQ by learning. If so, this would show that education levels, which are
purely environmental, affect the scores. It is now well-known that if
you practise IQ tests your score will rise, but other forms of study can
also help. In 2008, Swiss researchers recruited 70 students and had
half of them practise a memory-based computer game. All 35 of these
students saw their IQs increase, and those who practised daily, for the
full 19 weeks of the trial, showed the most improvement.
Another way to establish the extent to which IQ is determined by
nature rather than nurture would be to find identical twins separated at
birth and subsequently raised in very different circumstances. But such
cases are unusual, and some of the most influential research – such as
the work of the 20th-century English psychologist Cyril Burt, who
claimed to have shown that IQ was innate – has been dubious. (After
Burt’s death, it was revealed that he had falsified much of his data.)
A genuine twin study was launched by the Minneapolis-based
psychologist Thomas Bouchard in 1979, and although he was generously
backed by the overtly racist Pioneer Fund, his results make interesting
reading. He studied identical twins, who have the same genes, but who
were separated close to birth. This allowed him to consider the
different contributions that environment and biology played in their
development. His idea was that if the twins emerged with the same traits
despite being raised in different environments, the main explanation
would be genetic.
The problem was that most of his identical twins were adopted into
the same kinds of middle-class families. So it was hardly surprising
that they ended up with similar IQs. In the relatively few cases where
twins were adopted into families of different social classes and
education levels, there ended up being huge disparities in IQ – in one
case a 20-point gap; in another, 29 points, or the difference between
“dullness” and “superior intelligence” in the parlance of some IQ
classifications. In other words, where the environments differed
substantially, nurture seems to have been a far more powerful influence
than nature on IQ.
But what happens when you move from individuals to whole populations?
Could nature still have a role in influencing IQ averages? Perhaps the
most significant IQ researcher of the last half century is the New
Zealander Jim Flynn. IQ tests are calibrated so that the average IQ of
all test subjects at any particular time is 100. In the 1990s, Flynn
discovered that each generation of IQ tests had to be more challenging
if this average was to be maintained. Projecting back 100 years, he
found that average IQ scores measured by current standards would be
Yet people have not changed genetically since then. Instead, Flynn
noted, they have become more exposed to abstract logic, which is the
sliver of intelligence that IQ tests measure. Some populations are more
exposed to abstraction than others, which is why their average IQ scores
differ. Flynn found that the different averages between populations
were therefore entirely environmental.
This finding has been reinforced by the changes in average IQ scores
observed in some populations. The most rapid has been among Kenyan
children – a rise of 26.3 points in the 14 years between 1984 and 1998,
according to one study. The reason has nothing to do with genes.
Instead, researchers found that, in the course of half a generation,
nutrition, health and parental literacy had improved.
So, what about the Ashkenazis? Since the 2005 University of Utah
paper was published, DNA research by other scientists has shown that
Ashkenazi Jews are far less genetically isolated than the paper argued.
On the claims that Ashkenazi diseases were caused by rapid natural
selection, further research has shown that they were caused by a random
mutation. And there is no evidence that those carrying the gene variants
for these diseases are any more or less intelligent than the rest of
But it was on IQ that the paper’s case really floundered. Tests
conducted in the first two decades of the 20th century routinely showed
Ashkenazi Jewish Americans scoring below average. For example, the IQ
tests conducted on American soldiers during the first world war found
Nordics scoring well above Jews. Carl Brigham, the Princeton professor
who analysed the exam data, wrote: “Our figures … would rather tend to
disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent”. And
yet, by the second world war, Jewish IQ scores were above average.
A similar pattern could be seen from studies of two generations of
Mizrahi Jewish children in Israel: the older generation had a mean IQ of
92.8, the younger of 101.3. And it wasn’t just a Jewish thing. Chinese
Americans recorded average IQ scores of 97 in 1948, and 108.6 in 1990.
And the gap between African Americans and white Americans narrowed by
5.5 points between 1972 and 2002.
No one could reasonably claim that there had been genetic changes in
the Jewish, Chinese American or African American populations in a
generation or two. After reading the University of Utah paper, Harry
Ostrer, who headed New York University’s human genetics programme, took
the opposite view to Steven Pinker: “It’s bad science – not because it’s
provocative, but because it’s bad genetics and bad epidemiology.”
years ago, our grasp of the actual science was firm enough for Craig
Venter, the American biologist who led the private effort to decode the
human genome, to respond to claims of a link between race and
intelligence by declaring: “There is no basis in scientific fact or in
the human genetic code for the notion that skin colour will be
predictive of intelligence.”
Yet race science maintains its hold on the imagination of the right,
and today’s rightwing activists have learned some important lessons from
past controversies. Using YouTube in particular, they attack the
left-liberal media and academic establishment for its unwillingness to
engage with the “facts”, and then employ race science as a political
battering ram to push forward their small-state, anti-welfare,
These political goals have become ever more explicit. When
interviewing Nicholas Wade, Stefan Molyneux argued that different social
outcomes were the result of different innate IQs among the races – as
he put it, high-IQ Ashkenazi Jews and low-IQ black people. Wade agreed,
saying that the “role played by prejudice” in shaping black people’s
social outcomes “is small and diminishing”, before condemning “wasted
foreign aid” for African countries.
Similarly, when Sam Harris, in his podcast interview with Charles
Murray, pointed out the troubling fact that The Bell Curve was beloved
by white supremacists and asked what the purpose of exploring race-based
differences in intelligence was, Murray didn’t miss a beat. Its use,
Murray said, came in countering policies, such as affirmative action in
education and employment, based on the premise that “everybody is equal
above the neck … whether it’s men or women or whether it’s ethnicities”.
Race science isn’t going away any time soon. Its claims can only be
countered by the slow, deliberate work of science and education. And
they need to be – not only because of their potentially horrible human
consequences, but because they are factually wrong. The problem is not,
as the right would have it, that these ideas are under threat of
censorship or stigmatisation because they are politically inconvenient.
Race science is bad science. Or rather, it is not science at all.