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May 05, 2010


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Michael Risch

Without taking a position on the motives for this email, I'm not sure I follow the argument.

Wasn't the point that there are studies that a) IQ averages differ among populations by skin color, and b) IQ is heritable? Others have pointed out many scientific and logical problems with the deduction that this means IQ is genetically based on skin color.

Even so, if one assumes that the email statement was made out of ignorance of these scientific and logical issues (as I'm sure it was) then it doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility to "wonder" whether genetic differences in the skin color trait (as opposed to some other genetic trait) lead to genetic differences in IQ.

Of course, if there were studies showing that IQ averages differ among different populations based on some other genetic trait, then it would not be outside the bounds of rationality to "wonder" about the genetic ties there as well.

Am I missing something in the argument? I suppose there might be other genetic traits that differ among the populations other than skin color, but books like the Bell Curve frame the studies this way so I don't think this student pulled the idea out of thin air.

Eric Muller

The argument is that while it's not outside the realm of possibility to "wonder" whether the gene for skin pigmentation also controls or influences intelligence, the extraordinary interest in that particular correlation/causation, out of all of the many thousands of possible genetic causes/correlates of intelligence, reveals a racist belief or supposition.

What in that argument do you not follow?

Mark Edwards

What makes the email undeniably racist is this:

She acknowledges 2 possibilities: Black people might be less intelligent than whites, or they might be as intelligent as whites. Can you see a possibility she never even considers?

If she's motivated by 'scientific inquiry,' why does she not allow for the possibility that black people might be more intelligent than whites? I'd suggest its because the possibility never occurs to her. And that, in turn, leads me to believe that she not merely ignorant of the science at issue.

My 2 cents.

Mark Edwards

But I'll add that Eric makes an equally compelling point -- genes determine thousands of things, any one which could, theoretically, correlate with IQ. Why among those thousands would one choose to focus on skin color, unless one was predisposed to focus on skin color?


First, it is a grotesque mischaracterization of the email to say that the genes for skin color determine intelligence. Rather, it speculated that the genes for skin color are correlated with other genes that determine intelligence.

The two other critiques of the email are (1) it shows a fascination with skin color over other things that might contribute to intelligence, and (2) there is insufficient evidence of causation (there is plenty of evidence of correlation, but we can never completely rule out the possibility that environmental factors are responsible).

But so what? Of the thousands of characteristics that correlate with IQ, race is the most fascinating because we are a society that is obsessed with race; a state of affairs that liberals are far more responsible for than conservatives. And as for the absence of evidence either way; so what? People speculate on all sorts of things that are fascinating for which evidence is sorely lacking. We have been speculating whether there is a God, or extraterrestrials, or an afterlife, etc. etc. since the beginning of mankind, despite not having one whit of evidence either way.


I should add that the very fact of this blog post answers the question it poses. For all we know, Harvard law students could very well be mooting "the question of whether intelligence correlates with a receding hairline, or the ability to curl one's tongue, or double-jointedness, or a predisposition to migraine, or ... any of the thousands of other human features that are genetically encoded." But those emails won't be nationally circulated with race-obsessed lefties focusing, with laser-like precision, on that errant author who dares deviate from the standard orthodoxy.

I wonder what your reaction would be if a student in a highly religious country wrote "I absolutely do not reject the possibility that God does not exist. I could also be convinced, by proper evidence, that He does" and is then nationally pilloried for this act of heresy (but not, of course, governmentally punished for protected speech). Should we applaud the country's public for its punishment of this person's demonstrated "ignorant" religious attitudes, since there is "no evidence" that God does not exist? Should we say that this person deserves everything she will get since she was stupid enough to violate a widely held taboo? Should we question why of all the thousands of topics that students can talk about, they choose to debate the existence of God?


Final post. Even assuming for second that believing black people to be, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent is "racist" (which depends on your definition of "racist," since less intelligent is not the same thing as inferior), that is a mile away from what the email is suggesting. Do we brand every person who questions whether God might exist as "atheist"?

You ask what besides "racist" assumptions--by which I take it you mean an actual belief that black people might be less intelligent on average--could lead people to even pose the question. I ask back what besides heresy could lead people to question whether God exists. How about intellectual freedom? How about normal curiosity on fascinating questions? How about skepticism-short-of-outright-dissent with respect to a stifling evidence-free orthodoxy on which the entire society is based and where the non-adherents are ruthlessly persecuted?

Michael Risch

"the extraordinary interest in that particular correlation/causation, out of all of the many thousands of possible genetic causes/correlates of intelligence, reveals a racist belief or supposition."

Oh, that argument I follow. The part I didn't follow is why it is this particular email that shows that given that others blazed the trail in the past by gathering the data in the first place. I guess I agree with the comment above that we are a society fascinated by race, and thus people study differences among races. I follow the argument that it might be considered racist to have gathered the data in the first place, but it's not like this person picked that genetic attribute out of whole cloth, which is what I understood the argument to be.

I guess I will add that even if the emailer made it up out of whole cloth, the chain of logic isn't necessarily racist. For example, we might see data that african-americans attain less educational levels, something in society that we want to correct. And we might think that IQ relates to educational attainment (I have no idea, actually), and so we might measure IQ among races (I would suspect such studies would measure asian and hispanic and east coast and west coast other populations based on genetic or environmental differences).

And we might see that IQ measurements are on average lower in african-american and/or other populations. And then we might want to see whether or not such different measurements were environmental or genetic, because we can do something about the environment, and not so much about the genetic.

Now, I seriously doubt that was the intent of the email (the tone and context says otherwise). But it is not inherently racist to study the question of that particular genetic trait. And I would hope that such studies would, in fact, look at other environmental and genetic traits as well.


because we can do something about the environment, and not so much about the genetic.

Tell that to all the people wearing glasses, or people who didn't become mentally retarded because of PKU, or so on. This is actually one of the classic fallacies in this area, that genetic = immutable. But that's just not so, generally speaking, and we don't know enough about intelligence and development to make any strong claims here that apply to large populations.

Michael Risch

Matt - Fair enough - I was just noodling. Indeed, this point supports my argument even more - if it is genetic, we want to find out which part of genetic and why.


This makes no sense to me, or at least curls back against this post just like that marvelous tongue.

I don't think the way the email framed the question was at all defensible, and believe that it reflected a combination of ignorance and carelessness that *might* be consistent with racism . . . or just ignorance and carelessness.

But yours is an unproductive way of looking at it. You say, "What, other than the students' own belief (or their own awareness of a societal belief) that race determines intelligence, could have led them to debate the question they were debating?"

Here's one of several possibilities: their *awareness* of a societal belief, discussion of which does not necessarily entail subscribing it. Dinner: "A, that nutcase/genius/future nominee, thinks the reason for phenomenon X is that blacks are genetically predisposed to have lower IQs." Collective discussion ensues, generally dismissing hypothesis, emailer among them. Ignorant, backtracking email follows, which -- while posing wrong set of alternatives, wrong default, wrong way of looking at heritability, etc. -- is not racist simply because of the question previously being addressed. This does not exhaust the possibilities.

In point of fact, commentary on the merits of the questions discussed by the email -- which in my opinion has been devastating to its defenders -- is subject to precisely the same objection you pose to the students' original discussion, just with the ready-made "excuse" of having the email to start things rolling. . . just as the students may have been reacting to some provocation, perhaps not even one of their making.

It's unfortunate that so much commentary on this sad episode focuses not on explaining why the student was off-track, or why the questions being posed by the email were not the appropriate ones, so as to remind us why the topic simply doesn't *merit* further discussion -- as opposed to suggesting, directly or inadvertently, that any discussion of certain racially-charged questions is animated by racism.

Eric Muller

Ani, it has been reported that the cafeteria conversation in which these law students were mooting the genetic inferiority of blacks was a discussion about affirmative action. (See

If true, does this have any impact of your assessment of the likelihood that the students were just academically debating a scientific claim the truth of which none of them suspected?


Eric, thanks for the reply. I am having trouble parsing your last sentence, but it's entirely possible that this was about affirmative action, and entirely possible that the students had preconceived views -- or not.

"Affirmative action sucks, doesn't it?"
"How much I hate it depends on whether it's correcting for something innate or creating a level playing field. I remember hearing all this sciencey stuff saying that different races have different IQ genes or something."
"I kind of remember reading a review of a book saying that, and the review the book was crap. You'd have to be racist to write a book like that anyway . . . It probably sold like 10 copies."
"Who knows."
[Email ensues, but remember, the issue in your view is the conditions precipitating the email, not the email itself.]

I guess I would better understand your position that the very fact of a discussion is revealing if I were to understand what characteristics are critical. I get that proffering a raced genetic claim for some perceived discrepancy out of the blue would be, well, highly dubious and revealing. But otherwise, what exactly constitutes the revelatory misstep?


Eric, you said:
"There are many human biological features in addition to skin pigment that are presumably a consequence of geographic and reproductive separation/isolation over much of human history -- yet one does not hear much debate about, or many calls for study of, the possible connection between blonde or red hair and intelligence (no "dumb blonde" jokes, please) or between lactose intolerance and intelligence or between the predisposition to Tay-Sachs and intelligence."

Your point about interest in a possible causal link between Tay-Sachs and intelligence is not correct (unless you are putting a lot of weight on there being not "much" debate), as googling "Tay-Sachs intelligence" will show.

Your larger point -- why focus on possible genetic causal link between "race" and intelligence when other potential causal link between intelligence and other traits (assuming for now that "race" is a trait) are unexamined -- suffers from an unspoken, but flawed, assumption. You assume that the potential causal link between intelligence and, e.g., lactose intolerance is obviously comparable to the potential causal link between intelligence and race, such that there is no rational (non-racist) reason to be more interested in one question than the other. But there is, to my knowledge, no existing evidence that there is any known difference in average intelligence (assuming that "intelligence" can be usefully identified, which is problematic but a different discussion) between the lactose intolerant and the non-lactose intolerant. And similarly, I know of no known intelligence gap between redheads and blondes. There is, however, a known test score/IQ gap (again, whether the tests are measuring something meaningful is a different issue) between some "races".

In short, speculation about the causes of the perceived differences in average intelligence of different races exists and can be legitimate because of a known CORRELATION between race and test scores/IQ. There is no similar known correlation with test scores/IQ as to the categoreis you mention (Tay-Sachs arguably aside). This correlation, I hope I need not say, does NOT prove causation. But a correlation does invite legitimate speculation/investigation as to causation.

Note: Before anyone has a stroke, my personal belief is that (1) "intelligence" differences between "races" are adequately explained by environmental and cultural factors; (2) "race" is a lousy concept that should be abandoned in favor of a terminology that acknowledges that isolated populations of humans developed different frequencies of different genetic traits (frequencies which change all the time and which will doubtless change at a higher rate given modern travel and diasporas); and (3) any genetic factors that may influence human intelligence, whether in an individual or across an identifiable population, do not imply that that person or group is "inferior" in any meaningful way.


Indeed, this point supports my argument even more - if it is genetic, we want to find out which part of genetic and why.

It's not clear that even this follows. For the treatment of bad eyesight, for example, it usually doesn't matter if the cause of the problem is genetic, a non-genetic developmental problem, or an injury (over use) of some sort. This is so of many things. Also, whether a particular difference is genetically based or not is itself not stable, but depends on the context. (Richard Lewontin is excellent on this point.) This isn't to say that we shouldn't study cognitive development and try to figure out how it works. Of course we should. But just that the issue is likely significantly more complex than the discussion around this email implies.

(I'm also a bit surprised that no one I've seen has commented on the emailer's truly strange claim that we "know" that differences in performance in math between men and women are "due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone." We, of course, know no such thing, and it's not even clear that the different performances in math between men and women are robust. To my mind this was the most telling part of the email.)

Henry Allen

Muller is attacking a straw man. The issue is not whether "genes for skin color . . . determine intelligence" but whether they correlate with other genes that do. Genes for skin color do correlate with genes for hair texture, musculature, and various diseases, among other things. There is no a priori reason to think that they do not also correlate with genes for certain kinds of cognitive function. It is not racist to keep one's mind open to that possibility. It is somewhere between ostrich-like antiempiricism and cowardly political correctness not to do so.


I am totally lost by Eric's point. Eric, you appear to acknowledge the obvious (particularly in your update), that while the socially-constructed notion of race is formulated in the first instance in response to skin color; that skin color is determined by genes; that the genes that determine skin color appear to be correlated with particular geographic locations; and that it is possible that, just as there is a high correlation between the gene for skin color and location, there is a the possibility of high correlations between other genes and location (or other genes and the gene for skin color, if you prefer). Having accepted all that, you appear to think that to avoid being racist the Harvard 3L had to consider other genes, like one's for double-jointedness? I don't follow how this can be. Orin Kerr is clearly correct that the student's error was in failing to recognize the historical overtones to her argument, and appropriately acknowledge and disavow them. It surely cannot be the case that you acknowledge the correlations of certain types of genes with each other and with the socially constructed notion of race, and then say that to avoid being racist one has to canvass all possible correlations in an email talking about a single correlation.


For an interesting discussion (3 years old) of race in medicine: Also, see:

Michael Risch

"It's not clear that even this follows. For the treatment of bad eyesight, for example, it usually doesn't matter if the cause of the problem is genetic, a non-genetic developmental problem, or an injury (over use) of some sort."

Fair enough again. I wasn't trying to show a definitive chain of logic - only that the offered chain ("considering genes for skin color = racist") doesn't necessarily follow.


With all due respect, your daughter gives the Harvard 3L way, way, way too much credit. She clearly was not thinking that deeply when she wrote the e-mail, as evidenced by the fact that she only considered the possibility that African-*Americans* have lower intelligence. If she was really talking about selection for skin pigment and intelligence, wouldn't she have surmised that ALL darker-skinned people are less intelligent, including Africans who live in Africa? Since she only chose to talk about African-Americans in the email, it seems that she was simply looking for a "scientific" argument to justify her own racist views of people of color in this country, and she did it poorly.

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