Home » IQ » The Frivolousness of the Hereditarian-Environmentalist IQ Debate: Gould, Binet, and the Utility of IQ Testing

The Frivolousness of the Hereditarian-Environmentalist IQ Debate: Gould, Binet, and the Utility of IQ Testing

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Charles Darwin

Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson


1850 words

Hereditarians have argued that IQ scores are mostly caused by genetic factors with environment influencing a small amount of the gap whereas environmentalists argue that the gaps can be fully accounted for by environmental factors such as access to resources, the educational attainment of parents and so on. However, the debate is useless. It is useless not only due to the fact that it props up a false dichotomy, it is uselss because the tests get the results the constructors want.

Why the hereditarian-environmentalist debate is frivolous

This is due to the fact that when high-stakes tests were first created (eg the SAT in the mid-1920s) they were based on the first IQ tests brought to America. All standardized tests are based on the concept of IQ—this means that, since the concept of IQ is based on presuppositions of the ‘intelligence’ distribution in society and high-stakes standardized tests are then based on that concept, then they will be inherently biased as a rule. The SAT is even the “first offshoot of the IQ test” (Mensh and Mensh, 1991: 3). Such tests are not even objective as is frequently claimed, “high-stakes, standardised testing has functions to mask the reality of structural race and class inequalities in the United States” (Au, 2013: 17; see also Knoester and Au, 2015).

The reasoning for the uselessness of the debate between hereditarians and environmentalists is simple: The first tests were constructed with the results the test constructors wanted to get; they assumed the distribution of test scores would be normal and create the test around that assumption, adding and removing items until they get the outcome they presupposed.

Sure, someone may say that “It’s all genes and environment so the debate is useless”, though that’s not what the debate is actually about. The debate isn’t one of nature and nurture, but it is a debate about tests created with prior biases in mind to attempt to justify certain social inequalities between groups. What these tests do is “sort human populations along socially, culturally, and economically determined lines” (Au, 2008: 151; c.f. Mensh and Mensh, 1991). And it’s these socially, culturally, and economically determined lines that the tests are based off. The constructors assume that people at the bottom must be less intelligent and so they build the test around the assumption.

If the test constructors had different presuppositions about the nature and distribution of “intelligence” then they would get different results. This is argued by Hilliard (2012:115-116) in Straightening the Bell Curve where she shoes that South African IQ test constructors removed a 15-20 point difference between two white South African groups.

A consistent 15-20 point IQ differential existed between the more economically privileged, better educated, urban-based, English-speaking whites and the lower-scoring, rural-based, poor, white Afrikaners. To avoid comparisons that would have led to political tensions between the two white groups, South African IQ testers squelched discussion about genetic differences between the two European ethnicities. They solved the problem by composing a modified version of the IQ test in Afrikaans. In this way, they were able to normalize scores between the two white cultural groups.

This is, quite obviously, is admission from test constructors themselves that score differences can, and have been, built into and out of the tests based on prior assumptions.

It has been claimed that equal opportunity depends on standardized testing. This is a bizarre claim because standardized testing has its origins with Binet’s (and Goddard’s, Yerkes’ and Terman’s) IQ tests.

It is paradoxical to maintain that IQ tests, which are inherently biased, can promote equal opportunity. The tests do what their construction dictates; they correlate a group’s mental worth with its place in the social hierarchy. (Mensh and Mensh, 1991, The IQ Mythology, pg 30)

They wrote that in response to Gould who believed that there was some use for IQ tests since his son was identified as learning disabled through IQ testing (even though IQ is irrelevant to the definition of learning disabilities; Siegal, 1989).

Testing, from its very beginnings, has been used to attempt to justify the current social order. They knew that certain classes and races were already less intelligent than other classes and races and so they created their tests to line-up with their biases.

Hereditarians may attempt argue that the test bias debate was put to bed by Jensen (1980) in his Bias in Mental Testing, though he largely skirts around the issue and equivocates on certain terms. Environmentalists may attempt to argue that access to different resources and information causes such test score differences—and while this does seem to be the case (eg Ceci, 1990; Au, 2007, 2008), again, the debate rests on false assumptions from people over 100 years ago.

There are at least 4 reasons for the test score gap:

(1) Differences in genes cause differences in IQ scores;

(2) Differences in environment cause differences in IQ scores;

(3) A combination of genes and environment cause differences in IQ scores; and

(4) Differences in IQ scores are built into the test based on the test constructors’ prior biases.

Hereditarians argue for (1) and (3) (eg Rushton and Jensen, 2005) while environmentalists argue for (2) (eg Klineberg, 1928) and test critics argue for (4) (eg Mensh and Mensh, 1991; Au, 2008). Knowing how and why such tests were originally created and used will show us that (4) is the correct answer.

Egalitarians may claim that IQ tests can be looked at as egalitarian devices and be used for good, such as identifying at-risk, lower-“ability” children. But such claims then end up justifying hereditarian arguments.

Like IQ tests, the hereditarian-environmentalist debate is immersed in mythology. In fact, this debate has revolved around IQ testing for so long that the myths surrounding each are not only intertwined but interdependent.

According to its image, the nature-nurture debate pits conservatives against liberals. One part of this image reflects reality; part is mythical; environmentalistsm has not only liberal and radical supporters, but many conservative ones as well.

One facor that sustains the deabte’s liberal-versus-conservative image is that many environmentalists have condemned the hereditarians’ claims of genetic intelligence differentials between races and classes as a justification for class and racial inequality. At the same time, however, environmetalists present their own thesis — which accepts the claim of class and racial intelligence differentials but attributes the alleged differentials to environment rather than heredity — as an alternative to hereditarianism. But is their thesis in fact an alternative to hereditarianism? Or does it instead — irrespective of the mentions of many environmentalists — result in an alternative justification for class and racial inequality? (Mensh and Mensh, 1991: 10-11)

Gould and Binet

One of the most famous environmentalists is Stephen Jay Gould. In the 1970s, he compared craniometry in the 19th century to IQ testing in the 20th—seemingly to discredit the notion—but he ended up, according to Mensh and Mensh (1991: 13), disassociating psychometrics from its beginnings, and then “proceeded to a defense of IQ testing” which may seem strange given the title of the book (The Mismeasure of Man), but “by saying that “man” has been mismeasured, it suggests that man can also be properly measured.”

Binet himself said many contradictory things regarding the nature of the tests that he constructed. His test was designed to “separate natural intelligence and instruction” since it is “the intelligence we seek to measure” (Binet, quoted in Mensh and Mensh, 1991: 19). Gould then attempted to explain this away stating that Binet removed items in which one’s experience would bias test outcomes, but it seems that Gould forgets that all knowledge is acquired. Gould—and others—attempt to paint Binet as an antihereditarian, but if one reads Binet’s writings they will come to find out that he did indeed express many hereditarian sentiments. (Binet seems to contradict himself often enough, writing, for example, “Psychologists do not measure…we classify“, quoted in Richardson, 2004. But Binet and his contemporaries did indeed classify—they classified at-risk, low-“ability” children into their ‘correct’ educational setting based on their ‘intelligence’.)

Binet stated that special education needed to be tailored to different groups, but he did not, of course, assume that those who would need the special education would come from the general population: they would come from lower-income areas and then constructed his test to fit his assumption.

Since all IQ-test scores are relative, or inherently depedent on each other, it is illogical to contend, as Gould did, that one test use is beneficial and the others are not. To be logical one must acknowledge that if the original test use was positive, as Gould maintained, then the others would be too. Conversely, if other test uses were negative, as Gould suggested in this instance (although not in others), then something was wrong with the original use, that is, intrinsically wrong with the test. (Mensh and Mensh, 1991: 23)

Mensh and Mensh then discuss Gould’s treatment of Yerkes’ Army qualification tests. They were administered in “Draconian traditions”, but Gould did not reject the tests. He instead did not criticize the earlier tests, but criticized the tests post-Goddard (after 1911). Because Gould “accepted the fallacious premise of mental measurement, he could overlook his technical criticism and, paradoxically, accept the figures he had apparently rejected; although the product of deviant methods, they nonetheless ranked races and classes in the same way as those produced by approved methods” (Mensh and Mensh, 1991: 29). Gould called the figures “rotten to the core” but then called them “pure numbers”, claiming that they could even be used to “promote equality of opportunity” (Gould, 1996: 228). In essence, Gould was arguing that Yerkes should have taken to an environmentalist (that a group’s intelligence is educationally-determined) and not a hereditarian position (that a group had not acquired a high level of educational attainment since they had lower intelligence).

Environmentalism perpetuates hereditarianism

It may seem counter-intuitive, but claims from environmentalists perpetuate hereditarianism in virtue of accepting the hereditarian claim that there are intelligence differences between classes, races, men and women. Otto Klineberg held the belief that IQ tests were used to justify the current racial hierarchy between blacks and whites, but unbeknownst to him, his environmentalist position perpetuates the hereditarian dogma (Klineberg, 1928).

Klineberg conducted his study with the exemplary aim of rebutting the selective migration thesis, but the study itself reinforced from an environmentalist standpoint the hereditarians’ claims that whites are superior in intelligence to blacks and that IQ tests and measures of school performance are measures of intelligence. (Mensh and Mensh, 1991: 91)


For these reasons, the hereditarian/environmentalist IQ debate is useless as score differences can be—and have been—built into the tests which IQ testers used as justification that certain groups were less “intelligent” than others. For if the constructors had different presuppositions (say they believed Europeans were inferior in “intelligence” compared to other races) then they would construct the tests to show that assumption.

Such tests are premised on subjective assumptions about ‘intelligence’ (whatever that is) and its distribution among groups. But the hereditarian-environmentalist debate becomes ridiculous once one knows how and why IQ tests (the basis for high-stakes standardized testing which is in use today) were created and used for. Binet even held hereditarian views, contra claims from environmentalists.

But, as has been argued, the debate is meaningless—no meaningful dialogue can be had as the test constructors’ assumptions about intelligence and its distribution are built into  the test. Even when arguing against hereditarianism, environmentalist hypotheses still lend credence to the hereditarian position. For these reasons, the debate should cease.

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