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Race, Test Bias, and ‘IQ Measurement’

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The history of standardized testing—including IQ testing—has a contentious history. What causes score distributions between groups of people? I stated at least four reasons why there is a test 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.

I hold to (4) since, as I have noted, the hereditarian-environmentalist debate is frivolous. There is, as I have been saying for years now, no agreed-upon definition of ‘intelligence’, since there are such disparate answers from the ‘experts’ (Lanz, 2000; Richardson, 2002).

For the lack of such a definition only reflects the fact that there is no worked-out theory of intelligence. Having a successful definition of intelligence without a corresponding theory would be like having a building without foundations. This lack of theory is also responsible for the lack of some principled regimentation of the very many uses the word ‘intelligence’ and its cognates are put to. Tao many questions concerning intelligence are still open, too many answers controversial. Consider a few examples of rather basic questions: Does ‘intelligence’ name some entity which underlies and explains certain classes of performances1, or is the word ‘intelligence’ only sort of a shorthand-description for ‘being good at a couple of tasks or tests’ (typically those used in IQ tests)? In other words: Is ‘intelligence’ primarily a descriptive or also an explanatorily useful term? Is there really something like intelligence or are there only different individual abilities (compare Deese 1993)? Or should we turn our backs on the noun ‘intelligence’ and focus on the adverb ‘intelligently’, used to characterize certain classes of behaviors? (Lanz, 2000: 20)

Nash (1990: 133-4) writes:

Always since there are just a series of tasks of one sort or another on which performance can be ranked and correlated with other performances. Some performances are defined as ‘cognitive performances’ and other performances as ‘attainment performances’ on essentially arbitrary, common sense grounds. Then, since ‘cognitive performances’ require ‘ability’ they are said to measure that ‘ability’. And, obviously, the more ‘cognitive ability’ an individual posesses the more that individual can acheive. These procedures can provide no evidence that IQ is or can be measured, and it is rather besides the point to look for any, since that IQ is a metric property is a fundamental assumption of IQ theory. It is imposible that any ‘evidence’ could be produced by such procedures. A standardised test score (whether on tests designated as IQ or attainment tests) obtained by an individual indicates the relative standing of that individual. A score lies within the top ten perent or bottom half, or whatever, of those  gained by the standardisation group. None of this demonstrates measurement of any property. People may be rank ordered by their telephone numbers but that would not indicate measurement of anything. IQ theory must demonstrate not that it has ranked people according to some performance (that requires no demonstration) but that they are ranked according to some real property revealed by that performance. If the test is an IQ test the property is IQ — by definition — and there can in consequence be no evidence dependent on measurement procedures for hypothesising its existence. The question is one of theory and meaning rather than one of technique. It is impossible to provide a satisfactory, that is non-circular, definition of the supposed ‘general cognitive ability’ IQ tests attempt to measure and without that definition IQ theory fails to meet the minimal conditions of measurement.

These is similar to Mary Midgley’s critique of ‘intelligence’ in her last book before her death What Is Philosophy For? (Midgley, 2018). The ‘definitions’ of ‘intelligence’ and, along with it, its ‘measurement’ have never been satisfactory. Haier (2016: 24) refers to Gottfredson’s ‘definition’ of ‘intelligence, stating that ‘intelligence’ is a ‘general mental ability.’ But if that is the case, that it is a ‘general mental ability’ (g) then ‘intelligence’ does not exist because ‘g’ does not exist as a property in the brain. Lanz’s (2000) critique is also like Howe’s (1988; 1997) that ‘intelligence’ is a descriptive, not explanatory, term.

Now that the concept of ‘intelligence’ has been covered, let’s turn to race and test bias.

Test items are biased when they have different psychological meanings across cultures (He and van de Vijver 2012: 7). If they have different meanings across cultures, then the tests will not reflect the same ‘ability’ between cultures. Being exposed to the knowledge—and correct usage of it—on a test is imperative for performance. For if one is not exposed to the content on the test, how are they expected to do well if they do not know the content? Indeed, there is much evidence that minority groups are not acculturated to the items on the test (Manly et al, 1997; Ryan et al, 2005; Boone et al, 2007). This is what IQ tests measure: acculturation to the the tests’ constructors, school cirriculum and school teachers—aspects of white, middle-class culture (Richardson, 1998). Ryan et al (2005) found that reading and and educational level, not race or ethnicity, was related to worse performance on psychological tests.

Serpell et al (2006) took 149 white and black fourth-graders and randomly assigned them to ethnically homogeneous groups of three, working on a motion task on a computer. Both blacks and whites learned equally well, but the transfer outcomes were better for blacks than for whites.

Helms (1992) claims that standardized tests are “Eurocentric”, which is “a perceptual set in which European and/ or European American values, customs, traditions and characteristics are used as exclusive standards against which people and events in the world are evaluated and perceived.” In her conclusion, she stated that “Acculturation
and assimilation to White Euro-American culture should enhance one’s performance on currently existing cognitive ability tests” (Helms, 1992: 1098). There just so happens to be evidence for this (along with the the studies referenced above).

Fagan and Holland (2002) showed that when exposure to different kinds of information was required, whites did better than blacks but when it was based on generally available knowledge, there was no difference between the groups. Fagan and Holland (2007) asked whites and blacks to solve problems found on usual IQ-type tests (e.g., standardized tests). Half of the items were solvable on the basis of available information, but the other items were solveable only on the basis of having acquired previous knowledge, which indicated test bais (Fagan and Holland, 2007). They, again, showed that when knowledge is equalized, so are IQ scores. Thus, cultural differences in information acquisition explain IQ scores. “There is no distinction between crassly biased IQ test items and those that appear to be non-biased” (Mensh and Mensh, 1991). This is because each item is chosen because it agrees with the distribution that the test constructors presuppose (Simon, 1997).

How do the neuropsychological studies referenced above along with Fagan and Holland’s studies show that test bias—and, along with it test construction—is built into the test which causes the distribution of the scores observed? Simple: Since the test constructors come from a higher social class, and the items chosen for inclusion on the test are more likely to be found in certain cultural groups than others, it follows that the reason for lower scores was that they were not exposed to the culturally-specific knowledge used on the test (Richardson, 2002; Hilliard, 2012).

The [IQ] tests do what their construction dictates; they correlate a group’s mental worth with its place in the social hierarchy. (Mensh and Mensh, 1991)

This is very easily seen with how such tests are constructed. The biases go back to the beginning of standardized testing—the first one being the SAT. The tests’ constructors had an idea of who was or was not ‘intelligent’ and so constructed the tests to show what they already ‘knew.’

…as one delves further … into test construction, one finds a maze of arbitrary steps taken to ensure that the items selected — the surrogates of intelligence — will rank children of different classes in conformity with a mental hierarchy that is presupposed to exist. (Mensh and Mensh, 1991)

Garrison (2009: 5) states that standardized tests “exist to assess social function” and that “Standardized testing—or the theory and practice known as “psychometrics” … is not a form of measurment.” The same way tests were constructed in the 1900s is the same way they are constructed today—with arbitrary items and a presuppossed mental hiearchy which then become baked into the tests by virtue of how they are constructed.

IQ-ists like to say that certain genes are associated with high intelligence (using their GWASes), but what could the argument possibly be that would show that variation in SNPs would cause variation in ‘intelligence’? What would a theory of that look like? How is the hereditarian hypothesis not a just-so story? Such tests were created to justify the hierarchies in society, the tests were constructed to give the results that they get. So, I don’t see how genetic ‘explanations’ are not just-so stories.

1 Blacks and whites are different cultural groups.

2 If (1), then they will have different experiences by virtue of being different cultural

3 So blacks and whites, being different cultural groups, will score differently on tests of ability, since they are exposed to different knowledge structures due to their different cultures and so, all tests of ability are culture-bound. Knowledge, Culture, Logic, and IQ

Rushton and Jensen (2005) claim that the evidence they review over the past 30 years of IQ testing points to a ‘genetic component’ to the black-white IQ gap, relying on the flawed Minnesota study of twinsreared apart” (Joseph, 2018)—among other methods—to generate heritability estimates and state that “The new evidence reviewed here points to some genetic component in Black–White differences in mean IQ.” The concept of heritability, however, is a flawed metric (Bailey, 1997; Schonemann, 1997; Guo, 2000; Moore, 2002; Rose, 2006; Schneider, 2007; Charney, 2012, 2013; Burt and Simons, 2014; Panofsky, 2014; Joseph et al, 2015; Moore and Shenk, 2016; Panofsky, 2016; Richardson, 2017). That G and E interact means that we cannot tease out “percentages” of nature and nurture’s “contribution” to a “trait.” So, one cannot point to heritability estimates as if they point to a “genetic cause” of the score gap between blacks and whites. Further note that the gap has closed in recent years (Dickens and Flynn, 2006; Smith, 2018).

And now, here is another argument based on the differing experiences that cultural groups experience which then explains IQ score differences (eg Mensh and Mensh, 1991; Manly et al, 1997; Kwate, 2001; Fagan and Holland, 2002, 2007; Cole, 2004; Ryan et al, 2005; Boone et al, 2007; Au, 2008; Hilliard, 2012; Au, 2013).

(1) If children of different class levels have experiences of different kinds with different material; and
(2) if IQ tests draw a disproportionate amount of test items from the higher classes; then
(c) higher class children should have higher scores than lower-class children.



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Yesterday on Twitter, biologist of The Selfish Gene (Dawkins, 1976) fame Richard Dawkins set off a firestorm on Twitter with a tweet about eugenics (since it just so happened to be Galton’s birthday yesterday).

Deploring the idea means we should not do it—what ‘value’ would there be in breeding humans to jump higher or run faster? Such ideas and the push for them is the mask for eugenic policies—eugenics can and will slip in through the back door using current technologies.

Adapting an argument from Walter Glannon in Genes and Future People (Glannon, 2001: 109):

Where case (A) is CRISPR modifications; case (U) is eugenics; and (B), (C), … (N) are intermediaries.

(1) Case (A) is acceptable.
(2) But cases (B), (C), … (N) … are unacceptable.
(3) Cases (A) and (U) are assimilable, so they are differences in degree, which fall along a continuum of the same type.
(4) If case (A) is permitted, then it will lead to a precedent to allow case (U).
(5) Permitting case (A) will cause cases (B), (C), (N), and … .
(6) Thus, case (A) should be impermissible.

Glannon (2001: 109) rejects (3) stating that “treatment and enhancement are different in kind, not merely degree, and they can correspond to distinct aims that can be articulated.”

Glannon (2001:110) rejects (5) also, stating that “if case (a) is not relevantly similar to cases (b) through (n), then it is unlikely that (a) would cause (b) through (n) to occur. Hence premise (5) is false as well.” (See Govier, 1985 for these argument forms as well, mainly the feasibility argument.)

The problem with his rejection of (3) is that differences of degree can combine to become significant. So if case (A) is similar to (B)-(N), then, since differences of degree can combine to become significant, then allowing (A) will lead to (U) down the line.

… all treatments are enhancements (though not all enhancements are treatments), and … not all ehancements are, by definition alone, ethically unacceptable. (Baylis, 2019: 59)

But if the treatments (which are all enhancements) will, eventually, lead to the psychological slippery slope to accepting eugenics, then we should not do it. “Yea, the treatments were fine. Now they want to prevent this group from doing X and that group from doing Y—what’s the big deal? It’s similar to enhancement, is it not?”

If it is fine to fix a mutation in a gene in a somatic cell, then why not edit the germline so that that individual’s future kin won’t be subjected to that? It would be a waste of time—and money—to keep editing the same family’s somatic cells when they can just edit the germline and get it over with, right?

Now, some may cry “Slippery slope fallacy!” But just crying “Fallacy!” at me does not cut it—one must show that (U) does not follow from (A) and (B)-(N).

The argument provided above is a psychological slippery slope argument. Psychological slippery slope arguments—different from a logical slippery slope argument, where once a first step is taken, one is logically committed to taking subsequent steps unless there are logical reasons to avoid taking such steps—which is based on probability, that is, they are inductive. A psychological slippery slope argument is where once one practice is accepted, similar practices, too, will be accepted as they see no significant difference between them. So accepting one practice, psychologically prepares one to accept another, so we are looking at what may happen, not what the rules and logic of the assertion entail logically.

So if we allow X (gene therapy, negative eugenics) then we will ride down the slippery slope to Y (positive eugenics, genetic enhancement).

When Dawkins says that eugenics ‘works’, what does that mean? That it is possible to attempt to select for certain traits in non-human animals, then it is, therefore, possible for humans? I don’t know who (sanely) can deny this—in theory—but how would it work in practice? Whether it’s state-mandated eugenics (like, for instance, policing who has babies with who) or attempting gene editing in humans, we do not know what would occur in the future (we don’t know what environments would look like in the future so how would we select for traits that would be beneficial in an unknown environment?). Though, I can see eugenicists attempting to use some shoddy GWAS data, such as ‘Look at Hill et al (2019), these genes are associated with high-income, so if we edit/add them then others will have the ability for high-income too!’ (The high-income genes must be doing really well for the rich, as the world’s 2,153 billionaires own more wealth than 4.6 billion people—60 percent of the world’s population.)

Dawkins, though, seems to be forgetting a few things:

(1) When humans breed animals and attempt to select for certain traits, the environments are as uniform as possible.
(2) What would it mean to ‘work’? Is it independent of ideological/moral questions? If, and only if, there could be a definition of ‘favorable result’, or ‘success’ that is divorced from value could eugenics ‘work’ and be a ‘success’ or ‘favorable result.’
(3) Eugenics is a value-laden ideology. Science is—supposedly—value-free. So by that definition, eugenics is not science, it is a social movement.

Humans selectively bred dogs from wolves, and now we have the gamut from big and tall, to short and fat and short and small with many different phenotypes in between. But look at the pugs. We breed them for the flatter, ‘cuter’ face but what does that do for them? Pugs have what is calledBrachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome (BAOS) or Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS) occurs in all breeds with significant brachycephaly. Brachycephaly is abnormally short head shape (compared with the ancestral, natural, head shape of dogs) with, in some cases, greatly shortened upper jaws and noses.” This can lead to asphyxiation of the dog. What do ya know? Something unintended (possible asphyxiation) occurred due to what we selected for (shorter heads, flatter faces). Who’s to say what would happen if we attempted to select for ‘income genes’ (or whatever else) in humans?

Even prenatal screening can be used to get eugenics in through the back door (Thomas and Rothman, 2016; also see Duster, 2003). I have argued—for and against—the use of PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) back in 2018. I have also covered eugenic laws in America and throughout the world during the 20th century. Allowing (A) will lead us right back to (U)—where were in the 20th century. Selecting against or for certain traits/genes may lead to unintended consequences (like the breathing problems that pugs have). So, why should we do things to humans if we don’t know the consequences of what we are selecting for or against?

Wilson (2017: 46) describes how value-laden eugenics is, stating that it is not “merely theoretical”, nor “primarily mathematical”:

Identifying eugenics as applied science may be thought to imply very little, saying only that eugenics does not fall under the contrasting mythical category of “pure science.” But the labeling of eugenics as applied science should be taken not so much to register a location on the putative divide between pure and applied science as to distinguish eugenics from a certain idealization of scientific inquiry. It signals three things that eugenics is not, and never was: it is not merely theoretical, not primarily mathematical or statistical, and not value-free.

First, eugenics is not merely theoretical, in the sense of being concerend primarily with abstract or idealized conditions (cf. theoretical physics or theoretical biology). It is focused on, and very motivated by, perceived problems in real-world human populations and their solution.

Second, eugenics is not primarily mathematical or statistical in nature, however much it may at times draw from or rely on mathematical techniques or results. Galton himself was an accomplished mathematician, inventing several statistical techniques, such as the quantified idea of a standard deviation and the use of regression lines in statistics, which remain with us today. Galton’s most prominent successors in the United Kingdom—Karl Person and Ronald Fisher—were also statistically sophisticated innovators who led a biometric wing to the eugenics movement. While the quantitative measures of both individuals and populations has played an important role in the short history of eugenics, much eugenic work bears no closer relationship to the underlying statistics than does the bulk of contemporary, biological, cognitive, and social sciences.

Third, eugenics is not value-free science, and doesn’t purport to be: it is deeply and often explicitly value-laden. I want to take a little more time to explain this dimension to the applied nature of eugenics, for doing so will take us to some core aspects of eugenics as a mixture of applied science and social movement.


First, the evaluative judgments that The Eugenic Mind rests on go well beyond those for traits, behaviors, and characteristics whose desirability or undesirability can be properly taken for granted. Second, eugenic thinking presumes that there are more desirable and more undesirable—better or worse—kinds or sorts of people. For this reason, the primary way in which eugenics has sought to improve the quality of human lives over generational time has been for advocating for ideas and policies that promote there being a greater proportion of better kinds or sorts of people in future generations.

To illustrate the first of these points, many eugenic policies were either explicitly stated in terms of, or implicitly relied on, a positive valuation of high intelligence and a negative valuation of low intelligence, especially as measured by standard IQ tests, such as the Stanford-Binet. While this positive valuation od intelligence is still widely shared in our society when expressed abstractly, as a part of science that aims to inform and shape what sorts of people there should be in future generations, it is a value judgment that is significantly more questionable than that concerning avoiding pain and suffering. Eugenic thinking and practice also rested on assessments of a broader range of personality and dispositional tendencies—for example, clannishness, cheerfulness, laziness, honesty, criminality—not only whos transmissibility across generations was considered controversial but whos very existence as intrinsic traits and tendencies has never had substantial scientific support.

Likewise, turning to the second point, the eugenic thinking that informed immigration policy in the United States following the First World War held that people of different races or ethnicities were differentially desirable as immigrants coming into the country. This differential valuation was applied to groups such as Poles, Greeks, Italians, Jews, and Slavs. Thus, eugenic immigration policies aimed to promote the influx of immigrants who were viewed as more desirable in nature, and to restrict the immigration of those deemed to be of inferior stock. We now question whether such groups of people are properly thought of as more or less desirable sorts of people to produce future generations of American nationals. But we also rightly wonder whether these are sorts of people, in the relevant sense, at all.

The eugenicists of the 20th century advocated laws, policy, ideas, and practices to ensure that the ‘right people’ would have more children (positive eugenics) while, at the same time, aiming to lower the birth rates of the ‘wrong people’ (negative eugenics) or both.

Connecticut, for instance in 1896, enacted a law stating that no man or woman who is epileptic or feebleminded could marry or live together if the woman is under 45 years old. Indiana, in 1907, passed sterilization laws for criminals, rapists, and those with incurable diseases. And by 1914, at least half of the states in America barred marriages if one of the participants had a mental defect. The SCOTUS case Buck v. Bell made the sterilization of the ‘feebleminded’ constitutional in 1927 with more than 30 states participating, to different degrees, by the 1930s. Then by the 30s, more than 12000 sterilizations were carried out, with at least 7500 occurring in California; then by the 60s, more than 63000 sterilizations were carried out in America. (See Alexander, 2017 for references.)

Eugenic policies can be used for either wing of politics—right, left, or center. Quoting Alexander (2017: 69):

Sterilisation was seen as progressive and an obvious responsibility for a state-organised society with a social conscience. A Swedish doctor writing in 1934 stated that ‘[t]he idea of reducing the number of carriers of bad genes is entirely reasonable. It will naturally be considered within the preventative health measures in socialist community life’ (Burleigh, 2000, p. 366). Sterilisation laws in Sweden stayed in place until the 1970s. Based on a solid biological basis in the power of nature over nurture, eugenics represented the rational response of progressive science-based state control in the light of the social problems contributed by the unfit and the feeble-minded. The Nobel prize-winning Marxist geneticist Herman Muller (1890-1967) declared to the Third International Congress of Eugenics in 1932 ‘[t]hat imbeciles should be sterilized is unquestionable’. In 1935, Muller envisaged that, through selective breeding, within a century most people could have ‘the innate qualities of such men as Lenin, Newton, Leonardo, Pasteur, Beethoven, Omar Khayyam, Pushkin, Sun Yat Sen, Marx, or even to possess their varied faculties combined’ (Muller, 1936, p. 113).

Lastly, here is a story of a girl who survived eugenics:

In this landmark legal case decided in 1996 by Madame Justice Joanne Veit, eugenics survivor Leilani Muir successfully sued the province of Alberta for wrongful confinement and sterilization relating to her admission to and treatment at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, Alberta, from 1955 until 1965. As a child of ten, Leilani had found herself swept up by the eugenics movement. After being institutionalized, Leilani was sterilized putatively in accord with the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, a law that was in place in the province until 1972. That provincial law, one of only two enacted in Canada’s history, authorized the eugenic sterilization of individuals whose recommendation for sterilization by the medical superintendents of provincial institutions or other state authority figures had been approved by a four-person committee known informally as the “Eugenics Board.” The legal wrongfulness of both Leilani’s institutionalization/confinement and her sterilization that was established in Muir v. Alberta drew attention to many problematic features of how eugenics was practiced in the province, including how the Eugenics Board did its work.


Leilani was distinctive, and admirably so as I got to know her better, but not different in the way one might expect, given her history. She was, to put it in terms of a concept that structures our perceptions of human variation, as normal as can be. Yet Leilani had been institutionalized at a school for mental defectives for an extended period of time as a child, teenager, and as a young adult; she had also been classified as a “moron”—a term whose colloquial familiarity now might make it surprising to some to learn that it was invented barely 100 years ago by the eugenicist and psychologist Henry Goddard to pick out “higher grade” mental defectives. Classified as a higher-grade mental defectives, Leilani was sterilized putatively in accord with the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta. And all of that had further, unexpected, and devastating consequences for Leilani’s post-institutional life.

How did this happen? Leilani was certainly different from the educated, upwardly mobile, middle-class people who populated my snug university surroundings. But she wasn’t that different from the less-educated, often class-stagnant, working-class people with whom I grew up. And, it turned out, she was not different from the many hundreds, if not thousands, of others who were subjected to the very same laws in Alberta. How does this kind of thing happen? (Wilson, 2017: 20, 22)

I don’t know why Dawkins said that it’s one thing to oppose eugenics on “ideological, political, moral grounds”; whether or not it ‘works’ and is a ‘success’ (see caveats above) is irrelevant. As the moral/political arguments against eugenics (and any supposed precursors) outweigh any arguments for ‘utility’. Starting with negative eugenics/gene therapy can and will lead to modification/eugenics. State-mandated? Maybe not. But the attempt to take away choice from an unborn human (on, say, what he wants to do in life, if a parent is trying to ‘select for’ a certain trait or quality that supposedly will lead him down the path to doing X)? Definitely.

Eugenics is morally wrong. Anything that may lead to the slippery slope of eugenics is, then, by proxy, morally wrong. The psychological slippery slope argument provided proves this. The claim that eugenics can ‘work’ implies that our genes are US—that our genes make us who we are (e.g., Plomin, 2018). This is the cost of our gene-worshipping society. Instead of worshipping God, we now worship the gene—the gene god—thinking that our ‘destiny’ is in our genes and that if we choose certain genes—or certain people with the certain genes—then we can guide our society and evolution into something ‘good’ (whatever that means).

Just as traditional thought placed biological forms in the mind of God, so modern thought finds ways of endowing genes with ultimate formative power. (Oyama, 1985)

Herrnstein’s Syllogism

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1. If differences in mental abilities are inherited, and
2. if success requires those abilities, and
3. if earnings and prestige depend on success,
4. then social standing will be based to some extent on inherited differences among people. (Herrnstein, 1971)

Richard Herrnstein’s article I.Q. in The Atlantic (Herrnstein, 1971) caused much controversy (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994: 10). Herrnstein’s syllogism argued that as environments become more similar and if differences in mental abilities are inherited and that success in life requires such abilities and if earning and prestige depends on success which is required by inheritable mental abilities then social standing will be based, “to some extent on inherited differences among people.” Herrnstein does not say this outright in the syllogism, but he is quite obviously talking about genetic inheritance. One can, however, look at the syllogism with an environmental lens, as I will show. Lastly, Herrnstein’s syllogism crumbles since social class is predictive of success in life when both IQ and social class are equated. So since family background and schooling explains the IQ-income relationship (a measure of success) then Herrnstein’s argument falls.

Note that Herrnstein came to measurement due to being a student of William Sheldon’s somatotyping. “Somatotyping lured the impressionable and young Herrnstein into a world promising precision and human predictability based on the measurement of body parts” (Hilliard, 2012: 22).

  1. If differences in mental abilities are inherited

Premise 1 is simple: “If differences in mental ability are inherited …” Herrnstein is obviously talking about genetic transmission, but we can look at this through a cultural/environmental lens. For example, Berg and Belmont (1990) showed that Jewish children of different socio-cultural backgrounds had different patterns of mental abilities, which were clustered in certain socio-cultural groups (all Jewish), showing that mental abilities are, in large part, culturally derived. Another objection could be that since there are no laws linking psychological/mental states with physical states (the mental is irreducible to the physical—meaning that mental states cannot be transmitted through (physical) genes) then such genetic transmission of psychological/mental traits is impossible. In any case, one can look at cultural transmission of mental abilities and disregard genetic transmission of psychological traits and the argument fails.

We can accept all of the premises of Herrnstein’s syllogism and argue an environmental case, in fact (bracketed words are my additions):

1. If differences in mental abilities are [environmentally] inherited, and
2. if success requires those [environmentally inherited] abilities, and
3. if earnings and prestige depend on [environmentally inherited] success,
4. then social standing will be based to some extent on [enviromnentally] inherited differences among people.

The syllogism hardly changes, but my additions change what Herrnstein was arguing for—environmental, not genetic differences cause success and along with it social standing among groups of people.

The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994) can, in fact, be seen as an at-length attempt to prove the validity of the syllogism in an empiric matter. Herrnstein and Murray (1994: 105, 108-110) have a full discussion of the syllogism. “As stated, the syllogism is not fearsome” (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994: 105). They go on to state that if intelligence (IQ scores, AFQT scores) is only a bit influenced by genes and if success is only a bit influenced by intelligence then only a small amount of success is inherited (genetically). Note that their measure of “IQ” is the AFQT—which is a measure of acculturated learning, measuring school achievement (Roberts et al, 2000; Cascio and Lewis, 2005).

How much is IQ a matter of genes?“, Herrnstein and Murray ask. They then discuss the heritability of IQ, relying, of course, on twin studies. They claim that the heritability of IQ is .6 based on the results of many twin studies. But the fatal flaw with twin studies is that the EEA is false and, therefore, genetic conclusions should be dismissed outright (Burt and Simons, 2014, 2015; Joseph, 2015; Joseph et al, 2015; Fosse, Joseph, and Richardson, 2015; Moore and Shenk, 2016). Herrnstein (1971) also discusses twin studies in the context of heritability, attempting to buttress his argument. But if the main vehicle used to show that “intelligence” (whatever that is) is heritable is twin studies, why, then, should we accept the conclusions of twin research if the assumptions that make the foundation of the field are false?

Block (1995) quotes Murray’s misunderstanding about heritability in an interview Murray had while making tours for The Bell Curve:

When I – when we – say 60 percent heritability, it’s not 60 percent of the variation. It is 60 percent of the IQ in any given person.” Later, he repeated that for the average person, “60 percent of the intelligence comes from heredity” and added that this was true of the “human species,” missing the point that heritability makes no sense for an individual and that heritability statistics are population-relative.

So Murray used the flawed concept of heritability in the wrong way—hilarious.

So the main point of Herrnstein’s argument is that environments become more uniform for everyone, then the power of heredity will shine through since the environment is uniform—the same—for everyone. But even if we could make the environment “the same”. What does this even mean? How is my environment the same, even if the surroundings are the same, say, if I would react or see something differently than you do on the same thing? The subjectivity of the mental disproves the claim that environments can be “more uniform.” Herrnstein claimed that if no variance in environment exists, then the only thing that can influence success is heredity. This is not wrong, but how would it be possible to equalize environments? Are we supposed to start from square one? Give up the wealth and status of the rich and powerful and “equalize environments” and, according to Herrnstein and the ‘meritocracy’, those who had earnings and prestige, which depended on success which depended on inherited mental abilities would still float to the top.

But what happens when both social class and IQ are equated? What predicts life success? Stephen Ceci reanalyzed the data from Terman’s Termites (the term coined for those in the study) and found something quite different from what Terman had assumed. There were three groups in Terman’s study—group A, B, and C. Groups A and C comprised the top and bottom 20 percent of the full sample in terms of life success. So at the start of the study, all of the children “were about equal in IQ, elementary school grades, and home evaluations” (Ceci, 1996: 82). Depending on the test used, the IQs of the children ranged between 142 to 155, which then decreased by ten points during the second wave due to regression and measurement error. So although group A and C had equivalent IQs, they had starkly different life outcomes. (Group B comprised 60 percent of the sample and enjoyed mediocre life success.)

Ninety-nine percent of the men in the group that had the best professional and personal accomplishments, i.e., group A were individuals who came from professional or business-managerial families that were well educated and wealthy. In contrast, only 17% if the children from group C came from professional and business families, and even these tended to be poorer and less well educated than their group A peers. The men in the two groups present a contrast on all social indicators that were assesssed: group A individuals preferred to play tennis, while group C men preferred to watch football and baseball; as children, the group A men were more likely to collect stamps, shells, and coinds than were the group C men. Not only were the fathers of the group A men better educated than those of group C, but so were their grandfathers. In short, even though the men in group C had equivalent IQs to group A, they did not have equivalent social status. Thus, when IQ is equated and social class is not, it is the latter that seems to be deterministic of professional success. Therefore, Terman’s findings, far from demonstrating that high IQ is associated with real-world success, show that the relationship is more complex and that the social status of these so-called geniuses’ families had a “long reach,” influencing their presonal and professional achievments throughout their adult lives. Thus, the title of Terman’s volumes Genetic studies of Genius, appears to have begged the question of the causation of genius. (Ceci, 1996: 82-83)

Ceci used the Project Talent dataset to analyze the impact of IQ on occupational success. This study, unlike Terman’s, looked at a nationally representative sample of 400,000 high-school students “with both intellectual aptitude and parental social class spanning the entire range of the population” (Ceci, 1996: 85). The students were interviewed in 1960, then about 4,000 were again interviewed in 1974. “For all practical purposes, this subgroup of 4,000 adults represents a stratified national sample of persons in their early 30s” (Ceci, 1996: 86). So Ceci and his co-author, Henderson, ran several regression analyses that involved years of schooling, family and social background and a composite score of intellectual ability based on reasoning, math, and vocabulary. They excluded those who were not working at the time due to being imprisoned, being housewives or still being in school. This then left them with a sample of 2,081 for the analysis.

They looked at IQ as a predictor of variance in adult income in one analysis, which then showed an impact for IQ. “However, when we entered parental social status and years of schooling completed as additional covariates (where parental social status was a standardized score, mean of 100, SD = 10, based on a large number of items having to do with parental income, housing costs, etc.—ranging from low of 58 to high of 135), the effects of IQ as a predictor were totally eliminated” (Ceci, 1996: 86). Social class and education were very strongly related to predictors of adult income. So “this illustrates that the relationship between IQ and adult income is illusory because the more completely specified statistical model demonstrates its lack of predictive power and the real predictive power of social and educational variables” (Ceci, 1996: 86).

The considered high, average, and low IQ groups, about equal size, while examining the regressions of earnings on social class and education within the groups.

Regressions were essentially homogeneous and, contrary to the claims by those working from a meritocratic perspective, the slope for the low IQ group was steepest (see Figure 4.1). There was no limitation imposed by low IQ on the beneficial effects of good social background on earnings and, if anything, there was a trend toward individuals with low IQ actually earning more than those with average IQ (p = .09). So it turns out that although both schooling and parental social class are powerful determinants of future success (which was also true in Terman’s data), IQ adds little to their influence in explaining adult earnings. (Ceci, 1996: 86)

The same was also true for the Project Talent participants who continued school. For each increment of school completed, there was also an effect on their earnings.

Individuals who were in the top quartile of “years of schooling completed” were about 10 times as likely to be receiving incomes in the top quartile of the sample as were those who were in the bottom quartile of “years of schooling completed.” But this relationship does not appear to be due to IQ mediating school attainment or income attainment, because the identical result is found even when IQ is statistically controlled. Interestingly, the groups with the lowest and highest IQs both earned slightly more than average-IQ students when the means were adjusted for social class and education (unadjusted meansat the modal value of social class and education = $9,094, $9,242, and $9,997 for low, average, and hhigh IQ groups, whereas the unadjusted means at this same modal value = $9,972, $9,9292, and $9,9278 for the low, average, and high IQs.) (Perhaps the low IQ students were tracked into plumbing, cement finishing and other well-paying jobs and the high-IQ students were tracked intothe professions, while average IQ students became lower paid teachers. social workers, ministers, etc.) Thus, it appears that the IQ-income relationship is really the result of schooling and family background, and not IQ. (Incidentally, this range in IQs from 70 to 130 and in SES from 58 to 135 covers over 95 percent of the entire population.) (Ceci, 1996: 87-88)

Ceci’s analysis is just like Bowles and Nelson’s (1974) analysis in which they found that earnings at adulthood were more influenced by social status and schooling, not IQ. Bowles and Nelson (1974: 48) write:

Evidently, the genetic inheritance of IQ is not the mechanism which reproduces the structure of social status and economic privilege from generation to generation. Though our estimates provide no alternative explanation, they do suggest that an explanation of intergeneration immobility may well be found in aspects of family life related to socio-economic status and in the effects of socio-economic background operating both directly on economic success, and indirectly via the medium of inequalities in educational attainments.

(Note how this also refutes claims from PumpkinPerson that IQ explains income—clearly, as was shown, family background and schooling explain the IQ-income relationship, not IQ. So the “incredible correlation between IQ and income” is not due to IQ, it is due to environmental factors such as schooling and family background.)

Herrnstein’s syllogism—along with The Bell Curve (an attempt to prove the syllogism)—is therefore refuted. Since social class/family background and schooling explains the IQ-income relationship and not IQ, then Herrnstein’s syllogism crumbles. It was a main premise of The Bell Curve that society is becoming increasingly genetically stratified, with a “cognitive elite”. But Conley and Domingue (2015: 520) found “little evidence for the proposition that we are becoming increasingly genetically stratified.”

IQ testing legitimizes social hierarchies (Chomsky, 1972; Roberts, 2015) and, in Herrnstein’s case, attempted to show that social hierarchies are an inevitability due to the genetic transmission of mental abilities that influence success and income. Such research cannot be socially neutral (Roberts, 2015) and so, this is yet another reason to ban IQ tests, as I have argued. IQ tests are a measure of social class (Ceci, 1996; Richardson, 2002, 2017), and such tests were created to justify existing social hierarchies (Mensh and Mensh, 1991).

Thus, the very purpose of IQ tests was to confirm the current social order as naturally proper. Intelligence tests were not misused to support hereditary theories of social hierarchies; they were perfected in order to support them. The IQ supplied an essential difference among human beings that deliberately reflected racial and class stratifications in order to justify them as natural.9 Research on the genetics of intelligence was far from socially neutral when the very purpose of theorizing the heritability of intelligence was to confirm an unequal social order. (Roberts, 2015: S51)

Herrnstein’s syllogism seems valid, but in actuality, it is not. Herrnstein was implying that genes were the casue of mental abilities and then, eventually, success and prestige. But one can look at Herrnstein’s syllogism from an environmentalist point of view (do note that the hereditarian/environmentalist debate is futile and continues the claim that IQ tests test ‘intelligence’, whatever that is). When matched for IQ—in regard to Terman’s Termites—family background and schooling explained the IQ-income relationship. Further analyses showed that this, again, was the case. Ceci (1996) showed again, replicating Terman’s and Bowles’ and Nelson’s (1974) analyses that social class and schooling, not IQ, explains income’s relationship with IQ.

The conclusion of Herrnstein’s argument can, as I’ve already shown, be an environmental one—through cultural, not genetic, transmission. Such arguments that IQ is ‘genetic’ and, thusly, certain individuals/groups will tend to stay in their social class, as Pinker (2002: 106) states: “Smarter people will tend to float into the higher strata, and their children will tend to stay there.” This, as has been shown, is due to social class, not ‘smarts’ (scores on an IQ test). In any case, this is yet another reason why IQ tests and the research behind them should be banned: IQ tests attempt to justify the current social order as ‘inevitable’ due to genes that influence mental abilities. This claim, though, is false and, therefore—along with the fact that America is not becoming more genetically stratified (Conley and Domigue, 2015)—Herrnstein’s syllogism crumbles. The argument attempts to justify the claim that class has a ‘genetic’ component (as Murray, 2020, attempts to show) but subsequent analyses and arguments have shown that Herrnstein’s argument does not hold.

Nature, Nurture, and Athleticism

1600 words

Nature vs nurture can be said to be a debate on what is ‘innate’ and what is ‘acquired’ in an organism. Debates about how nature and nurture tie into athletic ability and race both fall back onto the dichotomous notion. “Athleticism is innate and genetic!”, the hereditarian proclaims. “That blacks of West African ancestry are over-represented in the 100m dash is evidence of nature over nurture!” How simplistic these claims are.

Steve Sailer, in his response to Birney et al on the existence of race, assumes that because those with ancestry to West Africa consistently have produced the most finalists (and winners) in the Olympics that race, therefore, must exist.

I pointed out on Twitter that it’s hard to reconcile the current dogma about race not being a biological reality with what we see in sports, such as each of the last 72 finalists in the Olympic 100-meter dash going all the way back to 1984 nine Olympics ago being at least half sub-Saharan in ancestry.

Sailer also states that:

the abundant data suggesting that individuals of sub-Saharan ancestry enjoy genetic advantages.


For example, it’s considered fine to suggest that the reason that each new Dibaba is fast is due to their shared genetics. But to say that one major reason Ethiopians keep winning Olympic running medals (now up to 54, but none at any distance shorter than the 1,500-meter metric mile because Ethiopians lack sprinting ability) is due to their shared genetics is thought unthinkable.

Sailer’s argument seems to be “Group X is better than Group Y at event A. Therefore, X and Y are races”, which is similar to the hereditarian arguments on the existence of ‘race’—just assume they exist.

The outright reductionism to genes in Sailer’s view on athleticism and race is plainly obvious. That blacks are over-represented in certain sports (e.g., football and basketball) is taken to be evidence for this type of reductionism that Sailer and others appeal to (Gnida, 1995). Such appeals can be said to be implicitly saying “The reason why blacks succeed at sport is due to genes while whites succeed due to hard work, so blacks don’t need to work as hard as whites when it comes to sports.”

There are anatomic and physiological differences between groups deemed “black” and “white”, and these differences do influence sporting success. Even though this is true, this does not mean that race exists. Such reductionist claims—as I myself have espoused years ago—do not hold up. Yes, blacks have a higher proportion of type II muscle fibers (Caesar and Henry, 2015), but this does not alone explain success in certain athletic disciplines.

Current genetic testing cannot identify an athlete (Pitsiladis et al, 2013). I reviewed some of the literature on power genotypes and race and concluded that there are no genes yet identified that can be said to be a sufficient cause of success in power sports.

Just because group A has gene or gene networks G and they compete in competition C does not mean that gene or gene networks G contribute in full—or in part—to sporting success. The correlations could be coincidental and non-functional in regard to the sport in question. Athletes should be studied in isolation, meaning just studying a specific athlete in a specific discipline to ascertain how, what, and why works for the specific athlete along with taking anthropomorphic measures, seeing how bad they want “it”, and other environmental factors such as nutrition and training. Looking at the body as a system will take us away from privileging one part over another—while we also do understand that they do play a role but not the role that reductionists believe.

No evidence exists for DNA variants that are common to endurance athletes (Rankinen et al, 2016). But they do have one thing in common (which is an environmental effect on biology): those born at altitude have a permanently altered ventilatory response as adults while “Peruvians born at altitude have a nearly 10% larger forced vital capacity compared to genetically matched Peruvians born at sea level” (Brutasaert and Parra, 2009: 16). Certain environmental effects on biology are well-known, and those biological changes do help in certain athletic events (Epstein, 2014). Yan et al (2016) conclude that “conclude that the traditional argument of nature versus nurture is no longer relevant, as it has been clearly established that both are important factors in the road to becoming an elite athlete.”

Georgiades et al (2017) go the other way and what they argue is clear in the title of their paper “Why nature prevails over nurture in the making of the elite athlete.” They continue:

Despite this complexity, the overwhelming and accumulating evidence, amounted through experimental research spanning almost two centuries, tips the balance in favour of nature in the “nature” and “nurture” debate. In other words, truly elite-level athletes are built – but only from those born with innate ability.

They use twin studies as an example stating that since heritability is greater than 50% but lower than 100% means “that the environment is also important.” But this is a strange take, especially from seasoned sports scientists (like Pitsiladis). Attempting to partition traits into a ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ component and then argue that the emergence of that trait is due more to genetics than environment is an erroneous use of heritability estimates. It is not possible—nor is it feasible—to separate traits into genetic and environmental components. The question does not even make sense.

“… the question of how to separate the native from the acquired in the responses of man does not seem likely to be answered because the question is unintelligible.” (Leonard Carmichael 1925, quoted in Genes, Determinism and God, Alexander, 2017)

Tucker and Collins (2012) write:

Rather, individual performance thresholds are determined by our genetic make-up, and training can be defined as the process by which genetic potential is realised. Although the specific details are currently unknown, the current scientific literature clearly indicates that both nurture and nature are involved in determining elite athletic performance. In conclusion, elite sporting performance is the result of the interaction between genetic and training factors, with the result that both talent identification and management systems to facilitate optimal training are crucial to sporting success.

Tucker and Collins (2012) define training as the realization of genetic potential, while DNA “control the ceiling” of what one may be able to accomplish. “… training maximises
the likelihood of obtaining a performance level with a genetically controlled ‘ceiling’, accounts for the observed dominance of certain populations in specific sporting disciplines” (Tucker and Collins, 2012: 6). “Training” would be the environment here and the “genetically controlled ‘ceiling'” would be genes here. The authors are arguing that while training is important, training is just realizing the ‘potential’ of what is ‘already in’ the genes—an erroneous way of looking at genes. Shenk (2010: 107) explains why:

As the search for athletic genes continues, therefore, the overwhelming evidence suggests that researchers will instead locate genes prone to certain types of interactions: gene variant A in combination with gene variant B, provoked into expression by X amount of training + Y altitude + Z will to win + a hundred other life variables (coaching, injuries, etc.), will produce some specific result R. What this means, of course, What this means, of course, is that we need to dispense rhetorically with thick firewall between biology (nature) and training (nurture). The reality of GxE assures that each person’s genes interacts with his climate, altitude, culture, meals, language, customs and spirituality—everything—to produce unique lifestyle trajectories. Genes play a critical role, but as dynamic instruments, not a fixed blueprint. A seven- or fourteen- or twenty-eight-year-old is not that way merely because of genetic instruction.

The model proposed by Tucker and Collins (2012) is pretty reductionist (see Ericsson, 2012 for a response), while the model proposed by Shenk (2010) is more holistic. The hypothetical model explaining Kenyan distance running success (Wilbur and Pitsiladis, 2012) is, too, a more realistic way of assessing sport dominance:


The formation of an elite athlete comes down to a combination of genes, training, and numerous other interacting factors. The attempt to boil the appearance of a certain trait to either ‘genes’ or ‘environment’ and partition them into percentages is an unsound procedure. That a certain group continuously wins a certain event does not constitute evidence that the group in question is a race, nor does it constitute evidence that ‘genes’ are the cause of the outcome between groups in that event. The holistic model of human athletic performance in which genes contribute to certain physiological processes along with training, and other biomechanical and psychological differences is the correct way to think about sport and race. Actually seeing an athlete in motion in his preferred sport is (and I believe always will be) superior to just genetic analyses. Genetic tests also haveno role to play in talent identification” (Webborn et al, 2015).

One emerging concept is that there are many potential genetic pathways to a given phenotype []. This concept is consistent with ideas that biological redundancy underpins complex multiscale physiological responses and adaptations in humans []. From an applied perspective, the ideas discussed in this review suggest that talent identification on the basis of DNA testing is likely to be of limited value, and that field testing, which is essentially a higher order ‘bioassay’, is likely to remain a key element of talent identification in both the near and foreseeable future []. (Joyner, 2019; Genetic Approaches for Sports Performance: How Far Away Are We?)

Athleticism is irreducible to biology (Louis, 2004). Holistic (nature and nurture) will beat the reductionist (nature vs nurture) views; with how biological systems work, there is no reason to privilege one level over another (Noble, 2012), so there is no reason to privilege the gene over the environment, environment over the gene. The interaction of multiple factors explains sport success.