May 4, 2010

Brad DeLong digs in today on Stephanie Grace at Harvard Law School regarding comments that she’s made about African Americans being, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. Here’s what she says, posted originally last week at Above the Law:

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair. (Now on to the more controversial:) Women tend to perform less well in math due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders. This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria. I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.

Oh dear. This is a fine little mess. Maybe I can just point out two quick problems.  First, African Americanism is a false category. At best, African Americans are, almost randomly, simply people with black skin, or maybe people who self-identify as black people, or who self-identify as African American. That’s not a real category of people. It’s nowhere near as firm as a category like gender, which also has problems. It’d be like saying something of this sort: people born in the state of Virginia (full disclosure: I was born in Virginia) are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than people born in the state of New York. It may be true that people born in the state of Virginia are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent… but it doesn’t tell us very much that they are. What such a claim does is reinforce some stupid ideas about people born in the state of Virginia, which isn’t really very helpful in the grand scheme of things.

And here’s the other problem: intelligence is also a pretty stupid category. Sure, it’s important for some things, like doing well on IQ tests; but it’s not a requirement for citizenship, it’s not the unique attribute that generates human rights, and it’s not even a requirement for doing well in a supposed meritocracy of the sort that we like to imagine we have. It’s a nearly useless and value-free category, like saying that people born in Virginia are more genetically predisposed to have crossed-eyeballs or bigger feet or blonder hair than people from other parts of the country.

There are other problems too — like that speaking in averages about classes of people doesn’t offer much in the way of useful generalizations at the level of the particular — but I’ll let those slide. For the time being, the important point is not that Stephanie Grace has made claims that may or may not, from a demographic standpoint, be true — and look, on one level, there is a certain tautological truth about what she says: any non-randomly selected cluster of people can be shown to have demographic differences, the etiology of which is nevertheless questionable — but that she has employed categories that reveal a substantial amount about her deficiencies in moral and political reasoning.

More here and here.


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