The history of research on the genetics of intel- ligence is fraught with social bias.

The history of research on the genetics of intel- ligence is fraught with social bias.

The history of research on the genetics of intel- ligence is fraught with social bias.

S50 September-October 2015/ H A S T I N G S C E N T E R R E P O R T

T he history of research on the genetics of intel- ligence is fraught with social bias. During the eugenics era, the hereditary theory of intelligence

justified policies that encouraged the proliferation of favored races and coercively stemmed procreation by disfavored ones. In the 1970s, Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen argued that black students’ innate cogni- tive inferiority limited the efficacy of federal education programs.1 The 1994 controversial bestseller The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, rehashed the claim that race and class disparities stem from immu- table differences in inherited intelligence, which could not be eliminated through social interventions.2 Today most scientists studying the genetics of intelligence dis- tance themselves from this history of social bias by argu- ing that their research need not investigate intellectual differences between social groups. Rather, they argue, examining the heritability of intelligence can be socially neutral and may even help to reduce social inequities.3


I argue that research on the genetics of intelligence cannot be socially neutral. The original purpose of men- tal tests was to determine individuals’ “fitness” for social roles. Even if we divorce the heritability of intelligence from a eugenicist mission, measuring intelligence re- mains useful only as a gage of individuals’ appropriate positions in society. Research into the genetics of intel- ligence ultimately helps to determine individuals’ inher- ited capacity for particular social positions, even when researchers aim to modify the effects of inheritance.

Moreover, intelligence has social value. Many aspects of mainstream U.S. culture treat people who are deemed to be more intelligent as more socially valuable than peo- ple who are deemed to be less intelligent. Research into the genetics of intelligence, therefore, helps to identify an aspect of the inherited worth of individuals. This fea- ture of intelligence testing historically legitimated race and class hierarchies in explicit terms. Today, research on the genetics of intelligence—even if the research does not use social classifications—maps onto existing social hierarchies and the stereotypes about intelligence that support them. Efforts to improve individuals’ intellectu- al capacities or social mobility would be better served by nurturing the actual skills that intelligence is supposed to make it possible to develop and, more importantly, by more equitably distributing educational resources in our society. Such efforts need no genetic information— or even IQ testing—and are likely to be hindered by the hereditary concept of intelligence.

Scientists doing basic research investigating the role genes play in the mechanisms of brain development un- derlying cognitive function may not be concerned with this social context. They may be interested purely in how genes and brains work generally in human beings. But as soon as their findings are translated into knowledge about heritable intelligence, their research will take on the social implications that inevitably result from rank- ing human beings by cognitive capacity and attributing their rank in significant part to their genes.

The Purpose of Intelligence Testing

The very origins of predicting intelligence are rooted in ranking people socially. Tests that measure intel- ligence were created to determine people’s “fitness” for

Can Research on the Genetics of Intelligence Be “Socially Neutral”?

B y d O r O T H y r O B e r T s

Dorothy Roberts, “Can Research on the Genetics of Intelligence Be ‘Socially Neutral’?,” The Genetics of Intelligence: Ethics and the Conduct of Trustworthy Research, special report, Hastings Center Report 45, no. 5 (2015): S50-S53. DOI: 10.1002/hast.499

S51S P E C I A L R E P O R T: T h e G e n e t i c s o f I n t e l l i g e n c e : E t h i c s a n d t h e C o n d u c t o f Tr u s t w o r t h y R e s e a r c h

social roles.4 Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, con- fused inherited social privilege with inherited intelligence when he wrongly assumed that the British elite achieved their stature owing to their innate “genius.”5 He argued that fitness in humans depended on “General Ability or Intelligence” and proposed “to show . . . that a man’s natu- ral abilities are derived by inheritance” (p. 1). The aim of the first mental test center in London, established in 1882, was to demonstrate that scores matched social status or “reputation.”6 In other words, intelligence testing became the linchpin for proving that social status was inherited. The quest to settle the debate over nature and nurture was a way of scientifically legitimizing the unequal social order and justifying intervention in a way that maintained that hierarchy.

In the United States, the reification of intelligence as the primary indicator of human value facilitated the eugen- ics movement. Promoting the “hereditarian theory of IQ,” eugenicists claimed that the IQ test could quantify innate intellectual ability in a single objective measurement, de- spite the objections of the test’s creator, Alfred Binet.7 Binet developed the first intelligence test in 1904 for screening children in school for remedial instruction but rejected its use to measure innate cognitive ability. Just as damaging, intelligence became shorthand for moral worth as well as cognitive capacity. The introduction of “mental tests” at the turn of the twentieth century replaced physical mea- surements, such as cranial capacity, as the means of ranking human beings in terms of inferiority and superiority.

In hindsight, we see that, far from being an objective measure used to rank people neutrally, the IQ test was a deeply biased measure used to legitimize discrimination against populations labeled by those in power as socially inferior. Psychologist Henry H. Goddard’s influential re- search on the heritability of feeblemindedness attributed the behavior of paupers, prostitutes, and criminals to in- herited mental deficiencies. Psychologists also used the tests to demonstrate that blacks and recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were intellectually infe- rior to Americans of Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian descent. In A Study of American Intelligence, published in 1923, Princeton psychology professor Carl C. Brigham analyzed data from an army program that tested the intelligence of 1.7 million recruits, reporting, “At one extreme we have the distribution of the Nordic group. At the other extreme we have the American negro. Between the Nordic and the negro, but closer to the negro than the Nordic, we find the Alpine and Mediterranean type.”8 Brigham’s social bias

seems obvious to Americans today most especially because the social definition and ranking of whites have changed.

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 be- ings that deliberately reflected racial and class stratifications in order to justify them as natural.9 Research on the genet- ics of intelligence was far from socially neutral when the very purpose of theorizing the heritability of intelligence was to confirm an unequal social order.

Today, scientists who subscribe to genetic theories of intelligence distance their views from eugenics. They ar- gue that research on the genetics of intelligence is now de- void of eugenicist motives and can serve to objectively and scientifically identify people’s intellectual levels without the taint of social bias. Indeed, some claim that, far from discounting educational programs for the less intelligent, considered incapable of being helped, their research can target interventions to those predicted by genetic tests to be helped by special training (see essays by Kathryn Asbury and by Matt McGue and Irving Gottesman in this special report).10 While eugenicists sought to use heritability stud- ies to improve the human race, these researchers seek to use them to improve individual achievement.

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