July 26th, 2012
In the 1970s a new field of academic research was developing: sociobiology. Edward O. Wilson, one of our greatest scientists, spearheaded much of the work with his research on ant societies. The basic thesis that sociobiologists were working on was that human behavior was in some ways influenced by our genetic heritage. This would seem a no-brainer, but in fact quite a few people were outraged by this thesis. They wanted to believe that the mind is a blank slate, that with the proper environment, a baby will turn into whatever we choose. Good environments make for strong, intelligent, happy, productive citizens, while bad environments are the cause of all our problems.
This belief was in the ascendant during the 1970s; most people, including many academics, rejected the thesis outright. Feelings ran high: Mr. Wilson was physically assaulted by a protester prior to a lecture he was scheduled to deliver about his thesis. All through the 1980s, nobody dared talk much about genetics and the human mind. However, the truth will out: in the late 80s and early 90s, the undeniable role of genetics in human behavior became impossible to ignore. Mr. Wilson started talking in terms of “gene-culture co-evolution” as a sop to the political class. Cosmides and Toobey began publishing some careful experiments clearly showing an apparently innate aspect of human cognition. The field was reborn as “evolutionary psychology”; its bumper-sticker slogan was “Evolution didn’t stop at the neck.” In the twenty years since then, the field has grown and is now accepted as a full-blooded academic research field.
Resistance to the idea remains strong, though, among a group I’ll call “the blank-slaters”. I once wrote an essay on what game designers could learn from evolutionary psychology; one blank-slater reader declared that I deserved to have a rusty spike rammed up my anus.
So I’m not at all sympathetic to the “blank slate” school of thought. These people are carrying political correctness to an absurd extreme.
HBD is a more recent school of thought that has been developing in the last decade. It’s really a mirror image of the left wing blank slaters. Their attitude seems to be that the time has come to stand up to the left wing blank-slaters and loudly trumpet the scientific results contradicting such people. This by itself would be all for the good, but in fact, just as the blank-slaters have a political agenda, these people have their own political agenda: a kinder, gentler form of racism.
Like any school of thought, the advocates of HBD cover a broad range, from flat-out white supremacists to those who seek to understand social problems with integrity untrammeled by political concerns. The more respectable members of HBD try to rely entirely on scientific data to draw their conclusions. But one dead giveaway is the close association between HBDers and conservative causes. You’d think that a purely scientific movement wouldn’t care to be identified with any political agenda. In fact, the HBD movement consists entirely of non-experts. No reputable academic graces their ranks. They have a few crusty old professor-farts, but there is no scholarly research program for HBD. They’ve pretty much made up their minds and are seeking primarily to seek support for their ideas.
I write this because I recently had the opportunity to interact with a number of HBDers on a blog. There are a few outright nut cases among them, but there are also one or two people who seem to have some concern for logical rigor. Nevertheless, after bouncing ideas off them for a few weeks, I came to the conclusion that this is just another nuthouse. They’re not as wacko as the 9/11 conspiracy folks, but they suffer from a severe case of sophomorism: they know just enough to think that they know all they need to know.
My impression – and this is just a hunch – is that the less nutty, more serious HBDers have a college degree in some field of physical science or engineering. “Propellorheads” is the nasty term that is sometimes applied to such people. They see the world in simplistic terms, and firmly believe that everything is subject to mathematical analysis and computation. Their forebear, though they don’t know it, is William Shockley, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for discovering semiconductors and launching the whole solid-state electronics revolution. In the late 1960s, Shockley assembled some IQ data on races and published a book declaring that blacks had lower IQ than whites, and that this realization should guide our policymaking. Mr. Shockley’s ideas met a storm of criticism. He had failed to appreciate many of the subtleties and flaws in IQ tests, and had been over simplistic in his analysis. Basically, Shockley was laughed off the stage. This paved the way for Mr. Wilson’s unfair reception by the academic community.
Mr. Shockley’s modern descendants are carrying out the same analysis that Mr. Shockley did: an analysis of differences in IQ scores between various groups of people. They use these analyses to draw conclusions about the mental prowess of all manner of groups. Unsurprisingly, they discover that whites – well, Northern European whites – are superior to most other groups. They graciously acknowledge that northeast Asians and Ashkenazy Jews come out better in the tests than whites. Otherwise, though, they dismiss most other people as mental inferiors.
But my objection is not that these analyses are racist; I maintain that they lack much significance because IQ tests don’t measure much of what we call intelligence. This might surprise you, and it certainly earns the contempt of HBDers, who maintain that a properly conducted battery of IQ tests really do provide a decent proxy for what is called “g” – the “general intelligence” factor that underlies so much human cognition.
At this point I must digress to explain the concept of g. It’s best understood in terms of a polarization of views. At one extreme is the “pure g” pole, which maintains that the mind is a general-purpose computational system that can handle any and all problems. At the other extreme is the “pure modularity” pole, which maintains that the mind is a collection of distinct, unconnected mental modules, each of which is optimized for solving a particular environmental challenge faced by hunter-gatherer hominids.
I doubt that any reasonable person holds to either pole; most people accept that human cognition involves a combination of some amount of general intelligence and modular cognition. I’m a bit different: I maintain that what we call “general intelligence” is really nothing more than the smooth operation of cooperating modules. In other words, the mind was originally composed of completely independent modules, but the advent of language began to integrate those modules, and the modern mind is still modular in its deep architecture, but language has made it possible to mix together some portion of each of the modules into a single close-knit team. The result is not really the same thing as “general intelligence”, but it is a kind of intelligence that is both powerful in capability and supple in application.
IQ tests do not produce g directly. In fact, there is no measurement system for g – it’s a theoretical construct. IQ measurements are a good proxy for g, according to HBDers. While we can’t actually measure g in any individual, we can use that individual’s IQ score and it will get us pretty close to the real g.
A one-dimensional measure of a multi-dimensional phenomenon
My central criticism of HBD is its failure to recognize the many dimensions of human cognitive ability. The HBDers seriously believe that the single number resulting from IQ scores is a good measure of overall human intelligence.
IQ tests consist of a number of different parts testing different kinds of intelligence. Some of the tests challenge your ability to visualize complicated shapes in three dimensions; some test your ability to understand similarities in relationships; some test your linguistic skills while others test your mathematical skills. HBDers consider this to be a broad enough test to nail down everything that’s important. To support their claim, they cite the close correlations between IQ scores and school grades, or between IQ scores and career success.
But their fundamental mistake lies in the assumption that good grades in school and career success are the ideal measures of personal success. They assume that everybody strives to get the best grades and the highest income and the most power. In this, they are merely projecting their own values onto others. There are billions of people who don’t give a rat’s ass about getting good grades or making a lot of money. In particular, a large number of women are more interesting in having a happy family and raising good children. I don’t want to minimize the achievements of those women who become astronauts, CEOs, or professors; I’m pointing out that there remain billions of women who don’t have those goals. And in fact, if you think about it, the goal of raising good children certainly commands our respect in evolutionary terms.
But does it take a high IQ to raise successful children? Do you need to be able to perform mathematical calculations, mentally rotate complex shapes, figure out analogies, or use language well in order to raise successful children? Not in the least! The talents required to raise successful children are completely beyond the reach of IQ.
I have no truck with mysticism, but I do have a lot of humility about the limits of rationalism. And the IQ fanatics are so wrapped up in their narrow rationalism that they just don’t realize how much of human talent they don’t perceive.