History of the race and intelligence controversy  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The history of the race and intelligence controversy concerns the historical development of a debate, concerning possible explanations of group differences encountered in the study of race and intelligence. Since the beginning of IQ testing around the time of World War I there have been observed differences between average scores of different population groups, but there has been no agreement about whether this is mainly due to environmental and cultural factors, or mainly due to some genetic factor, or even if the dichotomy between environmental and genetic factors is a correct approach to the debate.

In the late nineteenth and early 20th century, group differences in intelligence were assumed to be due to race and, apart from intelligence tests, research relied on measurements such as brain size or reaction times. By the mid-1930s most psychologists had adopted the view that environmental and cultural factors predominated. In the mid-1960s, physicist William Shockley sparked controversy by claiming there might be genetic reasons that black people in America tended to score lower on IQ tests than whites. In 1969 the educational psychologist Arthur Jensen published a long article with the suggestion that compensatory education had failed to that date because of genetic group differences. A similar debate among academics followed the publication in 1994 of The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Their book prompted a renewal of debate on the issue and the publication of several interdisciplinary books on the issue. One contemporary response was a report from the American Psychological Association that found no conclusive explanation for the observed differences between average IQ scores of racial groups. A 2012 review article in the journal American Psychologist and a rejoinder to a reply to that article are some of the latest publications prompted by the debate.


Early history

In the 18th century, European philosophers and scientists, such as Voltaire, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Carl Linnaeus, proposed the existence of different mental abilities among the races. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the idea that there are differences in the brain structures and brain sizes of different races, and that these differences explained the different intelligences, was much advocated and studied.

Through the publication of his book Hereditary Genius in 1869, polymath Francis Galton spurred interest in the study of mental abilities, particularly as they relate to heredity and eugenics. Lacking the means to directly measure intellectual ability, Galton attempted to estimate the intelligence of various racial and ethnic groups based on observations from his and others' travels, on the number and quality of intellectual achievements of different groups, and on the percentage of "eminent men" in each of these groups. He argued that intelligence was normally distributed in all racial and ethnic groups, and that the means of the distributions varied between the groups. In Galton's estimation ancient Attic Greeks had been the people with the highest average intelligence, followed by contemporary Englishmen, with black Africans at a lower level, and Australian Aborigines lower still. He did not specifically study Jews, but remarked that "they appear to be rich in families of high intellectual breeds".

In 1895, R. Meade Bache of the University of Pennsylvania published an article in Psychological Review claiming that reaction time increases with evolution. Bache supported this claim with data demonstrating increased reaction times among White Americans when compared with those of Native Americans and African Americans, with Native Americans having the shortest reaction time. He hypothesized that the long reaction time of White Americans was to be explained by their possessing more contemplative brains which did not function well on tasks requiring automatic responses. This was one of the first examples of modern scientific racism, in which science was used to bolster beliefs in the superiority of a particular race.

In 1912 the Columbia psychology graduate Frank Bruner reviewed the scientific literature on auditory perception in black and white subjects in Psychological Bulletin, characterizing, "the mental qualities of the Negro as: lacking in filial affection, strong migratory instincts and tendencies; little sense of veneration, integrity or honor; shiftless, indolent, untidy, improvident, extravagant, lazy, lacking in persistence and initiative and unwilling to work continuously at details. Indeed, experience with the Negro in classrooms indicates that it is impossible to get the child to do anything with continued accuracy, and similarly in industrial pursuits, the Negro shows a woeful lack of power of sustained activity and constructive conduct."

In 1916 George O. Ferguson conducted research in his Columbia Ph.D. thesis on "The psychology of the Negro", In the same year Lewis Terman, in the manual accompanying the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, referred to the higher frequency of morons among non-white American racial groups stating that further research into race difference on intelligence should be conducted and that the "enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence" could not be remedied by education.

In 1916 a team of psychologists, led by Robert Yerkes and including Terman and Henry H. Goddard, adapted the Stanford-Binet tests as multiple choice group tests for use by the US army. In 1919, Yerkes devised a version of this test for civilians, the National Intelligence Test, which was used in all levels of education and in business. Like Terman, Goddard had argued in his book, Feeble-mindedness: Its causes and consequences (1914), that "feeble-mindedness" was hereditary; and in 1920 Yerkes in his book with Yoakum on the Army Mental Tests described how they "were originally intended, and are now definitely known, to measure native intellectual ability." Both Goddard and Terman argued that the feeble-minded should not be allowed to reproduce. In the USA, however, independently and prior to the IQ tests, there had been political pressure for such eugenic policies, to be enforced by sterilization; in due course IQ tests were later used as justification for sterilizing the mentally retarded.

It was also argued that the IQ tests should be used to control immigration to the USA. Already in 1917 Goddard reported on the low IQ scores of new arrivals at Ellis Island; and Yerkes argued from his army test scores that there were consistently lower IQ levels amongst those from Eastern and Southern Europe, which could lead to a decline in the national intelligence. In 1923, in his book A study of American intelligence, Carl Brigham wrote that on the basis of the army tests, "The decline in intelligence is due to two factors, the change in races migrating to this country, and to the additional factor of sending lower and lower representatives of each race." He concluded that, "The steps that should be taken to preserve or increase our present mental capacity must of course be dictated by science and not by political expediency. Immigration should not only be restrictive, but highly selective." The Immigration Act of 1924 put these recommendations into practice, introducing quotas based on the 1890 census, prior to the waves of immigration from Poland and Italy. While Gould and Kamin argued that the psychometric claims of Nordic superiority had a profound influence on the institutionalisation of the 1924 immigration law, other scholar's have argued that "the eventual passage of the 'racist' immigration law of 1924 was not crucially affected by the contributions of Yerkes or other psychologists."

See also

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