In 1994 Charles Murray and Richard J Hernstein published ‘The Bell Curve – Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life‘. The book claimed that economic and social outcomes of differing ethnic groups in the USA are explicable by genetic variations in intelligence. Most notably, it deployed this reasoning to explain socio-economic outcomes for African American communities.
I want to pick apart this claim, the logic behind it and why i think even if one of the premises may hold some validity the rest still doesn’t stand up.
The response to the book often took two forms. One was (reasonably enough) to accuse the authors of racism, and in particular of a sinister, eugenic racism reminiscent of the 19th and 20th century theories that were so popular in the build up to the second world war. The second was to attack the claim that intelligence could have a genetic component.
However, I want to pick up a different strand that I feel is attached to this debate. One which I have not often seen cited in relation to debates about genetics, intelligence or the bell curve. I would like to talk about how loosely racial divisions map onto genetics and particularly in the west.
In particular i want to talk about it in the light of the essay “Ideology and Race in American History” by Barbara J Fields. When I read this it really clarified what we mean when we say that race is a social construct. Fields focuses on how blackness was constructed in America, and the way laws derived from the period of the Slave Trade created the idea of black heritage as an irremovable taint. Fields argues that these ideas have continued to shape the way that race is conceived in America to this day.She points to the example of
“a child belonging to a different race from one of his parents, or the well- known anomaly of American racial convention that considers a white woman capable of giving birth to a black child but denies that a black woman can give birth to a white child.”
The characteristics that people in America (and elsewhere) instinctively use to identify white and black people are those which they have been conditioned to select. They do not identify separate genetic groups, but social entities. They mark out people who tend to occupy particular socio-economic positions; and one or more of whose parents also did so. They may share some of a wide-range of physical characteristics (type of hair, shape of eyes and nose, skin colour etc…) but they will share them to wildly divergent degrees, and possessing or not possessing any of those characteristics is not a decisive in either direction.
The idea that Murray and Hernstein’s study demonstrated differences between genetically separate groups seems farcical. The basic categories of their study were not different genotypes and so conclusions on the impact of genetics are not justified. Intelligence may well be passed down from your parents, but race isn’t passed on through your genes.