RACE and IQ / It’s back!

Here we go again: A sneaky rationalization for genetic inferiority in “some races” and in “mental defectives” such as Autistic persons. The researchers, of course, belong to a group known for high IQ.

Original Article

Race and IQ in the postgenomic age: The microcephaly case

Sarah S. Richardson, Department of the History of Science, 1 Oxford Street, Science Center 371, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA. E-mail: srichard@fas.harvard.edu

Entire text is available at: richardson_race_and_iq.pdf


This type of ranking is all over the internet. It “looks” official; but is any of this “stuff” real?


Since the completion of the sequencing of the human genome in 2001, science studies, race/ethnicity and genetics scholars have undertaken extensive discussions about the implications of new genomic research for conceptions of human difference. Absent from these discussions, however, has been the classically charged issue of the genetics of racial differences in intelligence. In this article, I suggest that the postgenomic age – a term specifying shifts both temporal and technical – may initiate a new era of scientific claims about the genetics of racial differences in IQ. Research in an emerging field that some are calling ‘evolutionary cognitive genetics’ is producing renewed and challenging claims about human genetic variation and IQ. While some methodological issues with this research are familiar, these new claims about the genetics of intelligence emanate from a different context and conceptual framework than that of previous eras (EUGENICS) one rooted in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and the molecular biosciences, as well as the distinctive discursive and institutional climate of the postgenomic biosciences. These features, as well as the social and ethical implications of this research, require the attention and close scrutiny of scholars of genetics, science studies and race/ethnicity.

Translation: The Nazis were amateurs: we’re professionals; so trust us.

Race and IQ in the Postgenomic Age

Claims about the genetic basis of racial differences in IQ have in the past been hampered by well-known methodological and political problems. Methodologically, defenders of race and IQ research have never unequivocally demonstrated the validity of IQ tests as culturally independent measures of innate intelligence, persuasively disambiguated genetic and environmental (for example, socioeconomic) factors in intelligence, or provided evidence of any gene or genetic mechanism biochemically implicated in differences in IQ among racial and ethnic groups (Gould, [1981] 1996). In part as a result of these methodological and empirical weaknesses, studies of the genetics of race and IQ have found themselves isolated from the molecular sciences, including genomics and molecular neuroscience, unable to find mainstream sources of research funding and, in general, pegged as ideological, fringe or not ‘real’ science (Snyderman and Rothman, 1988; Panofsky, forthcoming). Ditto…the Nazis were amateurs; we are professionals…

We are now, arguably, in a ‘postgenomic’ age, which I define as the period after the completion of the sequencing of the human genome and in which whole genome technologies are a shared platform for biological research across many fields and social arenas.

‘Brain genes’

Neurogeneticists are currently in the process of identifying the genes and gene families that express in the human brain, and medical researchers are racing to discover genes implicated in mental and intellectual disorders. Prominent research streams include studies on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s and other degenerative mental disorders, severe mental retardation, and developmental brain disorders such as autism. The number of genes associated with such disorders is already large and will certainly grow in the future as whole genome technologies and human genomic databases develop further. These studies are providing a new and massive data pool for investigating the genetics of intelligence. As Robert Plomin, author of Behavioral Genetics (2008), the leading textbook in the field, writes, ‘[We predict that] when genes are found for common disorders such as mild mental retardation or learning disabilities, the same genes will be associated with variation throughout the normal distribution of intelligence, including the high end of the distribution’ (Plomin et al, 2006, p. 515).

Although behavioral geneticists stress the unlikelihood that any single gene variant will have a large effect on behavioral phenotype, the intensive study of the genomics of cognitive, mental and brain disorders will surely yield examples of genes with variants of different frequency in different populations, portending a wide-open pathway for genetic claims For example, the Autism Genome Project has become a generative location for genes that many assume will also be implicated in intelligence (Abrahams and Geschwind, 2008; ‘GenomeWeb’, 2010).

Researchers believe that cortical thickness, thickness of the corpus callosum, and grey and white matter volumes of the total cerebrum are relevant predictors of intelligence, all features that have been shown to be influenced by genes (Deary et al, 2010). Any gene influencing these features is, in theory, a candidate ‘intelligence gene’. Note the lack of specific correlations = a string of convenient self-serving assumptions

In addition to ASPM and microcephalin, at least 30 ‘brain’ genes, including CDK5RAP, CENPJ, ADCYAP1, AHI1, SHH, SRPX2, MAOA, BRCA1, COMT, ADRA2A, BDNF, CHRM2, DRD2, GRM3, HTR2A, SLC6A4, NCSTN, HLA, DRB1, IGF2R, CTSD, CBS, MSX1, SSADH, APOE, ACE, MTHFR, AHI1, GLUD2 and FOXP2, are current targets for research on human brain evolution, the genetics of intelligence and human population variation (Dorus et al, 2004; Plomin et al, 2006; Bates et al, 2008; Vallender et al, 2008).

Some even suggest that such research may lead to drugs tailored for African Americans to correct genetic deficits in IQ. As intelligence researchers Earl Hunt and Jerry Carlson write, ‘In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration licensed a drug, BiDil, targeted specifically for the treatment of heart disease in African Americans. In principle, similar race-specific treatments could be developed for individuals at risk for cognitive conditions, including low intelligence. There is no reason to regard such research as either impossible or undesirable’ (2007, p. 197).5

Recent positive selection

Positive selection is defined as evolutionary selection for an allele (gene variant) because it contributes to fitness (the ability to produce viable and fertile offspring). The study of ongoing and recent evolution of human populations through positive selective pressure on human gene variants is a new area of intense interest in human genetics, enabled by expanding global genomic databases and bioinformatic infrastructure. As Sabeti et al write, ‘The advent of whole-genome sequencing and increasingly complete surveys of genetic variation represent a turning point in the study of positive selection in humans’(2006, p. 1614).6

Recent positive selection in human racial and ethnic populations is a provocative subject that has now begun to receive broader public uptake and circulation. As The New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade reported in a 2010 article titled ‘Adventures in Very Recent Evolution’, Many have assumed that humans ceased to evolve in the distant past, perhaps when people first learned to protect themselves against cold, famine and other harsh agents of natural selection. But in the last few years, biologists peering into the human genome sequences now available from around the world have found increasing evidence of natural selection (human selection / domestication) at work in the last few thousand years, leading many to assume that human evolution is still in progress. (Wade, 2010) Perspectives on Psychological Science published three accompanying commentaries on Hunt and Carlson (2007). Although two present some broad criticisms of research on racial differences in IQ, the commentaries praise Hunt and Carlson’s article as offering ‘sensible guidelines for the conduct of research on group differences in intelligence’ (Brody, 2007) and as ‘a major work of high caliber’, ‘sensible, wellwritten, and balanced’ (Sternberg and Grigorenko, 2007). None of the commentaries, nor any of the dozen or more scholarly publications that have since cited Hunt and Carlson (Google Scholar, 29 July 2011), remark on their striking claim that molecular research on group differences in intelligence could lead to BiDil-like therapies for race-based cognitive deficits. To my knowledge, however, no one is taking serious steps toward developing such a drug at this time. (Really?)

Examples of research on recent positive selection for gene variants in human racial and ethnic groups include the 2010 claims that Tibetans possess different variants of the genes controlling oxygen capacity, allowing them to flourish at high altitudes (Simonson et al, 2010; Yi et al, 2010), and that southern Chinese carry variants that function to help the kidneys more efficiently rid the body of alcohol’s toxins (Peng et al, 2010). These genes, the authors claimed, cause the so-called ‘Asian flush reaction’. According to Wade, searches for similar examples of recent positive selection unique to particular racial or ethnic groups are underway in Eskimos, Bolivians and other populations living in extreme environments.

Applied to brain and intelligence genes, and against the backdrop of human variation research on genetic differences among racial and ethnic groups, research on recent positive selection in human populations has potentially explosive implications. A long-standing hypothesis of the evolution of modern human behavior, attributed to anthropologist Richard Klein, holds that although anatomically modern humans arose in Africa, behaviorally modern humans arose in Europe, through a genetic-neurological change undetectable by fossils (Klein, 1989, pp. 343, 358–359, 397). There is a conviction among many brain and behavioral genetics researchers that human genes involved in intelligence likely continued to evolve among modern humans after the migration from Africa and that populations with different genetic ancestries may have distinctive intellectual strengths as a result of this ongoing process.

Genetic anthropologist Henry Harpending and colleague Gregory Cochran write in their 2009 book The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution that, ‘The obvious between-population differences that we knew of a few years ago were only the tip of the iceberg’ (Cochran and Harpending, 2009, p. 20); ‘The most interesting genetic changes are surely those that change minds rather than bodies’ (ibid, p. 54). (Here we go: What makes us human? High IQ – and then you have subhumans by definition.)

Citing the microcephalin gene as an example, Harpending and Cochran carve a vision of a bold new science of the evolution of modern human behavioral differences. At the center of their argument is the notion that genetic changes caused the ‘explosion’ in European, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures after their exit from Africa. ‘Obviously, something important, some genetic change, occurred in Africa that allowed moderns to expand out of Africa and supplant archaic species’ (ibid, p. 31), they assert. This genetic change, they argue, must have yielded enhanced intelligence for those who carried the favored alleles.  (The “dumb” people stayed behind in Africa…?)

The idea that there may be ‘brain genes’ continuing to evolve in human populations, however speculative and racially tinged, is a compelling narrative, appealing to many, as well as a provocative media-ready hypothesis. A 2005 Science news article reporting on Lahn’s findings was headlined, ‘Evolution: Are human brains still evolving? Brain genes show signs of selection’ (Balter, 2005). The article was accompanied by an image of a muscular, nude Caucasian male, head shorn to exaggerate the size of the cranium, posed in profile with chin resting on fist as ‘The Thinker’, and captioned, ‘Big thinker? Certain forms of two brain genes may confer a selective advantage’.

(Here comes the typical neurotypical false plea of innocence and “good intentions”:) The consistent, if often implicit, message of genetic claims about recent positive selection and intelligence is that this research will reveal gene variants that explain why or how European and Asian peoples are more evolved, more ‘complex’ or ‘higher’, or somehow more specialized for certain tasks than other populations. It should be noted that such claims frequently present, as scientific fact, a simplistic and uncritical picture of present-day racial and ethnic groups as reflecting known population genetic substructures with distinctive, unbroken histories.

This picture of the genetic basis of race and ethnicity is at best an idealization of human population variation and, at worst, a crude concretization of human folk racial conceptions in genetic terms. (But we are going to prove that it’s legitimate)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s