I recently saw an episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman which dared to address a very delicate topic: whether there are biological differences between the races that go beyond skin color. It’s certainly obvious that those differences exist. No one can dispute that the average African is taller than the average Asian, or that fair-skinned peoples are more susceptible to skin cancer, or that redheads are more likely to be Irish than Latin. But there’s a certain discomfort level that comes into play when we begin exploring the brain function of the different races, and this, I believe, is because no one wants to give the impression of being a racist by arguing that the brains of the various ethnic groups may actually operate differently from one another. But why wouldn’t they? It’s almost crazy when you think about it. If our bodies differ, then why wouldn’t our brains as well? Because the brain, just like the body, is bound to evolve to adapt to its particular environment. And historically, the various races have evolved in distinct parts of the globe. In fact, it would be a darned shame if the brains of the diverse peoples of the world were all the same; that could only mean that nature isn’t doing its job.
Here’s the crux of the matter, in my opinion: no one wants to say that someone is different because they think it implies judgment. And for some people I’m sure it does. But what those people are forgetting is that there is no objective good, better, best when it comes to humanity. There is no right path and no wrong path, only paths that lead to survival and paths that don’t. The best possible human for one environment may be ill-suited for survival in another. And at the rate at which our environment is changing, it would be difficult for anyone to predict what sort of human will be best adapted to life in the next century.
And this is where the ideas presented in the show begin to make a lot of sense. It examined hypotheses, for example, in which conditions like ADHD have been posited as natural developments in peoples who may have had a biological advantage in remaining constantly on the move. In other words, it wasn’t necessarily a mental defect; it could have been an adaptation. Opens up fascinating possibilities, doesn’t it? What if it turned out that obsessive-compulsive disorder actually derived from chaotic, filthy environments in which rigid controls and excessive handwashing were advantageous behaviors to the people engaging in them? I could almost see it. Like the tonsils or the appendix; we know they must have been useful at some point in human history, but we can no longer imagine why.
And, like the victim of the obsolete but nonetheless inflamed appendix, people with ADHD perhaps don’t function quite as well in modern society, which requires a lot of focused sitting. It makes one wonder as to the source of the current autism epidemic, for instance. Is the condition really just better diagnosed in the 21st century, or is it actually more prevalent, and if so, why? Consider this study, which found that the children of parents who work in technical jobs are more likely to be autistic – suggesting that the qualities required by modern-day white-collar positions are akin to those of autistic individuals. Disease, or adaptation gone awry?
But then why should intelligence be any different? Why do we assume that every race of people should have a brain that operates in precisely the same way as every other?
It’s been demonstrated, time and again, that, on average, blacks and Latinos have lower I.Q. scores than whites, while Jews and Asians have higher average scores. Now it’s been argued for decades that I.Q. is not a fair measure of a person’s intelligence, because the tests may be biased in favor of people with certain socioeconomic backgrounds, and I would certainly agree with this assessment without hesitation. First of all, the questions on an I.Q. test are essentially little puzzles, and, particularly when a time limit is involved, a test-taker who has been exposed to these types of problems before will grasp the intent of them more quickly and thus have a better chance of solving them. Even the most brilliant kid is going to need some time to figure out how the questions work if he or she sits down to take the SAT blind, and it’s a simple fact that the children of parents with money are more likely to have gotten an education that will have better prepared them for this type of exam.
Second, in spite of arguments to the contrary, there are or have been questions on these tests that have nothing to do with intelligence, but rather with exposure to facts. I saw a question on an I.Q. test once that related to the books of the Bible. The trick, it turned out, was to pick the New Testament one. Now how could you possibly do that if you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, which, let’s face it, even a lot of modern Christians are not? I have also seen numerous questions that relate to things like the names of cities. Me, I’ve driven cross-country fifteen times, so I feel pretty confident that I can differentiate the name of an American city from a foreign one, but that would not necessarily be true of someone who’s lived in one place their entire life.
Finally, brains or no brains, some people, I’m convinced, are simply better test-takers than others. They can answer questions quickly without getting frazzled, they learn or develop strategies for making the best use of their allotted time, and they’re not easily distracted by other test-takers, the tick of the clock, the announcements of the proctor, and so on. This, too, may be an evolved trait.
So I agree that there is bias in the I.Q. test, as much as in other types of standardized tests. However, it seems unlikely to me that this alone accounts for the racial differences in scoring, and that the main issue is that it simply isn’t politically correct to say that one race is less intelligent than another, even if it’s demonstrably true. But I say, so what if it is true? Since when is the “book-smart” kind of intelligence the ultimate measure of a man? Does intelligence make one happier, healthier, and more fulfilled? I mean, Ashkenazy Jews rank highest of all on the I.Q. scale. Oh yes, everyone envies the Jews; their intelligence has brought them such good fortune. Of course, it might also be argued that the Jews had to develop a higher intelligence in order to survive the challenges of a world which has often been hostile to them. No doubt, there is truth in that, even as there is likely truth in the presumption that native Africans were not required to develop that same type of intelligence in their own environment. They developed other qualities of equal or arguably even superior value.
Let’s set I.Q. aside for a moment and think seriously about this. If only roughly thirteen percent of Americans are black, then no one can deny that blacks are impressively overrepresented in professional sports, particularly basketball and football, and it seems fairly obvious that the reason is biological rather than socioeconomic. And let us bear in mind that sports are not only about strength, endurance, and build. Most modern games require strategy, the ability to work as part of a team, to plan several moves ahead, and to change course in the face of the unanticipated. None of which are qualities that could ever be tested for on an I.Q. test. And all of which are qualities which one would expect to find in a people who, until very recently in geologic terms, were hunters. Should the rest of us take offense if the blacks are, on average, proven to be better athletes?
And what of the overwhelming presence of African-American artists in popular music? Coincidence, environment, or adaptation? It was not the Emancipation Proclamation, and not the Christianization of the black community, but the music of African-Americans that secured them a permanent and highly valued place in American culture. White Americans were grooving to jazz and the blues in an era when segregation was still widespread, yet they found solid reasons to appreciate black talent in spite of the racism prevalent at the time. But why so many popular black musicians in the first place? One may argue that the black musical tradition dates back to the days of slavery – although in reality, it probably dates back to the time before. One may argue that art is derived from suffering and struggle. But then why do we not see as many successful African-American authors and painters and filmmakers as we do musicians? Perhaps it’s because black people, on average, really do have more rhythm and more tone. Perhaps it’s hard-wired into their genes because it was a necessity of their native lifestyles in ways that were not true of Middle-Easterners or Europeans. And what’s wrong with that?
This is not to say that intelligence should not be prized, too; rather that is not the be-all and end-all of human worth. When I open my browser to read my email, I don’t see the latest news about modern-day geniuses; I see gossip about celebrities and sports figures, the true heroes of our day. If we really place such a high value on intelligence, we have a poor way of showing it. Why then change the rules when it comes to I.Q.? If we don’t think it’s so important in real life, why does it matter what the statistics say?
No, the problem is not whether there are natural differences between the races, or whether it’s acceptable to acknowledge them, the problem is us; we don’t seem to be able to reconcile ourselves to the idea that what is generally true of a people is not necessarily true of an individual. If the average Latino has a lower I.Q. than the average Jew, that doesn’t mean that if you meet a Latino and a Jew together, you should assume that the Jew is smarter, or the Latino more adept at soccer. You shouldn’t assume that the six-foot-five black man is better at basketball than the mid-sized white guy because that’s what the averages say. And if you do make such foolish assumptions, you can make one sure bet in regards to the intelligence of the people involved: you’re the dumbest.
What is perhaps most interesting is that this approach to racial differentiation supports the idea that the United States of America could, objectively speaking, actually be the greatest country in the world. Nowhere else is there such an intermingling of races, and the strength of each race is increasingly present in our children and our children’s children. Isn’t it even possible that, biologically speaking, our bodies have recognized the advantages of being multi-racial? It’s not only the U.S. that’s become diversified, after all; you see it increasingly in most of the other nations of the world as well. I read once about a study that was done in which women were given men’s sweaty shirts to sniff. The scents they found most appealing were those belonging to men who carried different immunities from them. Maybe we, too, are seeking other immunities, other qualities that are more highly developed in the various races of our fellow men.
It’s foolish to judge mankind by his intelligence. The dinosaurs didn’t exactly represent the height of intellect, and they were far more successful than we will ever be, and probably lasted a lot longer than we will, too. What it all boils down to isn’t smarts or strength or compassion or beauty, but the unique combinations of qualities that exist in all humans that make them fit to survive. And in a rapidly changing global environment, the race will go perhaps not to the swiftest or the brightest. The fittest humans of the future may be those who are quickest to adapt.