December 17, 2007

Are We All Created Equal?

Our society and laws are built upon the premise that all people are created equal. Thomas Jefferson said so back in 1776, even if he meant it only aspirationally. It is upon this assumption that the guarantee of equal rights to all Americans is based. Without it – in a world where society and law hold that some of us are more equal than others – we enter the realm of Orwellian fantasy.

American and world history are marred by examples of individuals and movements attempting to disprove the “all created equal” theory to support an agenda of discrimination, enslavement, or extermination. After all, these people imply, since we are not created equal, what’s the logical basis for respecting equal rights?

In this, the DNA age, this debate has led to studies on the correlation of IQ and genetic continental origin (i.e., race). That debate leapt to the public consciousness earlier this year when Dr. James Watson, who won a Nobel prize for discovering the double helix structure of DNA, suggested that he was “inherently gloomy” about the future of Africa because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” In the wake of these comments, Dr. Watson was quickly eased into retirement and then bizarrely learned that 16% of his own genes were of African origin.

What has followed has been a more public debate between hereditarians who think intelligence is genetically determined and environmentalists who think intelligence is affected substantially by environment about who is right and what the implications of that answer are. For instance, if intelligence is genetic and there is a racial disparity that is intractable, then what good does a policy based on fictional equality do? This is what Dr. Watson seemed to be alluding to. On the other hand, if intelligence can be affected by environment, then what can be done to isolate the particular environmental causes in order to shrink racial disparities and lift intelligence across races. (For links that discuss the way-over-my-head science involved, see below)

I do not have Dr. Watson’s genetic pedigree, but after having combed through some of the research, I find myself leaning on the side of the environmentalists. Here’s why:

I am skeptical of the existence of a predetermined, measurable, and static “intelligence.” I am willing to concede that there are genetic capacities for every individual, but I have seen enough examples of people either exceeding or failing to meet their potential to know that there are many factors that determine whether that capacity will be reached. Intellectual capacities cannot be reached without nourishment – mental and physical. If an individual’s “intelligence” depends on whether or not she was fed properly as an infant, then how can their be a measurable number that represents her intelligence?

I am also skeptical of any test that purports to measure intelligence across societies and continents. How useful is a test conceived, designed, and administered by westerners to test the “intelligence” of people who have no contact with or understanding of the western world?

Further, if it is true that the black-white IQ gap shrunk substantially in the mid-1900’s (as studies show), then how can IQ be static? If IQ were static and genetically determined, then there is no proper explanation for such a dramatic decrease in “intelligence” disparity across races.

Finally, I am troubled by the way the debate speaks in such broad racial terms of the intelligence of “Africans,” “Europeans,” or “Asians,” because it is such generalizations that lead to the most trifling of stereotypes and the most egregious of crimes. Even assuming that the studies are accurately measuring “intelligence” and showing genetic differences, that research says nothing about the African, European, or Asian standing in front of me. Averages may be a necessary evil in studies, but they are incapable of evaluating any given individual and I am especially troubled when averages may be used to support agendas of discrimination based on stereotypes.

Perhaps I, myself, am genetically predisposed to side with the environmentalists because I am optimistic that changes in circumstances can affect life outcomes. Although it is troubling for me to believe that all people are not created equal, I am fully cognizant that all people are not born into equal environments. So long as “intelligence” is not static, then improvements to those environments can also improve intelligence. That is certainly what I want to believe and I am sufficiently skeptical of the hereditarians’ science to be comfortable that my conclusion, and Jefferson’s as well, is more than mere wishful thinking.

LINKS for pleasure reading:
Profile of Dr. Watson in Times of London – the article that started the discussion

4-part Review of Scientific Literature by William Saleton (don’t miss the 4th part for an interesting correction/retraction)

Op-Ed by Richard Nisbett of Univ. of Michigan

Malcolm Gladwell reviews James Flynn’s book, What is Intelligence?

“James Watson tells an Inconvenient Truth”

Vaguely related article on Jewish genes and intelligence

There is much much more out there if you are interested and have many spare hours.....

December 03, 2007

The Trouble with Diversty - Book Review

I have written several times (here, here and here) about the Supreme Court case in which the Court considered the constitutionality of school assignment plans in Louisville and Seattle that used race as a factor in maintaining diverse student populations in public schools. I criticized the Court for ignoring the almost-inevitable consequence of rejecting these plans – the resegregation of schools. However, in a book I’ve recently finished – The Trouble with Diversity, by Walter Benn Michaels – I found myself wondering about that resegregation: so what?

The Trouble with Diversity makes the argument that the focus on diversity as a goal has served as a distraction from increasing inequality in our society. Michaels is not so much against diversity – he is simply troubled by the way in which a room full of millionaires who happen to be of different races is praised as a diverse gathering. The fact that there are millionaires of all races, Michaels argues, makes it difficult to see that there are many more Americans of all races living in poverty with long odds of improving their lot. (Of course, the fact that a disproportionate number of those in poverty are African American only further complicates the balance between diversity and equality)

Michaels makes a compelling case that the focus on ethnic diversity in everything from university admissions to corporate boards has only hidden a system that favors the already-wealthy (regardless of race) at every turn. The danger is that it is hidden in a way that makes us (and by “us,” he means the educated and relatively well off who may be able to do something about the situation) feel better about ourselves: “A world of people who are different from us looks a lot more appealing than a world of people who are poorer than us.”

There is much to admire in The Trouble with Diversity – Michaels’ clarity of thought and writing, and his obsession with a society that is truly (as opposed to merely rhetorically) one of equal opportunity. However, in dismissing the quest for diversity as almost an intentional distraction from the quest for equality, Michaels goes too far.

The quest for diversity does not seek diversity for diversity’s sake. Rather, it is a direct response to discrimination. If personal biases are preventing otherwise qualified individuals from moving forward, then the clamor for more diversity can help take those personal biases out of the equation. Where Michaels fails is in minimizing the degree to which race still does matter to even the African American millionaire. Perhaps diversity proponents have gone too far, but that should not obscure the fact that racial and ethnic discrimination persists.

Ultimately, the debate Michaels weighs in on is a chicken-and-the-egg question. Michaels believes that if we can get to equal opportunity, then diversity will follow, whereas diversity proponents argue that if we have more diversity in our schools and professions, equality will follow. Which brings us back to the resegregating effects of the Supreme Court’s decision: Michaels would not be bothered by schools that are all-black or all-white so long as those schools provided equal educational opportunities (separate, but really, truly equal). Michaels would even go on to say that the litigation about the race-conscious assignment policies may in fact distract from and pull resources away from ever achieving schools that offer equal educational opportunities. In Michaels’ world, there is no inherent problem with the resegregation of schools.

And maybe there is no inherent problem with it. However, Michaels is no less guilty of ignoring reality than the Supreme Court. In our society, there is an unfortunate correlation between a school’s quality and its racial makeup. That correlation is not going to disappear as a result of abandoning effects at diversity – the more likely result is that the correlation with only strengthen. The race-conscious assignment plans that the Supreme Court rejected were designed to offer better educational opportunities (not to mention the social benefits of an ethnically diverse group of peers) to students who would otherwise be learning in racially-isolated schools subject to that unfortunate correlation.

So I have not totally converted to the conclusion that resegregation does not matter. But thanks to this book, I will be careful to keep the underlying goal of diverse schools or workplaces or neighborhoods in mind – opportunity that is not determined by the color of skin.