In his post today on the Jason Richwine race-and-IQ controversy, Andrew Sullivan begins by acknowledging that Richwine’s recent study of ethnicity and immigration for the Heritage Foundation is worthless as a work of scholarship or public policy. He goes on to acknowledge that Richwine himself has a habit of consorting with white supremacists — his phrase, not mine.

So far so good.

But Sullivan goes on to argue that despite all that — despite the fact that Richwine is a hack, that he’s chummy with racists, and that his contemporary advocacy work is pernicious nonsense — Richwine himself deserves to be taken seriously as a scholar. Why? Because “the premise behind almost all the attacks – that there is no empirical evidence of IQ differences between broad racial categories – is not true.”

That’s not the premise behind the attacks. Here’s the premise behind the attacks:

First, as Sullivan notes, there’s the weaknesss of the claim that America’s “broad racial categories” can be used “as shorthand for a bewilderingly complex DNA salad.” Racial categories are culturally, not biologically, grounded — the geographical and ancestral dividing lines between what we think of as “races” have nothing to do with science and everything to do with our own ugly history of racial discrimination. As a result, any genetic research that doesn’t problematize such categories is going to run into major theoretical difficulties quickly.

Second, the concept of IQ is itself of dubious merit. As Sullivan himself declares, IQ is “an artificial construct” that “shouldn’t be conflated with some Platonic idea of ‘intelligence,'” assumed to hold “any moral weight or relevance to “immigration policy” or indeed “any public policy.”

That’s all important stuff. Race is a social construct with only an attenuated relationship to genetics, and IQ is a social fiction with only an attenuated relationship to intelligence. That would be enough to doom the race-and-IQ project, to my mind. But it’s only the beginning.

The third premise of the attacks on Richwine and his ilk is the objection that such research is unlikely to reveal anything about innate cognitive differences between human “racial” groups not merely because the theoretical underpinnings of such claims are so shoddy, but also because generations of such research have failed to produce any reliable positive results. Folks have been searching for evidence of heritable intellectual differences between ethnic populations for a very long time, and they’ve pretty much come up empty.

The fourth problem with this research is implied in the second, but extends beyond it: Even if such differences could somehow be proven — and again, there are powerful theoretical and evidentiary reasons why that is highly unlikely — the results would have no practical value, and tremendous potential for horrific misuse.

Let’s say it were discovered that one American racial group was, once all the effects of nutrition, healthcare, education, income, parenting, and every other environmental factor were controlled for, on average innately slightly less intelligent than another. Would that finding justify discriminating against the less intelligent group in employment, education, or any other realm of endeavor? No. Would it lend itself to any corrective public policies? Again no. It would be of no social value whatsoever.

Such a finding would, though — and this is the fifth problem with the project — assuming that the less intelligent group were a socially disfavored one (an unwarranted and yet essentially universal assumption), reinforce society’s ugliest racist attitudes and provide support (not justification, but support) to bigots and jerks. Although such research would not imply anything about any individual’s intellectual capacity, it would instantly be trumpeted as “proof” of all manner of false and discredited — and incredibly pernicious — beliefs.

Sullivan understands all this. He acknowledges most of it. And yet he insists that the work should be continued and embraced, though he provides no affirmative justification for that position.

Instead he offers nonsense like this:

We remain the same species, just as a poodle and a beagle are of the same species. But poodles, in general, are smarter than beagles, and beagles have a much better sense of smell. We bred those traits into them, of course, fast-forwarding evolution. But the idea that natural selection and environmental adaptation stopped among human beings the minute we emerged in the planet 200,000 years ago – and that there are no genetic markers for geographical origin or destination – is bizarre. It would be deeply strange if Homo sapiens were the only species on earth that did not adapt to different climates, diseases, landscapes, and experiences over hundreds of millennia. We see such adaptation happening very quickly in the animal kingdom. Our skin color alone – clearly a genetic adaptation to climate – is, well, right in front of one’s nose.

This paragraph is a miasma of shoddy argumentation. To wit…

  • Human races cannot be productively analogized to breeds of dogs, for reasons that should be patently obvious. And human races should not be analogized to breeds of dogs, because such false analogies lend themselves so readily to vapid racist ends. It’s a lousy analogy, and one with a repellent history.
  • Setting aside the faults in the race/breed analogy, if there were differences in cognitive or sensory capacity between human populations on the scale of those which exist between poodles and beagles, we’d know. We’d know because scientists have been assiduously searching for such differences for literally hundreds of years, hoping fervently to find them. They haven’t. Whether such differences, on such a scale, exist is a closed question, a question to which the answer is a clear “no.”
  • No scholar or pundit is arguing “that natural selection and environmental adaptation stopped among human beings the minute we emerged in the planet 200,000 years ago,” or that “there are no genetic markers for geographical origin or destination.” Nobody. And nobody is criticizing the many many mainstream scientists who are doing productive, uncontroversial work on questions such as these. Sullivan’s implications to the contrary are strawmen, pure and simple.

And this, at last, is the final argument against the kind of willfully obtuse and credulous engagement with tawdry racial theorists that Sullivan is calling for:

It makes people like Sullivan himself — smart people with interesting stuff to say on a variety of other topics — act really really stupid.