Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
A Dangerous Idea
By David G. Young
Washington DC, November 13, 2007 --
The flawed dogma of group equality is beginning to crumble. Fortunately, lies aren't the only way to combat discrimination.
The suspension of Nobel Prize winning geneticist James Watson from an American research laboratory last month1 was the latest flash point in the steady erosion of fundamental ideas about group equality. Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, was fired from his job after making jaw-droppingly controversial statements about differences in intelligence between racial groups. In an interview with a former colleague, Watson said that he was pessimistic 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.'' 2
Watson's subsequent apologies and clarifications have fallen on deaf ears. His use of the words "them'' and "us'' in his statement were reminiscent of the worst of old-time racist ideas, preventing his underlying message from being heard. But below his ugly phrasing was a very important point. If there are sustained differences in average intelligence between different population groups, it is false to expect that the world will move toward equal living standards of all people -- at least so long as intelligence is an important element of activities that generate wealth.
This is a dangerous idea, and it is utterly incompatible with the dogma of 20th century progressive egalitarianism, which dictates that all people and groups of people are equal. Questioning this dogma has been socially out of bounds since it solidified at the end of America's civil rights and women's liberation movements in the 1970s.
The only trouble is, the dogma simply isn't true. Over the past thirty years, predictions of a rapid closure in America's academic, professional, and economic divides have typically not come to pass. Meanwhile, discoveries in the fields of biological and genetic sciences are slowly, but steadily, building a catalog of known differences between men and women, as well as between various groups of people with common ancestries.
Sociological studies have long established, for example, that Americans of East Asian and European Jewish heritage have a somewhat higher average IQ than the American population as a whole.3 While there is no scientific proof that any specific genes are responsible for these differences, there is ample proof that intelligence, in general, is a predominantly inherited trait.
It is reasonable to suspect, therefore, that various genes associated with elevated intelligence will eventually be discovered to be more common in families of East Asians and European Jews. Given the rapid rate of gene discovery over the past decade, this might happen sooner rather than later. Even more socially troubling would be any discovery appearing to confirm a negative group stereotype.
Dr. Marcus W. Feldman, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, is so frightened that such genetic discoveries might soon appear that he wants to create "ready response teams'' of geneticists to help keep the studies' meanings from being misinterpreted.4
But the thing that is at greatest risk is the mid-20th century dogma of group equality. A century ago, it was common and socially acceptable for Americans to preach the inherent superiority of Europeans, and use this proclaimed superiority to justify abusive treatment of other groups. The same went for men's justification of discrimination against women.
The knee-jerk response of reformists was to embrace the opposite premise -- that every group is absolutely equal, and no meaningful differences exist between them. This idea, however, is just as preposterous as that of the white supremacists. And as scientific discoveries inevitably prove the egalitarian hypothesis false, the serious risk is that people will use them to justify re-engaging in bigoted behavior and open racial and gender discrimination.
This need not be so. Anyone who believes that average group differences justify discrimination is logically incorrect. An average difference between one group and another says absolutely nothing about individuals in either group. On average, women may be better than men at linguistics, but that doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of men who are better at language than any given woman. Similarly, for nearly any straight-A white male physics student, it's a safe bet that you can find a black woman somewhere who is even more outstanding. That's just how statistics works.
Some might worry that such abstract mathematical ideas are beyond the understanding of the masses, thereby justifying the well-intended lie about group equality. But this just isn't the case. Consider that a very similar statistical principle is what makes gambling attractive. Generally speaking, lottery tickets are overwhelmingly bad financial bets for the buyer. But people buy them anyway, precisely because they know it is possible that any individual ticket could be a winner.
Embracing and spreading this principle is key to any honest effort to combat discrimination. Assembling "ready response teams'' to bolster the flawed theory of group equality will never succeed in making people ignore compelling evidence to the contrary. Likewise, firing Nobel Prize winning scientists for offending the social order is counterproductive, especially when that social order is based on a flawed premise.
1. BBC, Lab Suspends DNA Pioneer Watson, October 19, 2007
2. Ibid, Museum Drops Race Row Scientist, October 17, 2007
3. Herrnstein, Richard and Murray, Charles, The Bell Curve, 1994, p 272-275.
4. New York Times, In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice, November 11, 2007