On the Colour and Texture of Intelligence
James D. Watson (of DNA double-helix Watson & Crick fame) has recently cancelled several UK engagements to return to the US, having made comments that revealed a belief that black people were 'less intelligent' than whites. The assertion was based on his belief that: 'There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should have evolved identically.' No, there are no firm reasons to anticipate this, but I think there are even less firm ones to anticipate the opposite, i.e. that there are indeed genetically based 'racial differences' implying group superiority or inferiority in intelligence. Watson has subsequently apologised for his comments but this revived an old issue which last received significant attention in the 1990's from the book by (the late) Richard J. Hernstein and Charles Murray (1994), authors of the controversial 'The Bell Curve'.
The book argues in essence that blacks score on average a standard deviation less on IQ tests than whites (+-15points) and that this is largely due to 'genetic' differences. There are obviously huge holes in this essentially racist thesis - and I am talking from the perspective of one who has been trained in the use and interpretation of 'intelligence tests'. (I also have a clinical experience of these tests going back over 20 years – much of it 'cross-cultural' – as well as using 'intelligence tests' in my Ph.D., where I was trying to unravel whether there are cognitive differences between deaf and hearing children. So I do feel fairly confident I can talk within the realms of my competence about this controversy.)
Firstly, the notion of 'intelligence' is a fuzzy and poorly operationalised concept, leading to such facile definitions as 'intelligence is what intelligence tests measure' – never mind that there are a plethora of different tests often measuring different things! (There is still no agreement as to whether intelligence can be summarized as per Spearman's general 'g' factor or whether it is manifest in several distinct forms, as per Howard Gardner's (1983) notion of 'multiple intelligences': e.g. Frames of Mind:The Theory of Multiple Intelligences
Secondly, intelligence tests have also largely been developed within western contexts with both overt and covert cultural assumptive biases that undermine the performances of non-western populations - western based norms are not valid comparators. Given the often disadvantaged social and material living conditions faced by most 'black' people contrasted with 'white', these are bound to exert negative 'cognitive performance' influences too. (See “Ethnic Differences in Children's Intelligence Test Scores: Role of Economic Deprivation, Home Environment, and Maternal Characteristics” – Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Pamela K. Klebanov, Greg J. Duncan. Child Development Vol. 67, No. 2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 396-408.) The authors show that factoring out social-deprivation differences reduce posited ethnic 'intellectual' differences to negligible and non-significant status.
Robert Sternberg - who, unlike Watson, does know what he is talking about in this area! – argues in 'Not a case of black and white' (New Scientist; 27th October 2007, p.24) that 'intelligence is a far more complicated issue than standard testing allows. And race is a socially constructed concept, not a biological one.' Essentially then, there is no 'colour' in intelligence. (This issue does matter - greatly - apartheid was partly based on pseudo-scientific assertions of 'intellectual racial differences' that led to massive and unethical 'racial' distortions in allocated resources and education amongst other things.)
However, there may perhaps also be a danger in over-emphasizing a P.C. argument for no group differences whatsoever. Although there appear to be no summative group differences in overall intelligence, there may well be varying 'profile' differences in group abilities, as different skills are selectively emphasized in diverse socio-cultural contexts. Thus, as Barbara Rogoff in (2003) The Cultural Nature of Human Development has argued with the notion of 'situated thinking'; there are cultural variations in the development of thinking skills, dependent partially on available resources as well as what 'expert' learners within the culture value and emphasise. Thus what adult learners support via selective scaffolding of development within their 'novice' learners helps shape the nature of unfolding 'intelligence'. The relatively advanced development of mathematical thinking amongst some Asian children suggested by some studies – which some credit to possibly differential parental support – might be one example of this. (d'Ailly, 1992, 'Asian Mathematics Superiority: A Search for Explanations' Educational Psychologist; 27(2), 243-261.
And even though there may be no clear and unanimous definition of what 'intelligence' is, there is agreement that it can be a useful (if fuzzy) attribute towards educational success amongst other things. However, perhaps even more useful are aspects such as 'emotional intelligence' (Daniel Goleman) and socially positive personality traits – as well as an environment to operate in that supports and facilitates optimal performance in all areas for all people.
For me, one of the most intelligent fictional books about intelligence was Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. This book provides an almost textured account on the nature and experience of varying intelligence within the same individual. Perhaps a case of fiction saying more than fact…
Further current fiction I am reading is Air by the always excellent Geoff Ryman and Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell, which feels like a brilliantly original debut fantasy novel.
I have received some fictional returns from amaXhosa students attending Sophumelela High School in Cape Town and hope to upload (in my view) the best story soon, under the Oscar Mpetha tab found within SF in SA.
To new and diverse stories that raise our collective intelligences!
Nick Wood – Nov/Dec 2007