If you are a racist, then you are asking for a fight. But science is my ally, not yours, and your fight is not just with me, but with reality.
This book, shortly to be published in the US, is written by a geneticist. Racism is a topic of contemporary interest, and there are certainly different conceptions of reality. The book is diminished by its title, which proclaims it an aggressive polemic, looking for a fight. “How to argue about race” would advertise a better book, on which new readers might choose to rely, finding in it an evaluation of opposing arguments. On the contrary, this author says his book is a weapon. Not a sextant, microscope, thermometer, weighing machine, assay kit or surveyor’s theodolite. He wants arguments to be weaponized. His aim is combat, not an even-handed evaluation of a fascinating science.
If you jump to the References then the one-sided nature of the material is clear to see. Papers critical of race differences in intelligence are presented without the rejoinders.
Despite a publication date of December 2019 much recent work on the genetics of intelligence, including a major study in July 2018 which in passing looks at race differences is simply omitted.
Not only that, but the references are very sparse. Some 40 references cannot do justice to the scope of the argument, and the engaging style cannot compensate for sweeping generalizations and omissions. Potential readers might wish to proceed no further.
However, I believe that there is reason to read on, if only because the title will attract readers and get supportive reviews, but also because the book admits as much as it denies, conceding that many apparent disputes are about nomenclature (“population” “ancestry” “lineage” are described as “more technical”, but although said to be incoherent in scientific taxonomy, the author admits “race” will do). It admits that “racism” will be applied only to Western and European cultures, because they “started it” in the Enlightenment; and also concedes that racial differences are rooted in biology.
Our quintessential nature as wanderers, hunters, farmers, and social creatures meant that, over the last few thousand years, Earth has become smaller, and peoples from around the world have met, traded, mated, fought, conquered and a whole lot more. In these interactions, we engage with people who are different from each other. These differences are rooted in biology, in DNA, and also in our behaviour as social animals – in our dress, our speech, our religions and our interests. In the pursuit of power and wealth, the fetishisation of these differences has been the source of the cruellest acts in our short history.
So, racial differences are rooted in biology, in DNA. The problem does not lie in these differences, but in the fetishization of these differences. It is a matter of degree. All this by page 4. Readers inclined to genetic determinism may be tempted to stop reading: Rutherford has given them enough to feel that they are in agreement with him, and the “fetishisms” are details of minor significance.
Contrary to his claim, cruel acts in our short history have arisen for many reasons, not only race. Contrary ideas have often split families and races sufficiently to make them fight each other in civil wars, despite genetic similarities. Germany and Russia jointly did cruel things to Poland in 1939 because they shared a common political purpose. A detail perhaps. Russia did cruel things to its own citizens, China likewise, and Cambodia as well, because of ideas about social class. All sorts of ideas can lead to unfairness and cruelty.
Rutherford says he will provide:
a scientific description of real human similarities and differences that will provide a foundation to contest racism that appears to be grounded in science. Here, I am focusing on four key areas where we often slip up by adhering to stereotypes and assumptions; I am outlining what we can and cannot know according to contemporary science on the subjects of skin colour, ancestral purity, sports, and intelligence.
I agree with Rutherford that skin colour is part of racial differences, but hardly all or even the most important part of it. It is simply one facet of differences which together make up evident racial groupings: skull shape; body shape and size; muscle and fat distribution; bone density; early motor development; vulnerability to illnesses and others.
Equally, ancestral purity is hardly much of an issue. Some groups have lived together for sufficient generations to have developed characteristics in common. The fact that they are purely that group does not mean that they are better. People who have always lived for generations in Norfolk are purely Norfolk. Whether that is a good or bad thing can be determined by other means.
Rutherford mounts an argument about the genetic isopoint (pg 76):
Everyone alive today is descended from all of the global population in the fourteenth century bce. Irrespective of how plausible that sounds, or how contrary it seems to our own experiences of family and family trees, it is true – the isopoint is a mathematical and genetic certainty. It is likely that the proportion of a person’s ancestors at the isopoint are not equally distributed around the world: a Chinese woman or man will have far fewer southern African ancestors than East Asian, and vice versa. But they will have some, and each of those ancestors has an equal relationship with their living descendants regardless of where on Earth they lived and died.
At times this seems to be intended to lead to the conclusion that we are all one “race” but the explanation concedes that the proportion will vary. However, the conclusion he comes to is:
No nation is static, no people are pure.
Racial purity is a pure fantasy. For humans, there are no purebloods, only mongrels enriched by the blood of multitudes.
However, he accepts there will be “proportions”, and those different proportions develop characteristics which are rooted in biology.
How does the author define racism?
Racism has many definitions; a simple version is that racism is a prejudice concerning ancestral descent that can result in discriminatory action. It is the coupling of a prejudice against biological traits that are inalterable with unfair behaviour predicated on those judgements, and can operate at a personal, institutional or structural level. Pg 20.
I prefer Hazlitt (1830) because it applies to everything and everyone:
Prejudice is prejudging any question without having sufficiently examined it, and adhering to our opinion upon it through ignorance, malice or perversity, in spite of every evidence to the contrary.
Although Rutherford does not spell it out, he implies he would accept valid judgments about ancestral descent, and actions based on good evidence. In the text the accusation of racism is frequent and broadly applied. Rutherford agrees that race exists, but goes on to ask:
Are there essential biological (that is, genetic) differences between populations that account for socially important similarities or divisions within or between those populations? Pg 21
Certainly, to deny the importance of genetics in influencing our behaviours is folly. Pg 23.
this book is a tool – a weapon – to be brandished when science is warped, misrepresented or abused to make a point, or to justify hatred. Pg 26
Rutherford writes in an engaging way, gathering broad general trends into concise summaries, and peppering them with his conclusions early on. However, he is keener on making arguments than giving references. Here are his comments on Lewontin:
Lewontin also used blood to test concepts of race. In the 1972 paper ‘The Apportionment of Human Diversity’, Lewontin found that the vast majority (85 per cent) of genetic differences were within classical races, not between them. Only 6 per cent of differences segregated by race. This conclusion has been questioned on and off since its publication, but remains broadly correct. The main challenge was formalised as ‘Lewontin’s Fallacy’ in 2003 by the mathematician Anthony Edwards, which pointed out that if you aggregate multiple sites of variation across a genome, you can in fact predict the population from which a person comes accurately. Both results are true; it just depends on the detail and the resolution.
Well, yes, but the sense of “races are 85% the same” of Lewontin’s argument faded once more markers became available. The later result is more informative than the earlier one because it includes the correlational structure of the markers.
Rutherford says that only racists would claim that modern genetics confirms the same groupings of traditional races.
Rosenberg’s paper is often used by racists to erroneously claim that there are indeed five genetically distinct races. In fact, it does no such thing, and this is obvious in the data: when the clusters are set at two, Africa, Europe and West Asia are lumped together as one and the rest of the world as another. There is no a priori reason to settle on five clusters as being the definitive categorisation of humans, and deciding to do so because it corresponds with an earlier yet debunked classification is simply affirming pre-existing biases. When you increase the cluster number to six, the next distinct group to emerge are the Kalasha. They are a northern Pakistani tribe of around 4,000 people who marry almost exclusively within their own ethnic population, which is tucked away in relative isolation in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Though these people are somewhat genetically distinct, not even the most committed racist describes the Kalasha as a sixth human race.
Rutherford’s argument is that a classification system which works reasonably well to group 7.8 billion people into 5 groups is invalidated by a 4000-person enclave! There are certainly no sacrosanct numbers in cluster analysis. Researchers keep trying different numbers of clusters to look for a configuration which covers most of the data in a reasonable way, and which corresponds to some relevant factors, in the case of human groupings, their appearance linked to their continent of origin. If you are a “lumper” you might settle on two or three races, if you are a splitter you may choose 57 varieties of human. Every measure has a range of convenience. Economists often divide the world by major geographic zones because in terms of transport links and history it makes sense to do so.
For practical purposes you might want to set a minimal number of persons for any group to be considered a race at the global level. For more specific matters, like rarer diseases, it might be better to discuss far smaller sub-groups. A group is not invalidated by being divisible into smaller groupings. A group is not invalidated because there are some people who are just at the edge of one grouping and very close to the adjoining grouping. “Where are you from?” remains a good question, and can be answered in both genetic and cultural terms.
To take another example of groups, language groups differ, and that is not invalidated by the observation that there are separate languages within larger language groups. The five most spoken Romance languages have a common root but also differ, and within each language there are dialects, and also border regions where people speak in mixtures of two languages.
The same is true of the definition of wealth. The Credit Suisse wealth report divides the world population into 4 groups, with the most important break point being at $10,000, below which 57% of people languish. This useful 4 group exposition is not invalidated by them later taking the 0.9% of the world population who are millionaires and splitting them into another 4 groups so as to distinguish the really wealthy from the riff-raff, thus ending up with 8 groups in total. It is understood that 4 groups are sufficient to cover the world, and that splitting the wealthy into their own groups will interest readers (and providers of banking and investment services). Arguments about wealth inequalities are not invalidated by the fact that groups may be drawn up slightly differently, and that wealth is a continuum. Which of the 4 groups you are in has big consequences for how you and your family live.
In race, as in linguistics and economics: “It depends on the detail and the resolution” as Rutherford says when discussing Lewontin.
I would have expected that any book about race would have engaged with a key finding (Tang, et al. 2005) which is that even using the US census, people in the US know what race they are. Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity. These 5 were people of mixed race.
I have read the section on sport, and am aware that others will have much more knowledge in this sphere, so will be very brief. Rutherford argues that genetics is secondary to culture in sporting success. Some places have a culture of running, and others don’t. A scarcity of swimming pools in poor parts of town accounts for racial differences in swimming.
The real-world consequence of this structural and cultural racism is that the death rate from drowning in African American children aged five to fourteen is three times higher than for white children. Racism is literally lethal. Pg 135.
Now to intelligence. His treatment of the topic is in many ways rather subdued. He has taken good advice and does not decry intelligence as an important and measurable aspect of human ability. Nonetheless, he ignores the difficulties that have beset many intelligence researchers, from Jensen onwards, and continue to do so right now. Either he does not know how many academics have been subjected to sanctions or “unpublished” or he chooses to ignore it, claiming (Pg 141) that they are seeking to be martyrs.
He himself points out with relish the number of sports commentators who lost their jobs the day after they spoke about genetic differences in sports ability. Intelligence researchers have lost their jobs with similar speed.
Having denied that anyone working on race and intelligence gets into any particular trouble, without batting an eyelid on the next page Rutherford lays into James Watson for saying of Africa “‘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 fact, that is a true statement. That is what the testing of intelligence and scholastic ability finds. The causes can be disputed, but the results less so.
Further testing might find something different. Rutherford argues that higher living standards will change the picture. It is to be hoped that they do. Calculations have been made about when African intelligence will equal European intelligence, and Meisenberg and Woodley (2013) say:
On PISA, on current trends the differences between high-scoring and low-scoring countries will converge in only 40 years, whilst on the maths and science TIMSS test, complete convergence would result after 341 years. Convergence is not guaranteed.
There are ways of calculating scholastic attainment for African countries which do not take part in PISA, and these are close to the results of intelligence testing.
Rutherford keeps going back to the fact that some researchers are right wing. At this level of reasoning it would be relevant to denounce other researchers for being left wing. In some moods Rutherford wants to let the science speak for itself, but these good intentions do not last long. He describes a murder by a white supremacist (pg 70) but no other US murders.
The most up-to-date meta-analyses suggest that countries in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to score in the 80s,* as compared to UK IQ standards, though these results are not universally accepted. Pg 150
He is referring to Wicherts 2010 which did not include the Ravens Matrices, the most widely used cross-cultural test. Rutherford does not mention more recent studies, notably Rindermann (2013) who calculates that IQ 75 is a reasonable estimate for sub-Saharan Africa.
Also, it would be decent to reference Lynn’s reply to Wicherts:
Lynn, R. (2010). The average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans assessed by the Progressive Matrices: Some comments on Wicherts, Dolan, Carlson & van der Maas. Learning & Individual Differences, 20, 152-154.
In fact, Wicherts advanced a first argument that the low African scores were caused by a restriction of the upper range, that is, the tests had a ceiling which cut out higher ability Africans. Lynn was able to show that the distributions peaked in the lower range, and that there were plenty of harder items for Africans to shine on, so Wicherts dropped that objection. This is an example of having a factual debate. Wicherts’ choice of papers showing higher scores included university students, and Lynn objected to those as being unrepresentative of the general population. In the end they could not agree on which studies were representative.
Rutherford skips these matters, and attacks Lynn for being right-wing, and thus likely to cherry-pick examples for his cause. To be consistent, Rutherford should have checked whether Wicherts was left wing, and if so discounted his choices on an equal basis. My view is that it is far better to stick to the arguments, and to show all the relevant studies so that researchers can come to their own conclusions.
One should note an internal inconsistency. Rutherford has excoriated James Watson for saying African intelligence was not at European levels (pg 142) but by page 150 Rutherford apparently accepts African IQ results of 80, which is more than a standard deviation below the European mean.
Rutherford argues that the results are “not likely to be genetic because of the immense genetic diversity that is now well established across that continent.” However, that does not rule out that those populations have a pattern in common. Widening the DNA studies in Africa would help resolve this issue.
Then another sally into a blind alley.
In response to the assertion that professions involving commerce require high levels of intellect, I am unaware of strong evidence that success in business correlates with significantly above average intelligence. Pg 164
Some of the scientists and race-fixated ideologues are actual racists, others merely contrarians, or sceptics convinced that they have unearthed some secret knowledge that has been quelled by a conspiratorial majority. Pg 171
No conspiracy is required. Contemporary academia is quite open about marginalizing genetic explanations for group differences, and marginalizing researchers and publications which discuss these issues.
People are born different, with different innate capabilities and potential. How these abilities cluster within and between populations is not easily explained by fundamental biology, by genetics. Instead, when digging into the data as best as we can, the answers lie not in DNA, but in culture. Pg 175
Culture must come from somewhere. It does not rise from the soil as a miasma. It is created by people.
What can one make of this book? I think it has three moods. The first is embodied by the title and the stated aims, which is to have a fight. This accounts for the selective attention to the literature, and the frequent denunciation of imputed racism.
Second, arguments against a genetic interpretation of group differences and in favour of cultural explanations. This is similar to the position actually maintained by most researchers on group differences, where both contributions are discussed, and debate surrounds the relative contribution of each. What Rutherford doesn’t cover is why some racial and national groups chose some cultural practices. For example, why do Jews have a culture of scholarship? Is it just one of those random things which Zulus considered and then rejected? If the Chinese are good at maths and science because they study hard, why don’t South Americans study as hard? If education is key, why is there not a stronger correlation between educational expenditures and outcomes?
Third, a few concessions and doubts. It is as if a marcher carrying a banner was quietly confiding to a companion that on some particular factual points the position was more complicated than the slogan suggested.
Despite that, this book still looks for a fight. In a field where most authors would like to be a trusted advisor, this one sets out to be a warrior. Given his objective, we have to evaluate his prowess, not his judgment. The author has a good conversational style, engaging examples and humour, but his battle is on a limited front and his weapons have a restricted range.
He argues that races are not pure. Fine, but that leaves him open to the obvious point that we are dealing with the current impure blends, and those blends show significant behavioural differences. The European blend, even if you judge it on only the last thousand years, can show a set of achievements which gave it cultural and economic prosperity. European Jews have even higher culture and prosperity. These blends do well wherever they are on the planet.
Success depends primarily on two factors: bright people and open markets. (If you have raw materials or beautiful places you can make a subsidiary living selling or renting those to richer countries). China and the Far East are brighter than Europeans, and with open markets should surpass them in another decade or two. The world is much as the intelligence testers find it. Whether these intellectual advantages are primarily due to genetic or sociological/environmental causes is open to question, but on this issue the book does not engage much.
For example, it lays great store on culture, but is silent on where culture comes from. Aborigines, on this argument, have made a strategic error they must now correct: they should emulate European Jews and the Chinese, and become scholarly. Peruvians should take up a running culture. Olympic success in ping-pong depends primarily on good ping-pong training clubs, so we should have more of those.
I found the section on intelligence to be a mixed bag. He has taken good advice on intelligence, but then paid cursory intelligence to the actual debate about racial differences. It is an almost reference-free discussion. He quotes James Flynn without reporting that Flynn accepts that secular rises in intelligence have not closed the racial gap, as he had formerly expected. He attacks Richard Lynn without admitting that Lynn has always assumed that poor environments in Africa accounted for some of the intellectual and scholastic results.
Rutherford knows that racial differences in intelligence are the most contentious, yet fails to put up much of a fight. I expected at least a comment on predicting African intelligence from European polygenic risk scores, and what level of predictive power would need to be achieved to concede that genetics made a contribution to racial differences in achievement.
In sum, the book offers less than expected or threatened. If research on group differences continues, there is hope that as more genetic material is gathered on non-European population all hypotheses about group differences can be subjected to more intensive testing.