Ezra Klein on the Genetics of IQ

Ezra Klein, founder of the “explainer” media company Vox, has written a long piece arguing that, given the long-fraught character of race relations in American society, it is nearly impossible to fairly interpret studies that purport to show that racial differences in IQ are genetic in origin. Klein’s article frames the topic in the context a recent podcast in which “new atheist” blogger Sam Harris defended Charles Murray against his many highly vocal critics. (Murray is co-author of the 1994 book The Bell Curve, in which he endorsed the claim that persistent racial gaps in IQ are the result of genetic differences.)

Although Klein’s article begins there (and Harris has responded with vociferous denials, claims of defamation, and the puzzling release of an old e-mail exchange with Klein), the article soon shifts focus to the more general question of whether anyone can make sense of racial claims of this sort without first coming to terms with the long, sordid history of racial prejudice in the US.

Klein summarizes his view thus:

Research shows measurable consequences on IQ and a host of other outcomes from the kind of violence and discrimination America inflicted for centuries against African Americans. In a vicious cycle, the consequences of that violence have pushed forward the underlying attitudes that allow discriminatory policies to flourish and justify the racially unequal world we’ve built.

Although Harris advances the belief that racialist views like Murray’s are “forbidden” in today’s culture of “political correctness,” Klein notes that there is nothing new in such views; they have been openly held in American society literally for centuries, and are, indeed, the foundation upon which many American institutions were founded.

Klein also considers seriously the view of IQ researcher James Flynn (of the ”Flynn Effect”), who has explained the marked rise in average IQs over the past century in terms of the increasing cognitive demands of the modern technological world that we have created. However, Klein continues,

Over hundreds of years, white Americans have oppressed black Americans — enslaved them, physically terrorized them, ripped their families apart, taken their wealth from them, denied their children decent educations, refused to let them buy homes in neighborhoods with good schools, locked them out of the most cognitively demanding and financially rewarding jobs, deprived them of the professional and social networks that power advancement.

Among the many, many awful effects this has had is to deny black Americans the full cognitive advantages of navigating the modern economy, of wearing their scientific spectacles. For this reason, Flynn argues that “the black/white IQ gap is probably environmental in origin.”

Harris and Murray do not take this scenario seriously, according to Klein, nor do they consider its relevance to claims of genetic differences. Instead, Harris and Murray shift the argument to one in which white advocates of the genetic theory of racial inferiority are the real victims, attacked for “daring” to suggest what has, in fact, been a central trope throughout much of American history.

Klein and Harris have apparently agreed to appear together on one or the other of their popular podcasts. It might well prove to be a tense encounter.

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About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

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