Monday, November 19, 2007

Liberal creationism?

On Slate, William Saletan is posting an interesting series on liberal "creationism." He was apparently struck,as I was, by the nature of the reaction to James Watson's comments on the distribution of innate intelligence among Africans.

If one is a materialist and believes that evolutionary biology as expressed in our genes explains much about us, how can one exclude the possibility that certain attributes, like intelligence, may be unevenly spread among groups with some greater proportion of common genetic material?

I have no idea whether there is any support for the idea that intelligence may not be evenly distributed among racial groups, but the reaction to Watson seemed decidedly faith-based. We don't want to believe such a thing because we fear the implications of its truth.

Saletan argues that one cannot dismiss the possibility and tries to dispassionately review the evidence. The key thing, it seems to me, is understanding what it means to say that something like intelligence is unevenly distributed among racial groups. This is where the popular misunderstanding of things statistical gets us in trouble.

To say that one group is more likely to exhibit high intelligence than another tells us nothing about the intelligence of any person. There will be so many counterexamples that it would make no sense to base any decisions about any person on such a claim.

As an example, I have heard it claimed that women are more likely to possess high verbal skills and men more likely to have higher spatial skills. (I suspect that sex differences present different issues than racial ones, but that doesn't undermine my use of them here.)Assuming that this is true (and I have no idea), I stand before you as a counterexample. I have high verbal skills but when it comes to understanding how things fit together, I am (and I think the Reddess will back me up here) a moron. There are a lot of guys like me and a lot of girls who defy the norm in the other direction. Averages apply to groups and not to individuals.

But we are understandably concerned that people won't understand that so we are reluctant to "follow the science" to wherever it leads. Thus, in Saletan's view, we have liberal creationism. He writes:

I wish these assurances {that Watson's statements hadn't "a scietific leg to stand on] were true. They aren't. Tests do show an IQ deficit, not just for Africans relative to Europeans, but for Europeans relative to Asians. Economic and cultural theories have failed to explain most of the pattern, and there's strong preliminary evidence that part of it is genetic. It's time to prepare for the possibility that equality of intelligence, in the sense of racial averages on tests, will turn out not to be true.

If this suggestion makes you angry—if you find the idea of genetic racial advantages outrageous, socially corrosive, and unthinkable—you're not the first to feel that way. Many Christians are going through a similar struggle over evolution. Their faith in human dignity rests on a literal belief in Genesis. To them, evolution isn't just another fact; it's a threat to their whole value system. As William Jennings Bryan put it during the Scopes trial, evolution meant elevating "supposedly superior intellects," "eliminating the weak," "paralyzing the hope of reform," jeopardizing "the doctrine of brotherhood," and undermining "the sympathetic activities of a civilized society."


Jonah Goldberg suggests that Saletan must have wanted some hate mail for Thanksgiving.

22 comments:

JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe said...

"If one is a materialist and believes that evolutionary biology as expressed in our genes explains much about us, how can one exclude the possibility that certain attributes, like intelligence, may be unevenly spread among groups with some greater proportion of common genetic material?"

One can't. I think your assessment here, and Saletan's is about right. I'm not sure if the comparison to creationism is very helpful, but I think the point, that to look at the issue scinetifically means we can't judge the science with our own prejudices (how odd that the prejudice that may be at fault here is the prejudice that it's wrong to be prejudice).

This reminds me of that whole media mess surrounding theBell Curve book back in the mid 90's. (Full disclosure: When I read that book, I was probably too young to really get it). What struck me about the argument (that intelligence is tied to race) then is that the authors assumed (1) that intelligence can be expressed as a single number, and (2) that intelligence can be rank ordred. I have a hard time believing that intelligence works that way (who's more intelligent, Mozart or Newton?)

Anonymous said...

I agree that when dealing with facts, one must go where the facts lead and not try to lead the facts where one wants to go (or keep them from going where you don't want them to go). And hysterical knee-jerk reactions prevent any rational discussions of facts and what they mean or don't mean.

But one must also have a healthy skeptism about "facts." Is it possible to construct an IQ test that is free of the creator's (test creator, not Creator) bias and that also tests intelligence rather than education?

Who was it that said: "No generality is worth a d---, including this one."

3rd Way said...

Any honest scientist should be able to conceed that evolutionary differences between races could lead to differences in intellegence. JIJARWM makes a good point about the problem of defining intellegence. Different cultures may value different types of intellegence more than others leading to varying types of intellect.

Our forefathers stated "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights". I think that is a pretty good policy even if through extensive testing we can prove that the first part isn't completely true. If the first part isn't true what would we do with that information? I think it is a question that is not worth answering.

I hope we can all agree that humans have equal worth (although I have witnessed statements on other blogs stating otherwise). Even if some of us have advantages over others we all need to be guaranteed equal opportunities to succeed. I don't see what benefits can be gained at attempting to create further distinctions between groups.

Genetic modifications shaped by humans through science should be viewed in the same light. It should be possible through gene manipulation to perfect ourselves, but why as compassionate humans should we allow further divisiveness. It is opening a Pandoras box of ethical issues that does not need to be tampered with.

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