The idea of race-based intelligence has historically proved to be an unintelligent notion. Let one just question the premise: what is race and what is intelligence? Neither idea is physical, fixed, nor cross-cultural. Certainly, race and intelligence are real-but only as a social construction. For instance, ten of thousands of African Americans who are described as racially “black” in America, would undoubtedly be designated as “whites” in places like Brazil and Nigeria-because of their skin color, economic status and/or language. Additionally, an Anglo-Saxon visiting Mali or Sri Lanka may be labeled as unintelligent because he cannot recount the names of all his ancestors sixteen or two generations before him, nor provide food for himself by himself, nor can he speak five languages. While in his country he may be a designated a genius, a Nobel Prize winner even.
James Watson, a Nobel laureate for discovering the structure of DNA, hopes that there will soon be a genetic breakthrough that determines a gene for intelligence. He also proposes genetic intelligence can be measured in terms of race. If this so, how would it be done? Who will create the tests? Would one take “random” samples of blacks, whites, reds and yellows? How could we trust these samples are representative of the so-called races? What about the people who are in-between or a combination of the “races”? Are people born with a genetic limit, a cap on the amount of intelligence they can have? At what age do we test people? These questions are rhetorical and meant to illustrate some reasons why scientific studies on race intelligence have failed in the past and will continue to fail in the future.
Where did this unfruitful obsession with determining a race-based intelligence come from? Undoubtedly, race-based intelligence is a mutant concept of racism, a modern pillar of it, in fact. Many believe that racism stems out of the slave trade, imperialism and colonization, but these ideas are older than that. They are even older than the world’s most popular religions, which have also had an early hand in fostering racism. Racism has existed since various cultures began to co-mingle.
One of the earliest documented records of ideas on race is from the writings of Herodotus, the ‘father of History.’ Writing approximately 440 B.C.E. he researched marvelous histories of people such as Egyptians and Ethiopians. He describes many Africans as having black skin and wholly hair. On occasion, he refers to people that were not Greek-mainly yellow and black people, as “barbarians.” However, it should be noted people of other cultures at that time also regarded those not of their own group as barbarians.
In particular, scientific studies on race-determining-intelligence have unsuccessfully been conducted for centuries. The failure to prove this theory is not for lack of trying. The scientific avenues of inquiry on intelligence according to race have been studied from numerous angles. Psychology, Epidemiology, Statistics, Phrenology, Palentology, Anthropology, Eugenics (not only the Nazis used this “science”), Forensics, Social Darwanism, Biomedicine, and of course, Genetics are sciences that have all contributed to the hundreds of studies on, surrounding, or motivated by this topic.
Samuel George Morton ‘tested’ his collection of Native American, Egyptian and Caucasian skulls in the 1830s and 1840s by comparing brain sizes, which he defined as correlating to mental capacity. From the hundreds of skulls (retrieved through questionable methods) he surprisingly determined that caucasions were superior. Stephen Jay Gould is one of many scientist to prove the inconsistencies, omissions, miscalculations and pure absurity of this barbaric study and others like it.
In the 1900s the litany of “tests” racially comparing students’ IQs began not long after the turn of the century, but is famously associated with Lewis Terman. Innovating IQ tests in 1916, Terman tested children from various “races”-namely whites, blacks and reds. He determined that of the reds and blacks “their dullness seems to be racial.” A contemporary of his in the 1920s, African American psychologist, Horace Mann Bond refutingly analyzed Termans work uncovering his racism, as well as contributed scientific studies to academia that demonstrated the primary role of envirnoment and culture to the varying styles of cognative processing.
Ralph Bunche was another scholar who reiterated the overwhelming role of social circumstances in determining education results-a.k.a. ‘intelligence.’ This African American 1950 Nobel Peace Prize winner was a living example of the tremendous intellectual capacity of someone from any “race,” but he didn’t stop there. In a 1936 article “Education in Black and White,” Bunche provides sound logic that evaluating blacks and “other peoples in the nation cannot be divorced from the dominant political, social and economic forces active in the society.”
Yet in 2007 James Watson argues he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect 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.” As if addressing Watson himself, Bunche concludes in his 1936 article: “The difference between the problems of black and white working masses is one of intensity rather than in kind.” Of the two Nobel laureates, Ralph Bunche was the best qualified commentator on Africa, having been one of the most knowledgeable foreign experts on Africa of his time.
Surely, Bunche would have noted the problems of Africa have more to do with a brain drain, a minority of unscrupulous leaders and most importantly, foreign manipulation. At the same time, he also would declare that the continent of Africa is vibrant and continues to remarkably contribute to the betterment of mankind.
Wangari Maathai’s “Green Belt Movement” is excellent evidence of the bright future Africa may hold. This Kenyan female, a biologist, veterinarian, politician and Nobel laureate too (2004), has motivated hundreds of women to plant tens of millions of trees in Africa over the last 31 years. So, after all, it seems that intelligence can measured in different ways? Certainly reversing the trends of global warming to help save the earth for future generations is one sort of intelligence that will be helpful to all of the ‘races.’
NATALIE WASHINGTON-WEIK is currently researching Traditional Healing as an African History doctoral student at The University of Texas, Austin. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org