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Saletan Strikes!


The one thing that’s fairly clear is that William Saletan doesn’t understand the most compelling extant critiques of linking ethnicity with IQ. I’m unsure of two things, however. First, is Saletan intentionally or accidentally obtuse? Second, if Saletan is accidentally obtuse, are the causes genetic or environmental?

Saletan only briefly allows for the possibility that IQ is not an extraordinarily compelling proxy for intelligence, since it may only measure the “fit” of a group with contemporary social norms (norms that, incidentally, are created by the dominant social group). He suggests that this may be true, but that evolution is still on his side; Europeans and Asians and Africans have all been separated for 40000+ years, and thus it’s possible that they had time to evolve separately with different capabilities associated with their specific environments. That’s fine as far as it goes, but what Saletan doesn’t seem to understand is that, up until about 200 years ago, the vast vast vast vast vast vast vast vast majority of people in Africa, Asia, South America, North America, and Europe lived in essentially similar economic conditions. The creation of vast agrarian empires in Europe and the Far East didn’t transform the basic economic conditions set by the agricultural revolution, a revolution which happened, in different ways, all around the world. Thus, explaining that white descendants of impoverished subsistence farmers are smarter than black descendants of impoverished subsistence farmers because of evolution is rather less than compelling. The idea that IQ is a bad proxy for intelligence and should be jettisoned, however, is extraordinarily compelling.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of “race”. As anyone paying attention knows, the social categories of race in the United States especially have only the most tenuous relationship with any kind of genetic origin. People with white parents are white, with black parents are black, and with both white and black parents are… black. This, to say the least, is not a compelling scientific distinction. Moreover, acknowledge that recent African immigrants to the United States actually score better than African-Americans on these kinds of tests, and you’ve got some serious problems for the genetic theory.

Back to Saletan. Here’s the real issue; he writes a column called Human Nature, and as such has his antennae tuned to all of the latest crackpottery from evolutionary biologistspsychologists. I would strongly advise him to occasionally read his Slate colleagues on this topic. The contributing difficulty is that Saletan cannot view the world with anything other than centrist blinders; once he figured out that pro-lifers really aren’t pro-life, and that the folks at the Discovery Institute really don’t care about scientific discoveries, he had to come up with a parallel problem on the left. The most convenient is what he describes as “liberal creationism”, or the idea that African-Americans aren’t inherently stupid.

Keep up the good work, Bill.

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