A conversation about race, genes, bias, and fairness.

Science, technology, and life.
May 8 2009 11:56 AM

Inequality Control

A conversation about race, genes, bias, and fairness.

(Continued from Page 1)

McWhorter's appeal also resonates with an overall pattern in social science. Based on the evidence so far, there's good reason to believe that genes influence everything and exclusively control nothing. Intelligence, in particular, is a field with lots of evidence for heredity but little evidence for the precise impact of any known gene. We're very early in this research. If you start poking around in scholarly debates over IQ and general intelligence, or "g," you start to realize how much the field resembles astronomy or particle physics, with entities and qualities being calculated from complex inferences rather than directly observed. That's not to say inferences and calculations aren't scientific. But we should beware mistaking them for unshakeable facts. This point is very much on my mind because in my initial foray into race and IQ, I wrote this:

On the one hand, the IQ surge is hugely exciting. If it closes the gap to zero, it moots all the putative evidence of genetic barriers to equality. On the other hand, the case for it is as fragile as the case for the Iraq surge. You hope it pans out, but you can't see why it would, given that none of the complicating factors implied by previous data has been adequately explained or taken into account.

Well, guess what? The Iraq surge worked. To quote the old sports cliché: That's why they play the game. The lesson I take from this is that the left should beware fatalism in foreign policy, and the right should beware fatalism in domestic policy. We should do what we can, as McWhorter proposes, and see what happens.

4. This doesn't settle the further question of whether unresolved performance gaps should continue to be framed in racial terms. I'm afraid that racial framing will perpetuate and promote differential treatment of people by race. McWhorter isn't. He points to President Obama's election and Sailer's political impotence. This requires a much longer discussion, but my initial reactions are that 1) Obama got where he is by religiously avoiding racial framing and 2) Sailer's higher-brain parsing of racial data mirrors a broadly shared lower-brain human tendency to classify and prejudge others  by tribe or visible characteristics. But I suspect that some of my disagreement with McWhorter here is temperamental. I tend to fixate on dangers and slippery slopes. He's less fearful. Society probably needs personalities of both kinds.

5. Millman raises a further question: If achievement gaps persist, to what extent should we rethink our current version of meritocracy: choosing leaders and distributing goods "according to a scale in which talent, and particularly talent at passing tests, predominates"? As opposed to, say, taking from each according to his ability and giving to each according to his need? I don't have a ready answer to that. In fact, even if I get my magic wish that race disappears from the conversation, I suspect that the convergence of meritocracy with genetics is leading us inexorably toward eugenics, with is really nothing more than an etymological expression of that convergence. But that's a topic for another day.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. Keeping abortion safe, legal, and early. 2. No marijuana taxation without legalization. 3. First they came for the Mexicans.)

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