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Politics & IQ

In response to:

Unnatural Science from the February 3, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

In his review article “Unnatural Science” (NYR, February 3), P.B. Medawar correctly observes that the subject of IQ heritability is “bedeviled more than any other by the tendency of disputants to spring into political postures which allow them no freedom of movement.” His analysis thus begins to unfold in the clear, statesmanlike prose we have come to expect from this distinguished biologist. The doctrinaire Marxists are next dismissed along with the politically motivated hereditarians; the merit of objectivity in science is reaffirmed; the intricacies of the subject and the great difficulty of assessing the evidence are stressed.

Then Professor Medawar falls into a trap. He notes that several leading geneticists are skeptical of the existence of any substantial heritability of IQ. Why, he asks, do they lean to the extreme environmentalist view? Because “at a time of deeply troubled race relations, when the whole possibility of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect in multiracial communities is in question in many parts of the world, these geneticists feel an imperatively urgent desire to put the scientific record straight.”

This, I submit, is pure rhetoric, which does neither science nor human relations any good. It might help a little to mention that a comparable number of distinguished geneticists find the evidence of heritability persuasive, and that their intentions are also honorable. But what is much more important is the fact that Professor Medawar gives the appearance of coming down on one side of the argument—it doesn’t really matter which side of the argument—on the basis of political considerations. I would like to recommend a different attitude toward this cruelly divisive subject. Instead of distinguishing between hereditarians and environmentalists, and morally judging researchers according to the size of the heritability score they publish, we should distinguish between those who wish to politicize human behavioral genetics and those who wish to depoliticize it.

Opprobrium, in my opinion, is deserved by those who politicize scientific research, who argue the merits of analysis according to its social implications rather than its truth. In the field of human behavioral genetics especially, scientists are obliged to try to decouple the process of analysis and the discussion of its implications, for no one can say what these implications will ultimately be, and in our present state of ignorance dehumanizing scenarios can be built on extreme environmentalism as easily as on genetic determinism. A corollary of this procedure is that the analysis should be judged by experts who are not committed to an ideology that requires one outcome as opposed to another. In the case of the heritability of intelligence, there are many more such experts than one might judge solely from a reading of the unfortunate polemical literature frequently encountered in our literary and popular journals.

Edward O. Wilson

Cambridge, Massachusetts

P.B Medawar replies:

I am afraid Mr. Wilson has not grasped the gist of my article. The points I was making were these:

1) It is not possible to attach a single-number valuation to intelligence.

2) It is not possible to attach exact percentage figures to the relative contributions of nature and nurture to differences in IQ scores.

I have not said that differences of intelligence are not to any degree heritable, but I did say, and I take this opportunity to reaffirm, that bad science should not be allowed still further to endanger race relations or do anything to put the underprivileged at a still greater disadvantage. These considerations were, I think, the principal motivation of the very distinguished geneticists whose names I spelled out. I believe it libellous to the point of being actionable to impute political motives to them.

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