Can we have an open debate about IQ, genes, and group differences? Reassessing the legacy of James Flynn

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I once spoke to a human geneticist who declared that the notion of intelligence was quite meaningless, so I tried calling him unintelligent. He was annoyed …

– Nobel Prize laureate, Peter Medawar

Of all the endless nature vs nurture arguments, the debate over intelligence and ‘race’ is the most toxic. It also seeps over into wider unease with human genetic research; the fear, for example, that recent advances in ancient human DNA analysis can be used by those with nefarious intentions to resurrect problematic ‘race’ folk theories. 

Given this seeming potential for reviving damaging beliefs, some scholars question whether “we would be better off to give up on particular lines of research” in the human sciences, including “the quest to trace patterns of human migration.” Others, meanwhile, argue for “tighter restrictions” on research into cognitive differences between different human populations. That said, the impetus to explore our ancestral evolution and its impacts remains an essential scientific pursuit, as it is at the backbone of research exploring how human differences impact disease and potential targeted cures.

Such arguments about ‘race’, intelligence and possible censorship were of particular concern to US-born and educated New Zealand scientist and intelligence researcher James Flynn, who died in December 2020, aged 86. Flynn was the IQ debate’s great scholarly champion of environment over genes, known for his respectful rebuke of scholars who took a more deterministic view of the complex relationship of intelligence, genes, and the environment.

IQ and tests

This century-long debate flared in 1969 following the publication of an article in the Harvard Educational Review, in which psychologist Arthur Jensen claimed that observed IQ differences between Blacks and Whites was due mainly to genetics. Jensen further argued for a reset on the poverty reforms that were then rolling out under the Johnson Administration, arguing that compensatory education programs that assumed racial groups were ‘blank slates’ with environment alone the only detriment to equality of performance—Head Start, for example—were destined to fail.

The article caused an uproar that still rages. Jensen, who died in 2012, was widely denounced as a racist, particularly in the popular press and by social scientists. Instead, Jensen’s  critics maintained that environmental factors rather than genes passed along in ancestral cohorts almost entirely explained racial disparities in test scores, a radical environmentalist position that few hard scientists hold today.

This was also when the movement to end the use of IQ tests first emerged. Today, persistent differences in SAT or ACT results among races have been cited as a reason to stop using the exam in college admissions. Last May, many University of California colleges announced they was scrapping its SAT or ACT requirement, as have many other American universities.

Flynn vs Jensen

Having migrated to New Zealand in 1963 “to escape the political repression of the McCarthy era”, Flynn, now based at the University of Otago in Dunedin, responded skeptically to Jensen’s claims. And understandably so. For instance, how could Jensen explain away Flynn’s voluminous documentation that IQ scores among racial and ethnic groups world-wide have risen considerably from one generation to the next? In the 20th century, Flynn discovered, the scores of entire countries rose by more than the Black-White disparity in the entire US. How could that be if IQ was genetically ‘fixed’? He summarized much of this research in a ground-breaking response to Jensen published in 1980.

In 1987, in an article in American Psychologist, Jensen praised Flynn’s criticism of his own work:

… I am asked by colleagues, students, and journalists: who, in my opinion, are the most respectable critics of my position on the race-IQ issue? The name James R. Flynn is by far the first that comes to mind. His book, Race, IQ and Jensen (1980), is a distinguished contribution to the literature on this topic, and, among the critiques I have seen of my position, is virtually in a class by itself for objectivity, thoroughness, and scholarly integrity. 

In a study released in 2006, Flynn and a co-author, William Dickens, concluded that Black Americans had gained as many as seven IQ points on Whites since the early 1970s and into the 1990s, a finding that is hard to explain if intelligence is genetically fixed. The theory that Flynn developed was dubbed “The Flynn Effect” by scholars Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray, co-authors of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life, the 1994 tome that faced similar harsh criticism as Jensen’s earlier expressed views. 

In the decades since, numerous explanations of the Flynn effect have been proposed, as well as some skepticism about what has driven it and its implications. For example, there is intense debate about whether the rise in IQ scores corresponds to a rise in general intelligence or only a rise in special skills related to taking IQ tests, as schools have been turned into test-taking hot houses, in part because teacher salaries and administrative jobs are often tied to raising test scores.

Others argue that the Flynn Effect’s observed gains in IQ over time are unrelated to ‘g’ (also known as ‘general intelligence’) that many psychometricians believe is a fairly unchangeable mental capacity. (‘g’-scores are used in many professions to predict performance; e.g., the US military and even the National Football League, with its Wonderlic test, utilize g-weighted tests in their evaluations).

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In parallel with the measured gains in IQ scores, long-term declines have been found for “mental speed, digit span backwards, the use of difficult words, and color acuity, all of which are related to intelligence.” More recently, the Flynn effect appears to be fading, as the IQ measure distance between some populations and others has grown. Research suggests that there is now a decline in IQ scores, in Norway, Denmark, Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, France and German-speaking countries, a development which appears to have started in the 1990s. The Flynn effect appeared to have most influenced people born during the mid-1970s (co-incidentally a period of dramatic social transformation on racial issues), and has significantly declined ever since.

Flynn himself relished the debates that his research had stimulated. A life-long social democrat, he was outspoken in defence of free speech, including the right — indeed, the desirability — of open and honest debate on possible group differences in intelligence.

And this willingness to engage with those holding different opinions readily explains the reaction to news of Flynn’s death by his peers. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, a sharp critic of ‘blank slate’ post-modernist critical theory, immediately expressed sadness at the passing of a “defender of Enlightenment ideals”. Of particular note was the response of The Bell Curve co-author and conservative political scientist Charles Murray:

By America’s current standards of academic discourse, Jim Flynn and I should have been at each other’s throats,” Murray said. “We did in fact have different perspectives, though more nuanced than most people thought.

But those differences hadn’t the slightest effect on Jim’s collegiality toward me or any of the people with whom he disagreed. … How else are you going to learn, Jim thought, except by engaging with people who see things differently? …  Jim represented what a scholar is supposed to be—open, curious, passionate about his beliefs but without either self-righteousness or rancor, determined above all else to get it right.

Unfortunately, while scholars are supposed to be open and curious, much of the passion and argument over ‘race’ and IQ has been self-righteous and rancorous. As Flynn himself readily acknowledged, those least open to discussion and most ready to censor opposing opinions, frequently came from his own leftist end of the political spectrum. 

These were the ones, he argued, “who boycott debate” and “put their money on indoctrination and intimidation”, thereby “forfeit[ing] a chance to persuade”. (Here, Flynn’s position reflects characterizations of critical theory proponents that conservatives see as promoters of ‘cancel culture’.)

How to argue with a racist

In his recent bestselling book, How to Argue With a Racist, geneticist Adam Rutherford emphasises the need “to equip [people] with the scientific tools necessary to tackle questions on race, genes and ancestry” and “to provide a foundation to contest racism that appears to be grounded in science”.

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Jim Flynn, too, had long pointed to this danger — that without an understanding of the scientific arguments, “humane-egalitarian” idealists would flounder against informed and articulate racists. 

Censoring debate about the subject would then be doubly counter-productive, further removing the knowledge needed to challenge genuinely racist arguments or, more importantly, the political conclusions that arise from racist misinterpretations of human biological research. That’s the thrust of the argument made in GLP founder’s Jon Entine controversial but critically-praised book, 2000 Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We are Afraid to Talk About Them, in which he wrote:

Although discussing racial differences is likely to provoke strong reactions, on balance and in proper context strong emotions are healthy. …

The “why” of human differences–black/white, male/female, Italian/Irish, between Slavic ethnic groups or one African tribe and another–is likely to remain only crudely measurable. Race–marked by skin color, ethnicity, and geography–is a fuzzy concept. …The challenge is in whether we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than fanning distrust. 

In one of his last essays on this topic, Flynn re-emphasised what “Those who want to forbid discussion and scientific investigation ignore”, for instance, the ability to defend your position with facts “rather than just right opinion” and the opportunity to hone your argument by having its weaknesses revealed. “[T]ruth gains vitality from being challenged rather than being an unquestioned inheritance,” he argued.

To kill an idea is to forfeit all rewards that may flow from reaction to that idea. If I had not read about [research into group differences], with its emphasis on IQ and the general intelligence factor, I would never have documented massive IQ gain over time, or urged a revolution in the theory of intelligence, or connected cognitive gains and moral gains …

In contrast to Flynn, those who argue against open discussion of contentious science fear it will breathe new life into socially harmful ideas, akin to publicising the details of how to build “massively destructive bombs” or to create “deadly viruses”. And on their side of the argument is the undeniable fact that past beliefs about racial superiority/inferiority caused incalculable harm. 

Nevertheless, the analogy with socially destructive bombs and viruses implies that everyone, regardless of existing political beliefs or values, would suffer through public debate of sensitive issues. Yet is this really the case? If, for example, evidence of genetic differences between racial populations was more widely discussed, would this inevitably lead more people to become racists? We believe not; the egalitarian moral belief that people should be treated equally is not dependent on people actually being equal in all respects. 

Of course, given the odious history of twisted interpretations of Darwinian theories of ‘race’, some form of use or abuse analysis of proposed research is warranted. As part of this, though, the detrimental consequences of creating taboos on discussion must also be taken into account (for instance, conceding the argument to racist ideologues who may present themselves as simply telling the unpalatable ‘truth’ that others are too scared to discuss). 

In the absence of a scientifically accurate account of racial diversity, we cannot adequately challenge pseudo-scientific racist arguments. In addition, avoiding discussion of human biological diversity may limit our understanding of the genetic basis of disease and hamper medical research that could improve peoples’ lives.

Genes do not determine values or identity

The problem here is egalitarians tying their political values to actual facts about human biology; the mistaken belief that moral equality is dependent on all people being biologically or psychologically the same. Yet as Pinker argued in The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature, when scientific evidence appears to conflict with political values, “people are tempted to suppress the facts and to clamp down on debate … leav[ing] us unequipped to deal with just those problems for which new facts and analyses are most needed”. screen shot at am

Geneticist David Reich has made much the same point about those who decry genetic research into human diversity as inherently racist. The “well-meaning people” who deny likely genetic differences between different human populations, Reich suggested, “are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science”. 

And Flynn too emphasises where attempts at censorship miss their mark: “Suppressing free inquiry is by its nature an expressive of contempt for truth by power. The truth can never be racist.”

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With regard to intelligence research, far from being ‘massively destructive’, such studies could, in future, prove hugely beneficial, especially in education. Without a clear understanding of human cognitive development, and how it is determined by both genes and environment, we are hamstrung in our attempts to improve an existing education system that persistently frustrates so many. Indeed, by ignoring the biological side of the interplay between genes and environment, we may be simply setting up many young people to fail, generation after generation. Those promoting practical uses of “personal genomics,” for instance, see the potential for tailoring education to reflect the needs and the abilities of individual learners, rather than forcing all learners into a one-size-fits-all system.

As for Flynn, he admitted to having “no illusions … that the debate over race and IQ will end. 

And I do not deny that it could have social and political consequences. Perhaps someday we will conclude that a portion of the present gap will prove to be genetic in origin. I do not want to sugar the pill but will only say I am not too alarmed.

Yet even if the “worst case scenario” of ineluctable differences in cognitive ability proved to be the case (which is far from certain), this does not destroy the humane-egalitarian desire to create a better future society. After all, if everyone had a decent standard of living, much of the heat linking biology with racial inequality would fade — a point Flynn illustrated with joking reference to his own Irish ancestry: 

Assume that the lower job profile of Irish Americans compared to Chinese Americans is due in part to genes: I do not know one Irishman who cares (the English would be a different matter).

For the first time in history science, promises a glimpse of how the world’s different populations — popularly and simplistically called races — have evolved. Going forward, the tsunami of information genetic research is now unlocking will revolutionize medicine, as we develop targeted, personalized response to diseases based on individual and group inheritance. Research on the brain is just part of that mostly-promising and optimistic enterprise.

In his reflections on Human Diversity, a book that came out shortly before Flynn’s death, Charles Murray pointedly suggested that many of those most opposed to research on the brain and IQ mistakenly equate human intelligence with human worth. That’s understandable. With these caveats in mind, it is perhaps fitting here to leave the last word to Murray, Flynn’s supposed great adversary: in losing Jim Flynn, he says, “We have lost an exemplar”.

Disclosure: James Flynn was the external examiner of Patrick Whittle’s PhD thesis, looking at the implications of human evolutionary theory for egalitarian political ideas.

Patrick Whittle has a PhD in philosophy and is a New Zealand-based freelance writer with an interest in the social and political implications of biological science. Follow him on his website patrickmichaelwhittle.com or on Twitter @WhittlePM

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