Controversial Canadian professor Philippe Rushton, best known for shocking the world in 1989 with a paper arguing some races were smarter than others, is back with another study saying blacks are not as genetically gifted as whites or East Asians. Sixteen years ago, his theory was incendiary. This time around, it was greeted with a shrug. What’s changed?
Has he softened his views? Have we grown tired of him? Or have advances in science made him more palatable?
Andrew Duffy investigates.
In January 1989, when University of Western Ontario psychologist Philippe Rushton presented a research paper at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco, it triggered an academic maelstrom.
His paper, which argued that genetic evolution has created identifiable IQ gaps among groups of East Asians, whites and blacks, was denounced by scientists on the conference floor. Why would he launch such an inquiry? How, they demanded, could he draw findings from intelligence tests that were culturally biased?
Then-premier David Peterson called him a racist and demanded that he be fired by the university. The police launched a hate crimes investigation. Security concerns forced him to deliver lectures by videotape.
Mr. Rushton became part of the Canadian lexicon, an epithet. He also became the most famous university professor in the country, a guest on The Geraldo Rivera Show.
All of which makes the muted reaction to Mr. Rushton’s latest academic paper so curious.
In June, Mr. Rushton and University of California psychology professor Arthur Jensen published a 60-page study in Psychology, Public Policy and Law, a journal of the American Psychological Association. In it, the scholars presented 10 categories of evidence, including military and academic tests, brain size and adoption studies, to support their contention that East Asians as a group enjoy an evolutionary advantage over whites, and whites over blacks, that has contributed to measurable intelligence gaps between them.
“Neither the existence nor the size of race differences in IQ are a matter of dispute, only their cause,” the authors wrote.
The cause of that difference is contentious. Some blame the tests, arguing that they measure a narrow, western notion of intelligence. Others say intelligence is primarily determined not by genetics but by environmental factors: poverty, nutrition, parental education, discrimination, the quality of local schools.
But Mr. Rushton and Mr. Jensen posit that 50 to 80 per cent of the IQ gaps between racial groups can be explained by genetics, by the gift of inherited intelligence.
That theory, they contend, holds important policy implications since it suggests that society must accept that group differences will repeatedly reveal themselves in scholastic achievement and other important measurements of “success.”
“Ultimately,” they wrote, “the public must accept the pragmatic reality that some groups will be over-represented and other groups under-represented in various socially valued outcomes.”
In other words, those who design social policy should not seek to create equality between racial groups—an impossible outcome in Mr. Rushton’s mind—but learn to live with the statistical differences.
“You absolutely have to accept that Chinese people are going to be under-represented on the basketball team, and that black people are going to be under-represented in high school graduates,” Mr. Rushton said in a recent interview.
“That is just a fact of life. And it really doesn’t matter how much lower you will place the bar, you will never equalize those outcomes, it is impossible.”
The findings, Mr. Rushton notes, do not apply to individuals, but to groups. It’s an idea that he believes must be taught in schools. “Even kindergarten children are capable of learning that although boys are typically taller than girls, many girls are taller than the average boy,” he says.
Although seemingly as incendiary as ever, Mr. Rushton’s latest ideas have generated little response from scientists or politicians, police or protesters. It has led even Mr. Rushton to ask: What has changed?
Why were his ideas so controversial 15 years ago but not now? Has Canada grown tired of him? Or have advances in genetic science pulled his theories into the mainstream?
Mr. Rushton says he would like to believe that his erstwhile critics have been silenced by the scientific force of his latest publication. But he’s not that naive.
“In fact, I think the opposite is the case,” he says. “It is just bad news to many people. So the best thing to do is just to avert the eyes and carry on, keep their heads in the sand.”
There’s no doubt that Mr. Rushton suddenly finds himself in an increasingly crowded field of inquiry.
In the 1980s, Mr. Rushton was viewed as a rogue academic. But today, a small army of scientists is exploring the genetic foundation of intelligence, and the genetic differences between people of African, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern and European descent. Their work flows from the landmark Human Genome Project, which found slight differences in the pattern of DNA among ethnic groups.
In June, for instance, the Journal of Biosocial Science published a paper by a team of University of Utah scientists who suggested that Ashkenazi Jews—Jews of European descent—have evolved an enhanced intellectual ability through natural selection.
The researchers, led by anthropologist Henry Harpending, found that Ashkenazim score higher on IQ tests than any other ethnic group to which they can be reliably compared. Six times as many Ashkenazim as Europeans score in the “genius range” above 140 on IQ tests.
Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler are part of the Ashkenazim bloodline, as are half of the world’s chess champions. In the U.S., Ashkenazim have won 27 per cent of the Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans, while making up just three per cent of the population.
Mr. Harpending and his colleagues concluded that natural selection has played a role in boosting the group’s brain power.
According to their theory, a millennium of discrimination in Europe forced Jews into intellectually challenging occupations as bankers and merchants—jobs then considered distasteful for Christians. Since European Jews married consistently within their own community, and since successful merchants tended to have larger families than less successful ones, a process of natural selection took place whereby genes that enhanced intelligence became more common.
(The researchers went on to hypothesize that the same genes that enhance intelligence may trigger neurological diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s and Niemann-Pick, that have an unusually high incidence among Ashkenazim.)
“Absolutely anything in human biology that is interesting is going to be controversial,” Mr. Harpending has said in defending his study.
Earlier this month, another study made news in Mr. Rushton’s once-isolated universe.
Published in the magazine Science, the University of Chicago study suggested that the brain continues to evolve rapidly because of the influence of two genes that help determine its size. What’s more, the study said, the genes are more readily found in some populations, such as in Europe and East Asia, than others, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa.
Again, the report’s conclusions held nettlesome social implications.
Mr. Rushton, however, said he was “delighted” with the University of Chicago study, which identified, for the first time, a gene related to brain size.
“This is exactly what all theory has to predict,” he says.
Mr. Rushton says that study, much like the work on the Ashkenazim, has lent respectability to his own work. “Here is another ethnic group (the Ashkenazim) that has been identified, genetically, as possessing a higher IQ,” he says.
“So if nature has not made every population group in the world exactly equal in mean IQ, if there is one somewhat above, then it’s quite possible to find one or two somewhat below?”
Mr. Rushton believes that he has always been a mainstream psychologist. The only difference now, he argues, is that the mainstream has been enlarged by the work of other scientists exploring the genetic basis of race, intelligence and disease.
Still, many of his colleagues continue to regard Mr. Rushton as academic nitro: a volatile and destructive force best left on the shelf.
The journal, Psychology, Public Policy and Law, took the unusual step of including three rebuttal essays when it published his most recent study. “What good is research of the kind done by Rushton and Jensen supposed to achieve?” asks one of the critics, Yale University psychologist Robert Sternberg.
Mr. Sternberg suggests the question to which Mr. Rushton has devoted himself has no value except to those cynics who would use it to justify discrimination. “Does science,” he asks, “really want to provide that ammunition?”
Mr. Rushton and Mr. Jensen offer an explosive response to that question.
They argue that their research is important because “we will never make progress in race relations if we operate on the belief that one segment of society is responsible for the plight of another segment and that belief is false.”
They suggest that policy-makers and judges have mistakenly ascribed “the underachievement of black people to prejudice and discrimination by white people,” rather than to genetic disadvantages. Mr. Rushton and Mr. Jensen then cite the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed racial segregation in schools, as an example of a decision based on just such a wrong-headed assumption.
Mr. Rushton claims to be interested only in truth and in the dissemination of science, even when it’s politically unpopular.
Yet there’s no denying that Mr. Rushton also has a nose for controversy that even Geraldo Rivera would envy.
He has written that Asians, as a group, have larger brains and exhibit more intelligence, family stability and sexual restraint than whites, and whites more than blacks. He has conducted a mass mailout of a book that propounds that theory to social scientists across North America.
Then, three years ago, he became president of the Pioneer Fund, a foundation incorporated in 1937 with the goal of “race betterment, with special reference to the United States.” Among other things, it funds scientific studies that examine the differences between human beings based on gender, race and class.
The Pioneer Fund has a checkered history. One of its first funding grants in 1937 paid for the U.S. distribution of a Nazi Party film on eugenics. The fund’s primary benefactor, Wickliffe Draper, was interested in the idea of repatriating U.S. blacks to Africa and later offered significant financial support for legal battles to oppose the racial desegregation of schools in the U.S.
That activity has led critics to charge that the Pioneer Fund hides an ugly political agenda behind its veil of science. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit advocacy organization, bluntly calls it a hate group.
Soon after accepting the job of Pioneer Fund president, Mr. Rushton authored a detailed defence of the foundation. He characterized it as a ground-breaking scientific enterprise inspired by the spirit of Charles Darwin.
“The directors of Pioneer Fund have always believed it is important to investigate the biological basis of traits like intelligence, the causes of racial and other group differences and the factors affecting demographic change,” he wrote. “Because some Pioneer grants have reached what some believe are politically unpalatable conclusions on these topics, they, and Pioneer, have become unpopular in some circles. We in no way apologize for supporting supporting this research . . .
“We also believe it is unscientific and counterproductive to tag any and all such research as ‘Nazi’ or ‘racist.’ “
Geneticists once seemed poised to eliminate race entirely from the field of science, to make Mr. Rushton obsolete.
In the early 1970s, Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin argued that the genetic differences between races were so infinitesimal that researchers would have no reason to sort people into classifications such as black, white and Asian.
His belief that race is “biologically meaningless” became an article of faith for many academics.
Then, in 2000, a seismic scientific event, the Human Genome Project, reordered the world of biology and made scientists take a fresh, new look at our genetic heritage.
At first, the DNA research seemed to affirm Mr. Lewontin’s message of equality and brotherhood. The 13-year project found that humans share with each other 99.9 per cent of their genetic heritage. All people possess the same basic set of genes, the researchers announced. The differences between individuals and races, they said, owe themselves to variations in a tiny fraction of the three billion letter sequence in the human genome.
Rather than explore what unites us, however, scientists have seized upon discovering exactly what separates us.
That’s because scientists believe the variation between people holds the answer to the genetic riddle of diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer.
It’s widely acknowledged that diseases are not evenly distributed among ethnic groups and races. Sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder, is considerably more common among those with African ancestry. Hemochromatosis, an inherited disorder that causes the body to absorb too much iron, is not found among Indians or Chinese, yet more than seven per cent of Swedes suffer it.
The incidence of hypertension, prostate cancer and kidney failure is higher among blacks than whites (although some of that variability can be tied to diet and lifestyle).
Scientists believe that mapping the DNA variability between races and ethnic groups may lead them to the genetic triggers of disease, which in turn, could produce important drug breakthroughs and treatments.
Canadian scientists are now part of a $185-million international effort to produce a detailed map of human genetic variation. The International Haplotype Project will chart the common DNA sequence variations between major ethnic groups based on the DNA of Han Chinese in Beijing, Japanese in Tokyo, Yoruba in Ibadan, Nigeria, and Utah residents with ancestry from northern and western Europe.
As more researchers explore the relationship between genetics and race, more have come to the conclusion that Mr. Lewontin was wrong.
Neil Risch, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading geneticists, has been a key figure in the still emotion-charged debate. Mr. Risch has argued that small genetic differences have evolved between races because of the geographic isolation of generations of sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans.
Mr. Risch has shown that researchers, by analyzing DNA, can correctly match an individual’s self-described race in 99.9 per cent of cases. There was a greater chance, he said, that researchers would incorrectly guess an individual’s self-described gender.
“There is great validity in racial/ethnic self-categorizations, both from research and public policy points of view,” Mr. Risch, now director of the Center for Human Genetics at the University of California, concluded in a 2002 paper in Nature Genetics.
Even Francis Collins, the former director of the Genome Project, conceded as much last year when he told Nature Genetics that the project’s researchers probably overstated their case about the insignificance of biology’s connection to race.
“It is not strictly true that race or ethnicity has no biological connection,” he said. “It must be emphasized, however, that the connection is generally quite blurry.”
The focus of the debate has now shifted to how scientists should properly categorize their findings about genetic variation.
Those like Mr. Risch believe that race is a legitimate method, but others argue that using race is unnecessary and sensational. The second school of thought holds that differences between people would more properly be expressed in terms of group “genetic markers” that correspond with different parts of the globe.
Most scientists today accept that genetics plays some role in human variation and that some combination of hereditary and environmental factors determine intelligence.
That point is conceded by two of the three critics who respond to Mr. Rushton’s latest publication in Psychology, Public Policy and Law.
The more challenging question is whether the IQ gap that has been identified between Asians, whites and blacks is fixed or changeable.
What can be done to raise group IQs and, more importantly, academic achievement levels among specific race and ethnic groups?
Charles Murray, co-author of the bestselling 1994 book The Bell Curve, recently published an essay in Commentary magazine in which he argued that, at the very least, educational outcomes can be improved. “Dropout rates, literacy and numeracy are all tractable. School discipline, teacher performance and the quality of the curriculum are tractable. Academic performance within a given IQ range is tractable,” he wrote. “The existence of group differences need not and should not discourage attempts to improve schooling for millions of American children who are now getting bad educations.”
New York University psychology professors Lisa Suzuki and Joshua Aronson argue the danger of Mr. Rushton’s theory flows from the implication that IQ gaps are largely immutable. It’s an idea, they say, that could diminish support for affirmative action hiring and pre-school educational programs aimed mostly at impoverished, black Americans.
For his part, Mr. Rusthon said that while black academic achievement can be improved, and while the IQ gap can be somewhat narrowed, there will never be equality.
Parents, he said, easily accept the idea that some of their children are more gifted intellectually or physically than other ones. As a society, he argued, we have to accept the same notion.
“It’s very harmful, this philosophy we currently have, which is that anybody, all of us, we can just reinvent ourselves. We can grow and change and develop into something very different, that somehow we’re not constrained genetically.
“The more you can realize who you are earlier, and that includes race and IQ, then personally the more you can accept it, the easier it will be.”
Mr. Rushton contends his ideas are controversial today only because they do not dovetail with popular religious and political dogmas about everyone being born equal. “It’s not happy news for a lot of people, so in that sense it is controversial,” he said.
He takes particular offence to the suggestion that his work is unnecessary and offers no meaningful social insight. Indeed, his response to that criticism is made of more Rushton nitrogylcerin, the kind that no amount of science is ever likely to defuse.
“If it really was a colour blind society, and nobody even noticed race, maybe there would be some more justification for it (the criticism),” he told the Citizen.
“But people are pulling their hair out and are saying, ‘What about Toronto the Good? Where did it go to?’ What about Ottawa? I’m sure it is the same? What about Montreal? I’ll bet you it’s the same. I’ll bet it’s the same in every bloody city in Canada where you have black people. It’s inevitable that it won’t be. So there you go.”