Race and Ability

The Geography of Intellect.
by Nathaniel Weyl And Stefan Possony.
Regnery. 356 pp. $7.95.

We could use, right at this moment, a hard, strong statement of the racist case. Entirely too much is being taken for granted these days, especially in education, where it is widely assumed that all problems will be solved if only someone in authority will go to a teacher who has been struggling for twenty years with the failures of her colored pupils, and growl at her the magic words, “Expect more!” The future of the civil rights movement is imperiled not only by the arousal of racism in the white majority but also by the refusal of the movement (particularly the whites in its leadership) to face the frightening incapacity of most American Negroes. Those of us who are quite sure that all Negro disabilities have their roots in chattel slavery and systematic repression—but who can see, too, that years of continuously imaginative work will be required to repair the damage—need a relatively complete list of what it is that we shall overcome. And only a racist would have the heart to write a book about it.

The Geography of Intellect purports to be such a book. Its authors are not obscure Mississippi judges, but men who have taught at universities and supped at the tables of the foundations, even as you and I. “No one can read Nathaniel Weyl,” the National Review has said proudly, “without realizing that he is clearly a man of intellectual honesty, attempting to perform a signal service for us all.” In this case, according to Weyl and his colleague Stefan Possony, the service is a proof “that mental capacity tends to be adequate among peoples and races adjusted to cold and temperate climates, but inadequate among those adjusted to hot climates.” The argument runs, with much show of scholarship, from the dim beginnings of man to the dim conclusions of Erich Fromm. There are stopping points in Egypt, Greece, and Rome; in Africa, the Near East, China, and India; among the Jewish Diaspora; and among the Mongol hordes. We examine climatic conditions, the surnames of people in Who’s Who, the question of loyalty among intellectuals, the nature of scientific method, brainwashing, and much, much else.

Now, whether one agrees with it or not, there is a reasonable argument that some races are for modern practical purposes less capable than others. To begin with, despite what we now teach schoolchildren, race is not a “myth”; it is a reality, demonstrable by differences in the frequency distribution of blood types, taste sensitivity, hairiness, and body structure as well as by skin color. Given race-determined differences so considerable as the ones we can demonstrate, it is not impossible that there are also differences in mental capacity. And Negroes and American Indians do consistently perform less well as a group than Caucasians and Mongols as a group on mental tests involving symbolic analysis. During World War II, selective service rejections for failure to meet minimum mental standards were six times as great for Negroes as for whites. Today, a third of the Negro high-school graduates in Georgia (already a highly selected fraction) score in the chance range (about as well as a child would do by poking pins at the paper) on the College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Weyl and Possony present these data briskly and fairly straight. They are obviously naive in treating the whole business of I.Q. testing as though only one sample of abilities were possible, and sometimes they fudge a little in their choice of statistics. Offering Army General Classification Test results, for example, they omit the fact that Negroes from New York and Ohio scored better than whites from several Southern states, preferring to stress that New England Negroes as a whole scored less well than Southern whites as a whole. On balance, however, ignoring for the moment questions of interpretation, the information content is good in the forty or so pages which contain the essence of the case. But the book has 250 other pages which are clangorous with the rattling of the kitchen sink.



Indeed, what is most impressive about this book is the quantity of its miscellaneous irrelevance. The unwary reader is hit here by the proposition that lead poisoning caused the decline and fall of Rome, there by the sexual habits of the heathen Chinee (very odd); again, by solemn comparisons of the prevalence of ozone at various periods of the earth’s maturity, or by little character sketches like “[Harry Stack] Sullivan, the prophet of interpersonal relations, was too warped and disturbed a human being to have good interpersonal relations with anyone.” Everybody will find his own favorite bit of irrelevance. Perhaps yours will be the mild little criticism of the Nazis: “Completely misunderstanding human genetics, they believed they were killing Untermenschen.

Some of this irrelevance probably reflects the lack of confidence, the need to assert one’s alliance with “the facts,” which right-wing political attitudes seem to engender. Some, however, is the inevitable result of the bewildering variety of source materials which the authors employ. They will quote absolutely anybody—the citations range from Albert Q. Maisel in Reader’s Digest through personal letters from remote Hindu scholars to unpublished doctoral dissertations and the high-school girl’s friend, Encyclopaedia Britannica. But because they have “read up” on their subject, rather than worked in it, they miss a good deal of data that would be persuasive for their case—the recent Chicago study, for example, indicating that of the Negro relief recipients who were educated in Illinois, more than one-third are illiterate (for those educated in Mississippi, the figure is 77 per cent).

Even when they have relevant data, the authors reach so far, and tie up their argument so insecurely, that they curse themselves with inconsistency and contradiction. On one page, for example, we are told that “important recent research on the relationship between season of birth and intelligence casts further light on the stupefying effect of a tropical climate. Mills found that children in Cincinnati latitudes who were conceived during the summer months had just about half as good a chance of entering college as those conceived in the winter months. Only four of 33 Presidents were conceived in the summer months . . .” But on the next page a different set of figures is used for the same purpose, and the focus shifts: “. . . hospitalizations for mental disorders were proportionately greatest among April-through-July conceptions. . . . The negative correlation between mental ability and temperature during the third month of pregnancy seems established.”

Now, these theories simply will not pull together, however boldly they are placed in the same boat. Summer conception and hot weather during the third month of pregnancy are not the same conditions. Among the Presidents conceived in April-through-July, for example, we can number Washington, Lincoln, F. D. Roosevelt, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, and others—and most of them were carried where the summers are hot.

Errors of this sort, while annoying, are not ruinous, because they can be laid to mere eagerness. A greater setback for anyone who wishes to rely on Weyl and Possony is’ presented by their obvious incapacity in handling psychometric statistics—which are, after all, what the discussion is about. They plunge into this jungle with a fine show of authority, including a snide remark about “precautions” which “will be more or less self-evident to people with some training in mathematics, but not all sociologists fall into this category.” Even before this palpable touch can be marked up by the judge, however, we are told to “assume that the distribution of I.Q.’s corresponds to the Gaussian normal probability curve of error.” This is then described in a footnote as “a curve, the ordinates of which are the parameters of the binomial expansion of (a plus b) to the power n, where a equals b and as n approaches infinity.” What Weyl and Possony wish to talk about here is the “bell-shaped curve” of normal distribution; it will be more or less self-evident to people with some training in mathematics that this isn’t it.

And the point the authors are trying to make here is itself a rather startling sign of ignorance. They are using their pseudo-math in an effort to prove that if there were a fifteen-point decline in the average I.Q., “the production of highly intelligent people, those with LQ.’s of 130 and over, would decrease from 2.27% to about 0.13% of the population.” This statement would hold true only if there had to be just one bell-shaped curve, which simply moved down fifteen points. Differing standard deviations, however, differing shapes for the curve, are not only imaginable, they are common; such differences are among the advertised distinguishing characteristics of competing intelligence tests. I.Q. scores are not random phenomena. In fact, the curve describing the performance of the American Negro population on I.Q. tests is not the normal curve at all; it is seriously skewed to the right.

Later, in a discussion of artificial insemination, the authors propose donors with I.Q.’s of 160 and recipients with I.Q.’s of 120, and say that “the most probable value of the I.Q. of the progeny would be 140, and we could assume that half would rank higher and half lower.” This, again, is psychometric illiteracy, because the march of generations is known to produce a regression toward the mean in I.Q. scores—a dip toward 100 for the children of bright people, a rise toward 100 for the children of dumb people.

With this passage, it becomes clear that Weyl and Possony, for all their reading, have neglected to examine the fundamental of their subject—the nature of genetic inheritance. Undoubtedly, we are all limited by the genetic characteristics of our ancestors. And in the still obscure process by which genes come together, some characteristics are dominant while others are recessive. But each individual has so many ancestors that the gene pool from which he draws must include a wide variety of possibilities. Stupid people can (and do) produce very bright children; intelligent people can (and do) produce dull children. It is the random element in inheritance which accounts for the statistically observed regression phenomena. What we are usually dealing with in this area is probability rather than full predictability.

Weyl also places great weight on the analysis of names in Who’s Who. But such data are almost worthless as documentation for his argument, because prominence feeds on itself. There are five sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in Weyl’s favorite book, but most observers will rapidly concede that not every one of them would have made it by his own efforts.



Clearly this book is intended by its publishers to be taken seriously by serious people. The back of the jacket quotes tributes to the authors not only from the National Review, but also from the New Republic, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the New Leader, the New York Times, Henry Steele Commager, Nathan Glazer, Morris Ernst, and others. And for all their irrelevance, their malice, and their errors, Weyl and Possony have, indeed, done a considerable amount of homework. But they started and finished with a thesis for which the evidence is painfully slight, and the dredging operation to dig up what there is coats the whole area with slime.

Yet the subject is not trivial. Most physical anthropologists believe that the races of man are roughly equivalent in their capacity for mental adaptation. People who use the low average I.Q. scores of Negro and Amerindian populations as proofs of racial inferiority are confusing correlations with causes. Weyl and Possony mention, without drawing any conclusions from the data, one of the most beguiling examples of mental adaptability—the rapid rise of I.Q. scores among Osage Indians after oil was found on what the authors rather ungraciously describe as “land which the U.S. Government gave them.” But the same event broke up Indian custom and tribal cohesion—just as economic advancement destroyed the Orthodoxy and drastically altered the family pattern of the immigrant Jews. It is more than reasonable to believe that mental adaptations must pull a heavy cultural weight, that they do not occur spontaneously without strong environmental demands, and that they are often painful to the individuals involved and therefore consciously avoided in many cases.

Obviously, our treatment of the Negro in the United States is disgusting, and it is preposterous to expect a high order of adaptation from a rejected, ghettoized, and deprived community. But if Martin Luther King’s prayers were granted tomorrow, and discrimination were somehow wiped away from on high, the Negro leaders would be just at the beginning of the job of making the bulk of their community into successfully functioning members of a sophisticated industrial society. We are in for some dank and dreary years of delay if discussions about the Negro are to take place only between people who think the job is easy and people who think it is impossible.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link