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Ben Guest


Here is a good blog post discussing the same issue:


Key quote:

"It's not biologically possible for someone to directly inherit, via genes, a certain level of intelligence. Genes don't work that way. Everything about our genes is mediated through interaction with the environment. The dichotomy of "nature vs. nurture" actually does not exist."




I was born poor and have little education yet scored 154. What does that say? Same for my friend; she has what is called photographic memory and graduated college with a bell-curve blowing 99% average. Another one of my friends was born on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks, was borderline completely illiterate when I met him 4 years ago because he never had a chance in life. Yet I believe he borders on genius and if he could be tested would score intimidating levels of IQ, he can understand the mechanics of machines and electronics on levels that boggle the mind. Not to mention other high-level concepts.

We were certainly not born in conducive environments to become intellectuals and yet here we are. Despite the crappy nurturing and abusive upbringing, we rose above it all and developed our intellectual skills. Because the genetic make-up was there. These, like the skill to jump, or quickly climb a tree, are survival skills. When people say that the environment is responsible for IQ levels, not only are you beholding the poor will remain idiots unless some environmental change occurs, but again the rich are given the advantage.

Removing the racial division only to replace with a class or cultural division is no better. I doubt that skin colour has anything to do with IQ levels, because again, skin colour is just an adaptation for survival. Some people would love to pin IQ issues on race and justify a lot of hate and discrimination. And there are many different type of intelligences also, not just the calculating problem solving kind. How does one begin to categorise them in a hierarchy and who gets to decide? Because the person who decides will always chose his own tribe; another survival skill, like birds calling out to alert the others of an incoming predator.


So let's postulate that the IQ test is environmentally influenced. Is there an alternative to get at that a measurement of native intelligence?

There are definitely smart people and dumb people in this world. How can they be differentiated in a way that doesn't share the flaws of a traditional IQ test?

Lorna K

Thank you very much Malcolm Gladwell for writing the New Yorker article. I am a scientist (but not a writer) and I was outraged by the misinformation that was being spread by Saletan and Watson (Amy Harmon also wrote a reckless article in the NYTimes).
Measuring 'intelligence' is simply retarded. The tragedy is that despite knowing the source of disparity, people are more focused on advancing their group, at the expense of others. I'm glad, however, that we are having this debate because it allows us to address the lingering impact of subverting groups of people (blacks, women, over-weight people).
As for David ID, whether people are resilient or not may affect how 'intelligent' they may or may not appear to be. You may have grown up poor but if you are white (I am assuming you are) there are things in your environment that help stave off hopelessness. The president, your doctors, librarians, probably looked like you. I hope you don't take that for granted. That said, there may something about you and your friends (birds of a feather?) that may have made you resilient. It is natural to be curious about why some people are more successful than others within a certain framework but making rushed and sweeping generalizations that support one agenda or the other should be questioned thoroughly.

The Orpheus

Bravo on the New Yorker piece. If only it was enough to end the debate.

Don Berg

I found Howard Gardner's definition of intelligence based on the combination of brain structures, cultural supports and symbol systems to be an excellent way to account for the geniuses who do not score well on traditional I.Q. tests. Using his definition he has found evidence for 9 different intelligences, of which only a few are necessary on I.Q. tests. This means that someone who is extraordinarily intelligent in mechanical systems or interpersonal relations will not have that intelligence validated by the usual tests.

The important insight I take from this present article is the correlation of I.Q. with modernity. This explains to me the persistence of the I.Q. myth. It is a thoroughly modern idea and I have often rejected ideas that are considered modern, such as universal rationality, the possibility that we can eventually achieve complete knowledge of the universe, and that objectivity is attainable. The "nature vs. nurture" concept is a result of modernity and, as the first comment here points out, it is not a tenable framework for describing the way the world actually works.

Thank you for pointing out the connection between I.Q. and modernity, it really puts it in perspective for me.

Dr John McGowan

A really excellent piece. Clear and admirably restrained (given the twaddle some IQ researchers have peddled over the years). Someone like James Flynn (in his quiet way offers a powerful view of the limitations of this sort of pseudo-science).

I'm still alarmed the someone like Charles Murray gets so much air time really (though I have to say that in the UK we haven't heard about him for a few years). I can't help feeling that he is a scientist in the same way the David Irving in a historian: someone who will cherry pick the evidence and ignore the flaws in what he does pay attention to. Ultimately the evidence gets squeezed to fit a prejudiced template. Myself and my fellow undergraduates used to critique this stuff in first year psychology. How do these people get treated seriously?

Leo Salloum

The great thing about the article you've written, Mr. Gladwell, is the sincere way that the opposite point is engaged. At no point is there a nuisance raised about the motivation or morality of a person who believes that certain races are intellectually inferior.

The damning fact about such a person is that he or she is wrong. One need say nothing else -- the evidence has always been able to overcome the suggestion that race influences intelligence.

Those who argue the opposite (and incorrect) point often say that their voices have been silenced by 'political correctness.' They would be right, if they made factual points which were repressed using political means. Meeting these arguments sincerely and with no political weapons to hand is much more persuasive and valuable.


"This means that for the poor, improvements in environment have great potential to bring about increases in I.Q."

This makes more sense to me if stated as: ". . . improvements in environment have great potentional to bring about increases in PERFORMANCE ON IQ TESTS."

Also, as a factoid -- if I remember correctly, about the only thing that IQ positively correlates w/ is level of education; that is the higher the IQ score, the higher the level of education attained. I can't remember IQ score predicting future income, job success, that kind of thing. Just level of education attainment. Maybe I misremember?


Well Lorna, I maybe white, but being white doesn't grant me any favours, despite the standing rhetoric of today. American history isn't Canadian history.

To begin with I'm an Acadian (Cajun ancestors for you Americans), which means I'm from a people that has suffered and survived the first documented genocide and the memory of that is still alive in the collective memory of the culture. We're still treated like second class citizens in our own country where we were called, pardon the expression, the White Niggers of America.

Things have much improved from the times they locked us up in our churches and burned us alive but I remember times when we were refused service in stores and restaurants in Montreal, the second largest French city in the world (HA!) and that in Acadia, members of my own family were kicked out of hospitals for simply being Acadian, and this within living memory. I've been beaten with a hammer for being French. Assaulted by gangs of angry Anglos out to get some Frenchies just for kicks.

And I could on one for a book-length post about the injustices put upon the French people, right up until the 80s. Not allowed to own lands, fish and hunt, own certain types of businesses and so forth. And I'm not gonna go into the theocracy that lasted until the late 60s and that terrorised our culture (think Muslim theocracy as you see them in the news today but with Christianity instead) where pregnant women, even married, were publicly called whores and sluts because it was obvious that they had had sex.

So eh Lorna, yeah maybe you shouldn't ASS-U-ME too much indeed.

Rain And

"Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, in “The Bell Curve,” notoriously proposed that Americans with the lowest I.Q.s be sequestered in a “high-tech” version of an Indian reservation"

Ugh, more of that fantastic Gladwell pseudo-journalism. Herrnstein and Murray did the OPPOSITE of "propose" such a thing!! More like explicitly condemned!

Mr. Gladwell, The Bell Curve was written almost 15 years ago, is it too much to ask that you read the book before summarizing it, or at the very least, skim it, or even Google it??

A 30 second browse over Wikipedia would show you were hugely misrepresenting the book:

"In a discussion of the future political outcomes of an intellectually stratified society, they stated that they "fear that a new kind of conservatism is becoming the dominant ideology of the affluent - not in the social tradition of an Edmund Burke or in the economic tradition of an Adam Smith but 'conservatism' along Latin American lines, where to be conservative has often meant doing whatever is necessary to preserve the mansions on the hills from the menace of the slums below" (p. 518). Moreover, they fear that increasing welfare will create a "custodial state" in "a high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation's population." They also predict increasing totalitarianism: "It is difficult to imagine the United States preserving its heritage of individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives, once it is accepted that a significant part of the population must be made permanent wards of the states" (p. 526)."



momentarily getting away from potential, or lack thereof, racial differences in IQ, as an urban designer and city planner, I would be interesting in a study that compared children within similar socio-economic categories but varying physical environments given the assertion that quality of place matters. How does a child growing up in a monotonous suburban locale dependent on mom, dad, and/or the school bus for mobility vs. a child from a more interesting, diverse environment? After studying in Rome, i was struck by the level of maturity of the children from the middle school adjacent to my studio. they were entirely responsible for their own transportation to and from school. certainly, there are still enough walkable environments in the U.S. for study to limit the amount of variables. i've always assumed this was the number one factor supporting why some child psychologists believe that adolescence in americans now lasts from 18 to 35, lack of responsibility in sheltered environments. add that to another study i recall off the top of my head that children who walk to school watch four times less television than bussed children. I wonder how increased responsibility might play a factor in IQ tests supposedly intended to measure inherited mental acuity.


DAVE ID: "Despite the crappy nurturing and abusive upbringing, we rose above it all and developed our intellectual skills. Because the genetic make-up was there."

ME: This is a non-sequitur. The argument is that cognitively complex environments lead to higher IQs, and that our (i.e., westerner's) environments have been increasing in cognitive complexity. Nothing about crappy nurturing or abusive upbringing bears on this argument at all.

DAVE ID: "These, like the skill to jump, or quickly climb a tree, are survival skills."

ME: So, jumping and climbing don't improve with practice?

DAVE ID: "When people say that the environment is responsible for IQ levels, not only are you beholding the poor will remain idiots unless some environmental change occurs, but again the rich are given the advantage."

ME: Only insofar as poverty correlates with cognitive simplicity.

Also, Mr. Gladwell, you write, in the article that "Goddard ... established the idea that intelligence could be measured along a single, linear scale." This use of 'linear' (i.e., to mean serial or sequential) is a pet peeve of mine. Scales can't be linear, and all but nominal scales imply, by definition, an ordering of elements along that scale.

As a linguist, I find this shift (or extension) in the use of linear (vaguely) interesting (I'm a phonetician, so this kind of thing is not my focus), but as a researcher who makes extensive use of mathematical models and digital signal processing, I would prefer to maintain useful technical distinctions, such as that between 'linear' and 'sequential'. It's (again, vaguely) interesting that this 'misuse' of linear is widespread in linguistics itself.


noahpoah: The Ability to build a helicopter has been with us since modern man has been modern man. The means (technology) and the accumulated knowledge (such as the help of data storage - print) had to be developed through time for us to achieve the monumental achievement it is to construct something like a helicopter. The human brain has hardly changed since the rise of man. No nurturing is involved here, it's all wiring.

Back when the Europeans were still in caves beating each other over the head with sticks (I exaggerate) the Mayan, those primitive bastards (jokingly said), we're already devising extremely precise calendars and complex mathematical skills such as the concept of zero which for today sounds silly but for the Aristotelians was enough to declare war and commit bloody murder over. And yet they lived in the harsh brutal environments of the jungle.

As for linear... well, when it comes to words we use, unfortunately, popular consensus tends to win out over pet peeves.


Malcolm, i don't have a copy of "The Bell Curve" at hand, but i did browse Chapter 21 on amazon.com, and it seems to me that Rain And is right; they weren't proposing it, but rather speculating on what the future might bring.


Just read the New Yorker piece and thought it was really interesting and well-written.

However, I am not convinced (as the article seems to imply) that the evidence necessarily DISPROVES a correlation between race and IQ. [aside: I don't really have opinions either way as I haven't read very much about the issue.]

What the article does state with ample evidence is that environment plays a significant (if not predominant) role in the determination of IQ test performance. But that does not mean that controlling for environment (ie somehow giving kids of different races identical environments to grow up in) will erase any difference between test scores of different races. The article does cite a study done on German-American GI children in which mixed race and white children performed similarly on an IQ test, but because of the rather small sample population (I'm assuming this) and rather unique circumstances of these children, it would be difficult to determine if they are representative of their entire race at large.

Another lingering question I have is the idea that, as a previous poster has stated, people have different areas of intelligence that may or may not be measured on an IQ test. If some people can be born to be naturally adept at mathematical calculation, and others be naturally adept at art, why isn't it possible that certain races might have a comparative strength in certain areas of intelligence? Could it be possible that a larger proportion of the overall population of East Asians are predisposed to logical/analytical skills, and that a larger proportion of Africans are predisposed to artistic talents? I haven't seen a study on this yet.

And if a certain culture values a certain type of intelligence, wouldn't it be possible that over time, people possessing genes that are predisposed toward certain intelligences will have better procreational opportunities? Wouldn't that shift the overall population's intelligence composition?

Finally, I understand that culture is a touchy subject that tends not to be discussed in academic circles. But if a large influence on the creation of culture is the ability of people belonging to a particular culture to develop it, why couldn't differences in culture be partially explained (only partially because a lot of cultural development is environmental or just plain accidental) by differing types or levels of intelligence between communities (notice I said communities, not race)? If the community is racially homogeneous, then wouldn't their cultural development at least partially reflect their IQ levels? And if this "cultural effect" in turns promotes further environmental effects, couldn't an argument be made that a slight difference in IQ leads to a "virtuous-cycle" effect in which environment and natural ability reinforce each other?

Just some questions that I thought of but don't have any answers to. Apologies for the lean towards the "Race" side of the issue; since the arguments for the "equal IQ" side mostly involves stating that there is nothing between race and IQ to discuss, I couldn't think of any interesting questions to ask of the "Race" side.


yeah,you are soooooooooooooooo right.


That was a great article on race and IQ. One critique, though: you seemed to devote much to the Flynn effect (and similar IQ raising trends) without discussing relative distributions within defined populations at a certain fixed time. Hereditarians are usually quick to point out any type of "score" itself is an imperfect way of conveying the abstract concept of intelligence. It's one of the reasons, I believe, that Murray chose the term "bell curve" as a focus.

The most accurately measurable thing, it seems, would be the relative distrubution of IQ of a population, holding time fixed.

Jack Mott

There seem to be a few points left out of your New Yorker article that I think were very relevant

1. More primitive tests that correlate highly with IQ tests reinforce the notion that some races have lower IQs than others, including tests as simple as reaction time. Abstract thinking cultures shouldn't affect that

2. While you mention that black children adopted by white families score HIGHER on IQ tests, you don't mention that they still score worse than white children (if I am incorrect on this point, please correct me)

3. You mention that mixed children with white mothers score higher on IQ tests than those with black mothers, but don't mention that many of the genes associated with intelligent are on the X chromosone, which could be partially causing this. It could also be due to white women preferring high IQ black men more so than white men prefer high IQ black women.

You also seem to characterize that there are only two possible positions that are being taken on this issue, that genetics almost completely define a person IQ, or that they have almost no affect. There are a huge spectrum of possibilities that lie in between.

Jack Mott

Leo, you remember incorrectly. IQ correlates positively with income, job performance, marital stability, not going to jail, and lack of religiosity (a little ;) )

and I'm sure much more.

In America for instance people with IQs over 120 almost never go to jail! Of course that doesn't mean they aren't breaking the law, they just aren't getting convicted =)


DAVE ID: "The human brain has hardly changed since the rise of man. No nurturing is involved here, it's all wiring."

ME: Yet, the (wiring of) the human brain changes drastically over the course of an individual's lifetime. As for your comments about the Mayans and the Aristotelians, I don't know what that has to do with, well, anything.

DAVE ID: "As for linear... well, when it comes to words we use, unfortunately, popular consensus tends to win out over pet peeves."

Yes, this is unfortunate.

Christopher Horn

Ten years ago, Jared Diamond published the award-winning "Guns, Germs and Steel", which just about explained all of human history in a brilliantly simple manner.

Diamond focused in large part on the Polynesian islands to understand cultural differences, and today's topic brings to mind one particularly notorious vignette of Diamond's: the collision of the Maori islanders and Moriori islanders, which resulted in the annihilation of the herder Moriori by the agricultural Maori.

This isn't the place to get into the differences between the groups, and how those differences led to the annihilation of the Moriori by the Maori (read the book for that. Its certainly worthwhile).

The relevant point is this: we can certainly look back at the differences between the Maori and Moriori and label the Moriori "stupid" since they were utterly unprepared to handle their collision with the Maori. If we labelled the Moriori stupid we would of course be ignoring the fact that the Moriori were seemingly pretty smart - until the unanticipated day when the Maori's ships landed on their shore. Indeed, there's even that faint tinge of hostility toward the helpless Moriori in calling them "stupid" - a hostility perhaps not wholly dissimilar to the racism that sometimes informs today's debate.

To the extent that all of us came from a proto-hominid in Africa 40,000 years ago, in order to believe that one race is genetically smarter than another one needs to believe that one race's ancestors, post-proto-hominid, existed in an environment that selected for intelligence more strongly than some other race's ancestors.

Maybe. Maybe not. How the hell would you ever know?

"Writing about art is like dancing about architecture". So (apparently) said Frank Zappa. He might have said "Speculating about innate IQ differences is like dancing about architecture", though that might not have been as catchy.


Q: What do you call a veterinarian who got straight Cs in school?

A: "Doctor".

In fact, when I was studying to be a veterinary nurse, our professors (who were practicing veterinarians) told us that their best technicians were not A students, but B and C students.

It sounds odd, but the reason is that these students were busy being in school and also working in vet clinics. The A students (myself included) were doing busy work while the B and C students were learning how to save the lives of cats and dogs. To this day, I'd trust those B and C students to get the job done.

Despite doing very poorly on SATs and intelligence tests, I've done well and am now in grad school for conservation biology. I learned the hard way that field work trumps perfect grades. Some of those C students are now in vet school, and some are practicing vets.

It's time to ditch the IQ thing altogether. It's a subjective, fake and useless measure of the complex workings of our central nervous system.

Also, I'm so sick of people pitying the "poor". We put so much value on material things that we don't see "poor people" as having unique talents and the ability to contribute to society.

Do we think that aboriginal peoples are "poverty stricken"? I would give anything for their survival skills, forget about how they would score on the SAT!

I'm not saying that we should leave the underprivelleged in lousy conditions; I'm just saying, raising IQ tests is a waste of time. Give them skills, find them jobs. Find out what allows them to make a unique contribution to society.

Joe Riener

Several states, like Maryland, have capital punishment laws that exclude the mentally retarded. People are executed who score a 71. Those who score 69, can't be. It breaks my heart even more to realize how totally arbitrary this test is, how awful it is, that life and death decisions are based on it.

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