Genetic Indexing Of Race Groups Is Irresponsible And Unscientific

There is an irony in the fact that Philippe Rushton has had to invoke the Canadian Libel and Slander Act to silence reaction to his research. The defining criteria of libel and slander are that the statements made are untrue, that is, cannot be substantiated by any concrete evidence, and that they are harmful. The irony is that the law ought to be invoked against Rushton rather than his critics. Using a variety of "measurements," from penis size to cranial capacity and I.Q. scores, Rushton has

May 14, 1990
Garland Allen

There is an irony in the fact that Philippe Rushton has had to invoke the Canadian Libel and Slander Act to silence reaction to his research. The defining criteria of libel and slander are that the statements made are untrue, that is, cannot be substantiated by any concrete evidence, and that they are harmful. The irony is that the law ought to be invoked against Rushton rather than his critics. Using a variety of "measurements," from penis size to cranial capacity and I.Q. scores, Rushton has "discovered" a hierarchy of races in which Asians stand at the top and blacks at the bottom, with whites in an intermediate position. His selective citation and/or misrepresentation of source materials is an insult to his colleagues and to the racial groups, especially blacks, that he maligns as evolutionarily backward. What could describe more accurately a libelous or slanderous statement? Moreover, setting forth ideas about the biological inferiority or superiority of one or another racial or ethnic group not only is socially irresponsible, but also can lead only to disastrous results. When people compare Rushton's ideas to the racial hygiene theories of the Nazis, they have exactly this point in mind.

Rushton expresses surprise at the controversy that has greeted his theory. He attributes that reaction to a taboo that has been imposed on the scientific study of race, largely in response to the horrors associated with Nazi race science. He claims that since the end of World War II, a misguided egalitarianism has led biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists to favor environmental explanations for differences in personality and social behavior among various racial and ethnic groups. For breaking with this tradition, and demonstrating through "honest" research that biological factors might lie at the heart of the relative socio-economic differences between the three major human races, Rushton claims that he has been seriously maligned by fellow scientists and by the press. Free inquiry in his view has been stifled for political and social reasons. According to Rushton, scientists should pursue the truth wherever it may lead, regardless of the unpopularity of the conclusions.

If Rushton were to look more closely at the history of research on racial group differences, and if he were less naive about what he thinks following truth means in science, he might realize that there are very sound reasons why many scientists have reacted so negatively to his research. It is not merely that the conclusion is unpopular, or goes against a prevailing doctrine of egalitarianism.

Biologists, in particular, have had considerable experience over the past century and a half with theories that, like Rushton's, purport to show that the various races are innately different in terms of behavioral and cultural traits, and that these differences show one group to be superior (or inferior) to another. Such theories include:

  • Plato's "audacious lie" of the metals, in which all men are born with one of three distinct natures represented by gold, silver, or iron. (Plato at least acknowledges this theory to be a "lie," but one that is useful for social control.)
  • Eugenicists' claims during the period 1900-40 that social and personality traits such as criminality and feeble-mindedness were due to individual genes inherited in a dominant or recessive manner.
  • Psychologist Arthur Jensen's claim in 1969 that racial differences in intelligence are largely due to genetic causes (Jensen, A. "How much can we boost I.Q. and scholastic achievement?" Harvard Education Review, 33:1-123, 1969).

All of these theories have been referred to under the general term of biological determinism, meaning the determination of social and behavioral traits by innate, biological - at present understood to mean genetic - factors. But no theories of biological determinism advanced to date have stood the test of time. In addition, biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists who know the subject of human genetics recognize immediately the methodological difficulties in trying to demonstrate significant biological differences in behavioral and social traits between individuals or groups. This is not only because "race" is a loose category with no real biological meaning, but also because of the extreme difficulty in separating innate behaviors (if there are any) from learned behaviors in human beings. Biologists and anthropologists also recognize the fallacy of claiming that any group is biologically inferior or superior to another.

Egalitarianism a-side, such claims smack of a subjectivity and bias that anthropologists and evo- lutionary biologists have been struggling to avoid for more than a century. Rushton is right: There was suspicion about his claims from the outset, but it is not simply because people found his conclusions politically or morally offensive. Past experience and present knowledge warn us that Rushton may be claiming more than he can demonstrate, and that his so-called honest research requires careful scrutiny.

That scrutiny is now taking place, as several individuals and groups, most notably psychologist Frederic Weizmann and his associates at York University in Toronto, have begun to check the sources of information on which Rushton's conclusions are based (York University Department Of Psychology Reports, March 1989). This has meant going back to the original sources in the literature where Rushton obtained his data, since he did not do any of the empirical studies himself.

Rushton claims that he has made an honest attempt to look at the literature on racial differences on more than 60 variables, and that his results show overwhelmingly that such differences exist and are consistent with at least one current model of evolutionary theory. A few examples from the findings of Weizmann et al. will indicate how honest or careful Rushton has really been.

Consider first the issue of race itself. Since he is interested in explaining racial group differences, one would think that Rushton might pay close attention to the problem of defining race. He dismisses the claims by many anthropologists and population biologists (Molnar, Steven. Races, Types and Ethnic Groups: The Problem of Human Variations. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1975) that the concept of race in human terms has no biological meaning. Nor does Rushton bother to establish any biological basis for his three racial categories - Negroid, Caucasoid, and Mongoloid - but simply states that the division is based on common usage (Rushton, P. "Race differences in behaviour: A review and evolutionary analysis." Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 9:1009-24, 1988). Although common usage may correspond to a scientifically defined category, it does not necessarily do so. The correspondence must be established, not merely invoked.

Weizmann and his colleagues have documented numerous instances in which Rushton completely misrepresents work that he cites without giving the reader any sense of the problems recognized even by the original investigators or the cautions and reservations they express. In their claim that blacks have a higher level of sexual activity than whites, who in turn have a higher level than Asians, Rushton and his co-worker, A.F. Bogaert, present data on genital size in the three races. They claim that the literature showed that Asians have the smallest genitalia and blacks the largest, with whites in between.

The first problem is the assumption that genital size has anything to do with level of sexual activity. A second problem is the nature of the source used. Rushton and Bogaert cite as their main reference for data on all three races the work of an anonymous "French Army Surgeon" who is claimed to be a "30-year specialist in genitourinary diseases" (Rushton, P., Bogaert, A.F. "Race differences in sexual behaviour: Testing an evolutionary hypothesis." Journal of Research in Personality, 21:529-51, 1987).

Rushton and Bogaert refer to the work by the simple citation, Untrodden Fields of Anthropology (2 vols.). Weizmann et al. checked the original source and found that the work, published in Paris in 1896, consisted largely of anecdotal, prurient descriptions of unusual (to the European) sexual practices, a mixture of qualitative and quantitative information, containing so many contradictory claims that it is likely it was compiled by more than one author. No methods of measuring genitalia are ever described, nor is there any recognition of the problems involved in measuring an organ that is specialized for dramatic changes in size. Rushton and Bogaert claim that though Arabs have larger penises than Europeans, most of the Arabs were part black; however, Weiz-mann et al. find no mention of racial mixture in the Arab sample cited in the French source.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the misuse of the work of others comes in Rushton's attempt to couple anthropometric data to the evolutionary theory of r and K selection. This theory describes what were identified in the 1960s and 1970s as two different sorts of reproductive strategies. Organisms referred to as r-strategists were those characterized by living in harsh and highly variable environments (Northern climates, deserts, flood plains), and that breed opportunistically, that is, whenever conditions become favorable. They produce large numbers of offspring at a time and invest little parental time or energy in caring for them. Mortality is high among the offspring, but the species survives by sheer numbers. K-strategists, on the other hand, live in more stable environments, breed less opportunistically (more predictably), have fewer offspring, and invest more parental care in each. Survival rate is thus much higher.

According to Rushton, blacks have evolved as r-strategists, while Asians and whites have evolved as K-strategists: Blacks have more offspring but invest less parental care in each, while Asians and whites have fewer offspring but invest more parental care.

Moreover, Rushton adds a few characteristics of his own to distinguish r- from K-strategists that have no counterpart in the original theory (which was designed with animal, mostly insect, species in mind). We are told that r-strategists are low in "intelligence, social organization, and altruism," while K-strategists are high in these qualities (Rushton, P. "Differential-K theory: The sociobiology of individual and group differences." Personality and Individual Differences, 6:441-52, 1985). Putting it all together, Rushton's approach is nothing more than the grafting of crude racial stereotypes onto r- and K-selection theory.

Rushton here is being not only racist, but also disingenuous to his reader. He neglects to tell the reader that r-strategists often differ markedly in life span (r-strategists less than a year, K-strategists more than a year) and in body size (r-strategists small body size, K-strategists large) that do not apply in significant ways to humans. Finally, Rushton does not inform the reader that r- and K-selection theory is controversial within the field of evolutionary biology today, and is considered at best to apply only to certain groups, particularly among insect species. It is by no means a general theory that can be applied across the board.

What Weizmann has shown is that Rushton selectively cites and misrepresents his sources to support his conclusions. Far from being an "honest attempt" to follow the Truth wherever it leads, Rushton seems to be putting a ring through Truth's nose and leading it toward his own barn. In this respect, Rushton has followed well the tradition of his predecessors in the study of racial differences. He has used, abused, distorted, and in some cases virtually falsified his sources. As Weizmann and his colleagues conclude: ". . . Rushton not only cites sources which are not credible, but he consistently misrepresents the work of others. His summaries of the literature are not only tendentious, but untrustworthy."

If people are angry at Rushton's work it may be because he has betrayed the basic trust that anyone expects from a scholar. How many times must we be forced to sample the same old wine in a new bottle, only to find that what is called wine is actually vinegar? We should give every new bottle a chance, but when one sniff or sip suggests vinegar, we need not drink the whole bottle to be sure.

Should the study of the biological basis of socioeconomic and behavioral differences between races be a taboo subject, even if all previous attempts have failed? Can we not hope to come up with better methods in the future?

In the abstract, of course, the answer to the first question is no, and to the second, yes. No subject should be taboo in the usual meaning of that term - that is, forbidden. And, of course, it may be possible some day to find a way of rigorously distinguishing innate from learned behavior in humans. But at any point in time scientists must make decisions about priorities, about what research paths to follow. Rushton is extremely naive if he thinks that most researchers simply decide what is interesting to them and proceed to carry out a research project. Science is a social process, and there are constraints that affect every investigator. Studying a topic is greatly constrained by the availability of methods of gathering data. Granting agencies normally view closely the research methodology for any proposal; if that methodology is lacking - in current jargon, if the project is not "doable" - then the proposal is usually not funded.

Rushton's whole research program falls directly into that category. What we know about heredity in general and in humans in particular tells us that every behavior is to some extent a product of the interaction between heredity and environment. For human beings, throughout whose evolutionary history selection has been in the direction of increasing ability to learn, any separation of the hereditary from the acquired components of behavior is particularly difficult. All the direct methods available to us - twin and adoption studies, comparison of anthropometric data, analogies to other animals - do not actually help in sorting out the heredity-environment interaction. In that sense the research that Rushton or other biological determinists seek to carry out is "undoable."

When Fermi states that it is better to know than not to know, he is assuming that the conclusions from an investigation have been shown to be true. Of course, if something is true and demonstrable, then it is always better to know than not to know. But to know, in the rational, scientific sense, is quite different from to surmise. Science is not about what might be true, but about what is true based upon rational methods of inquiry. If an idea cannot be demonstrated with any rigor or clarity, then it is clearly not better to think it is true.

Earlier this century, the supposed biological inferiority of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals provided license for the average German to look the other way when the trains rolled off to the concentration camps. Ideas - most especially wrong ideas - can and do kill. We do well to react strongly to them, and let everyone know that such ideas do not represent bona fide scientific work.

Garland Allen is professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis. He specializes in the history and philosophy of science.