Stupid is as Stupid Does

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie on July 2nd, 2007

Like the onslaught of summer movies regurgitating tired plot lines, arguments putting forth the idea that intelligence is a fixed, measurable, and heritable trait are making a comeback. Take Michael Hanlon's commentary piece in last week's New Scientist as an example. After framing his piece by describing racism's immorality as stemming from discrimination based upon one's "genetic inheritance," Hanlon suggests that society ought to reject a similar type of "genetic discrimination that is not only legal [but] universally applied and wholly respectable": discrimination against what he calls "the stupid."

Hanlon's piece reflects a growing trend in using genetic arguments to legitimize discredited biological theories of intelligence. But that dog simply don't hunt. Hanlon is careful to not make causal links between genes and intelligence. Rather, he unpersuasively couches his thoughts through a series of awkward correlational arguments: IQ correlates with intelligence, and since IQ is distributed on a bell curve that correlates with society's "natural distribution," there will always be non-mentally disabled people who have genetically linked low IQs correlating with their mental shortcomings that, in the end, limit their professional success. Hanlon then bifurcates this so-called reality into two main populations - the intelligent and the stupid - to make policy recommendations, including special vocational training for "the dim end of the normal range."

Hanlon gets it wrong in more ways than can be sensibly discussed in a blog post; those interested in a fuller discussion should check out Gould's The Mismeasure of Man and Fischer et. al.'s Inequality By Design. Nature certainly limits and blesses individuals in strange and unknown ways. But to imply that intelligence is a single, measurable-by-correlation entity that can be predicted at an early age and used to assess one's lot in life simply ignores the many different types of human intelligence that exist, regardless of the ones any particular society chooses to reward at any particular time. Hanlon rightly suggests that schools should expose students to more career options. But, it's just not clear to me that genes or IQ tests have much to do with this.

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Posted in Eugenics, Osagie Obasogie's Blog Posts


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