Printed: 2019-08-20

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The Specter of Eugenics: IQ, White Supremacy, and Human Enhancement

Benjamin Abbott

Ethical Technology

June 05, 2013

The recent controversy surrounding Jason Richwine’s Havard dissertation “IQ and Immigration Policy” serves as an opportune point of departure for reflecting on biological determinism in transhumanist thought. Are transhumanists, as Michael Anissimov says, eugenicists without the coercion? What does channeling eugenics in a white-supremacist society mean and do? Why the obsession with IQ among various transhumanists, particularly AI enthusiasts?

I argue that the scientific racism of Richwine and company, with all its elaborate statistical wizardry, functions first and foremost as rationalization of inequality and privilege. I call on transhumanists to reject to biological determinism and struggle for social justice in social terms. To begin, media attention fell on Richwine in relation to current immigration reform negotiations in the U.S. government. Richwine’s 2009 dissertation made headlines because of eir position in the Heritage Foundation; ey resigned following the public outcry.

The work in question describes IQ as a prime driver of normative success, assesses the IQ of Hispanic immigrants to the United States as significantly lower than that of non-Hispanic white citizens, and proposes IQ tests for immigrant sorting. “IQ and Immigration Policy” is parade of academic white supremacy, with so many notable making at least a cameo appearance: Arthur Jensen, J. Philippe Rushton, Richard Lynn, Linda Gottfredson, and Charles Murray, to name a few. Although Richwine takes pain to distinguish eir work from that of early twentieth-century immigration opponents, claiming that the science of intelligence quantification has advanced and that purported low test scores for European immigrants were unreliable, the dissertation as a whole intimately resembles the discourses of 1920s, albeit with Hispanics in place of southern and eastern Europeans.

Pioneering psychometrician Lewis Terman in 1922 gave a racial hierarchy of intelligence based on cognitive tests virtually identical to Richwine's: whites and East Asians on top, blacks, Native Americans, and Mexicans on the bottom. Terman appropriately also requested mental tests to screen immigrants. The discipline of psychometrics as presented by Richwine has advanced remarkably little as it relates to immigration. During the great immigration debates of the 1910s and 1920s, eugenicists specifically and restrictionists in general marshaled a wealth of human measurements on their behalf.

As Nancy Ordover writes in American Eugenics, they wielded “charts, photographs, and even human skulls” in order “to provide the visual and mathematical support that rendered racism scientifically valid and politically viable” (9). For example, the (in)famous Army Mental Tests conducted by Robert Yerkes reported the inferior cognitive ability of southern and eastern European immigrants as well as blacks. Harry Laughlin – cited positively in Murray’s The Bell Curve and beloved by Nazi scientists – dramatically testified before U.S. Congress about how immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and Asia had a disproportionate presence in asylums, jails, and prisons.

Laughlin and others ominously warned that these immigrants would ruin the national breeding stock. Richwine aligns more with that era than ey realizes. Of course, this resemblance to and connection with classical eugenics speaks to the political interests and implications, not the invalidity of the empirical data involved.

I leave that question to psychometricians and statisticians. Befitting my humanities training, I’ve scant interest in battling over the numbers; instead, I seek to undermine the conceptual frameworks involved. The genetic meaninglessness of popular racial categories – Asian, black, white, etc – forms a basic obstacle to ascribing difference in IQ to genetics. (Richwine and friends repeatedly and insistently suggest biological factors as explanatory, though Richwine runs away from these suggestions when confronted.) From the anthropological perspective, Mark Nathan Cohen describes IQ test as a culturally and socially specific set of values. Past biology, it’s trivial to reach the circular point of tests that show oppressed groups aren’t as likely to succeed – conform to normative standards of success – within dominant society as their oppressors.

Now there’s a shocker. The confirmed dynamic of stereotype threat – that people told their group tends to do worse on tests tend to do worse on tests – heightens the theme of self-fulfilling prophecy. The fundamental assumption present in studies like Richwine’s is meritocracy, that the socioeconomic system in the United States ranks people according to their quality. It’s within this logic that Richwine identifies Hispanic immigrants as underperforming non-Hispanic white citizens. Richwine portrays the economy as a game that in which players with higher stats – IQ – individually and mechanistically produce more value. But that’s not how the economy works at the material level.

While some smart people do invent marvelous machines or provide life-saving services, many if not most of the high-status professions associated with IQ – lawyer, politician, CEO, distinguished professor, etc – have a parasitic role. The stereotypical Mexican immigrant farmworker or construction laborer Richwine fears produce a hell of a lot more materially than the brilliant banker who skillfully manipulates the system – or, for that matter, than the PhD student who worries about the IQ scores of immigrants. Far from being drains on society, the workers Richwine, Murray, and their ilk disparage literally and directly create society. When was the last you saw a capitalist doing anything physically useful?

IQ in this analysis reveals far more about capitalist culture and its structural need for rank ordering than it does about the scrutinized subject. Standardized tests instill the desired competitive ethos that both makes for self-motivated workers and militates against that deadly workers’ solidarity. These tests furthermore offer a neat justification for the manifestly unequal operations of the actually existing market. Poor? Well, you’re probably just stupid – and lazy, too, among other things. Psychometricians have gleefully correlated every normatively positive trait they can think of to high IQ and every negative one they can think of to low IQ. It’s crucial to recognize that the sorting itself constitutes a key function of evaluation, whether it be IQ testing or college grades.

Inequality requires rank ordering, a workable basis for giving the lion’s share of the nice things to a minority of the population. Thus IQ tests are great measures, just not of what they purport to quantify. As Dale Carrico and the aforementioned Anissimov note, transhumanism, with its focus on enhancement, bears striking similarity to eugenics, the quest to improve the genetic composition of the human species. Various AI enthusiasts walk in the footsteps of eugenicist pyschometricians like Terman. Anissimov, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and other advocates of Friendly Artificial Intelligence place extreme importance on IQ. They reference some of the same research as Richwine; in 2006, Anissimov cited Gottfredson as providing the best argument for IQ tests. The g these tests attempt to assess forms the theoretical basis for crafting AI. While most acknowledge greater complexity, the simple numerical measure of IQ guides thought about intelligence; fictional AIs often spout their superhuman scores.

Raising the IQs of the unfortunates who rate low frequently appears as a lofty egalitarian and humanitarian project in transhumanist circles. Like Carrico and Jaron Lanier, I find this understanding of intelligence reductive and the eugenicist echoes disturbing. However appealing transhumanist ideas of human uplift seem within their white-nerd cultural context, campaigns to get everybody to conform to white/rational/civilized/scientific/etc norms have a supremely sordid history. However academically detached – i.e. innocent – transhumanists may view investigations into questions intelligence and biology, all research happens within the social circumstances of white-supremacist heteropatriarchy.

Knowledge production like Richwine’s dissertation has a harmful effect in that it attributes inequality to rigid factors beyond the social and political, furthering stereotype threat and reinforcing oppression. Transhumanism risks doing and does the same. There’s no magical position of objectivity or neutrality in which to stand; nowhere’s safe from the mind-killer. As a telling example of reductionism and myopia, in “Transhumanism as Simplified Humanism” Yudkowsky presents the matter of increasing IQ as a universal binary choice between higher IQ bad and higher IQ good. While I think this piece contains attractive moral principles and a valuable critique of arbitrary limits, its orientation toward singular truth and fixed dichotomies lead to a totalizing vision.

Transhumanism with a unitary definition of enhancement and self-righteous humanitarian mission is the stuff of nightmares. If enhancement means global homogenization compelled by cultural or market power, if it means the complete and final ascendency of bourgeois norms, if it means making everybody porn-star sexy, then I don’t want any part of it. To make a concept as fraught as human enhancement a force against rather than for oppression, I recommend that transhumanism insistently stress diversity of standards as well as individual and community freedom. At the same time, transhumanists must vigorously and meaningfully reject white supremacy.

Given the unambiguous connection between the eugenics movement and such overwhelming suffering – including most notoriously the Nazi regime in Germany – professing to be kinder, gentler eugenicists strikes me as misguided. Eugenics has earned its poor reputation. Although transhumanism may share certain dreams with eugenics, we do ourselves no favors by blithely treading the eugenicist path or trying to win back a good name for the term. I encourage transhumanists to find different intellectual genealogies and traditions; personally I situate my desire for human enhancement in anarchist/communist/socialist utopianism.

Critically, transhumanists should value the fight against white supremacy alongside cherished ideals like rationality, empiricism, and science. White supremacy and colonialism are foundational structures in North American society. Liberty and justice demand their total annihilation. Biological determinism in its various permutations tells us that we can’t radically transform society for the better and should accept status -quo inequalities. Looking for technofixes to hardwired limitations, as transhumanists so often do, has some merit but proves counterproductive unless grounded in social struggle. We don’t need to wait. We already have the technical ability to distribute nice things equitably across the planet. Let’s make it happen. Human enhancement means undoing all oppression.

Benjamin Abbot is a genderqueer, transgender PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico.


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