It might come as a surprise to some people that intelligence is not as hard-wired as some of our teachers made us think back in grade school.
Richard Nisbett, the long-time director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan, wrote a recent editorial in the New York Times entitled, “All Brains Are the Same Color“ Nisbett ably goes about dismantling the idea that the IQ differences between blacks and whites are genetic. He notes that decades of research have not supported the assertion that one of our social races in the United States (for that’s really the only way to define them) is biologically inferior in terms of innate intelligence. Rather, he argues, intelligence is a matter of environment (the impact of development and access to good education) and a matter of the biased standards that praise a certain type of “intelligence” (success on standardized tests) over another.
As he notes about one study: “Whites showed better comprehension of sayings, better ability to recognize similarities and better facility with analogies — when solutions required knowledge of words and concepts that were more likely to be known to whites than to blacks. But when these kinds of reasoning were tested with words and concepts known equally well to blacks and whites, there were no differences. Within each race, prior knowledge predicted learning and reasoning, but between the races it was prior knowledge only that differed.”
Nisbett then mentions the work of James Flynn, which Greg has also pointed out in his post on “Cave Men in Classrooms.” I recently found this good description of Flynn’s work in a New Yorker piece “What I.Q. doesn’t tell you about race.” As the article notes, “I.Q.s around the world appeared to be rising by 0.3 points per year, or three points per decade, for as far back as the tests had been administered. For some reason, human beings seemed to be getting smarter…”
As the article magisterially documents, Flynn views this rise in IQ as due to environment and notes how his attention to method, rather than determinist assumptions, makes a difference: “Flynn comes back again and again to the fact that I.Q. scores are generated by paper-and-pencil tests—and making sense of those scores, he tells us, is a messy and complicated business that requires something closer to the skills of an accountant than to those of a philosopher.”
Or an anthropologist, I think. The IQ test is a cultural test, after all, a measure of what “we” value as intelligence. For the most part a typical approach by cultural anthropology would be to attack the “IQ fundamentalists,” and examine their prejudices and the processes of power that help sustain this pernicious discourse. An informed biological anthropology will continue to point out that there is no biological basis for our social classification of “races,” for the variations within races is greater genetically than that found between our socially defined races, as well as the fact that biological traits don’t fall into a neat “racial category” but vary in a non-concordant fashion over the world’s populations. And neuroanthropology?
Let’s go back to the New Yorker piece. I particularly like this quote:
“The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories.”
On this site, Greg and I have repeatedly emphasized the overlooked role of “doing” and the over-emphasis on “culture” as a sort of cognitive IQ test.
To continue, the New Yorker piece also notes this about Flynn:
“The black-white gap, [Flynn] pointed out, differs dramatically by age. He noted that the tests we have for measuring the cognitive functioning of infants, though admittedly crude, show the races to be almost the same. By age four, the average black I.Q. is 95.4—only four and a half points behind the average white I.Q. Then the real gap emerges: from age four through twenty-four, blacks lose six-tenths of a point a year, until their scores settle at 83.4… That steady decline, Flynn said, did not resemble the usual pattern of genetic influence. Instead, it was exactly what you would expect, given the disparate cognitive environments that whites and blacks encounter as they grow older. Black children are more likely to be raised in single-parent homes than are white children—and single-parent homes are less cognitively complex than two-parent homes. The average I.Q. of first-grade students in schools that blacks attend is 95, which means that “kids who want to be above average don’t have to aim as high.” There were possibly adverse differences between black teen-age culture and white teen-age culture, and an enormous number of young black men are in jail—which is hardly the kind of environment in which someone would learn to put on scientific spectacles.”
This approach is certainly amenable to a neuroanthropology that is attentive to brain development, the local demands and opportunities of an environment, and an awareness of the structuring processes that often put black children in unequal circumstances, say, both the “wrong” local rank and socially stressful environments to go back to my posts on Sapolsky and Blakey.
Indeed, a letter “Human Hierarchies, Health, and IQ” by Deary et al. commenting on Sapolsky’s Science article notes that besides the physiological stress reactions, “In humans, there is another factor and other possible mechanisms to consider. It is surprising that there was no mention of intelligence (IQ). Childhood IQ is moderately strongly correlated with adult socioeconomic position. Lower IQ is also associated with increased rates of all-cause mortality (1, 2), cardiovascular disease (2-4), hypertension (5), contact with psychiatric services (6), and other negative health outcomes (7). These associations remain after controlling for socioeconomic position in early life. Stable population variation in IQ is perhaps more consistent with the highly graded socioeconomic position-health relation than are the shifting effects of small-group rank on psychosocial stress. The well-replicated, although relatively recent finding that lower childhood IQ is related to later morbidity (7) and mortality experience affords hypotheses about mechanisms linking cognitive resources to health differences. These hypotheses merit consideration alongside the psychosocial stress hypothesis (8, 9).”
In a related comment on Nisbett’s piece, Paul Coleman writes, “Having seen many brains at autopsy and in teaching labs, I can confirm the statement that ‘All Brains Are the Same Color.’ But the discussion of genetic determination of intellectual capacity falls short of the mark. It is not the genetic DNA in a cell that determines what a cell is and how it performs; it is, rather, which genes are turned on and when. Turning a gene on or off can be controlled by a wide variety of factors in life: toxins, learning, disease, hormones, drugs, diet — the list is numberless. We now know enough about the fine structure of the brain, the proteins involved and the roles they play in learning, cognition, memory and other components of intelligence to understand that the DNA of genes are, generally, many steps removed from determining these capacities.”
Thus, this type of neuroanthropology research would attend to the research that shows the heredity/environment argument is itself misleading, as this New York Times piece on IQ, adoption and childhood environment discusses. It would also take seriously that brain biology is most definitely involved in the sort of “acquired intelligence” that one carries around, as another New York Times piece on differential growth patterns of “intelligent brains” points out.
Finally, Greg has addressed the importance of skill acquisition in his post Cave Men in the Classroom, where behavioral skills (like sitting quality), language skills, thinking patterns, test taking, parental reinforcement, and learning incentives could all play a role. I have spoken of interactions as a crucial way to understand technology, and the balance between involvement, a sense of control, and frustration. Thus, a neuroanthropology is ideally situated to provide an ethnographically informed approach to the IQ gap, one that could take us beyond debates over genetic and environmental influence to an understanding of the varied outcomes across a wide range of our typical social categories.
To put it differently, I see three ways anthropology might examine this problem: Processual (close examination of why the differences emerge), Macro (how social differences and particular environments drive the differences), and Critical (critique of the continued emphasis on biological determinism for social ends, particularly for those in power). Neuroanthropology’s place is, in my mind, largely focused on the processual. My hope, and belief, is that by doing so, we will open new ways in which anthropology can address the macro effects that also interest us and to have new voices and new arguments to continue with our vital critical role.
Now, if you made it this far, and just want to have a fun read, check this funny take on research on IQ and siblings. Well worth it. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/22/opinion/22gilbert.html