Race and Intelligence

Re Peter Singer’s “Should We Discuss Race and Intelligence?” (FI, February/March 2008): I am one of those who would hesitate to approve any study that claims to relate intelligence and race, for the following reasons:

  1. The words are vague, and people would not agree on their meanings. Some scholars deny that race exists or that intelligence is a definite, meaningful concept. Given the varied backgrounds of people and that our understanding of much of life is of a qualitative nature, how could the effects of other factors be separated from the effects of race?
  2. Intelligence is difficult to define. Are people who learn quickly more intelligent than those who learn at a slower rate but retain knowledge longer, question material they are exposed to develop a deeper understanding that is more useful, or synthesize new relationships or structures while learning?
  3. Singer cites Stephen Gould’s distrust of IQ as a measure of innate intelligence. So, too, did Simon Binet, the inventor of the concept of Intelligence Quotient. Binet believed that his invention would guide individual remediation for children found to lack knowledge; it would not be used as a measure of innate intelligence.
  4. Historically, most intelligence testing has been used for selection, not education. Can Singer assure subjects that future usage of testing will be benign? Recall how Cyril Burt’s results reinforced existing class structure through education fixation in twentieth-century England.
  5. If, as Singer states in closing, most people’s intelligence exceeds the minimal threshold for functioning in this world, why bother quantifying it?

Leaving aside 4 and 5, where appropriate or malevolent use of a relationship between race and intelligence is implied, the questions in 1–3 show that the development of a valid relationship is illusory at this time.

Robert M. Goldberg
Jericho, New York

Peter Singer argues that we should support research on the connections, if any, between race and intelligence. He contends there is “nothing racist about trying to get clear about what the facts are.”

Support for freedom of inquiry is a core principle for humanists, and I have no quarrel with Singer’s major thesis. Nonetheless, we need to be very cautious about research on alleged connections between race and intelligence. Among other reasons for this caution is the fact that “race” is not a scientifically grounded category. There are no genes distinctive of the groups usually designated as “races.” As a function of the isolation in which most humans lived for much of our existence as a species, there are population clusters that may share certain characteristics, but the category of race usually has been used to signal a different sort of grouping—one that demarcates supposedly essential divisions. Moreover, unscientific notions of racial inheritance have perpetuated the use of classifications that have little connection with biological reality. For example, according to the “one drop” rule, a person whose ancestry was only one-eighth “Black” or “African American,” as those terms are usually employed, would be considered “Black” or “African American.” This type of classification reflects absurd notions of racial identity, not scientific reality. Race has been, and continues to be, primarily a social construction.

Singer does acknowledge that the “concepts of intelligence and race are less clear-cut than we often assume them to be.” This is very much an understatement.

Ronald A. Lindsay, JD, PhD
Director of Research & Legal Affairs, CFI
Washington, D.C.

I had to read the last sentence of Peter Singer’s op-ed piece several times to try to come up with an explanation for his last clause. He should have ended with the words “Human rights are not dependent on intelligence.” The addition of the phrase “or, at least, not on intelligence above a minimal threshold that is evidently exceeded by the vast majority of human beings irrespective of their racial or ethnic origins.” Just who are these human beings who are not entitled to human rights?

Clara Kalscheur
Korror, Republic of Palau



Fairness Is a Paramount Virtue

I share Paul Kurtz’s reaction of astonishment to the ludicrous arguments of Tibor Machan (“Fairness Is a Minor Virtue,” FI, February/March 2008). The concern for fairness is not childish; it is humane. Fairness goes hand in hand with justice. They top my list of virtues. The struggle for fairness is a noble life purpose.

Fairness does not mean equality. I will never be able to develop the skills of a pro basketball player. It’s not about remedies for disparities of talent or ambition. If I am willing to work harder than the person next door, it is fair for me to be better compensated. Fairness implies freedom from favoring any side. Machan’s position is nothing more than the right-wing’s excuse for their excessive greed and their goal of widening the wealth gap. Like Marie Antoinette, Machan is saying, “Let them eat cake.” The distortions and obfuscation by the “Don’t tax the rich” crowd are shameless. Greed as self-interest is reasonable. Excessive greed at society’s expense is not.

The idea that taxes on the wealthy are unnecessary is a failed Reagan and Bush pipe-dream—simply an excuse to increase the power of the upper-income privileged over the rest of society. To attempt to justify avoiding returning some income to the government is absurd and simply a mask for excessive greed. CEOs are abusing their positions as never before. Extreme, lavish consumption (with shareholder’s money) by America’s corporate elite is now the rule rather than the exception.

A reasonable, progressive tax system still allows incentive for the more ambitious to accumulate greater wealth. That is good for a healthy economy. But at the same time, it recognizes that the first dollars earned are used for nondiscretionary spending, e.g., food, clothing, shelter. It doesn’t try to remedy inequalities, but it does promote a more equal opportunity to make a reasonable living while still contributing to society’s welfare and, more important, a more fair taxation for all.

Steve G. Jozefczyk
Franklin, Wisconsin



America the Beautiful

It was delightful reading Dave Coyne’s Pollyanna description of how the American economic system works (Letters, FI, February/March 2008, in response to “Beyond Ponzi Economics,” by Tom Flynn, FI, December 2007/January 2008). He makes it sound too good to be true. He tries to show that this is a win-win system for everyone concerned—employers, workers, consumers, and society at large. This is patently untrue.

First, the consequences of unlimited economic growth are not benign; the results are not in yet, and to judge from the way the planet is going, they may well be disastrous. I should also like to point out that, contrary to Mr. Coyne’s assertion, history never proves anything.

Let’s be realistic. The reason Mr. Coyne goes to work every Monday morning is because without going to work he and his family would starve. And he has no way of knowing whether the services he provides to his employer are properly compensated. Just because both parties are satisfied with the arrangement doesn’t mean a thing. In fact, he may be grossly underpaid for the work he is doing.

Since Mr. Coyne does not know his true value to his employer, it is fatuous for him to assume t
hat each of them receives “more” than he gives. And what does “more” mean? More of what? The central issue is that labor and money differ qualitatively.

Furthermore, although company solidarity may be a fine thing, Mr. Coyne, as an employee, does not offer any product for sale. His employer does. All he offers is his labor.

Last, a product may or may not be worth more to its buyer than the price paid for it. When something is said to be “worth the money” it doesn’t mean that it is worth more. An item may even be worth less than its price, i.e., “overpriced,” but people must buy it anyhow (e.g., gasoline). When a price is extortionate, the question of “worth” goes out the window. Likewise, when one is destitute, the “worth” of one’s labor is a cruel irrelevancy.

Items are either necessary or unnecessary. Prices are either affordable or unaffordable. Labor is either obligatory or nonobligatory. None of these is truly commensurate. The concept of “worth” does not provide a true connection between these scales, and in this context is simply an apologia for exploitation.

Stephen E. Silver
Sante Fe, New Mexico



Atheism and Humanist Principles

Re Tom Flynn’s “Why the ‘A’ Word Won’t go Away” (FI, February/March 2008): “. . . Paul Kurtz agreed, warning secular humanists against ‘accepting the label of atheist.’” This admonition bothers me—in fact, I resent it. I was born an atheist eighty years ago, and that’s what I am today. The word was hardly ever heard in my youth except in the phrase “communistic atheists.” Atheists were generally called “heathens” or “backsliders.” So I rejoice in the fact that the word has gained some currency, and I take some satisfaction knowing that I helped in small measures to put it back in the vocabulary where it belongs without apology.

Now I am advised to not call myself an atheist.

I often look at “The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles” inside every front cover of Free Inquiry. Quite frankly, I am reminded of lists of framed statements under glass I see of corporate ethics, fraternal, service organization principles, and even of religious creeds and doctrines.

Just as I don’t need the Ten Commandments to tell me not to steal, commit perjury, etc., I don’t need the twenty-one humanist principles (some are quite squishy) to guide me. I am an atheist. Perhaps I am also a humanist.

Don Hirschberg
Horseshoe Bend, Arkansas



Science and Islam

Pervez Hoodbhoy asks why the Islamic world is “disengaged from science and [knowledge creation]” (“Science and the Islamic World, FI, February/March 2008). After some worthy analysis, Hoodbhoy gets lost. Extremism, violence, and oppression have been a constant in Islam, not a recent catastrophe. Islam evolved to its modern form only by the late ninth century. It’s no accident, then, that only during the gestational years was there a so-called Golden Age. Mature Islam was not yet present to suppress and murder independent thinkers. That mid-twentieth century Islamic leaders “were all secular” would be a surprise to contemporaneous Islamic leaders like Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, and Abul A’la Mawdudi, and Sayyid Qutb, all organizers of the widespread, extreme, and popular Islamist societies. Islamist demagogues are the leaders of the Islamic world. Heads of state will be Islamic leaders when a demagogic Khalifate is installed, mandated by Islam and the deep wish of virtually all devout Muslims. The problem of the Islamic world is not exacerbated by “Western imperial greed,” as the economic and growing scientific prosperities of India and East Asia fully demonstrate. Nor is Islam-sponsored violence the result of American efforts to arm Afghani fighters, as the stand-down of Nicaraguan Contra fighters fully demonstrates. The problem of the Islamic World is Islam and nothing else.

Patrick Frank
Palo Alto, California



Varieties of Buddhism

I was eager to read Joseph Grosso’s article about Buddhism (“Buddhism: Blood and Enlightenment,” FI, February/March 2008), expecting that it would bring to light some little-known texts or rarely discussed points of contention in that teaching. It is, after all, one of the things most enjoyable about Free Inquiry—the unflinching and direct examination of the shortcomings of religion.

Unfortunately, Mr. Grosso appears to have taken the route of simple religion bashing, without any direct references to Buddhism itself. Instead of the usual article about a teaching’s dogmatic inconsistencies that prove invaluable in discussions with aggressive defenders of the faith, this article focused on the poor actions of a handful of notable practitioners. There’s no examination of the teaching whatsoever, and it is an unfortunate mixing of Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhists who have about as much in common as Jews, Muslims, and Catholics in their textual body of “knowledge.”

The article does correctly bring to light things most of us have little experience with: the use of Buddhism to justify Japanese imperialism, the participation of monastics in political intrigue, and other actions showing the hypocrisy we’ve come to expect from organized religion’s members. Nothing new here, but certainly something to note when someone begins to pontificate about the impervious moral discipline of monastics.

A better article title would have been, “Buddhist Hypocrites: Where They’re Getting It Right.” The oldest Buddhist teachings (Theravadin) certainly have their share of improvable references, but the actual practice of positive mental states like compassion and kindness sync very well with secular humanist views. The Kalama Sutta in particular encourages critical thinking rather than mindless acceptance of any teaching—even Buddha’s.

Ted Meissner
Eden Prairie, Minnesota




You are probably going to hear from a lot of us about the incorrect statement of Article VI, Section 3, in Nat Hentoff’s “Christianizing America” (FI, February/March 2008): “no religious test shall ever be required as Qualification to any Office of public Trust under the United States.” The Constitution actually states “to any Office or public Trust.”

This change of r to f may be a typo, but it changes the meaning from officers and all government employees to just the officers themselves. If Hentoff is actually saying it this way, he is letting a lot of people off the hook.

Otherwise, I think it was a great article.

Frank E. Robinson
Ontario, Oregon



From the Editors:

This was indeed a typographical error. Mr. Robinson has sharp eyes.

Race and Intelligence Re Peter Singer’s “Should We Discuss Race and Intelligence?” (FI, February/March 2008): I am one of those who would hesitate to approve any study that claims to relate intelligence and race, for the following reasons: The words are vague, and people would not agree on their meanings. Some scholars deny that race …

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