James Watson, the lone survivor of the four who cracked biology’s greatest code, the structure of DNA, has been stripped by a prestigious laboratory of honorary titles he held. His misdemeanour was stating that, ‘There’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites on I.Q. tests. I would say the difference is, it’s genetic.” Watson had been ostracised after making similar remarks in 2007, and now, at the age of 90, has tainted his legacy comprehensively in liberal eyes. Rebutting his viewpoint, Dr Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, provided the more palatable opinion that “any black-white differences in I.Q. testing… arise primarily from environmental, not genetic, differences”.

The furore comes at a time when white supremacists have gained strength in the US and Europe, but is also relevant to a conflict which has flown largely under the radar, between people of African descent on one hand and those from South Asia, South-East Asia and East Asia on the other.

History of IQ

Cognitive testing has a peculiar history, having been at different times lauded and excoriated by the Left. Fabian socialists like RH Tawney, HG Wells, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb were very keen on intelligence testing, viewing it as an enabler of social mobility. Before World War II, prestigious schools in England admitted students on the basis of things like interviews and translations from Latin, which severely handicapped prospects of working class children. IQ tests provided a way for bright, underprivileged kids to get ahead of dumb, rich ones. The tripartite educational system established in Britain after WWII, which was supported by liberals and conservatives alike and lasted for over three decades, placed great emphasis on cognitive tests.

The attitude to IQ was different in the United States. Because African-American students consistently underperformed their white peers, testing was acclaimed by the racist Right, and shunned by the Left. Progressives considered IQ tests culturally biased, created by white people for white people, and proposed affirmative action programmes to rebalance historical crimes and current environmental drawbacks.

The vision of both Right and Left faced a complication. For the Supremacist Right, which was deeply anti-semitic, that complication was Jews. Jews, particularly immigrants from East Europe known as Ashkenazis, scored substantially better on cognitive tests than white gentiles. By the 1960s, Ashkenazis, who are classified as white, formed between 15% and 30% of the student body in most elite colleges, a vast over-representation given their 2% to 3% share of the general population. Once affirmative action programmes increased the proportion of black and Hispanic students on campuses, white Christians were seriously squeezed. The Right responded by dreaming up conspiracy theories, but could do little to change the situation on the ground.

For the Left, the problem was East Asians. Students from China, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea outscored whites in IQ tests and the Scholastic Aptitude Test that has been used for college admissions in the United States since the 1960s. If these tests were culturally biased in favour of whites, how did East Asians, many of whom had first generation immigrant parents who barely spoke English, do so well?

Asian versus Black

As Asian academic excellence becomes more prominent, the emphasis in the progressive attitude to cognitive tests has gradually shifted from accusations of bias to a more nuanced analysis of cultures and environments that foster high scores. Meanwhile, the gap between ethnic groups in educational attainment remains wide, and, as Asians have immigrated to the United States in greater numbers, friction over placements in colleges has increasingly shifted to Asian versus black.

A group of Asian-Americans is suing Harvard University for consistently rating Asians low on subjective criteria such as having a “positive personality” and being “widely respected”. An adherence to test scores and extra-curricular achievements would have meant admitting a dominant number of Asians. To avoid such fudges, the University of Chicago is eliminating standardised test scores entirely from its admission procedure. Along the same lines, New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed ending an entrance exam to the city’s elite schools because Asians make up over 60% of the cohort as matters stand, as opposed to 13% in standard schools. African-American kids form 31% of the student body in regular schools and only 4% in the elite schools.

Silicon Valley loves to sing the diversity tune, even firing employees who question its policies on hiring more female and minority workers (The term “minority” being a misnomer, since some minorities are doing very well). Yet, Google has been unable to raise the African-American component of its workforce beyond 2%. Facebook manages 3%, but that falls to 1% when only technical roles are considered. Asians, on the other hand, make up 36% of Google’s workforce and 42% of Facebook’s employees.

Cultural spectrum

In a previous column, I listed phrases we ought to stop using, one of which was “person of colour”. The phrase grew out of the history of European racist imperialism, which ranked people based on complexion. Chinese, Indians, Arabs, all fitted somewhere on a scale with Europeans on top and Africans at the bottom. “Person of colour” paints a world in which everybody not white has faced or faces some kind of discrimination. While it had its utility in the era of decolonisation, it is increasingly useless, or even misleading, in the age of globalisation. As China becomes increasingly influential in Africa, Chinese prejudice, which is largely independent of European racism, is coming to prominence. India is very similar to China in its contempt for Africans, and its colour prejudice more generally. Conversely, Indians have faced discrimination in various post-colonial African nations, most notoriously in Uganda under Idi Amin.

Asian-black conflicts are playing out more frequently in our daily lives. Many incidents of violence during the London riots of 2011 pitted black looters against South Asian shopkeepers trying to defend their property. Whites, meanwhile, were more or less equally distributed on both sides. More recently, a statue of Gandhi was taken down in Ghana, and it is likely more will follow, as Africans and African-Americans react to racist statements he made in his South African years. Or think of that awful article about Priyanka Chopra that called her a “global scam artist”. I doubt if it would have been published had the writer, Mariah Smith, been white. Since it was written by one “person of colour” about another, the editors probably felt it couldn’t possibly be racist. If only they’d heard some of the conversations Indians have about Serena Williams.

On a number of alternative scales, African and Asian find themselves at the extremes, with whites in the middle. Among these are crime rates, divorce rates, athletic attainment, and educational attainment. We can include biological trends like neoteny, the retention of juvenile features into adulthood, which is most prominent in Asians and least visible in Africans. It is time we stopped thinking of skin colour as the only category, or even the most important one, by which to locate humans within a geopolitical context.

A mural of Muhammad Ali in New York. Image: Jewel Samad/AFP
A mural of Muhammad Ali in New York. Image: Jewel Samad/AFP

Final thoughts about IQ

Since cognitive tests are such a touchy issue, I would like to make my own thoughts on them clear in conclusion. First, I do not believe IQ tests measure intelligence. Human intelligence is something far more complex than such tests can capture. I consider the boxer Muhammad Ali, one of my childhood heroes, an extremely intelligent man, apart from being a supreme athlete and a symbol of courage, both moral and physical. Yet, Ali flunked the US Army’s cognitive test, and was embarrassed about that through his life.

While they do not define intelligence adequately, cognitive tests do measure certain aspects of intelligence that strongly predict academic success, which in turn strongly predicts professional success in post-industrial capitalist economies. As such, it is futile to dismiss tests, or hope to build an education system that ignores them and yet produces equally capable professionals within the prevalent economic system.

The data on IQ can be interpreted to favour both genetic and environmental explanations for measured difference between ethnic groups. Those who favour the genetic explanation allow for the environment to play some role. The reverse, however, is not the case, for it would mean admitting that some groups are, at least to a degree, genetically predisposed to performing better than others in IQ tests.

I have not studied the issue in sufficient detail, except in the case of one relatively small group, the Ashkenazi Jews. My interest in the community began when I first realised how many of the intellectual giants I admired, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein among them, belonged to it. Soon after, I learned that Jews were greatly overrepresented among world champions in a game I loved, chess. Steinitz and Lasker, Botvinnik and Tal, Fischer, Kasparov and the Polgar sisters, among others, were all Jewish or half-Jewish. Anybody can be taught to play chess, of course, but innate ability plays a massive role as well. For Jews to be so prominent among Soviet chess grandmasters, in a nation where everyone played chess and chess training was equitable, seemed impossible to explain from an environmentalist perspective alone. For this and other reasons too numerous to enumerate, I concluded that the observed superiority in average IQ scores and intellectual attainment among Ashkenazi Jews was not solely attributable to cultural and environmental factors. I hope I am wrong in my assessment, since I would rather live in a world in which all groups were equally adept at IQ tests.

The issue of caste is inescapably related to this discussion. I belong to a community that monopolised scholarship in India for centuries. Quotas have been instituted across the nation in order to redress that and other historical inequities. I strongly support caste-based reservations in educational institutions and workplaces, although they give rise to a number of individual injustices and occasionally lead to terrible outcomes. By and large, states that have had the most comprehensive and long-standing reservation policies, like Tamil Nadu, are better governed than those that have adopted certain quotas more recently, like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Given this fact, it is difficult to claim that reservations destroy meritocracy or damage efficient administration.

As far as IQ tests are concerned, South Asians do not perform as well as East Asians, except where selection bias skews results, so we have little basis to boast. Within the nation, there is little data sorted by caste, and it would be very unwise to transfer the framework of affirmative action and ethnicity from the United States to the Indian context, which is very different.

Two dangers arise from any comparison between communities. The first, which characterises the Right, is to judge individuals on the basis of perceptions about the group to which they belong. The second is less deadly, but needs to be countered nevertheless. It is a tendency within the contemporary Left to repress research, cordon off certain topics as taboo, and condemn as racist the very idea of innate differences in average physical or mental ability between ethnic groups.