Darwin spent EIGHT YEARS studying barnacles.
Yes, barnacles. Those little sea creatures that latch onto rocks, shells, ships, and whales. From that exhaustive research he learned that taxonomy, the science of defining and naming groups is tricky business. There are many, many ways to place individuals.
As David Quammen explains in The Reluctant Mr. Darwin:
“… the hardest thing about classifying specimens within such a category is that sometimes ambiguity can’t be resolved. Lines blur… Darwin remembers being ‘much struck how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties.’”
In practice, biologists’ groupings are based on relatedness. The usual test for whether two things are the same species is if they can have sex and produce fertile offspring. Linguists use much the same test for defining languages. You’re speaking the same language if you can have idea sex. However, in both cases, the boundaries get messy. Norwegians and Swedes can easily understand each other but officially speak different languages while many Americans struggle to understand the “thicker” British accents even though officially, they’re both speaking English.
Is this English?
Humans spend an EXTRAORDINARY amount of time arguing over the buckets we put each other in. We group by profession (doctor, teacher, lawyer, mechanic, scientist), dietary preference (vegan, vegetarian, meat eater), and our beliefs about the supernatural (Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Christian).
Our minds have to create endless ways of dividing humans into groups because of #TheDunbarNumber. We need ways to make sense of the 7.5 billion humans with whom it is beyond our brain’s capacity to have relationships.
The question is whether these groups tell us anything useful.
“Lawyer” is a useful grouping if you’re looking for legal expertise. “Vegetarian” is a useful if you’re trying to figure out what to feed people. However, knowing someone is a vegetarian doesn’t tell you whether or not they are a lawyer.
Is this man a lawyer?
And that brings us to race. Skin color might be the most immediately obvious grouping for humans, but it’s not the most useful or informative genetically speaking.
In The Secret of Our Success, Joe Henrich wrote:
“Anthropologists have long argued that race is not a biological concept. What we mean by this is that the racial categories developed historically by Europeans— such as Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongoloid— do not convey or contain much, if any, useful genetic information, aside from capturing something of the migration patterns of ancient peoples.”
So the only thing dark skin color tells you genetically is that a person’s ancestors are from a region near the Equator. Skin color might be meaningful to dermatologists but it won’t tell you much more about the person’s genome. And it definitely won’t tell you anything about the person’s intelligence.
HOLD UP! This sounds like some P.C. nonsense. You’re saying that race isn’t correlated with I.Q. YOU’RE DENYING THE DATA!!! I’VE READ CHARLES MURRAY’S BELL CURVE!!!
Ah, yes. The Bell Curve. A book that argued the data supports the idea that race is correlated with I.Q.
Sure. Fine. Let’s go with that. Let’s accept Murray and Herrnstein’s claim that on average African-Americans have lower I.Q.s.
One of the MOST BASIC principles in science is that correlation does not imply causation. However, you can find all sorts of meaningless correlations if you visit Tyler Vigen’s hilarious website.
Some of these have a more plausible causality than others. I can’t imagine a mechanism by which long spelling words increases spider bites, but having watched SNAKE EYES and GHOST RIDER, I can imagine that more Nic Cage movies WOULD LEAD to more self-inflicted drownings.
Some people feel the same way about black people as I feel about Nic Cage movies and the idea that black people might be genetically dumber makes sense to them. They certainly have “evidence” for their beliefs; there’s a correlation from an eminent scientist named Charles Murray.
Just because things seem related doesn’t mean they are.
If you believed correlation implied causation, you might think these black-skinned people were related, but they are as genetically diverse as two people can be. The woman on the left inherited her skin color from ancestors who adapted to the African environment, while the man on the right inherited his skin color from ancestors who adapted to the environment in New Guinea. They both have dark skin because their people have been adapting separately in two separate environments near the equator.
Grouping humans by color is like grouping red fish and blue fish; the similarities are only skin deep.
This is exactly why it’s so important not get distracted by the Statistical Bikini (or banana hammock) but to look at the whole body of scientific literature.
There are differences in I.Q. scores, but just because I.Q. varies with skin color doesn’t mean that skin color causes I.Q. It’s important to be a Mixed Mental Artist. Look at all the scientific literature and don’t be afraid to talk about taboos like race. Avoiding this conversation isn’t good for anyone.
Let’s open this sucker up and settle it as best we can.
[This piece is part of a larger science-off between Derek Zoolander (Sam Harris) and Hansel (Hunter Maats). In the first two parts, we covered the hijacking of the I.Q. Test and how humanity’s superpower has caused I.Q. scores to go up 30 points in the last 200 years.]