Blacks and Intelligence
Tuesday, October 30, 2007.
By Chippla Vandu
This article was prompted by Dr. James Watson's recent assertion that 'blacks' are less intelligent than 'whites'.
Right from childhood, I had always believed that intelligence is hereditary. In other words, intelligent people have much better chances of having smarter kids than those who happen not to be as intelligent.
Even in a family of say four children (like that to which I was born), some kids happen to be more intelligent than others.
Looking back at my days in elementary (primary) school in Nigeria, I am able to discern a pattern on students who often topped the class: they tended to come from well-to-do homes, where education was not only priced but also deeply valued. In other words, not just nature, but also nurture was key to a manifestation of intelligence at such an early age.
Evolutionary biologists tell us that humans—that is, modern people—have existed for about 200,000 years. Within this period, men and women branched out of Africa to other parts of the world, adapting to the various environments they encountered.
If this "out of Africa" theory is true, it means that the immense phenotypical differences seen amongst people across the globe all occurred in the last 200,000 years—a mere drop in the ocean, when compared to the age of the earth, which we are told is 4.5 billion years.
Natural selection has ensured that people are well adapted to the environments in which they live—the pale skin of Nordics, the olive skin of Mediterraneans and the light brown to dark brown skin of Africans being adaptations to the amount of sunlight and UV radiation in each environment.
If humans evolved outwardly, internal variations must also have occurred. For instance, differences in organ sizes and functionalities can be seen as one straddles the globe—Caucasian males tend to be more hairy than African males in general, Kenya-Ethiopians of the highlands tend to utilize atmospheric oxygen more efficiently than the rest of us, and tolerance to lactose (the sugar found in milk), salt and some drugs differ widely.
But what about the human brain? That organ that keeps humanity a step ahead of other life forms. How has it evolved, and if so, has it led to the creation of a more intelligent 'race' or ethnic group?
The earliest known civilizations are thought to have sprung up in the Fertile Crescent around the present-day Middle East and North Africa. Monuments of some of these civilizations exist today. Somewhat independent but also interlinked civilizations arose in present-day China a little bit later (there is no such thing as an independent civilization.
Peoples and cultures have always borrowed from each other. Thus, the distinct concepts of Western and Islamic Civilizations, for instance, are not only baseless but also deeply flawed). For the first time, agrarian societies were born, gradually putting an end to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Cities came into being and so did one of the most important things ever invented in all of history—writing!
The earliest known writings can be traced to people who lived around the present day Middle East and North Africa. These writings evolved over time and gradually found their way to Semitic languages. The Greeks borrowed from the Semites and the Romans from the Greeks.
The rest is history. Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth... became Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta...which further became A, B, C, D... It took the development of agrarian societies for writing to develop. But humanity had to wait thousands of years more for science, as we know it, to begin, for it was not until religion, philosophy and science were disentangled from each other could revolutionary discoveries really start.
By the first century CE (or AD), India and China each had GDPs larger than that of the Roman Empire, according to this Wikipedia article. Yet 1800 years later, Eurocentric racial bigots were to put forward theories purporting that Caucasians were more intelligent than other 'races'.
Some even went as far as labeling Africans sub-humans, and putting Asians in between Caucasians and Africans. By 1000 AD, Africa's GDP was larger than that of Western Europe, according to some estimates. What eventually gave Europe the push and set it aside from the rest of the world were science, the development of societies that questioned the status quo and conquest.
Europe's remarkable transformation began in the 14th to 18th centuries. Jared Diamond’s masterpiece, Guns, Germs and Steel, is, in my opinion, an excellent book on human civilizations of the past few thousand years.
For the past 200 years of so, most of Africa has largely failed to catch up with the rest of the world in term of economic and technological development, leading some to wonder if the people who inhabit it are genetically incapable of such development (it must be made clear that Africa has and is developing technologically, but not fast enough to keep pace with its burgeoning population).
Furthermore, African Americans tend to perform worst—on average—in the American Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Could it all be genetic or could the fact that Africans and African Americans tend to be economically worse off or live in environments that generally place less emphasis and value on education have anything to do with it? Or could there also be a cultural aspect to all of this?
Every society has its fair share of intelligent and not-so-intelligent people. The bell curve is a fact of nature and should also apply to intelligence. The most intelligent African kids, or kids of African ancestry, are just as intelligent as the most intelligent kids anywhere in the world.
How exactly the human brain has evolved in the past 200,000 years, no one can really tell—at least not yet. But one thing is certain. The brain has evolved for survival, amongst other things, irrespective of where people have lived.
That is why, one could go to the Amazon forest or the forests of Papua New Guinea (PNG) today and pick out a one year old 'jungle child' (with no history of any formal education in his family), educate him in Brazil, PNG, Canada or wherever and have him comprehend calculus at age fourteen. That child, if he has the natural abilities, would likely excel in mathematics, physics or chemistry, just like any other child. He could probably become a successful scientist or inventor.
It is only in the past 100 years or so that education has been available to the bulk of humanity. Before then, most people were born illiterate and died illiterate. Thus, their levels of intelligence could simply not be quantified, as they could neither read nor write.
For a part of the world that has the greatest genetic diversity, there ought to be more visible intellectuals, scientists and inventors coming out of it. However, this would only be the case when the bulk of its people have access to education and if the right cultural climate exists.
Being someone who has worked with people from all corners of the globe—both in academic and non-academic circles, I find the concept of people of a particular 'race' being more intelligent than others to be baseless. Rather, I see the bell curve pattern applicable to people of all ethnic constitutions.
I would like to end this write up by focusing on the role of culture or nurture on manifested intelligence. The country is Nigeria, which has more 'black' people than any other nation state in the world. Each year, elementary school pupils write a national examination to get into secondary school.
The results are always predictable. Kids from the south of the country (and particular parts of it) outperform those from the north by wide margins. These margins would often be greater than what one sees amongst the various 'racial' groups in the American GRE.
The average southern scores make those from the north look laughable. But why? These are all Nigerian kids of the same 'race'. How could one group consistently have outperformed the other for decades on end?
I have heard all sorts of answers put forward, such as: those from the north are lazy, they place little value on education, and yes, that they are genetically incapable. The truth, however, lies somewhere in-between nurture and the value societies in northern Nigeria place on education. Blend these with the worse off economic situation in the north and its greater relative rural population, and to role of genetics starts falling like a pack of cards.
Chippla Vandu is a Nigerian scientist and researcher based in Holland. He blogs as Chippla.
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