IQ and Testing: Culture, Education, and IQ Scores

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IQ and Testing: Culture, Education, and IQ Scores



Differences in human behavior are overwhelmingly cultural not biological as anthropologists have understood since at least 1910. Known biological controls of subtle, sophisticated behavior (within the normal range) are trivial. Behavior patterns rarely match the visible biological variations or putative race categories.

Most anthropologists agree that “races” do not exist. People do not come in sharply bounded groups. Skin color, nose shape, lip form, hair color and form, length of limbs, and sickle cell anemia have distributions that do not match that of skin color, or of one another. Color is a graded variable, as are many of the others. The vast majority of the world’s people, even those who are not blended, are neither black nor white, but a gradual continuum of shades that cannot be partitioned into sharply defined groups. Most important, genes are so thoroughly mixed among people, and so few correlate with color, that there is very little genetic unity beyond color itself to groups such as black Americans.

Culture is a much more complicated and powerful force than people realize. Culture is not merely composed of superficial things people do (art, music), it is a complex “grammar” that defines and controls every aspect of people’s lives, including their actions, thoughts, identities, and self images. It defines appropriate behavior, values, morals, goals, and perceptions of cause and effect. It controls where people focus and what they selectively see and hear out of a stream of information otherwise too complex to comprehend. It controls methods of categorizing, analogies, and logic. It controls how and what people learn, and how they express what they have learned (e.g., medium, style, convention, meaning, and symbolism). It limits the available repertoire of thought and action, making behavior comprehensible and predictable within the group, while also enforcing group identity, and thus defining and separating “us” from of “them.” One’s culture can promote a sense of superiority over others, inculcating patterns, perceptions, and ethnocentrism, a kind of patriotism, through some form of both formal and informal learning of shared cultural perceptions, whether they are accurate or not.

Cultures, like languages, are arbitrary designs. Any viable culture fulfills basic human needs but they do it in different styles. Any child can learn any culture in which it is raised; but learning a new culture becomes more difficult with age. Adults are prisoners of their culture because each culture limits people’s ability to understand others. Most people are not aware that there are other cultures, nor do they perceive what exists outside the blinders imposed by their own. Because fair-minded people rarely comprehend the power of cultural differences, they are easy prey for racist assumptions.

Intelligence quotient (IQ) tests, once designed to help individuals, have evolved to often act as cultural mechanisms to define an elite and to denigrate others. They purport to demonstrate the inherent abilities of certain individuals, in the process defending class, ethnic, and gender discrimination, segregation, and exclusion. For example, IQ tests can imply, erroneously, that blacks are inferior and that women lack essential abilities. If differences in IQ are assumed to be genetic and unchangeable, then privilege carries no guilt and no obligation to invest in closing the gap. It is thus a kind of “affirmative action” for the already advantaged.

IQ is defined as one’s position along a distribution of scores earned by taking various tests. The average (i.e., white middle-class) score is arbitrarily defined as 100. Scores range from below 50 (unintelligent) to 150 or more (intelligent). Black Americans score a mean of about 90. The test data can be used as one wishes, particularly if one can choose the form of the test, and manipulate and interpret the results. Some interpreters of some tests have estimated the mean IQ of sub-Saharan Africans at 70 (implying largely dysfunctional individuals and societies, and, incidentally, a figure once applied to Ashkenazi Jews). This is an extreme manipulation of the interpretation of poor test choices.


The common discriminatory use of the tests demands a chain of assumptions. If any assumption is wrong, the chain breaks, regardless of the validity of the other assumptions. In fact, it shall be seen that all the links break. Nine such assumptions will be discussed here.

The first of these assumptions is that genes significantly affect or control differences in intelligence among individuals and groups. There is in fact no known causal connection, and only one minor correlation between any gene (for an insulin-like growth factor) and intelligence within the normal range. Correlation does not prove cause because it may be indirect. For example, a gene may be shared by members of an ethnic group (e.g., Ashkenazi Jews), and members of this group may also, coincidentally, share a cultural commitment to education. Likewise, a particular gene may contribute to health, and only indirectly to higher IQ.

Estimates of genetic determination of IQ range from 40 to 80 percent. However, the power of genes is always context-specific and cannot be generalized, particularly not from individuals studied for group differences. Environmental and genetic factors are reciprocal variables. That is, the larger the environmental differences, the smaller the genetic factor appears. High concordance between identical twins reared separately partly reflects the fact that they are rarely reared in very different circumstances. If differences in their environments were greater, genetic concordance would be much less. If one twin were damaged, starved, malnourished, or raised amid deprivation (severe environmental differences), concordance would certainly be reduced, perhaps almost to zero. So marked differences in intelligence need not imply genetic differences at all. Environmental differences could account for all measurable differences in IQ between individuals or groups.

Moreover, IQs are increasing everywhere much faster than genes evolve (the widely recognized Flynn effect). The enormous increase in the IQs of Ashkenazi Jews through the late twentieth century is particularly striking. Such rapid changes are either cultural or a result of changes in the tests themselves.

A second assumption is that IQ tests actually measure innate, not learned, mental abilities that are important to the group. Even in Western society, success is obviously based on a large number of qualities that may have little to do with the “intelligence” measured on the tests.

A third assumption holds that intelligence is either one thing (a compendium of test scores referred to as “g” ) or a small number of things (multiple intelligences), and that it has been successfully defined by Euro-American scholars and is rankable on linear scales. However, most cultures informally evaluate individuals for performance (not potential) in a wide range of skills, without assuming that the skills correlate with one another or that one person is best over all. The fact that the core of “g,” or general intelligence as measured on written tests, is vocabulary, which is obviously largely learned rather than genetic, further undermines the idea that intelligence is significant controlled by genes.

The fourth assumption is that intelligence combines the same attributes in all cultures. But culture-bound IQ tests do not measure facility in other languages, leadership potential, or social or organizational skills, although all are important in most other cultures.

It is also assumed that individuals who are tested have equal exposure to, and equal focus on, the content of the culture that constructs the tests and to the language in which the tests are given. Recent tests have eliminated some egregiously biased items (e.g., tennis courts), but poor inner-city children may have limited exposure to some obvious items. They may have never seen cows, fields, trees, free-standing houses, the horizon, many simple child’s toys, and other items suburban children take for granted. Many questions on IQ tests also involve culture-biased visual stimuli, conventions, perceptions, and thought patterns. Cultural divides are far deeper than they first appear, but Americans, who wear cultural blinders, do not see them. IQ tests used across cultural boundaries are meaningless, but they still generate numbers.

The sixth assumption is that necessary skills can be measured by literate tests, even though human abilities (if genetic) obviously evolved in a nonliterate world.

Assumption number seven is that quick answers on simple questions, solved by isolated individuals, indicate “intelligence.” Even in American culture, most significant problems are neither simple nor solved in isolation. Many cultures consider rapid, simple answers a sign of simple minds, and cooperative problem solving is often preferred.

The eighth assumption is that the biological conditions of all test takers are the same. But illness or malnutrition in the present, in childhood, or in utero are known to affect performance and are clearly related to class or “race.”

The ninth assumption is that people taking a particular test are all equally motivated. Differences in motivation are obviously related to people’s perception of the testing culture, their expectations of success, and their interpretation of the environment and process of testing. Oppressed classes may actually resist success on the tests (and pressure others to resist) as a mark of cultural solidarity and resistance to the culture that discriminates against them. Poor scores are common to minorities resisting involuntary inclusion in any society, regardless of their genes.

Most of the world’s people take IQ tests across cultural boundaries and under inappropriate conditions. Black Americans are a culturally defined group, not a biological one, and their IQ scores must result from their common environment. Women, too, are culturally defined, despite a core of biological differences with men, and some of the same principles apply.

SEE ALSO Scientific Racism, History of.


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Cohen, Mark Nathan. 1998. “Culture Not Race Explains Human Diversity.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, pp. B3–5.

_____. 1998. Culture of Intolerance: Chauvinism, Class, and Racism in the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Devlin, Bernie, Stephen E. Feinberg, Daniel P. Resnick, and Kathryn Roeder, eds. 1997. Intelligence, Genes, and Success: Scientists Respond to The Bell Curve. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Fish, Jefferson, ed. 2002. Race and Intelligence: Separating Science from Myth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: The Free Press.

Jensen, Arthur. 1969. “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” Harvard Educational Review 39: 1–123.

Rushton, J. Philippe. 1995. Race, Evolution, and Behavior, a Life History Perspective. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Sarich, Vincent, and Frank Miele. 2004. Race, the Reality of Human Differences. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press.

Mark Nathan Cohen