IQ and Testing: Overview
IQ and Testing: Overview
The place of racial groups in society has historically been determined by a variety of structures of segregation, inequality, and domination. However, as George Frederickson notes in Racism: A Short History (2002), conceptions of “scientific racism” that rest on ideas of innate differences in intelligence are distinctively modern. The conception of intelligence as a fixed, unitary, biological capacity was a product of the nineteenth century. Its application to the relationships between Europeans and people of color is the product of a particular historical and intellectual conjuncture.
Prior to the nineteenth century, invidious ranking of races, individuals, or groups on scales of beauty, ability, virtue, and level of civilization, did not focus on intelligence. The rise of science led to the increase of scientific rationales for race differences during the nineteenth century, based largely on the pseudoscientific disciplines of anthropometry and the use of brain size as an index of intelligence. In the early twentieth century, particularly after World War I, the increased importance of education led to the growth of intelligence tests and other timed paper and pencil tests, such as IQ tests widely interpreted as measures of “intelligence” to assign persons in education or jobs.
In the late nineteenth century, the British biologist Francis Galton (1822–1911) conceived of intelligence as being closely related to sensory discrimination (e.g., sight, hearing, touch, and weight). James McKean Cattell imported Francis Galton’s idea to the United States, and he devised tests of sensory discrimination, reaction time, and memory. The scores on these tests, however, proved unrelated to each other and to complex intellectual performance. The French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857–1911), meanwhile, conceived of intellectual development as the cumulative mastery of increasingly difficult tasks of judgment, and he conceived of intelligence as the ratio of mental age (number of tasks mastered) to chronological age. In the United States, researchers used Binet’s conceptions to develop standardized measures of IQ. However, early tests derived from Binet had to be administered one-on-one in a nontimed setting, and they were scored by examiner judgment.
In the early twentieth century, demands by the military for rapid testing of large numbers of people led to the development of the test format that has become familiar: paper and pencil questions that can be objectively scored, such as the Army Alpha test and the Wechsler test. Similar measures of academic achievement were developed, such as the SAT (called the Scholastic Achievement Test prior to 1941, then the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, and then referred to by its initials) and the AFQT (Armed Forces Qualifications Test), and these were widely interpreted as measures of ability. However, they were based upon the presumption that those taking the test had been exposed to equivalent environments. In countries where students were exposed to the same curriculum, potential could be measured as mastery of the material in that curriculum, but where different students were exposed to different curricula, measures of ability came to focus on scores on such timed tests.
The relationship between Europeans and people of color has been based on many different conceptions of difference. Religious conceptions of difference dominated the relations of Europeans with Muslims and with a ghettoized Jewish population through most of the late medieval and early modern period. Ethnic and linguistic groups within Europe, such as the Celtic, Saxon, and Norman populations of Britain, were sometimes conceived of as “races.” However, it was only after European colonialism superimposed European elites upon large populations of color that racism emerged in recognizable modern forms. In North America, the relations of Europeans with each other, with Native Americans, with imported African slaves, and with Asians formed a complex system. The compact between northern mercantile elites and southern plantation holders, based on the recognition of slavery, influenced the race relations between Europeans and peoples of color such as Chinese and Native Americans. All the other group relations were polarized around the color line generated by slavery. With the rise of abolitionist sentiment in the nineteenth century, there was a rise in theories of scientific racism, which was used to legitimize those structures.
In The Mismeasure of Man (1996), the paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould examines three kinds of purportedly scientific demonstration of innate superiority from the nineteenth century, all based on physical measures. Theories of polygenism, defended by creationist biologists such as Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), argued for the separate biological origin of distinct races of humankind. Theories of the atavism of criminals, defended by Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), argued that different moral and social characteristics are associated with distinct body types. The craniology of theorists such as Paul Broca (1824–1990) argued that Europeans have larger brains, and that they therefore have a natural superiority to non-Europeans. Broca made similar arguments about men in comparison to women, and about the upper classes in comparison to the lower classes. In each case, it became evident that the bodies of evidence, which appeared incontrovertible at the time, resulted from a tissue of arbitrary methodological choices and special pleadings, all based on assumptions about group superiority.
The assumption that physical traits, such as brain size, skull shape, or ratio of arm length to height, had some relationship to development and to some unitary concept of intelligence was never demonstrated and is now recognized as mistaken. For example, brain size is mainly a function of body size, and the data allegedly establishing differences between groups were often a product of implicit assumptions stemming from group prejudice.
Within early nineteenth-century biology, attempts to secure the independence of biology from religion were often mixed with powerful ideological and emotional commitments to racism. For example, Gould showed that the published versions of Agassiz’s letters were edited by his wife in order to obscure the transparent racism that was one of the main sources of his polygenism. The hundreds of skull-volume measurements made by Samuel George Morton were regarded by Agassiz as decisive evidence that Europeans had larger skulls, and therefore larger brains, and that they were consequently more advanced than Africans, Asians, or Native Americans. Gould shows that the Morton findings resulted from biased choices and decisions.
The idea that physical, inherited differences between persons and groups allow them to be ranked as superior or inferior was an essential component of the social Darwinist though that came to dominate political and social thought in the late nineteenth century, particularly in Britain and the United States. The superiority of men over women, of whites over people of color, of Europeans over non-Europeans, and of the upper classes over the poor were unquestioned assumptions of much of that thought. This superiority was often conceived in terms of morals, aesthetics, or emotional and physical energy, rather than in terms of intelligence. For example, the explicit distaste that Agassiz felt for nonwhites was expressed primarily in terms of qualities such as beauty, courage, and honesty, and was only secondarily attached to interpretations of alleged quantitative mean differences between “races,” such as cranial capacity.
In the same way, the arguments used by Lombroso and his school to ascribe criminality to physical indicators of atavism, or to a more “primitive” type, illustrated an essential tendency of social Darwinist thought. Lombroso selected examples that attempted to prove that people with physical traits that he characterized as “atavistic stigmata,” such as a flattened nose, prominent teeth, or joined eyebrows, were more likely to engage in criminal behavior. When he selected cases for illustration, there were always an indefinitely large number of characteristics that could be distinguished, and his choice of measures was often driven by the visceral reactions and conceptions that Gould has called “the apishness of undesirables” (Gould 1996, p. 142).
The choice of measures were in fact driven by pre-ordained conclusions, illustrated by the arguments of Broca, who unintentionally selected the aspects and interpretations of the data in order to reach the conclusion that males, Europeans, the upper class, and whites were superior. The notion that brain size is proportional to some unitary quality of intelligence was a deceptively simple idea. In practice, the interpretation of skull size depended upon an indefinitely large number of decisions about measurement. The conclusions were driven by assumptions about such factors as the deterioration of different cadavers or differences in body size resulting from gender and nutrition. Gould notes that an analysis of Broca’s arguments reveals a circle proceeding from the preordained conclusion (his certainty that men, whites, Europeans, and the upper class are more intelligent and must have larger brains) to assumptions about choices that would guarantee that conclusion. The presumption that there is some unitary biological capacity that could be called intelligence, and that it could be measured by some external trait such as brain size, drove a series of choices, assumptions, interpretations, and methodological decisions that generated bodies of data purporting to demonstrate the original presumption.
During the nineteenth century, attempts to prove the superiority of privileged groups by physical measurements formed a component of the broad stream of social Darwinism. The idea that social progress results from competition between groups and individuals of different abilities, leading to survival of the fittest, took different forms. Conceptions of individual competition, directed against the status pretensions of the upper class, coexisted with conceptions of group competition, and these conceptions were connected to nativist and racist movements that were reacting to the waves of immigration to the United States and to the migration of African Americans from the American South to northern cities.
During the twentieth century, life chances came increasingly to depend upon educational credentials, and the development of paper-and-pencil measures of alleged ability, which were used to allocate people both within education and in businesses and the military, forced debates about race, class, gender, and ethnicity to focus upon the interpretation of those scores. Nicholas Lemann, in The Big Test (1999), analyzed the fact that in the absence of a common school curriculum in different communities, it was not possible to test a mastery of that curriculum in any depth. This led to an increased use of tests such as the ASQT and the SAT consisting of timed multiple choice answers to questions dealing with many bits of largely academic information.
In the 1970s the Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein argued that social class was and should be largely a function of intelligence, and in the 1990s Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s controversial book The Bell Curve extended that argument to the view that poverty, low income, welfare dependency, unemployment, divorce, illegitimate pregnancy, crime, and a lack of “middle-class values” were all in large part produced by a lack of intelligence, and that race differences in such conditions were largely explained by race differences in IQ. This analysis was widely criticized. For example, Peter Knapp and his colleagues in The Assault on Equality found that virtually all of the alleged effects of IQ disappear if it is measured contemporaneously with social class.
Gould has noted that assumptions of unitary intelligence, which is greater among privileged groups, have invariably served as justifications of social inequality, and that Charles Darwin had recognized the central issue in his comment, “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin” (Gould 1996, p. 424). The assumptions and presumptions of the natural superiority of privileged groups are relatively pervasive, and like the spores of a fungus or like crab grass, they proliferate under favorable conditions. Specifically, the favorable conditions for the proliferation of theories concerning inherited group differences of ability have been political conflicts over group privilege and opportunity. There have been three main periods of recrudescence and increased popularity of such arguments during the twentieth century: the first was in response to the waves of immigration and migration at the beginning of the century; the second was in response to the civil rights movement in the middle of the century; and the third was in response to movements to cut back social policies at the end of the twentieth century.
Frederickson, George M. 2002. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gould, Stephen J. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: The Free Press.
Knapp, Peter H., Jane C. Kronick, R. William Marks, and Miriam G. Vosburgh. 1996. The Assault on Equality. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Lemann, Nicholas. 1999. The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Peter H. Knapp