Considering the article 

Can Research on the Genetics of Intelligence Be ‘Socially Neutral’?

 and the textbook chapters on intelligence, compare and discuss at least two group differences in IQ. Why are these differences important for understanding intelligence?

S50 September-October 2015/ HASTINGS CENTER REPORT

The history of research on the genetics of intel-
ligence is fraught with social bias. During the
eugenics era, the hereditary theory of intelligence

justified policies that encouraged the proliferation of
favored races and coercively stemmed procreation by
disfavored ones. In the 1970s, Berkeley psychologist
Arthur Jensen argued that black students’ innate cogni-
tive inferiority limited the efficacy of federal education
programs.1 The 1994 controversial bestseller The Bell
Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,
by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, rehashed
the claim that race and class disparities stem from immu-
table differences in inherited intelligence, which could
not be eliminated through social interventions.2 Today
most scientists studying the genetics of intelligence dis-
tance themselves from this history of social bias by argu-
ing that their research need not investigate intellectual
differences between social groups. Rather, they argue,
examining the heritability of intelligence can be socially
neutral and may even help to reduce social inequities.3

I argue that research on the genetics of intelligence
cannot be socially neutral. The original purpose of men-
tal tests was to determine individuals’ “fitness” for social
roles. Even if we divorce the heritability of intelligence
from a eugenicist mission, measuring intelligence re-
mains useful only as a gage of individuals’ appropriate
positions in society. Research into the genetics of intel-
ligence ultimately helps to determine individuals’ inher-
ited capacity for particular social positions, even when
researchers aim to modify the effects of inheritance.

Moreover, intelligence has social value. Many aspects
of mainstream U.S. culture treat people who are deemed
to be more intelligent as more socially valuable than peo-
ple who are deemed to be less intelligent. Research into
the genetics of intelligence, therefore, helps to identify
an aspect of the inherited worth of individuals. This fea-
ture of intelligence testing historically legitimated race
and class hierarchies in explicit terms. Today, research
on the genetics of intelligence—even if the research does
not use social classifications—maps onto existing social
hierarchies and the stereotypes about intelligence that
support them. Efforts to improve individuals’ intellectu-
al capacities or social mobility would be better served by
nurturing the actual skills that intelligence is supposed
to make it possible to develop and, more importantly,
by more equitably distributing educational resources in
our society. Such efforts need no genetic information—
or even IQ testing—and are likely to be hindered by the
hereditary concept of intelligence.

Scientists doing basic research investigating the role
genes play in the mechanisms of brain development un-
derlying cognitive function may not be concerned with
this social context. They may be interested purely in how
genes and brains work generally in human beings. But
as soon as their findings are translated into knowledge
about heritable intelligence, their research will take on
the social implications that inevitably result from rank-
ing human beings by cognitive capacity and attributing
their rank in significant part to their genes.

The Purpose of Intelligence Testing

The very origins of predicting intelligence are rooted
in ranking people socially. Tests that measure intel-

ligence were created to determine people’s “fitness” for

Can Research on the Genetics of
Intelligence Be “Socially Neutral”?

By dOrOTHy rOBerTs

Dorothy Roberts, “Can Research on the Genetics of Intelligence Be
‘Socially Neutral’?,” The Genetics of Intelligence: Ethics and the Conduct
of Trustworthy Research, special report, Hastings Center Report 45, no. 5
(2015): S50-S53. DOI: 10.1002/hast.499

S51SPECIAL REPORT: The Genet ics o f In te l l i gence: E th ics and the Conduct o f Trus tworthy Research

social roles.4 Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, con-
fused inherited social privilege with inherited intelligence
when he wrongly assumed that the British elite achieved
their stature owing to their innate “genius.”5 He argued
that fitness in humans depended on “General Ability or
Intelligence” and proposed “to show . . . that a man’s natu-
ral abilities are derived by inheritance” (p. 1). The aim of
the first mental test center in London, established in 1882,
was to demonstrate that scores matched social status or
“reputation.”6 In other words, intelligence testing became
the linchpin for proving that social status was inherited.
The quest to settle the debate over nature and nurture was
a way of scientifically legitimizing the unequal social order
and justifying intervention in a way that maintained that

In the United States, the reification of intelligence as
the primary indicator of human value facilitated the eugen-
ics movement. Promoting the “hereditarian theory of IQ,”
eugenicists claimed that the IQ test could quantify innate
intellectual ability in a single objective measurement, de-
spite the objections of the test’s creator, Alfred Binet.7 Binet
developed the first intelligence test in 1904 for screening
children in school for remedial instruction but rejected its
use to measure innate cognitive ability. Just as damaging,
intelligence became shorthand for moral worth as well as
cognitive capacity. The introduction of “mental tests” at
the turn of the twentieth century replaced physical mea-
surements, such as cranial capacity, as the means of ranking
human beings in terms of inferiority and superiority.

In hindsight, we see that, far from being an objective
measure used to rank people neutrally, the IQ test was a
deeply biased measure used to legitimize discrimination
against populations labeled by those in power as socially
inferior. Psychologist Henry H. Goddard’s influential re-
search on the heritability of feeblemindedness attributed
the behavior of paupers, prostitutes, and criminals to in-
herited mental deficiencies. Psychologists also used the
tests to demonstrate that blacks and recent immigrants
from Southern and Eastern Europe were intellectually infe-
rior to Americans of Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian descent.
In A Study of American Intelligence, published in 1923,
Princeton psychology professor Carl C. Brigham analyzed
data from an army program that tested the intelligence of
1.7 million recruits, reporting, “At one extreme we have
the distribution of the Nordic group. At the other extreme
we have the American negro. Between the Nordic and the
negro, but closer to the negro than the Nordic, we find
the Alpine and Mediterranean type.”8 Brigham’s social bias

seems obvious to Americans today most especially because
the social definition and ranking of whites have changed.

Thus, the very purpose of IQ tests was to confirm the
current social order as naturally proper. Intelligence tests
were not misused to support hereditary theories of social
hierarchies; they were perfected in order to support them.
The IQ supplied an essential difference among human be-
ings that deliberately reflected racial and class stratifications
in order to justify them as natural.9 Research on the genet-
ics of intelligence was far from socially neutral when the
very purpose of theorizing the heritability of intelligence
was to confirm an unequal social order.

Today, scientists who subscribe to genetic theories of
intelligence distance their views from eugenics. They ar-
gue that research on the genetics of intelligence is now de-
void of eugenicist motives and can serve to objectively and
scientifically identify people’s intellectual levels without
the taint of social bias. Indeed, some claim that, far from
discounting educational programs for the less intelligent,
considered incapable of being helped, their research can
target interventions to those predicted by genetic tests to
be helped by special training (see essays by Kathryn Asbury
and by Matt McGue and Irving Gottesman in this special
report).10 While eugenicists sought to use heritability stud-
ies to improve the human race, these researchers seek to use
them to improve individual achievement.

Yet genetic research into intelligence shares with eugen-
ics a biological explanation of social inequality. Even if cur-
rent studies are not aimed at confirming a natural order
of social groups, they nevertheless are aimed at produc-
ing biological information relevant to individuals’ social
positions. Why else care about measuring and predicting
people’s intelligence if not to determine how suitable they
are for particular classrooms, vocations, and occupations?
As Ken Richardson writes, “Since tests were constructed to
predict school achievement, which determines entry in the
job market, there is an inevitable correlation between test
scores and occupational and social status.”11 The purpose
of identifying whether or not individuals are predisposed
to some particular level of intelligence must be to fit them
in some socially salient category.

Moreover, identifying genes that are associated with in-
telligence is a way of determining which people are predict-
ed to have higher or lower intelligence based on biological
differences. This does not mean that people’s social roles
will be used to predict their intelligence, as was done by eu-
genicists. However, research on the genetics of intelligence
will likely—if not inevitably—be used to predict people’s
biological suitability for particular social roles.

Intelligence tests were not misused to support hereditary theories of
social hierarchies; they were perfected in order to support them.

S52 September-October 2015/ HASTINGS CENTER REPORT

Intelligence, Genes, and Social Values

Another reason that this research cannot be socially
neutral is that the study of genes is not hermetically

sealed from social assumptions, norms, and values. Even
after the Human Genome Project produced new knowl-
edge about human genetic unity and diversity, many sci-
entists have continued to employ racial classifications and
ideologies in their studies with little critical thought.12 Nor
can the meaning of intelligence be divorced from social val-
ues. Psychologists cannot even agree on what intelligence
is.13 Even if an intelligence quotient expressed as a single
number that is used in ranking people in linear order is a
valid proxy for a very specific type of cognitive function—
general cognitive ability, or g—it does not represent many
other types of cognitive function.14 Most IQ tests measure
a narrow range of intellectual skills, such as memory and
general knowledge, or limited forms of thinking—mainly
linguistic and mathematical—and focus on past learning,
which reflects educational opportunities. There are many
equally important kinds of intelligences, such as practical,
emotional, spatial, and musical, that the tests ignore.15 The
more complex we understand intelligence to be, the less
likely we are to see IQ as sufficient to represent it or to
expect geneticists to identify a gene or group of genes that
predicts it.

Instead, mental tests have been underestimating many
individuals’ cognitive abilities in a socially biased way.16
Because the very meaning of intelligence is disputed and
some people perform poorly on widely accepted tests for
social reasons, research and tests privilege dominant so-
cial groups. Our society is deeply stratified along race and
class lines, which affects not only the information children
learn, but their very habits of thought, ways of thinking,
and responses to stereotypes.17

We know that the mental test performances of groups
improve along with the groups’ social mobility.18 The av-
erage IQ increases of Jews in the United States between
the World Wars and in some nations since World War II,
along with the decrease in mean IQ differences between
blacks and whites over these periods, show that what is
measured by IQ tests is not immutable but malleable in
response to social changes. A recent review of new findings
in the field of intelligence concluded, “We can be confi-
dent that the environmental differences that are associated
with social class have a large effect on IQ.”19 This evidence
refutes the myth of innate racial differences in intelligence
and reminds us that genes do much less to explain observed
differences in some social environments than in others.

Moreover, the categories people fall into based on their
IQs will be ranked according to greater or lesser intellec-
tual ability. Could this ranking be recorded without any

social value being attributed to it? Herrnstein and Murray
claimed in The Bell Curve that they weren’t eugenicists be-
cause they did not place any particular value on greater or
lesser intelligence. They were simply helping to create a
harmonious village where everyone is matched to the vo-
cation for which his or her mental ability is suited, and
everyone could be valued equally.

One problem with this argument is that it is awfully
hard to imagine a village in which all the people are equally
respected in vocations determined by innate intelligence.
We would first have to strip away a long history of cultural
programming that equates intelligence with human worth
and that degrades vocations associated with lower intelli-
gence. We would also have to strip away the deep-seated
stereotypes perpetuated for centuries that black people are
naturally less intelligent than whites.

But even if this were possible, there is reason to object to
people’s being assigned to classrooms or occupations based
on genetic predispositions. Eugenicists sought to relegate
individuals to stations in life based on their presumed in-
born traits, without the opportunity for change. Modern-
day proponents of gene-based tests for intelligence claim
that their purpose is the opposite—to identify genetically
which children would benefit most from different types of
educational interventions. Because predicting intelligence
genetically divides people into categories that are likely to
be valued differently, it will push against equally distribut-
ing resources to benefit all children. Would our society be
motivated to devote extra resources to help those predicted
to have lower intelligence?

This outcome of genetic testing is highly doubtful given
the persistence of longstanding and glaring race and class
inequities in public education. Moreover, by attributing
children’s intellectual deficiencies to genes, this research
diverts attention from the social impediments to children’s
intellectual flourishing. Focusing on genes tends to encour-
age gene-based rather than environmental or social solu-
tions to problems.20 Worse, opponents of equal education
easily exploit genetic theories of intelligence by arguing that
groups who score lower on IQ tests are incapable of bene-
fitting from social interventions. Intellectual enhancement
programs are more likely to address social disadvantages if
they nurture the actual desired skills or behaviors that intel-
ligence is supposed to produce, that IQ tests are supposed
to measure, and that genes are supposed to predict.

Mapping onto Existing Social Hierarchies

Finally, research into the genetics of intelligence will
map onto already existing social hierarchies and the

stereotypes about intellectual ability that support them.
Dominant U.S. society is marked by longstanding, wide-

S53SPECIAL REPORT: The Genet ics o f In te l l i gence: E th ics and the Conduct o f Trus tworthy Research

spread, and deeply embedded assumptions about the inher-
ited intelligence of social groups. In particular, many white
Americans believe that black people as a group are innately
less intelligent than whites.21 A central component of white
supremacist ideology is the view that black people are natu-
rally fit to be subservient and naturally unfit for citizen-
ship. In 1785, Thomas Jefferson rationalized denying equal
rights to enslaved Africans on grounds that “the blacks,
whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time
and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endow-
ment both of body and mind.”22 More recently, prominent
U.S. scientists and journalists, including Jensen, Philippe
Rushton, Herrnstein, Murray, and Nicholas Wade, argued
that black people’s disadvantaged social status stemmed
from inherited cognitive deficiencies.23

Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven J. Heine argue that es-
sentialist biases lead people to view genetically influenced
outcomes as inescapable.24 For many Americans, evidence
that intelligence is inherited also supports the view that ra-
cial differences in intelligence must be inherited. Even if
researchers do not use race as a variable and have no interest
in or expectation of finding race-based genetic differences,
their findings will be interpreted in this influential social
context. Given the powerful backdrop of racist notions
of intelligence, it is impossible to conduct research on the
genetics of intelligence without risking its use to support
racist stereotypes.

The belief that intelligence is heritable and can be pre-
dicted by tests has legitimated unjust social hierarchies and
justified social policies designed to maintain them. There is
no evidence that genetic tests for intelligence are necessary
or will help to improve education for people from disad-
vantaged social circumstances. To the contrary, the genetic
theory of intelligence will “cut off all possibility of proper
nurturance for everyone’s intelligence”25 and provide a
justification for the very social structures that prevent the
equitable sharing of educational resources. The weight of
the evidence—historical, biological, and philosophical—is
that research into the genetics of intelligence cannot be so-
cially neutral and, indeed, will intensify social inequities.


I would like to acknowledge the research assistance of
Sonita Moss.

1. A. R. Jenson, Educability and Group Differences (New York:
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2. R. J. Herrnstein and C. Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and
Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994)

3. E. C. Hayden, “Taboo Genetics,” Nature 502 (2013): 26-28.
4. K. Richardson, “Wising Up on the Heritability of Intelligence,”

Gene Watch 24, no. 6 (2011): 15-18.
5. F. Galton, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Law and

Consequences (1869; repr., London: Forgotten Books 2012).
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7. S. J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W. W. Norton,

8. C. C. Brigham, A Study of American Intelligence (Princeton, NJ:
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9. J. A. Belkhir and M. Duyme, “Intelligence and Race, Gender,
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11. Richardson, “Wising Up on the Heritability of Intelligence.”
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Human Difference in Pharmacogenetics Practice,” Science as Culture
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13. R. J. Sternberg and D. K. Detterman, What Is Intelligence?
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14. Gould, Mismeasure of Man; Richardson, “Wising Up on the
Heritability of Intelligence.”

15. H. Gardner, “Cracking Open the IQ Box,” American Prospect
(Winter 1994).

16. D. Ramos, “Paradise Miscalculated,” in S. Fraser, The Bell
Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America (New York:
Basic Books, 1995): 62-69.

17. Gardner, “Cracking Open the IQ Box”; L. Suzuki and J.
Aronson, “The Cultural Malleability of Intelligence and Its Impact
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18. R. E. Nisbett, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools
and Cultures Count (New York: Norton, 2009): Nisbett et al.,
“Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical Developments,”
American Psychologist 67, no. 2 (2012): 130-59.

19. Nisbett et al., “Intelligence.”
20. T. Duster, Backdoor to Eugenics (New York: Routledge, 2003);

I. Dar-Nimrod and S. J. Heine, “Genetic Essentialism: On the
Deceptive Determinism of DNA,” Psychological Bulletin 137, no. 5
(2011): 800-818.

21. S. Plous and T. Williams, “Stereotypes from the Days of
American Slavery: A Continuing Legacy,” Journal of Applied Social
Psychology 25, no. 9 (1995): 795-817; C. M. Steele, S. Spencer,
and J. Aronson, “Contending with Group Image: The Psychology
of Stereotype Threat and Social Identity Threat,” Advances in
Experimental Social Psychology 37 (2002): 379-440.

22. T. Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. W. Peden (1785;
Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 201.

23. Jenson, Educability and Group Differences; J. P. Rushton, Race,
Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (New Brunswick,
NJ: Transaction, 1995); Herrnstein and Murray, The Bell Curve; N.
Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History
(New York: Penguin, 2014).

24. Dar-Nimrod and Heine, “Genetic Essentialism.”
25. S. J. Gould, “Curveball,” in The Bell Curve Wars, ed. Fraser,

11-22, at 22.

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