Why Race Matters: Race
Differences and What They Mean
Author: Michael Levin
Westport, CT.: Praeger, 1997. Pp. X + 415.
The Western Journal of Black Studies
by L. Keita
Although the question of race has been an important sociological issue
ever since the development of anthropology as a study of different
human groups, contemporary philosophy has had relatively little to say
about the topic. Interestingly enough though, three of the luminaries
of Western philosophy did write about race as if those human groups
that distinguished themselves both geographically and phenotypically
constituted natural kinds in terms of temperament and intellect.
This amounted to the view held by Hume, Kant, and Hegel that the
different branches of humanity were distinguishable not only
phenotypically but also temperamentally and intellectually. Kant and
Hume associated the dark pigmentation of persons of African origin
with cognitive deficiencies, and Hegel wrote disparagingly of the
natural temperament of Africans as explanatory of their cultures. And
even long before Kant's time the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued
about race along essentialist lines. Aristotle inferred in a priori
fashion that the dark pigmentation of the Africans of ancient Egypt
and Nubia as signaled cowardice. (Aristotle, "Physiognomics",
Discussions on the important issue of race, though ignored by
contemporary philosophers for the most part, have been an integral
part of social science discussion. The main debate centers on whether
"race" is some sort of natural kind or is a mere social
construction. If race were just social construction then essentialist
arguments associating phenotypical characteristics with behavior or
cognitive dispositions would have no ontological grounds to stand on.
On the other hand, if races could be established scientifically, that
is, as natural kinds, then possible inferences about dispositional and
behavioral characteristics could be drawn about the members of the
different racial groups. This has been one of the more popular
approaches to the issue of race within the general context of Western
quantitative psychology and physical anthropology.
The interesting point about Michael Levin's Why Race Matters (the
title suggesting a play on the 1993 text Race Matters authored by
social theorist Cornel West) is that it is written by a philosopher
and that it seeks to extend the tenure of the old essentialist
argument on race. Levin's thesis is that
empirically observable phenotypical traits that differentiate the
so-called races macroscopically are casually connected with
dispositional traits such as intelligence and temperament. Of course,
this thesis is hardly novel given its long-standing tenure in the
research paradigms of orthodox Western quantitative psychology.
Perhaps the best known of these efforts is that of A. Shuey (1996) who
reported that the average measured IQ gap between "blacks"
and "whites" in American society is approximately 15 points,
or in the parlance of quantitative psychology, one standard deviation.
It was claimed that the average score of persons of European
extraction is set at 100 points, while those of African ancestry
approximated 85 points. While some geneticists, biologists, and
psychometricians explain this average difference as due primarily or
exclusively to environmental causes, nativists such as Levin offer a
mainly biological explanation.
But merely to state this supposed fact would not satisfy
epistemologically. Further explanations are needed and this is what
Levin suggests: "speculation has long focused on the different
pressures exerted by African and Eurasian climates. Survival in the
colder climates of Europe and Northern Asia requires technologies
unnecessary in Africa: clothing has to be fabricated, fires sustained,
food hunted and stored....
Planning is less adaptive in warmer climates where food is easier to
get and spoils when stored" (p. 136). Consider too: "Like
the cheetah's supple spine and the horse's hoof, the levels of
intelligence of the different races were responses to environmental
pressures--as were the values embraced by different groups" (p.
Levin's reasoning here is causally essentialist and cannot be
supported by the facts. First of all the climatic argument is patently
fallacious for the following reasons. Neanderthal man, the European
representative of Homo erectus, though resident in Europe and other
colder regions for at least 300,000 years (the archaeological claim is
made that the Neanderthals became extinct approximately 40,000 years
ago), was not as cognitively evolved as those members of Homo sapiens,
who migrated from Africa to Europe and Central Asia 30-40,000 years
But these African members of Homo sapiens were themselves evolutionary
descendants of African varieties of Homo erectus. If the colder
climates of Europe and northern Asia were more evolutionarily
challenging than the warmer climates of Africa then one would have
expected Homo sapiens to emerge in those environments and not in the
tropical ecologies of Africa. Furthermore, if the northern ecologies
and climates of the world were more challenging and evolutionarily
selective then one would have expected that the European and north
Asian descendants of resident Homo erectus (Neanderthal and others)
would have been the colonizing migrants into Africa and other tropical
regions of the globe. But the reverse has occurred.
Again, the argument that the colder climates of Europe and northern
Asia produced more cognitively evolved branches of humanity than those
derivative from the wanner climates cannot be sustained given that the
world's first civilizations (on the assumption of the Eurocentric
definition of civilization) emerged in tropical and sub-tropical
regions. And we have no proof that the originators of such
civilizations migrated from the colder climates of the Eurasian
landmass into tropical and subtropical regions. The African
civilizations of ancient Nubia and ancient Egypt developed in tropical
and subtropical regions, so too the civilizations of Mesopotamia and
Harappan (the Indian sub-continent).
The only possible exception to this trend is the civilization of
China. But even here the site of origin of this civilization is not
fully in the temperate zone.
Levin also errs in his explanatory thesis in that there are regions of
Africa where Africans have lived for several thousand years where the
climatic conditions are very clearly subtropical and even temperate at
certain times of the year. The climates of southern Africa extend
beyond the tropic of Capricorn
and approximate the climates of European and west Asian territories
such as Greece, Turkey, and Iran. Thus if cold climatic conditions
constitute the necessary conditions for environmental challenge - the
ultimate leitmotiv of human evolutionary
change - then one would have to argue that some members of
the African branch of humanity were also subjected to climatic
conditions similar to those of Europe and temperate-zone Asia. Levin
expresses an ignorance of geography when he fails to recognize that
there are parts of Africa within the tropical zone where the
temperatures are quite temperate on account of altitude. One refers,
for example, to the highlands of Kenya, Ethiopia and the plateau
regions of West Africa.
Putting aside for the moment questions about the nature of
intelligence and whether IQ tests do measure intelligence, I want to
demonstrate now that Levin's claim that there is a strict causal
connection between IQ and race - as defined by Levin--is false. Levin
puts it as follows: "When `race' is operationalized
geographically, generalizations about races acquire clear empirical
meaning.... To say the mean intelligence of whites exceeds that of
blacks is to say that the mean intelligence of people of European
descent exceeds that of people of African descent. Every such
generalization may be false, but they are uniformly meaningful"
(pg. 21). For Levin "intelligence" is determined by
quantitative scores on IQ tests regardless of the environmental or
genetic components of such scores. This is curious given that most of
the discussion on IQ testing is concerned with examining the basis for
interracial or interethnic differences in reported scores. Levin
writes: "should the black and white
intelligence polygene turn out to be identical, and there is a mean
difference in intelligence due entirely to environmental factors, all
that would follow is that blacks would be on average as intelligent as
whites if both were raised identically.... It would not follow that
blacks are as intelligent" (pg. 38). In fact this approach to the
question of intelligence as a phenotypical trait is tantamount to
equating "intelligence" with "education" or
"training." Yet most of Levin's text is concerned to argue
in favor of "intelligence" not only as phenotype but as
phenotype linked causally to genotype. There is a world of
difference between these two positions.
But I return to my original counter claim against Levin: race and
intelligence are not causally connected. I refer to international
comparisons of IQ scores as reported by psychometric testing.
According to arch-nativist Richard Lynn (1978) the IQ scores of
southern Europeans is a full standard deviation lower than that of the
average score of northern Europeans. According to Lynn the reported
average IQ of Spaniards in Spain is 87. We are also informed that in
Yugoslavia and Greece respectably some tested school children scored
89 in both instances. Lynn also reports that Italian immigrants to the
United States scored 84 while their Swedish counterparts scored 102.
To compound the north-south IQ gap in Europe we are informed again
that Portuguese immigrants to the
United States scored 83, a score lower than that registered by African
Americans in general. Of similar interest too is the fact that when
children of northern and southern European immigrants were tested with
non-language tests along with other children of European ancestry the
IQ gap remained the same. Children of northern European descent scored
97, those of southern European descent
scored 85, while those of less recent European ancestry scored 98.
Thus it would seem that the IQ gap is not based on race after all, but
on something more akin to exposure to levels of modern technology and
education. According to convention all Europeans are classified as
belonging to the so-called Caucasoid race, yet there are significant
differences between the scores obtained from northern Europe and those
from southern Europe. The main difference observable between northern
and southern Europe is not race but rather level of industrialization
and modernization in the technical sense.
Lynn's article not only deals with the IQ scores of Europeans but also
with those of Asians and Africans. For example, Lynn states that
"In India, there is a considerable literature on intelligence
testing.... All the mean IQs lay in the range from 81 to 94, the
overall mean being about 86" (p. 269). Yet "a small sample
of 25 postgraduate students at the University of Calcutta, who took
Raven's Test produced an incredibly low mean IQ of 75" (pg. 269).
Curiously enough the inhabitants of India are considered "caucasoid."
For persons of African origin Lynn reports that the scores range from
75 (Ghana, Jamaica) to 88 (Uganda, Tanzania.) One might want to
compare such scores with those of West Asians: Iraq (80) and Iran (low
80's) (Lynn, p. 269).
The scores form East Asia are to be somewhat qualified given that no
scores are reported from mainland China where the vast majority of
East Asians live. As Lynn put it: "Little is known about the
intelligence levels of Mongoloids in their homelands. The majority of
studies have been made on Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the
United States" (pg. 272). Lynn reports a score of 99 for
Chinese ethnics from Hawaii and scores of 107 and 114 for Chinese and
Japanese subjects in Vancouver respectively. But there is the current
belief among some psychometricians (Murray, Rushton, et al.) that East
Asians are naturally more intelligent that Africans and Caucasoids.
But I have pointed out that the vast majority of East Asians have not
been subjected to IQ tests. Furthermore, the Eskimos who are
considered members of the same racial complex as east
Asians score between the ranges of 70 and 85. This is hardly proof of
Mongoloid intellectual superiority.
There are two other well-discussed aspects of the IQ controversy that
Levin discusses with little epistemological care. These two topics are
the "Flynn effect" and "identical twin testing."
The Flynn effect (1987) is based on the research conducted by James
Flynn which states that there have been great intergenerational
increases in IQ reported over the recent years. For example, Flynn
noted that between 1949 and 1974 the IQ scores of French persons
increased 21 points. Similar kinds of increases were noted for Japan,
Germany, and Austria. In fact, Flynn remarked on the same phenomenon
for fourteen nations. Clearly, genetic factors could not be at work
here. We can attribute the increases in IQ purely to environmental
changes (schooling and other kinds of cognitive exposures).
Levin does recognize the Flynn effect (pg. 128) but dismisses an
environmental explanation for the "black-white IQ gap" with
the unproven claim that since "black" and "white"
environments have been converging the racial IQ gap may well be
genetic. But Levin has not proven that the sociological environments
of blacks and whites have been converging. Levin even argues that if
the IQ gap does not change over time for both blacks and whites this
difference means "that the race gap is due to genes" (p.
129). It is difficult to follow Levin's reasoning here. What is at
stake here in the discussion is the impact of the environment in
determining IQ scores. The explanation offered for intergenerational
differences in IQ scores is necessarily environmental, that is, over
time environments change for the same racial group. But then Levin
illogically rejects this possible explanation for the black-white IQ
gap by claiming that there are no environmental differences between
the sociologies of blacks and
But we know that there are evident environmental and sociological
differences between blacks and whites in the United States and
elsewhere. In fact the only way in which possible cognitive
differences between blacks and whites could be properly evaluated is
for sufficiently large samples of black and white monozygotic (identical)
twins to be randomly adopted by black and white households across all
socioeconomic levels. Thus each pair of black and white twins will be
adopted at birth individually by one randomly chosen black family and
one randomly chosen white family. But again, even if such an
experiment were possible, what guarantees do we have that the
identical twins have all been randomly distributed throughout society?
This brings me to the very issue of research done on identical twins
reared apart as a way of determining the effect of the environment on
IQ scores. Levin does refer to the different studies done on
monozygotic twins reared apart (p. 97) but does not shed much
analytical light on the issue. The most extensive of these tests (as
cited by Levin) are those carried out by Pedersen (1992), Burt (1966)
and Bouchard (1990). The average estimate of [h.sup.2] for these
studies is .80 with the average difference between IQ scores being put
at 7 points.
All this is interesting but it does not shed much light on the
questions concerning race and IQ. After all, if monozygotic twins
reared apart are reared in environments that are sociologically
similar then the significance of reported IQ differences loses
explanatory importance. What is significant though
about monozygotic twin studies are the reported individual ranges
between tested twins. I argue that if there are a significant numbers
of monozygotic twin IQ scores that demonstrate tested gaps of
approximately 15 points -- the approximate black-white gap in the
United States and some parts of Africa, then the hereditarian thesis
is cast in doubt.
Psychometrician Arthur Jensen (1972) offers some data on this in the
paper "IQs of Identical Twins Reared Apart". Jensen offers
details on 4 twin studies. One of the studies discussed is that of
Burt's (1966), but this research has been mired in controversy so I
shall not use it in my analysis. Of the
sixty-nine (69) pairs of twins tested by Shields (38), Newman et al.
(19) and Juel-Nielsen (12), ten (10) pairs of the sixty-nine (69) had
gap differences of at least 15 points. This number amounts to
approximately 14 percent of the total. This is significant. If one
restricts the analysis to Shields and Newman the percentage increases
to 18 percent approximately. We note that the Juel-Nielson study was
carried out in Denmark where social equality is an ideal aimed at.
This explains why in this study the largest IQ gap registered is 12
Levin's thesis, though mainly about the issue of intelligence and race
is not exclusively so. He extends his racial thesis to the question of
values and human behavior. Levin puts it thus: "The races simply
differ in abilities, behavior, and standards of evaluation" (p.
163). Levin's sociobiological approach to human decision making is
once again evident when he writes: "The separate
evolution of blacks and whites, which appears to have produced
cognitive and temperamental differences, makes it possible, indeed
likely, that behaviors and norms pathological for whites are not
pathological for blacks, and that identical behaviors and norms have
different functional significance for the two races" (p. 186).
In the section on values Levin seeks to expound on this thesis with
references to interracial differences in criminality and cultural
attitudes. The goal here is to argue once again for an essentialist
theory of race not only in terms of cognitive abilities but also in
terms of values. But again Levin, though avowedly empiricist in
orientation, fails to be exhaustive in his analysis. Obvious proof of
my claim here is that there are societies of persons of African origin
where crime and acts of violence are extremely rare. The crime rate is
extremely low in rural communities of persons of African ancestry in
Africa and the Americas. It is the sociological argument that explains
why the descendants of peaceful rural African Americans are often
involved with the law in the urban, high unemployment areas of North
In the discussion on values Levin once again appeals to the
environment to explain "the strong individual dominance drive"
among Africans (p. 140) and a supposedly cooperative and democratic
European temperament. Levin writes, "Recall the hypothesis that
conditions in northern Eurasia strongly favored cooperation" (p.
168). In fact Levin's analysis is totally erroneous: it is African
society that has been criticized, as being incompatible with the
individualism required of market economies. It is in Africa and other
areas of the African world rather than in Europe that the idea of the
extended family, with its concomitant principles of cooperation and
altruistic obligation, is held to be widespread. But I do not make an
essentialist argument here. Human social relations are determined
maximally by the principle of sociological contingency: individualism
and anomie are rampant in large urban areas while cooperation and
altruism are more common in the rural areas of whatever continent. So
again, Levin's thesis fails for lack of persuasiveness in terms of
empirical evidence and analysis. In this regard Levin's speculations
on the supposed differences in free will capacity between "blacks"
and "whites" cannot be supported either scientifically or
Of interest too are Levin's attempts to justify his arguments about
the cognitive abilities of individuals of African ancestry by claiming
that there is no evidence of creative, intellectual production from
such persons in history. Levin writes that "the absence from
Africa of advanced material culture is more
than an accident is confirmed by the failure of post-colonial Africa
to sustain the technology left by whites" (p. 120). Levin is
wrong in his claims about "the absence of material culture in
Africa" and the fact that there are problems with technology
transfers in Africa cannot be attributed to genetic causes. There are
places in Europe where there are serious problems with technology
transfers and maintenance as in countries such as Greece, Albania, and
Bulgaria. And there are countries in the African world where basic
technologies such as electricity, telecommunications, roads and so on
are efficiently maintained. Ready examples are Kenya, Senegal,
Barbados and Botswana.
The problems of technology facing the African world have nothing to do
with genetics but with the complex of relations between the
industrialized nations and their ex-colonies within the context of the
capitalist world order. Levin's ignorance of the history of
civilizations is again evident when he writes "no important
discovery, invention or world leader emerged from Africa. The art,
music, architecture, literature, and political history of Eurasia owe
virtually nothing to Africans" (p. 194). In response to those who
would claim that the architectural, cultural, and technological
influences of ancient Egypt and Nubia, as African civilizations, on
the Eurasian world easily refute the above assertion, Levin states
without any elaboration and with reference only to some obscure
pseudo-anthropologist (Baker, 1974) that "the Egyptians were not
black" (p. 194).
But the originators of the world's first qualitatively path-breaking
and influential technological civilizations were the ancient Nubians
and Egyptians, both of African racial origin. Levin also fails to
recognize that the Moorish architecture of southern Spain is of
African origin, and that the originating
and creative impulses for contemporary Euro-American music and art are
also of African origin.
But I want to elaborate further on Levin's lack of knowledge of
Africa's anthropological and historical past with respect to the
ancient Egyptians and Nubians. Levin's illogical reasoning on this
issue goes something like this: Persons of African origin are
incapable of producing any form of genuine civilization. The ancient
Egyptians produced forms of genuine civilization. Ergo, the ancient
Egyptians were not persons of African origin. The problem with this
unsound argument is that Levin's first premise is empirically false.
The Greek historian Herodotus specifically refers to the ancient
Egyptians as "black-skinned and woolly haired" both
sufficient phenotypical characteristics for membership in the African
race. Other Greek writers such as Aristotle also make reference to the
physical characteristics of the ancient Egyptians and Nubians,
contrary to Levin's assertions. Levin writes: "Africanists cite
scattered reference to blacks in Herodotus to support a Nubian origin
of Greek religion, but ignore Aristotle's silence about Africa. Why
should Aristotle have lied, but not Herodotus?" (p. 195). Despite
the strangeness of this proposition, Aristotle did not lie for we find
in his "Physiognomics" the following:
"Too black a hue marks the coward as witness Egyptians and
Ethiopians and so does also too white a complexion as you may see from
women" (Vol. VI, 812a). In Book XIV of Problems Aristotle makes
reference to the hair form of Egyptians and Ethiopians: "Why are
the Ethiopians and Egyptians bandy-legged? Is it because the bodies of
living creatures become distorted by heat, like logs of wood
when they become dry? The condition of their hair supports this theory;
for it is curlier than that of other nations, and curliness is as it
were crookedness of the hair." (Book XIV, p. 317)
What Levin fails to recognize is that just as there are no reasons why
eyesight and hearing capacities might differ on average between
individuals of the different geographical racial groups, so too with
the human cognitive faculties. Once the biological threshold of Homo
sapiens was reached in Africa there was no further need for
evolutionary pressures to yield groups of individuals with
significantly differing cognitive capacities wherever they migrated on
earth. The cognitive capacities of Homo sapiens Africanus were
adequate enough to ensure survival not only in tropical Africa but
also in temperate Eurasia and the frigid Arctic. I repeat the proof of
this thesis that I established above: Homo sapiens Africanus was in no
way cognitively disadvantaged with respect to the Neanderthal human
types that had been resident in the cold climates of Eurasia for at
least 300,000 years -- a time span much longer than the entire period
for which Homo sapiens has existed.
In sum, Levin's text should be understood as not much more than a
repetition of the traditional arguments on the issue of "race
differences" in intellect, temperament and physiological
capacities. I do not deny that the world's environments have selected
for gross human physiological traits such as
pigmentation, hair form, epicanthic eye folds and so on, but once Homo
sapiens Africanus emerged with the capacities for language (all
languages necessarily derive from the first African languages), and
conceptual thought (necessary for the first art works and Neolithic
technology) the selecting influences of the world's environments were
rendered redundant with respect to human cognitive
What this means is that Levin's argument concerning racial differences
with respect to intelligence, temperament and value choice cannot be
supported. His quasi-inductivist thesis that the present average IQ
scores of some groups of persons of African descent is explained by a
supposed dearth of African creativity over time, I have shown to be
fallacious. Levin's text, in essence, is just another instance of that
persistent ideological strain in Western thought which claims that
persons of African origin are deficient in the important intellectual
characteristics that define the human species.
The reason for the persistence of this specific ideology is that it is
required to maintain the idea of the Eurocentric racial caste system
established at the dawn of the modern era to justify the economic
division of labor required by the captivity of Africans in the
Americas, the captivity and colonization
of Native Americans in the Americas, and the colonization of Africans
in Africa. The forced labor of Africans in the Americas and Africa had
to be justified by an ideology that claimed that persons of African
origin were less cognitively capable than Europeans. If it were
admitted that IQ scores reflect only sociological differences between
groups then the social stability of the racial caste system invented
by modern Eurocentric discourse would be seriously undermined from an
intellectual standpoint. Something similar was at work in the European
invention of the concept of the naturalness of hierarchies of ancestry
required for the stability of Europe's feudal orders: aristocrat and
distinguishable ancestrally purely on the spurious concept of "blood."
The politico-economic situation of the post-Civil Rights era in the
United States and that of post-colonial Africa are highly unstable in
terms of the division of labor established at the origins of Modern
Europe. The economic "success" of modern Europe springs from
the exploitation of African labor (in the Americas and Africa) and the
resources of Africa by the entrepreneurial administration of European
capitalism. The racial ideology that made the wealth and success of
Europe possible is now being challenged. It is the defense of that
racial ideology that explains the popularity and notoriety of
theorists such as Eyesenck, Jensen, Shockley, Murray, Lynn, Murray,
I have argued above that the racial ideology emphasizing the cognitive
limitation of persons of African descent is fallacious. I established
1) The idea that the colder climates of Eurasia were more challenging
than those of Africa thereby leading to a more cognitively evolved
branch of Homo sapiens is false. Neanderthal man existed in Europe for
at least 300,000 years but was no more cognitively evolved than the
incoming Homo sapiens Africanus.
2) IQ test results do not establish cognitive differences based on
race since Southern Europeans, West Asians, South Asians, Eskimos, and
others register scores similar to those of persons of African descent.
It is evident that IQ scores reflect particular sociological
environments than otherwise.
As a final note: the apparent seriousness of the text is marred by a
frivolous "hypothetical address by the President of the United
States of America to a Joint session of Congress and the American
People" supporting Levin's theses on racial differences in
intelligence and temperament, and three nonsensical appendices. There
is also an inexcusable grammatical error in the first line of page
Aristotle. "Physiognomics" in Minor Works, trans. W.S. Hett.
London: Heinemann, 1963. It should be noted that the editor of
Aristotle's Minor Works and Problems expresses doubt whether these
works were authored by Aristotle himself. In any case they do reflect
in this instance empirical observative the Greeks made of the African
phenotype of the Egyptians and Nubians.
Problems, trans. W.S. Hett. London: Heinemann, 1970. Flynn, J. 1987.
"Massive IQ Gains in 14 Nations: What IQ Tests Really Measure."
Psychological Bulletin 101: 171-191.
Jensen, A. 1970. "IQs of Identical Twins Reared Apart."
Behavior Genetics 1. 133-148.
Lynn, R. 1978. "Ethnic and Racial Differences in Intelligence:
International Comparisons." In Human Variation: The Biopsychology
of Age, Race, and Sex, eds. R. Travis Osborne, Clyde Noble, and
Nathaniel Weyl. Eds.: 261-286
Shuey, A. 1966. The Testing of Negro Intelligence, 2nd ed. New York:
Social Science Press.