Race Differences and What They Mean


Why Race Matters: Race Differences and What They Mean

Author: Michael Levin
Westport, CT.: Praeger, 1997. Pp. X + 415.

Book Review
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", 812a).

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. 177).

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 ago.

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 points.

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 America.

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 theoretically.

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 serf were
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, and Levin.

I have argued above that the racial ideology emphasizing the cognitive limitation of persons of African descent is fallacious. I established the following:

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 147.


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.