James Watson has been in the news for more than just his efforts to sell some bullion. He has also been in the news for his completely outrageous racist and sexist comments. Two of the more famous ones are the time he told a reporter that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours whereas all the testing says not really”; and, with regard increasing the number of women scientists, the time he wrote “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective.”. It is tempting to dismiss this as Watson being a jerk, until we get Lawrence Summers more eloquently saying pretty much exactly the same thing. One suspects that these characters are simply the tip of an iceberg dominated by people who are better able to hold their tongue, but are nevertheless to some degree racist and sexist. The bottom line is that racism and sexism are everywhere. Indeed I would be lying if I claimed not to be racist, and I suspect most of my readers would be as well. The point of this is that if you consider yourself to be part of a particular group, be it a racial group, a sex, a sexual orientation, or a social or religious group, if there is a stereotype associated with that group, you will be reminded of it on a daily basis.
Stereotype threat: living up or down to the stereotype of the group you self associate with. http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/cgi-bin/academicskillscoaching/its-not-you-its-stereotype-threat/
Here is where it gets interesting. It turns out that these stereotypes do affect your performance in many aspects of life. There is a group of psychology and education researchers who have been studying what is now called “stereotype threat”. It turns out that if, before giving them a test, you remind students of a standard stereotype, it will affect their performance. This is very nicely described in a review article by Schmader and Croft (2011, How Stereotypes Stifle Performance Potential. Social and Personality Psychology Compass: 792–806):
In 1995, Stanford researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson published a series of highly influential experiments. They reasoned that for those who are the targets of negative stereotypes of intellectual inferiority, even subtle reminders of these stereotypes can cue a concern with confirming them. . . . To demonstrate this phenomenon, they asked White and Black undergraduates to complete a set of verbal problems. For half of the sample, they described this task as a diagnostic measure of verbal intelligence. For the other half of the sample, it was merely described as a problem solving exercise. When students believed that their intelligence was being assessed, Black students performed more poorly than their White peers, replicating the typical racial gap in standardized test scores that is so often found. Remarkably, when the same task was described in a more neutral way – as a laboratory exercise – Black students performed significantly better and their performance was equivalent to that of their White peers after controlling for individual differences in past test performance.
When students were given a test in which they were made aware that it was an important test, (and one that blacks might stereotypically be thought to do poorly in) blacks, but not whites, were negatively influenced by that information. http://menghublog.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/race-and-iq-stereotype-threat-r-i-p/
Apparently you can do this with almost any group for which there is a stereotype. Tell the women in a class that this is a subject women are not good at and they will perform poorly, or convince any group that they are inferior, and they will perform poorly. Importantly, however, the students must believe the stereotype at some level. In the Steele and Aronson study Blacks, but not Whites, were affected by the doubt raised by the investigators. I could not find a study addressing it, but I would tend to doubt that stereotype threat would work for made-up stereotypes that were not part of our underlying cultural assumptions.
So, what does this have to do with evolutionary biology? WELLLLLL, once long ago I was asked if I thought there were racially associated genes for intelligence. I answered Yes, I thought there were, and that they were exactly the same genes that cause the features we use to identify race. The next thing that happened is that I realized keeping my mouth shut was a good idea.
This is where the phenotypic view comes in. My argument is that because genes (broadly defined, since X chromosome number enters into this too), in addition to what we traditionally might assign to a gene, also have effects associated with them due to the social milieu in which they are found. I seriously doubt that the loci that effect skin melanization also have a physiological effect on intelligence. But there is no doubt that an individual with sufficiently dark skin to be considered to be an African-American is treated differently from a White-American (great example of micro-aggression: What do you call a Caucasoid-American?). This differential treatment is part of their phenotype that, within the context of our society, is every bit as much a property of the loci in question as their effect on skin color.
This is an important aspect of the phenotypic approach. The phenotype is a construct of the patterning elements, including the non-heritable elements. Context means everything. Normally we think of this in terms of epistasis and the idea that gene expression depends on its interacting partners. However, it is more than that. The effect of a gene on the phenotype must take into account all of the forces affecting the formation of the phenotype. This is not to say that in many circumstances these can be ignored, but this racial bias is very emphatically a situation in which non-genetic cultural factors ARE influencing the expression and even the very function of a gene, and cannot be ignored.
So the bad news is yes, there are racially associated genes for intelligence; they are the ones that influence the phenotypes we associate with race. The good news is that we, as a society, made them intelligence genes, and we can unmake them. There are good solid strategies for minimizing stereotype threat. The best one is to get rid of the stereotype. That may be impossible, but as teachers we can also be aware of this and help our students. We can make them aware of stereotype threat. Just being aware that it exists will help a student recognize it and perhaps reduce their response to it. We can also work to encourage students to think of themselves as individuals and work to turn the negative stereotypes into personally positive messages. Finally, interestingly, stereotype threat apparently isn’t as powerful when a test is perceived as being not very important. Perhaps having more evaluations that are individually worth relatively less might help vulnerable students.