Genes, society, sexism and racism

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.

imposter syndrome

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.

 

on-interpreting-stereotype-threat-as-accounting-for-african-american-white-differences-on-cognitive-tests-figure-1c

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.

5 Responses to “Genes, society, sexism and racism”

  1. I am approving this post in the interest of collegiality. Unfortunately it is strictly peripheral to the subject of this blog post, which is that the expression of a gene is dependent on the social environment in which it is found. As a result genes can have effects which are socially mediated even if there is no physiological connection between the gene and the trait. Unless you are interested in discussing the relationship between gene expression and social environment please do not post again.

  2. n/a says:

    Charles,

    Ask your friend if “stereotype threat” researchers have ever succeeded in creating an intervention that significantly reduces the black-white test score gaps that actually exist in the real world. “The gap” has been a concern of liberal technocrats and social scientists for the past 60+ years, and despite untold billions of dollars having been poured into research and social services spending aimed at closing the gap they have yet to come up with any intervention that reproducibly works to reduce it.

    I don’t have any evidence, nor do I think I know how to gather the evidence, to refute your claim that “Skin Color is Not Driving the Relationship Between Racial Admixture and IQ”.

    The person who wrote those posts looked at correlations within the available Add Health, NLSY97, and GSS data, and found no evidence that skin color (as opposed to overall racial admixture) was driving the relationship between race and test scores or socioeconomic outcomes. If you don’t find this evidence convincing, I’m sure you have the ability to think up research designs that could falsify your theory. Again, the question is whether or not you’d want to.

    And if you acknowledge you’re unable to refute competing hypotheses, perhaps you should not be making unequivocal statements about the causes of group differences, nor piling on in attacking those who express openness to alternate hypotheses (or even merely acknowledge the facts on the ground) as unreflective “racists”. This also includes R. A. Fisher, of course:

    Fisher’s attitude towards the facts stated in this paragraph is the same as Muller’s and Sturtevant’s, but this is how he puts his objections: “As you ask for remarks and suggestions, there is one that occurs to me, unfortunately of a somewhat fundamental nature, namely that the Statement as it stands appears to draw a distinction between the body and mind of men, which must, I think, prove untenable. It appears to me unmistakable that gene differences which influence the growth or physiological development of an organism will ordinarily pari passu influence the congenital inclinations and capacities of the mind. In fact, I should say that, to vary conclusion (2) on page 5, ‘Available scientific knowledge provides a firm basis for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development,’ seeing that such groups do differ undoubtedly in a very large number of their genes.”

    “The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry”, p. 27. UNESCO 1952
    http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0007/000733/073351eo.pdf

    “I am claiming that the effect of a gene must be measured in the context of the culture in which it exists.”

    This is obviously true. It should be equally obvious that this does not imply group differences in cognitive ability necessarily can be (much less have been) explained by the sorts of exposures you suggest (or that any reasonable culture we could create right now will succeed in closing the gap through environmental interventions; that is, by raising black scores, rather than hitting whites on the head with hammers or depriving white babies of iodine). Yet again, we now have the tools to directly test the sort of explanation you prefer. I don’t see a rush by those who have been pushing these sorts of explanations for decades to do so.

    “A great deal of the behavioral differences between men and women are almost certainly due to the fact that boys are raised with different inherent privileges than are girls. Women are constantly harassed by males at school in the work place, and by strangers on the street. This is a constant experience that white males never experience.”

    Because “white males” never experience harrassment from one another or from other groups, or anti-white or anti-male messages from the surrounding culture; and because it makes perfect sense for humans to have evolved to react to intergroup hostility by showing a large, stable deficit in cognitive performance (I’m speaking about the black-white case here; though I certainly think you’re wrong about the major sources of male-female differences in career outcomes as well).

    “It would be crazy to think that this does not change their behavior. Similarly I am confident that an inner city poor person is (1) more likely to be a person of color, and (2) less likely to have the opportunities that a middle class suburbanite. This is not a statement about blacks and whites, this is a statement about how our society treats blacks and whites differently.”

    Yet whites from families making less than $10k per year score higher on the SAT than blacks from families making $70k+.

    Of course, those promoting the primarily environmental hypothesis can put together a response that formally meets the objection: some unknown factor X that depresses the IQ of all blacks effectively uniformly across the range, imposing a nearly exactly one standard deviation hit on each black subject measured. Now, I must say this purported effect impresses me as quite magical and unprecedented. What other socioeconomic or cultural environmental factor can one think of that induces such a uniform effect across such a range on a group of human beings? [. . .]

    Both of these graphs run very hard against the hypothesis of purely, or dominantly, environmental basis of the black-white IQ gap. Yes, as parental education and income increase, SAT scores rise: that much an environmental explanation might predict. But, remarkably, the children of blacks whose income is over $70K attain an average SAT score lower than that of the children of whites whose income is well into the poverty level of $0K to $10K. Likewise, the children of blacks who had achieved a graduate level degree score lower on average on the SAT than do the children of whites who only finished HS.

    How might one contemplate these items of data without feeling that they are exactly what one would not expect to see if environment played the major role in determining IQ differences between these groups? The advantages that come with a high income and with a graduate level education confer the very sort of benefits that are routinely said to explain why the average black student can’t do as well as the average white student on an IQ test or the SAT. How is it then that the effects of this relative privilege in black children cannot overwhelm, and easily, those of the clear deficts in the backgrounds of white students against whom the black childen are being compared? If income and educational level of parents entail so little, what can the environment plausibly be said to ground here?

    https://liberalbiorealism.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/the-likelihood-of-genetic-group-differences-in-iq-the-black-white-gap-in-iq/

  3. n/a

    Actually, I vetted this post more than is usual for me. You should know that I do actually know a person who is quite conversant with the literature on stereotype threat, and that person read and approved this post.

    No, I did read the post. The point is not that there is no difference between race and performance in the absence of threat. That is a given since they adjusted it. What it does show is that when you impose stereotype threat a difference is generated. I actually got that from the primary literature, then looked for the figure on line. Interestingly, stereotype threat apparently works in any situation where you have a stereotype. For example, if you tell a gym class that you are testing ability to play basketball, and let the boys know that you understand that blacks are more athletic it will lower the performance of the white boys.

    I don’t have any evidence, nor do I think I know how to gather the evidence, to refute your claim that “Skin Color is Not Driving the Relationship Between Racial Admixture and IQ”. That said, I like to think that the statement I am making is much more generic than you are making out. I am claiming that the effect of a gene must be measured in the context of the culture in which it exists. A great deal of the behavioral differences between men and women are almost certainly due to the fact that boys are raised with different inherent privileges than are girls. Women are constantly harassed by males at school in the work place, and by strangers on the street. This is a constant experience that white males never experience. It would be crazy to think that this does not change their behavior. Similarly I am confident that an inner city poor person is (1) more likely to be a person of color, and (2) less likely to have the opportunities that a middle class suburbanite. This is not a statement about blacks and whites, this is a statement about how our society treats blacks and whites differently.

  4. n/a says:

    “http://menghublog.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/race-and-iq-stereotype-threat-r-i-p/”

    It appears you may have done a Google Image search for “stereotype threat” and failed to even read the blog post you cite.

    A widely cited paper is from Steele and Aronson (1995). A fatal flaw that has gone unnoticed by the media is that the authors have found no difference between whites and blacks on the “no-threat condition” simply because the prior SAT scores were adjusted. As Sackett et al. (2004, p. 9) noted :

    Figure 1C can be interpreted as follows: “In the sample studied, there are no differences between groups in prior SAT scores, as a result of the statistical adjustment. Creating stereotype threat produces a difference in scores; eliminating threat returns to the baseline condition of no difference.” This casts the work in a very different light: Rather than suggesting stereotype threat as the explanation for SAT differences, it suggests that the threat manipulation creates an effect independent of SAT differences.

    Thus, rather than showing that eliminating threat eliminates the large score gap on standardized tests, the research actually shows something very different. Specifically, absent stereotype threat, the African American–White difference is just what one would expect based on the African American–White difference in SAT scores, whereas in the presence of stereotype threat, the difference is larger than would be expected based on the difference in SAT scores.

    I have not kept up with the stereotype threat literature, but even if the finding that experimenters can reduce performance below baseline in laboratory settings using these sorts of manipulations holds up, as far as I know it’s never been demonstrated that “stereotype threat” can explain any of the persistent black-white test score gap (nevermind the entire gap) in America (much less for blacks in Africa vs. whites in Europe and America).

    Why, apart from ideology, would it ever make sense to imagine Europeans and Africans must have identical innate cognitive ability (but for societal racism acting through genes that influence physical appearance). Sewall Wright, for one, suspected otherwise:

    On the other hand there have probably always been wide differences among the peoples of the world in average intellectual ability and cultural level from the standpoint of progress toward the situation in civilized man. This was presumably related to the environmental conditions. Men could not endure the northern winters without fire, the use of which is documented by hearths found in France dating back over half a million years and somewhat later in Hungary and in China but only about one-tenth as far back in Africa (Campbell 1974).

    The capacity to anticipate and plan for the future is a mental attribute which would be favored under northern conditions and selected for insofar as it has a genetic basis. This would presumably have come to be more advanced in the temperate zone than in the tropics.
    http://racehist.blogspot.com/2015/08/sewall-wright-on-race-differences-group.html

    Moreover, we have the genomic tools now to test the hypothesis you’re promoting very directly (by looking at the effects of admixture at loci affecting facial features, skin color, and hair texture, vs. genome-wide admixture, on test scores or other indexes of cognitive ability). Are you prepared to advocate for that sort of research, or would you be uncomfortable with it in case the results come out other than ideologically congenial?

    “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.”

    Skin Color is Not Driving the Relationship Between Racial Admixture and IQ
    http://humanvarieties.org/2013/02/09/skin-color-is-not-driving-the-relationship-between-racial-admixture-and-iq/

    Skin Color, Verbal IQ, and Test of the Colorism Hypothesis in the GSS
    http://humanvarieties.org/2013/04/22/skin-color-verbal-iq-and-test-of-the-colorism-hypothesis-in-the-gss/

    “The good news is that we, as a society, made them intelligence genes, and we can unmake them.”

    How many more decades of conspicuous black doctors, scientists, and computer hackers in movies and TV shows and do you think it will take to start moving the needle?

  5. Eben G. says:

    It’s interesting that “bad news” would, indeed, be a nearly unanimous response to discoveries supporting (the more classical version of) racial differences in genes controlling intelligence.
    In comparison, queer activists are ever hopeful that science will confirm the heritability of sexual orientation. Their hopes hinge on the expectation that gay genes would make it harder to blame queers for their “chosen” lifestyles’ limited-editions of basic rights and respect.
    I enjoyed the tour you’ve provided above into the close-up complexity of a superficially simple trait. It also reminded me that biologists (myself included) seldom keep sight of the error and ambiguity that result from our defining of traits. Acknowledging these limitations brings clarity to our thoughts, and perhaps more importantly, convey to the public, to students, that science can neither refute nor confirm individual thoughts and passions. When science disrupts our world views, subtle changes accumulate effortlessly in our language and thoughts until cohesion is restored. The upshot of this process is that it sharpens our familiarity with our most prized qualities, brings them ever closer to our human grasps.

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