Historical IQ Tests on Immigrants
What a 1922 IQ test of immigrants to America tells us about intelligence, race and prejudice.
Digging through some old documents, I came across this old study from 1922, which I had forgotten about. It tells an interesting story about race, IQ and prejudice. The study is enlightening to anybody who wants to push back against the resurgent “scientific racism.”
Being a racist is no longer acceptable in polite society. Hence modern day racists are calling themselves “race realists,” and prefer to hint at racial inferiority and superiority through pointing to IQ tests of different populations. They are only presenting the science, they claim. It is all very innocent, you see. Don’t call them racists; they are just championing “science.”
In such cases, knowing history is often crucial to putting the science in proper context. We must be aware of how science has historically been abused to promote and push racism. People unaware of the history of scientific racism easily fall prey to it.
Therefore I want to call attention to this study by Kimball Young in 1922. It compares the IQ score of different immigrant groups.
The Fear of Racially Inferior Groups
The sentiment back in 1922 was not all that different from what Trump echoed, when in January 2018 he said:
“Haiti? Why do we want people from Haiti here?” Then they got Africa. “Why do we want these people from all these shithole countries here? We should have more people from places like Norway.”
If you have spent any time talking to people on the political right, you will soon learn of a certain worry about America and Europe seeing a decline due to import of inferior people. When I have tried to sell conservative Americans on the Nordic model, they have frequently dismissed the outcome of this model as not being about policies at all but rather about having a “homogenous population.” Dig a bit further and it is clear that what they really mean is that Nordic countries don’t have a lot of Blacks, hispanics and other “undesirables.”
This is nothing new. It is just who gets labeled undesirable that changes. Back in 1922, the worry was about a large influx of immigrants from southern Europe. Southern Europe represented the “shithole” countries to the Trumps of that era. The worry was that southern Europeans would drag down the intellectual abilities of the average American as can be seen in this example from the Scientific Monthly Vol. 15, №5, page 419:
The writer believes, however, that there is accumulating evidence from studies in general intelligence of certain immigrant groups, at least, which material, coupled with the results of researches in the inheritance of mental traits, should cause us to consider rather carefully the bearing which these facts may have on features of the racial mixture that will surely come out of the shift in the source and nature of immigration.
As usual, the “race realists” of the day pretended to be somewhat reasonable (page 420). A tactic I am very familiar with today:
For instance, if the average intelligence of certain of the South European stocks which have come to us in the past twenty-five years should prove to be as high as that of the older American stock (i. e., of North European ancestry) the problem of mixing the older and the newer stocks, so far as general intelligence is concerned, will not be serious.
But in fact they really want to convince the general public that:
If the Latins, say, who come to us should prove to be but four fifths as intelligent on the average and less variable when compared with the North European offspring in this country, the racial mixtures between the two may be damaging to the welfare of the country.
In other words, southern Europeans in 1922 had the same status as Mexicans in America today. This is something people of southern European descent in America should keep in mind before throwing their lot behind Trumpism and seeking to divide people into superior and inferior groups:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. […] They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
The Trump of 1922 could have said much the same about southern European people. We should not forget that.
The “Evidence” of Racial Inferiority
To convince the reader of the need to limit immigration from southern Europe, Kimball Young presents a variety of tests that always puts southern Europeans far behind. One of these tests is this IQ test table (page 422, Table III):
Race Median IQ
And no, I am no putting “race” for show in this table. That is what they did back then. They viewed different nationalities as different races and ranked them. Today, Americans of European descent have been merged into one race: whites. But those who are in this “exclusive” club today should not forget that they where once on the outside, deemed part of lesser races.
It might be interesting to note that the score assigned to Spanish immigrants in 1922 is well below the average score of African-Americans today, who score around 88. In fact, since Northern Europeans had an average score of 105, the gap was much larger than between whites and Blacks in America today. How do these numbers look today? Well, we could pick the numbers for Europeans from today’s race realists.
We can see that the IQ differences between different Europeans in 1922 have vanished. But how can this be? Isn’t IQ supposed to be all immutable? Unchangeable, hardwired into our genes?
What to Make of This?
What can we learn from all of this? Read the original excerpts and pay attention to the argumentation. Keep this in mind when listening to the “race realists” of today, people like Charles Murray and Richard Lynn. We are just seeing a rehash of old arguments and old prejudices applied to new groups of people.
Does this mean IQ scores don’t matter? No, of course not. But we should be careful about assuming there is anything immutable about IQ and that the IQ of a population cannot change over time. IQ is more profoundly influenced by environment, nutrition and many other factors than the race realists will have you believe.
“Race realists” will always try to point to twin studies and try to convince you that school, education, child raising practices, and society as a whole will not make any difference due to the high heritability of IQ.
The Problem with Heritability Claims About IQ
The problem is well-illustrated by the picture below. If you plant seeds in two different pots and keep nutrition and light completely uniform in each pot, then the variation in height between plots within a pot will be 100% determined by their genetic makeup. This will result in the height being measured as a 100% heritable trait.
Yet as you can see with this example, it gives the wrong impression because the nutrition, while uniform within one group, may not be uniform between two groups. Hence making conclusions about the causes of the difference between the two groups of pot plants based on the heritability measured for each pot is premature.
In fact, the concept of heritability is a bit of a useless metric, as it is hard to know how uniform an environment is. For instance obesity has heritability of about 80%, about the same as measured for IQ.
This gives the reader the false impression that how fat somebody is has almost nothing to do with the environment and is all about genes. However, intuitively we know this is nonsense. We can just compare the vast difference in obesity between different countries.
Why are Americans of European descent significantly more obese than the Europeans they are descended from if heritability of obesity is 80%?
Because we have the pot plant situation. In the American pot, there is car-centric culture and a society flush with fast food. In the European pot, cities are walkable and more wholesome food dominates the food scene combined with government more actively trying to promote healthy lifestyles.
Thus don’t let yourself be fooled by “race realists” into thinking there are real proven IQ differences between populations caused by genetic differences. Don’t get fooled by the heritability card.