Why Discussing Population Differences is Tricky

Racism and race is a very tricky topic to discuss. Because I am perhaps what one would call a moderate leftist I feel like I end up getting fired on by both sides. Ironically I find that the people I would regard as actual racists have been the most respectful in the discussion, while my ideological allies on the left are often quick to end up with emotional outbursts. On twitter I was recently called a “racist Euro numbskull.”

Yet I understand the concern. The American political climate in particular is full of racist dog whistles and it is not always immediately clear that somebody is pushing a racist agenda or not.

A bad faith argument goes along the lines of “my opponents are racists for considering the alternative hypothesis”.

I partially agree. I don’t think it is impossible that some human populations have different intelligence or perhaps even criminal behavior. However I need to clarify that stance a bit.

  1. I don’t think this difference would be very large. Not enough to matter much anyway based on what I hear mainstream geneticists and biologists say.
  2. I don’t think there is any “intelligence gene” or “crime gene”, rather there would be a large cluster or genes that together may push your more or less into a particular direction. E.g. genes that make a child able to concentrate on one topic for a longer period of time, will likely promote intelligence because you can study for longer. It does not necessarily mean the brain is physically more optimal. Likewise there may be a genes that make you more impulsive and emotional which can make it easier for you to suddenly do something stupid. Something which may increase frequency of crime among people who have these genes.

As to why do I think group differences are minimal? I cannot point you to a particular study, because as far as I understand this is a conclusion based on a multitude of studies and how mainstream biologist would interpret it. I am actually a bit surprised that you want some sort of proof of this, as this seems to have been generally accepted among mainstream geneticists and biologists for quite some time.

This goes all the way back to a 1950 UNESCO statement signed of by leading researchers at the time. Author Angela Saini’s book “Superior: The Return of Race Science” is the latest one I am reading which goes through this same topic. There are a number of interviews with prominent researchers within this topic as well as a discussion of the history of race science and how it has developed.

I think what Angela Saini does a good job of explaining in her book is why we must be very cautious about looking for racial and biological explanations for human differences. We have a rather long and ugly history which has not ended where people have relentlessly tried to push this view for over 150 years.

Many of the people I have discussed the possibility of differences between populations start of quite innocent initially, but it often becomes clear that there is a rather dark agenda and play.

There is a concerted effort on the political right especially in America, to cast the unfavorable outcomes of minorities, especially African-Americans, as primarily the result of inherent biological racial differences.

While I would not view this as completely impossible, I do view it as highly implausible, and my conclusions from such an outcome would be entirely different from that of the racists.

If somebody has a disability, you give them extra help. That is the common human empathetic choice. We give people who cannot walk wheel chairs. We give people with learning disability extra teaching resources. We organize our cities to accommodate the blind etc.

However the motivations of the “race realists” (as they often call themselves) is not to help minorities with a disadvantage. Quite the contrary they want to use biological proof of difference as a way to deprive large groups of people in society of aid. A caricature of their argument would basically be “Black people shouldn’t go to school, because they are too stupid to learn anything. It will be a waste of resources.”

Yes this is not exactly how they frame it. But they typically are of the opinion that those of less skill should get less attention. At its core it exposes what in my mind is a Fascist world view. A worship of the strong and capable and a belittling of the lesser among us. Those who are intelligent and accomplished are to be celebrated and valued higher. While those less capable are viewed as leeches.

There is an echo there of Nazi ideology, where they spoke of the “worthless mouths.” That was the disabled and mentally ill people the state looked after and too care off. Nazi propaganda did its best to foster a revulsion among common people against this minority of people.

It is these experiences which make me very reluctant to support the study of population differences. I am fine with respectable biologists doing it. However I think it is unhealthy for non-experts and political scientists to entertain the possibility.

My first article here is really an articulation of why. I try to go through many examples of why culture and history have far more significant impact on how human society develop and the different outcomes of various populations.

Every black person in the west today e.g. starts off with significant, cultural and historical disadvantage. Either they are descended from a people that was enslaved and which faced a plethora of racist laws or they come from a country that was colonized and poorly developed.

Until all that baggage is erased, it is IMHO utterly premature to discuss population differences in a political science context. Let the biologists keep doing their job and maybe in 20–30 years they have found important genes for intelligence and determined that those genes are more frequent in one population than another.

Maybe I sound like a hypocrite for discussing it then. But my motivation is to push back against those who want to raise the issue as an important one. If others had not made it into a topic, I would not be discussing it either.

I don’t think the disadvantage visible minorities face in Western countries will take many decades to erase, because culture does not change rapidly. I see this where I live in a heavy minority area. I spent some time helping minority kids with homework.

I see it with children that my children play with. They are at a disadvantage early. My and my wife read for our children because our parents did that with us. We have a number of classics and favorite books to read. Children of immigrants who where barely literate have no such tradition to latch on to. They don’t have favorite books from childhood they can read for their children because their parent may not have been able to read well at that time or they may simply not have afforded books or had the time to read them.

In such manner, advantage ripples through generations as dominos just as well as disadvantage ripples through them.

Part of the home work project I was part of was due to the observation that many of these minority kids could not get much help with home work from their parents at home. Their parents simply had had too little schooling themselves. Native Norwegian children in contrast would be able to get a lot more help from their parents.

Of course this isn’t limited to etnicity. I remember the same from my own childhood which mostly involved native Norwegians. I remember a friend who had a lot of potential in school. But his father was a truck driver and his mother a cleaner. Both had minimal education. They had few books at home. Their was no natural push for him to go to higher education the way it was for me.

It is why I am leaning towards democratic socialism. Although I am not too fond of labels. People have particular ideas what labels means which may not agree with how the person who attach the label onto themselves think about it. I just think the ideas of “equal opportunity” touted on the right is often somewhat of a mirage. Yes in principle kids may go to the same school and have the same rights.

But their disadvantage begins much earlier. Parents may be your most important teacher, and in this regard we begin life in rather segregated schools.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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