Bioethics Blogs

Collaborative Science on Historically Burdened Concepts: Intelligence, Genetics, Race & Socio-economic Status

Image via Wikimedia: “Lithograph of a North American skull from Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana, 1839. Morton believed that intelligence was correlated with brain size and varied between racial groups”.

Charged Words

Intelligence is a highly charged word with ties to racist, classist, and eugenic narratives. In the United States, it has been used historically to assert and establish racial and class hierarchies, especially those between Blacks and Whites, and has long been linked to notions of biological difference.

In the early twentieth century, these notions were frequently explicit. As one example among many, Princeton psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham, creator of the SAT and member of the Advisory Council of the American Eugenics Society, wrote in 1922:

According to all evidence available…American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive…There is no reason why legal steps should not be taken which would insure a continuously progressive upward evolution… The steps that should be taken to preserve or increase our present intellectual capacity must of course be dictated by science. (Brigham, 1922: 210)

Even in the years following World War Two, when overt claims of racial differences in intelligence were often muted, Nobel Laureate (in physics) William Shockley could openly argue:

I sincerely and thoughtfully believe that attempts to demonstrate that American Negro shortcomings are preponderantly hereditary is the action most likely to reduce Negro agony in the future… I propose a serious scientific effort to establish by how much the distribution of hereditary potential for intelligence of our black citizens falls below whites…If those Negroes with the fewest Caucasian genes are in fact the most prolific and also the least intelligent, then genetic enslavement will be the destiny of their next generation.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.