Chris Harman


Only skin deep

(October 1994)

Thinking It Through, Socialist Review, No.179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Great artists are rarely great mathematicians ... someone may be very apt at crosswords and not understand the point in a simple joke’

An attempt is being made this month to revive the hoary old, and discredited, argument about ‘race’ and ‘intelligence’.

A new book is due out, co-authored by Charles Murray, the American commentator who has argued that poverty exists because the provision of welfare has created an ‘underclass’ which has no incentive to work. Now he is contending that different ‘races’ have different genetically determined levels of ‘intelligence’, as measured by IQ tests.

Already these ideas are being taken up in the right wing press. And even the left-wing New Statesman has published an article by Marek Kohn which accuses ‘liberal science’ of rejecting such arguments, not on the basis of ‘objective truth’ but simply through a ‘defensive’ ‘political paradigm’ aimed at keeping ‘its ascendancy secure’.

In fact, it is those who try to link the notions of ‘intelligence’ and ‘race’ who are being completely non-scientific. For neither notion is scientific. Both are everyday terms used in capitalist society which reflect its presuppositions rather than objective reality.

This is most obvious with the case of ‘intelligence’. The diverse intellectual capacities that human beings have cannot be reduced to a single measuring scale. Great artists are rarely great mathematicians. Great musicians are not normally mediocre, let alone brilliant, novelists. Someone who is very good at chess may not be very good at elementary mental arithmetic. Someone may be very apt at crosswords and not understand the point in a simple joke.

The only thing that intelligence tests have been proved to measure is ... the ability to do intelligence tests!

When it comes to ‘race’ the inadequacy of the concept may not seem so obvious. After all, the term is used all the time. But the fact that a term is widely used does not show that it corresponds to some objective biological reality.

The ‘liberal paradigm’ that Kohn attacks arose as a scientific response to racist assumptions which were widespread among the Nazis, and also among the intellectual currents in the liberal democracies through to the 1950s. The response rested on findings in biology and genetics that undercut the very idea that humanity is divided into distinct ‘races’.

Every human being varies from every other. Some of the variation results from differences in genes which each individual inherits. This is true, at least in part, of height, eye colour, curliness and colour of hair, degree of skin pigmentation, length of nose, blood group, left-handedness or right-handedness.

But most characteristics are not a result of simply genetic determination. They depend upon the interaction between several genes and the concrete material circumstances in which the individual develops from an egg to an embryo, from an embryo to a child, and from a child to an adult human being. So the variation in adults’ physical characteristics can differ from variations among their genes. To take a crude example, someone with genes for ‘tallness’ brought up on an inadequate diet could find themselves much shorter than someone else with genes for ‘shortness’ who had always been well fed.

Many genes for individual characteristics are randomly distributed across the world’s population. Some, however, are more concentrated among peoples living in some places rather than others. Thus genes for blond hair are found mainly in northern Europe, but also among some Melanesians and some Aborigines in South West Australia. There are wide divergences in the frequencies for the major blood groups in different parts of the world.

Among the genes subject to such geographic variation are those which determine the amount of melanin in the skin: the degree of pigmentation. It is this which people normally latch on to when they talk about ‘race’.

But the geographic variation in skin pigmentation does not coincide with the variations in other genetically determined features. Thus maps of the world’s people based on distribution of pigmentation are very different from maps based on distribution of head shape, blood group or the genetically determined aspects of height.

To take one example: the thalassaemia complex, a genetic form of resistance to malaria, is found in some areas where the malaria causing mosquito is prevalentin central and western Africa but not South Africa or the Horn of Africa; in southern Spain, southern Italy, the Dalmatian coast and Greece but not in the rest of Europe; in southern India not northern India; Indochina and southern China not northern China, Korea and Japan. It cross cuts completely the boundaries of different ‘races’.

To divide humanity into ‘races’ on the basis of skin colour is to make an arbitrary choice of one single genetically determined characteristic as the basis of division. It ignores the multitude of other genetically determined characteristics that would lead to very different lines of division. The choice of skin pigmentation as the basis for conventional racial classification is not accidental. There may be no biological justification for it. But there is a socio-political causethe way in which dividing people into ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘red’, ‘yellow’ and ‘brown’ was used from the early 17th century onwards to justify slavery, the slaughter of indigenous peoples and imperialist conquest.

All through human history there has been migration, mating and the flow of genes between human populations in any one area and those in other areas. For longer or shorter periods a particular population may have become temporarily isolated by natural barriers, and under those circumstances certain genetic characteristics may have become more concentrated there than elsewhere. But as soon as the opportunity has arisen, the intermixing has started again.

The idea that there are distinct biological ‘races’ is false, as is the idea that people in some parts of the world have been naturally more clever than those elsewhere. Any combination of the two ideas in some theory about ‘race’ and ‘intelligence’ is no more than an attempt to use fake biology to apologise for the effects of capitalism on the world.

Last updated on 18 December 2009