Back to contents


Our Intellectual Borders

Colors are not the only borders put forward between human groups. Intelligence, as another attribute of human species, long has been used as a scientific tool by intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries for the rationalization of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and a number of their relatives to form intellectual borders among people. Perhaps, today’s militarization states have some shares in racist intellectual practices, as well. Gould (1981) argued that opinions for slavery, racial differences, class structures or sex roles have found grounds mainly under the banner of science, of which, according to the present author, craniometric and psychometric modes of inquiry have been the most widely-used scientific discrimination tools.

Intellectual racism has been practiced both between races (e.g., blacks vs. whites) and within races (e.g., males vs. females). The former started in the nineteenth century giving birth to the latter in the twentieth century. Here, I like to borrow Gould’s argument of intellectual racism to carry out my discussion on how our intellectual capital has been used as borders between and within human groups. Intellectual racism has found supports from scientists particularly in three disciplines: Naturalists, craniologists and psychologists. First, I will discuss historical development of intellectual racism and its proponents, and then will argue contrary opinions followed by research findings.

Naturalistic View
Intellectual racism had pre- and pro evolutionary supporters among scientific communities. Pre-evolutionary scientists were mostly naturalist, frequently utilizing distributions of species on the earth as soft-data to support their opinions about racial inequalities in intelligence. Evolutionist scientists, however, included psychologists along with naturalists, who used scientific hard-data on human skulls and intelligence to prove the doctrine of intellectual inequalities both between races and within race. According to Gould (1981), pre-evolutionary scientists, some of whom were monogenists and some were polygenists, used both science and religion to support their opinions about intellectual inequalities between races. According to monogenist view, human races were degeneration from the perfection of Adam and Eve and races declined to diverse qualities, with whites the least and the blacks the most. For example, John Bachman, a prominent naturalist, used monogenist doctrine to defend slavery (Gould, pp.70): “In intellectual power the African is an inferior variety of our species. His whole history affords evidence that he is incapable of self-government. Our child that we lead by the hand, and who looks to us for protection and support is still of our own blood notwithstanding his weakness and ignorance.”

Unlike monogenists, polygenists believed that human species were children of different Adams from the beginning; therefore, the inferior, such as blacks and Indians, would not be equal to the superior, such as whites. Buffon, a naturalist of eighteenth century in France, stated that “the most temperate climate lies between the 40th and the 50th degree of latitude, and it produces the most handsome and beautiful men. It is from this climate that the ideas of the genuine color of mankind, and of the various degrees of beauty ought to be derived (Gould, 1991, pp.40).” David Hume went on more marginally by including all other human species except the white in the inferior class: “There never was a civilized nation of other complexion than the white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences…In Jamaica they talk of one negro as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for every slender accomplishments like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly (pp.41).”

Craniometric View
The doctrine of polygeny played an important role in craniological research on races. Luis Agassiz, a 19th century Swiss naturalist immigrating to America later in his life, studied the geographic distribution of animals and plants and developed a theory about centers of creation. He also applied the theory to humans. According to Gould (pp.44), Agassiz became polygenist after he saw black people in America. Consider the following piece of the letter Agassiz wrote to her mother: “I experienced pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race…it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us. In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth…I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay far away.”

Although Agassiz developed the scientific foundation of research later carried out on human skulls by craniologists, he did not do empirical research to support his thoughts. Morton, an American distinguished scientist, was the first who conducted extensive research on human skulls. Morton collected more than 1000 skulls of whites, blacks, Indians, Mongolians and of other races to prove his hypothesis: Races can be ranked objectively based on characteristics of their brains. Therefore, he set out to order races according to their heads’ sizes. He filled the cranial cavity of skulls with sifted white mustard seeds; however, this method did not work since seeds were mot objective measures so he switched to lead shot. He published several studies, indicating average skull volumes by race. According to Gould (1981), Morton’s studies were reprinted several times as hard data on the intellectual value of human races – whites on the top, American Indians in the middle and Blacks on the bottom, and among whites Anglo-Saxon on the top, the Jew in the middle and the Hindu on the bottom. For example, Morton found the average cranial capacity of the Caucasian 87 cubic inches, the Mongolian with 83 cubic inches, the Indian with 82 cubic inches, and the Black with 78 cubic inches.

After Darwin’s evolutionary theory, both monogenists and polygenists revised their doctrines, replacing creationist views with evolutionary ideas, and maintained that humans had lived in different parts of the earth long enough to develop radical differences in intelligence. The shining pioneer of this era was Paul Broca, a prominent scientist on human brains. Broca measured both weights of brains and circumferences of skulls along with cranial capacities to relate intellectual inequalities to differences in brain sizes of different groups, including males and females. He claimed that the brain is larger in mature adults than in the elderly, in man than in woman, in the superior race than in the inferior race, and he further asserted that there is a strong relationship between the development of intelligence and the size of the brain provided that other factors are equal.

Broca’s and Morton’s research were as objective as it was subjective as those of other craniologists since they set out their research with a prejudice of inferior races and superior races. Indeed, Gould (1981) argued that their findings were the result of an a priori conviction about racial inequalities so they worked selectively; that is, they saw what they wanted to see. Gould also found miscalculations, manipulations, and misinterpretations in their findings.

Psychometric View
Although research on human skulls provided hard data for 19th century scientists, such as Broca and Morton, to relate differences in head sizes and volumes to intellectual differences, they were unable to directly analyze relationships between intelligence and the capacity or the size of skulls of different races. The problem originated largely from two sources: the paucity of reliable instruments to measure intelligence and the lack of statistical techniques to analyze data. The development of first intelligence test by Binet and Simon in 1905 in France to identify children who might fail in the school provided brain scientists with the tool to measure intelligence. Correlation coefficient, invented by Sir Francis Galton in 1888, who was a genius and is recognized as the father of scientific studies of intelligence and the pioneer in statistics, was the perfect mode of analysis for “skull” scientists to desiderate relationships between skulls and intelligence.

Fortunately, the development of the theory of general intelligence by Spearman (1904) concurred in the same era. Therefore, the search for intellectual inequalities between groups found better scientific instruments, and consequently inspired more audience from a spectrum of disciplines.

The advent of IQ tests opened up new avenues for those who were interested in intellectual differences between races albeit the purpose of IQ tests was never and has never been to raise racial prejudices. Intellectual discrimination gained an incredible number of supporters among scientific communities particularly in the United States after the appearance of Eugenics who, in the first half of the twentieth century, vehemently worked to develop a research agenda and subsequent intellectual groups to set intellectual borders between human groups to improve human species through so called “selective breeding.” Galton made up the term eugenics in 1883 from the Greek eugene, meaning good stock, and propagated the idea of improving the physical and mental makeup of human species by selective parenthood. What really was intended by improving human races either reflected the racism of the Eugenicists or turned out to be a racist movement? Target groups included Africans, Jews, Eastern and Southern Europeans, and people with mental deficits who performed poorly on IQ tests.

Goddard probably was the hardest working supporter of the eugenic movement. He translated Binet-Simon intelligence scale and started to test natives and immigrants in America.

Goddard (1917) relied on one single score on IQ tests to classify people as moron or normal, believing that a single gene made the difference. He proposed the prohibition of breeding of feebleminded people and closing doors or deporting foreigners to maintain American good stock. Then, Goddard with his team started to test immigrants at New York Harbor and on Ellis Island. Of the tested immigrants in one testing, most were found moron, with 87% of Russians, 83% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians, and 79% of Italians.
Intellectual racism has had supporters from diverse human agencies, including governmental institutions in the United States. Consider the following case: “It is better for all the world … [if] society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind … Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1927 Buck vs. Bell case in the Supreme Court that upheld a Virginia law mandating the sterilization of the feebleminded.

According to Black (2003), mandatory sterilization laws were enacted in twenty-seven states to preclude targeted people from reproducing their genes. Marriage prohibition laws spread throughout the country to discontinue race mixing. State governments under the authority of these laws sterilized thousands of Americans. Most of those sterilized were poor children being cared for in various state institutions. People with mental problems were other most frequent victims of this systematic gene cleansing program. Sterilizations frequently were conducted on Blacks in the South mostly by white medical establishments. They are known as Mississippi appendectomies.

Although a significant number of scientific findings exists, supporting craniologists and eugenicists, most findings are rather artifacts resulting from biased samples, instruments and analytical techniques. For example, Goddard’s subjects were immigrants who came from rather deprived environments, and who even did not speak English albeit the intelligence test Goddard used was constructed according to white-western culture.

Correlations between intelligence and head circumference and cranial capacity vary from .02 to .54 with a mean of .19 (Vernon, Wickett, Bazana, and Stelmack, 2000), which means only 5 to 25 percent of intelligence can be accounted for by head sizes.

Keep in mind that correlation implies association not causality. Moreover, modern neurophysiologists and neuropsychologists have found remarkable relationships between the working of the brain and intelligence. Instead of measuring head size or volume, they observed cortical activation, blood flow, neural coherence and hemisphericity while experimental participants were solving problems. The resulting theory is the “neural efficiency” not the “head size” (Vernon, 1993). The underlying principle is that smart minds are those that work efficiently while establishing neural cooperation between different regions of the brain. For example, gifted and creative individuals were repeatedly found to have more efficient cooperation between the regions of the brain related to intellectual tasks (Jausovec, 2000).

In addition, racial differences on IQ tests were found to result from environmental differences. For example, IQ has shown a rise from generation to generation, ranging from 5 to 25 IQ points across countries as a result of improvements in life conditions. This tendency for measured intelligence to increase each generation is known as the Flynn effect (Flynn, 1987). Lastly, too many controversies have existed whether IQ tests are true measures of intelligence or not. The present author’s opinion is that they are no more than a measure of abstract-analytical reasoning, and of context-depended knowledge. It should be noted that humans posses many more qualities, such as artistic ability, than only abstract thinking.

In spite of strong controversies and egalitarian movements, the eugenic movement has spread not only among those so called superior races but also among those whose ancestors, once, experienced the greatest racism ever. To listen to the voice of the former, consider the following statement put forward by a leading European psychologist Helmuth Nyborg (The Telegraph, 2003), who asked government agencies to promote the selective reproduction of children from intelligent parents and to prevent less gifted parents from having children: “The 15 to 20 percent of those at the lower levels of society – those who are not able to manage even the simplest tasks and often not their children – should be dissuaded from having children…the fact is that they are having more children and the intelligent ones are having fewer." To listen to opinions of the latter, read the following. The Jewish author MacDonald (1994) claimed that Jews have higher IQs than any other nations on the earth because of a group evolutionary strategy; that is, the prohibition of inter-racial marriages among Jews, or selective parenthood as called by eugenicists, maintained their racial purity while preventing outsiders to penetrate into Jewish race.

The 20th century witnessed a large body of scientific research carried out on skulls, intelligence and their relationships with human races, and a number of racist practices building intellectual borders between and within human groups. I think that everyone appreciates the early research on intelligence that pioneered advances in hard sciences, but no one is pleased about the ways research findings were used, except those who misused them to oppress and segregate those who were not alike. As some intelligence researchers were called eugenicists, I wish your permission to entertain a few craniologists with some humor by calling them “skullists.”

Uğur Sak

Black, E. (2003). War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Flynn, J. R. (1993). Massive IQ gains in 14 nations. What IQ tests really measure. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 171-191.

Goddard, H. H. (1917). Mental tests and the immigrant. Journal of Delinquency, 2, 243-277.

Gould, S. J. (1981). Mismeasure of man. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Jausovec, N. (2000). Differences in cognitive processes between gifted, intelligent, creative, and average individuals while solving complex problems: An EEG study. Intelligence, 3, 213-237.

MacDonald, K. (1994). A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Spearman, C. (1904). General intelligence objectively determined and measured. American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-293.

The Telegraph. (2003). Furry over call for selective breeding. Available at:

Vernon, P. A., Wickett, J. C., Bazana, P. G., & Stelmack, R. M. (2000). The neuropsychology and Neurophysiology of human intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed). Handbook of Intelligence, (pp. 245-264). New York: Cambridge university press.

Pictures: by Jacob Holdt