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Genes, Brains, And Bunk

June 2024
5min read

Are racial tendencies immutable? Almost ninety years ago the government spent a lot of money to find out.

Late in 1994, The Bell Curve , by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, made the news in a big-time way—and the controversy still hasn’t died down.

The book’s basic thesis—surrounded by many hedgings, and with a plethora of charts and other trappings of scholarship—runs like this. Intelligence is to a significant extent inherited and measurable. Some races (read “blacks”) consistently score lower than others on intelligence tests, even when all variables are accounted for. Therefore, efforts to improve the “cognitive ability” and, as a result, the opportunities of African-Americans as a whole are possibly doomed to failure by the unfortunate but unmistakable limits of their common gene pool.

The most charitable thing I can say to start is that I’ll pay attention to any such stuff only when there is universal scholarly agreement on the precise meaning of the words race and intelligence . But rather than debate the authors here, I’ll stick to my historical craft and provide a little perspective through the medium of a true story.

The year was 1907. Amid a growing debate on immigration restriction, President Theodore Roosevelt recommended to Congress a progressive response: the creation of a commission that would turn the clear light of social science on the matter and provide an unbiased information base for future laws. The chosen panel had nine members: six from Congress, including its chairman, Sen. William P. Dillingham of Vermont, and three “public” members named by Roosevelt. One of them was the United States Commissioner of Labor, and another, Prof. Jeremiah W. Jenks of Cornell, was an economist with impressive experience in research on problems of government. He played an important part in guiding the work of a large staff that spent three years and a million dollars compiling a report whose conclusions and abstracts were filed within half an hour of a December 1910 deadline. There were two volumes of summary, condensing forty additional volumes of data on the sources, employment, income, housing, health, and education of immigrants and on how many of them were paupers, criminals, and lunatics or community burdens in any form.

The sheer weight of expertise and evidence gave the project a respectability and presumed objective quality that offset the already expressed commitment of some of the commission’s members, including Jenks, to some form of restriction. In fact, however, the commission’s definition of its job plus its methods of investigation imparted a powerful initial push toward reinforcing preconceived anti-immigrant and ethnic prejudices.

First of all, the commission decided to concentrate its attention on the “new” immigration that had begun in 1883, when the major sources had shifted to southern and eastern Europe. The final commission report explained the special focus. The “old” immigration that had come predominantly from the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries had been “largely a movement of settlers who came from the most progressive sections of Europe for the purpose of making themselves homes in the New World.” The “new,” in contrast, consisted of “unskilled laboring men who have come, in large part temporarily, from … less progressive and advanced countries. …” Its members “avoided agricultural pursuits” and “congregated together in sections apart from native Americans.” It was “as a class … far less intelligent than the old” and “actuated … by different ideals,” thereby creating “a widespread feeling of apprehension” about its effect on “the economic and social welfare of the country.”

The entire structure of the report unfavorably measured the status of post-1883 immigrants as a group against that of an earlier immigration with two or three generations of residence in America and all the income and educational benefits that a head start conferred. A typical conclusion, for example—that “the absence of family life, which is so conspicuous among many southern and eastern Europeans in the United States, is undoubtedly the influence which most effectively retards assimilation”—ignored the fact that thousands of poorly paid immigrant men were still scraping together passage money for the families that poverty had forced them to leave behind.

The Dillingham Commission decidedly did not ignore what it deemed the “many new ethnical factors … added to the population.” The members and staff alike shared a then-common assumption that humankind could be classified into “racial” and other subdivisions that would explain differences in group behavior. But the definitions were neither clear nor simple. The forty volumes of data included a “Dictionary of Races or Peoples,” and the “or” was a confession of the uncertainty surrounding the matter. The dictionary showed tables dividing the world into five “races”—Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay, Ethiopian, and American Indian—subdivided into “stocks” and then “groups” (such as Teutonic, Celtic, Slavonic, and Hellenic), which were parceled into no fewer than fifty-six “peoples,” with familiar-sounding and usually national labels like Dutch, English, Greek, Welsh, Portuguese, and so on. The compilers, however, often used their key words ( race , stock , and people ) inconsistently and interchangeably, yet the many tables of the entire commission report presumed that these labels had some kind of research importance.

The assignment of immigrants to their appropriate “stocks” was questionable at best. What were the dividing lines? Physical characteristics, like eye and hair color, or head shape? Or shared languages and cultures that could change quickly as people moved about and intermarried? The records were not helpful; inspectors at ports of entry had little time to take note of more than an immigrant’s last place of residence and principal language. This did not deter the dictionary and the commission from making sweeping generalizations about what could be expected from differing “ethnical factors” in the population.

The “Dictionary of Races or Peoples” taught, for example, that “in spirit the Corsican is independent and revengeful” and “almost as dwarfish as his neighbor, the Sardinian.” The “Serbo-Croatian” was “vigorous and well adapted to hard labor.” Greeks presented a problem; they were the descendants, after all, of Aristotle and Alexander the Great, yet “modern Greece [was] one of the weaker nations of Europe.” Was this “simply the decadence of an ancient race”? Or the result of “the debasement it has received … through the incursions of barbarian hordes”? In any case, contemporary Greeks did possess “nimble intelligence. They compete with the Hebrew race [ sic ] as the best traders of the Orient.”

Northern and southern Italians were counted as different peoples; those of the north were “cool, deliberate, patient, practical, and … capable of great progress in … modern civilization.” The southern Italian, however, was “excitable, impulsive, highly imaginative, impracticable … an individualist having little adaptability to organized society.”

Astonishingly, the commission published a finding that undercut all its underlying presumptions.

Such generalizations were strewn through the volumes of summary like booby traps for the new immigrants. The commission intended to “define and … measure the tendency of the newer immigrant races toward Americanization,” as shown by such virtues as a “tendency to acquire citizenship, to learn the English language, and to abandon native customs and standards of living.” It found that “many of the more recent immigrants are backward in this regard.”

If the writers had carefully consulted the tables compiled by the industrious statisticians on the staff, they might have found assimilation more widely spread among the newer “races” than they suspected. Instead they marched inexorably to a set of legislative recommendations that would exclude “those unable to read or write in some language” (which provoked the single dissenting vote on the commission) as well as “unskilled laborers unaccompanied by wives or families.” More important for the long run, they urged the “limitation of the number of each race arriving during a given period of years.” What this fuzzy terminology did was to open the door for immigration quotas that would pinch down to a trickle the inflow of “undesirable” eastern and southern Europeans. These were enacted in 1921 and 1924 and stayed in force until 1968.

Astonishingly, the commission gave a brief nod of recognition—but no more—to a finding that undercut its underlying presumptions of inherent racial tendencies that worked against assimilation. A study of the physical measurements of some New York Italian and Jewish immigrants and their children, undertaken by the distinguished anthropologist Franz Boas, showed that within a generation even such supposedly immutable characteristics as the shape of the head began to change. The results indicated that “all the evidence is now in favor of a great plasticity of human types, and permanence of types … appears rather as the exception than as the rule.” This was not a finding that the commission was ready to adopt as a foundation stone.

But I find it reassuring to the millions and millions of us who are descended from that 1883 to 1924 migration. We do not really need to be concerned about possible hereditary group tendencies toward being high-strung or stolid, revengeful, impracticable, or, worst of all, backward, in spite of what expert and elaborate investigation showed eighty-five years ago. Somehow our grandparents and great-grandparents who made it here, instead of being denied opportunities on the basis of that so-called research, were given a fair chance. We are the living proof of how well that worked. Enough said.

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