Steve Sailer discusses genetics' effect on intelligence and society

Photo: Photo used with permission of Mr. Sailer

FLORIDA, December 26, 2012 — Fewer subjects are more controversial than the study of genetics and its relation to just about every facet of human aptitude.

The debate over whether genes or memes drive our intelligence has been raging in the scientific community for decades on end. Unsurprisingly, this has boiled over into politics as well. Today, one can be labeled by ideologues on the left and the right alike for simply presenting the opinion that genetics play no small role in life achievement.

Steve Sailer is one of the few journalists who regularly writes about the relationship between intelligence and society. That, of course, has earned him no shortage of accolades and detractions. He and I discussed the essential aspects of the aforementioned relationship. 

In this first part of our conversation, Sailer tells us about why he has presented intelligence data on a group-based criteria, the study of genetics in the twenty-first century, Stephen Jay Gould, and much more.         


Joseph F. Cotto: During recent years, the study of human intelligence and its socioeconomic ramifications has attracted considerable academic interest. Some say that intelligence is attributable to social factors, while others deem it hereditary. What do you think?

Steve Sailer: It’s hard to imagine that the answer could be anything other than: both.

Cotto: In the past, you have presented data about human intelligence on a group-based criteria. Can one honestly generalize in such a fashion?

Sailer: As anybody who has filled out a Census form can attest, Washington spends a vast amount of money counting people by race and ethnicity. They just ask people to self-identify. Sure, that method sometimes overlooks relevant information (for example, President Barack Obama self-identified as black and nothing else on his 2010 Census form), but, overall, it appears to be good enough for government work.

Cotto: The self-direction of human evolution, sometimes referred to as eugenics, was mainstream science at one time. After the Nazis manipulated it to bring about unimaginable genocide, however, this more or less fell out of popular favor. As the study of human genes has progressed, though, many are once again considering the power of biological heredity from a scholarly perspective. What are your thoughts on the study of genetics in the 21st century?

Sailer: If you read history books from 1945 to about 1970, you’ll notice that this “Eugenics caused the Holocaust” meme that we are all so familiar with today is largely absent. This assertion only became popular as the decades passed after the actual events. This sort of spin was largely dreamed up in the 1970s by publicists such as Stephen Jay Gould for their own ends.

For Gould and company, it was a club with which to discredit previous generations of academics and intellectuals, since most progressives (for example, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells) had been enthusiastic about the potential of eugenics. For instance, the two main founders of Silicon Valley, Fred Terman and William Shockley, were ardent proponents of eugenics.  

That doesn’t mean Stanford invaded Poland, however.

Cotto: Some scientists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, extensively critiqued the study of biological determinism.

Sailer: Stephen Jay Gould was perhaps the world’s leading expert on a couple of genera of snails. He also possessed a mellifluous prose style, a strong urge to express himself, and a high opinion of his own capabilities. He had a definite knack for telling literary intellectuals what they wanted to hear in the way they wanted to read it. He was not, however, a psychometrician. 

Gould offers a striking example of what Freud called “projection:” the tendency to ascribe one’s own flaws to others. Gould constantly denounced other scientists for bias, bigotry, poor math abilities, and inadequate experimental technique. 

For example, in his 1981 bestseller The Mismeasure of Man, Gould famously lambasted an obscure 19th century scientist named Samuel Morton for being biased when conducting a study of skull sizes. Finally, in 2011, though, a team of six physical anthropologists replicated Morton’s work (something Gould never got around to doing) and discovered that Morton was more accurate than Gould. A 2011 New York Times editorial concluded:

“Ironically, Gould’s own analysis of Morton is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results,” the team said. We wish Dr. Gould were here to defend himself. Right now it looks as though he proved his point, just not as he intended.

Cotto: How do you regard his findings, along with those of your critics who might say that memes are more important than genes?

Sailer: Memes are certainly important. (Gould, for instance, was a hugely influential generator of memes.) That doesn’t mean, however, that genes aren’t important.

Cotto: According to many researchers, the lower any given society’s average IQ is, the more social problems are had. Why is this, exactly?

Sailer: Poorer decision-making is one likely cause.

When looking at different neighborhoods, your real estate agent will explain to you that, all else being equal, the higher the locals students’ test scores, the more expensive the homes. There are a lot of reasons for this, such as that smart neighbors tend to do fewer stupid things like celebrating New Year’s Eve by shooting their guns off in the air.

In 21st Century America, the worst thing about being poor is not that you can’t buy enough stuff, it’s that you can’t afford to get away from other poor people. 

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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