By Stephen Watson

Recent years have seen a resurgence of “racial science” (the attempt to establish races as robust biological categories) and with it the attempt to ascribe the psychological and intellectual characteristics of people of different races to genetics (called “hereditarianism”). If the hereditarian thesis is correct, then the disparity in performance between black and white people on IQ tests, and presumably on economic and social outcomes, is due to innate ability rather than environmental factors such as discrimination or childhood poverty. Advocacy of such ideas is not only to be found on far-right websites; some of it has made its way into the mainstream scholarly literature, lending it an air of credibility.

In a series of blog posts, philosopher of biology Jonathan Kaplan takes on some recent hereditarian papers, arguing that they are not merely wrong, but are intellectually dishonest. In his first post, he addresses a paper entitled “Dodging Darwin: Race, evolution, and the hereditarian hypothesis,” which argues that evolutionary biology is failing to apply the same methods of explaining the psychological attributes of different races as it does to the physical. Kaplan charges the authors with misrepresenting the intent of many of the works they cite (including one of his own), and of obfuscating use of the term “Darwinian Research Tradition,” as if modern evolutionary biologists were still cribbing from Darwin.

It is worth noting that another movement that often abuses the name of Darwin in this way is creationism and intelligent design: Darwin was important, but he was also wrong on several points (including being, like most 19th century intellectuals, a bit of a racist), and science has moved on since his day.

The crux of Kaplan’s attack is that the authors underestimate the threshold required to declare that we have found an adaptive explanation for some trait. Two obvious examples — skin pigmentation and adult lactose tolerance — are considered to be genetic adaptations to conditions, but establishing them as such took a lot of work in fields in such as archaeology, anthropology, and developmental biology, in addition to genetics. No comparable body of work exists that would allow us to declare that, for example, Asians are disposed to be “collectivistic.”

We look forward to future installments of the series.