Brains and Banditry in the Age of In Vitro

This article was originally posted at

There will likely come a point in the next couple centuries when our technology surpasses the limits of our current doctrine of “technological ethics.”  At this juncture, we will be capable of fundamentally altering the quality of human life, not just with newly advanced medicine, but also with unprecedented prenatal modifications to the human genome.  Once we are all able to select certain traits—gender, eye color, hair texture, height—in our future offspring, we will have to decide whether, and how, to make use of this radically new opportunity, both in individual and social terms.

When we discuss whether there is value in allowing parents, en masse, to opt for certain characteristics in their future children, we will inevitably debate the social utility of the traits in question. We will discuss whether there’s a universal benefit to creating a society distinctively taller, more blue-eyed, and more straight-haired than its predecessors.  Discussions surrounding the possibility of parents engendering more boys than girls, or vice versa, will intensify.

But perhaps the fieriest debate will relate to the manipulation of human intelligence, one of the most nebulous and historically controversial “traits” of the bunch, and the ramifications of everyone checking the “high IQ” box when they go “design” their babies.  Some will suggest, as many people do today, that eradicating many social ills is as simple as selecting against “low intelligence.”  Others will view the use of this technological development as “tampering with God” and a seedbed for dangerous eugenic discrimination.

Though the need for this discourse may seem far off, the discussion has, in some manifestation, always existed and is simply evolving. Although our great-grandparents weren’t familiar with in vitro fertilization, they were engrossed in discussions of sterilization and the deliberate “weeding out” of “the feeble-minded.”  Handing down the 1927 majority decision in Buck v. Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. argued, “it is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”  Such language could very easily fit the opinion of a future Supreme Court justice ruling on the constitutionality of compulsory prenatal modifications to human intelligence.

Even if we are not all around to participate in this debate, its participants will likely study our works to determine the historical implications of IQ and the results of various societal approaches to intelligence. Commendably, some scholars, like Harvard’s Michael Sandel, have already weighed in on the ethics of future biotechnology, but we need not go that far to make our mark in this debate; if we simply discuss the utility of eternal human traits, we can provide our descendants with some framework for thinking about genetic manipulation.

IQ, as a simple measurement of a universal human attribute, like height or weight, is not inherently immoral. But in trying to reduce so much of human behavior and ability to a single score, its votaries have spawned a cultish field of thought that would actually be risible if it weren’t so influential. It has been used inappropriately to explain away disparate social outcomes as the stuff of “biological inevitability,” and to justify societal disregard for egregiously unfair social conditions that produce failure. Specifically, it has been exploited to paint a deceptive portrait of an immutable “criminal underclass” of stupid people, to make the case that adjustments to the social order (short of breeding “highly gifted” humans) can do very little to reduce crime. To abate the influence of these “IQ reductionists” in future discussions of reprogenetic technologies, it is crucial that we now debunk the long-accepted falsifications and fabrications about IQ and crime, if for no other reason than to steer society away from investing in the prenatal selection of high IQ to deal with criminal behavior.

When we explore the role that germinal choice technology should play in the proliferation of intelligence, books like “The Bell Curve” will be used to support the view that the distribution of criminal IQ scores “differs from that of the population at large” and that “the relationship of IQ to criminality is especially pronounced in the small fraction of the population… who constitute the chronic criminals that account for a disproportionate amount of crime.”  In every generation in which this view is propagated, its take-aways are roughly reducible to these few key ideas:

(1) low IQ groups have a greater propensity to commit crime (which is revealed by the disproportionate number of low IQ prisoners)

(2) low IQ groups are more likely to victimize high IQ groups than vice versa (for example, Aryan Germans slaughtering Ashkenazi Jews, as Steve Farron details in “The Affirmative Action Hoax”)

(3)  high IQ people are more pro-social

The first argument’s propagators, like psychologist J. Philippe Rushton, cognizant of the black-white IQ disparity, often conclude that there is an unalterable African-American predisposition to commit crime, and thus examine African-American behavior in order to elucidate the tendencies of “lower IQ groups.”  Because there indeed exists a persistent racial gap in IQ scores, it is fine for us to also use “Whites” and “African-Americans” for purposes of comparing the criminal behavior of a high IQ group to a lower-than-average one.  (Of course, our use of this comparison does not at all presuppose that group IQ is permanently fixed or that “race” is even a valid biological category, but rather that, right now, two indefinite groups produce disparate test scores.)

Claims that Blacks, as a lower IQ group, “are more prone than Whites to commit crime” are over-simplifications at best and dangerously false at worst.  Claimants usually discuss crime in a non-nuanced way, without regard for its different types and for the crimes that prison statistics fail to reflect.  With respect to the first of these two shortcomings, IQ reductionists ignore the disproportionate rates at which white males engage in certain criminal behaviors, like drunk driving.  Whereas 12.7 percent of white male high school students have driven drunk, only 8.7 percent of their black male counterparts have done the same.  The black-white disparity in teenaged drunk driving persists when girls enter the equation, and when Latinos are included, Whites still offend the most.  A surprising result, to say the least, for a group presumed to be “more intelligent.”

It might be easier to attribute white transgressions to the lower end of the white IQ bell curve were it not for consistent racial disparities in illegal drug use among high IQ college students. “White students are likelier to use and abuse all forms of drugs than are minority students,” finds Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, and, specifically, “White students are more than twice as likely as non-white students to use illicit drugs including marijuana and Ecstasy.”  Furthermore, irrespective of race, “‘very bright’ individuals (with IQs above 125) are roughly three-tenths of a standard deviation more likely to consume psychoactive drugs than ‘very dull’ individuals.”  One must wonder why, in these instances, high IQ doesn’t keep the gifted few from acting self-destructively and, indeed, criminally.

Perhaps IQ reductionists are more concerned about maliciously violent offenses, and, for this reason, rely on statistics that reveal disproportionate rates of violent crime among racial minorities. If so, they bring us to their second key idea, that low IQ groups violently victimize high IQ groups more than the intelligent victimize “the dull.”  People stuck on this strange point like to evoke comparisons between the rates of black-on-white crime and white-on-black crime, and, when trying cleverly to distance themselves from mere white supremacist hysteria and unvarnished Nazism, condemn the Holocaust perpetrated by the “fairly intelligent” Aryans against the “extremely intelligent” Jews.  Interestingly, they never interpret the ethnic cleansing of the American Indians or the enslavement of African-Americans as an act perpetrated by a less-intelligent, violence-obsessed racial group against an intellectually and ethically superior group.

The claim that the “less intelligent” more frequently attack the intelligent is not a scientific claim, but a rhetorical ploy.  Powerful elites have always differentiated between communities, labeling some “savage” and some “refined,” some “unintelligent” and some “intelligent,” in order to justify oppression of the out-groups.  The historical promulgation of “intelligence” as a definitive and objective concept was not primarily undertaken out of reverence for intellectual values, but instead to justify subjugation of ethnic minorities, the disabled, and economically disadvantaged people.  Of course, it is true that low IQ people have also antagonized (and continue to antagonize) the intelligent, that air-headed bullies pick on “nerds,” that cognitively impaired gunmen shoot intelligent pedestrians, and that the “average” person may regularly shout slurs at the “genius” of whom he is jealous.  But it remains the case that there have been no systematic efforts among “unintelligent” people, organizing on that basis, to brutalize, enslave, or eradicate those with higher IQs.

Those of us who make these arguments are accustomed to being pulled over and asked, effectively, “You talk a nice talk, but you don’t really believe that intelligence is purely subjective, that there are no hierarchies in ability, that everyone’s equally good at everything, and that high IQ makes people evil, do you?”  Of course, the answer, on all fronts, is no.  Mathematical ability is a better measure of intellect than, say, blinking ability; Albert Einstein was a more gifted physicist than most; Duke Ellington was one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time; and there’s no reason to think that high IQ makes people evil.  Although we believe that science demands a more inclusive view of intelligence, we never deny the existence of malleable human differences or that certain skills are more valuable than others.

We instead reject the socially constructed systems of oppression, built around certain acquired abilities, which disadvantage a lot of the population so that a powerful minority can thrive.  We do not contest that some people currently score higher than others on IQ tests, but we take issue with the way those scores are used to allow so-called “gifted people” disproportionate access to resources in society and to excuse the way those deemed “intelligent” have perpetuated systems of racial, socioeconomic, able-bodied, and gender domination over the “dull.” Even though high IQ doesn’t itself make people evil, there’s ample reason to believe that it doesn’t very well stop its possessors from becoming evil for other reasons.

If it were the case that “the dull” victimize “the bright,” then Native-Americans would have ethnically cleansed the higher-IQ European colonizers.  As we know, the opposite occurred; not only did the white colonists expel the Natives from their land, they used the latter’s unsophistication and “savagery” as a basis for doing so.  There were not at that point modern IQ tests, but it’s fair to assume that the Cherokee who lost their lives during the Trail of Tears were, by European standards, less “intelligent” than the white men who introduced the Indian Removal Act, forced Native American children into boarding schools replete with sexual abuse perpetrated by “bright” teachers, and sterilized thousands of Native American women to prevent the production of “dysgenic” offspring.

And, if history were backwards, it would have been “mentally retarded” justices on the US Supreme Court declaring it constitutional to restrict the movement of and forcibly sterilize those with above-average IQs.  But, once again, the reality is at odds with the IQ propagandists’ narrative, as an eight-justice majority of highly “intelligent” justices alternatively ruled it proper in Buck v. Bell to lock up cognitively disabled women, against their will, and prevent them from reproducing.  By the end of the 1970s, structural violence waged against the “feebleminded” had impinged the autonomy of over 66,000 Americans who were involuntarily sterilized.

Let us too look at Tasmania, where higher-IQ “Europeans on horse-back hunted native peoples for sport,” or South Africa, where hundreds of innocent native Africans under apartheid were murdered by higher-IQ, European-descended Afrikaners during the Soweto Uprising, or the Jim Crow South, where the lynchings of innocent black men were recreational spectacles for the “intelligent” white population.

Let us also dissect the flaunted “counterexample” of Nazi Germany, a case that, at first glance, may seem to fit the mold of “low IQ criminality against the gifted,” but that, upon deeper examination, only provides further evidence of the “gifted” oppressing the “dull.”  If it were actually the case that the Nazis were trying to uplift the “cognitively disadvantaged” in a rebellion against high IQ, then why did they initiate Action T4 to euthanize some 275,000 physically and cognitively disabled people, many of whom had Down syndrome?  Some Nazis did actually inveigh against IQ tests, but that’s only because high IQ was associated with Jewry, a population that was already being demonized for its religious differentness, its imaginary “role” in Germany’s loss in WWI, and for cruel medieval myths about money-laundering, blood libel, and the murder of Jesus Christ that never lost their hold.

IQ reductionism often evokes consideration of parties in the Israeli-Arab conflict as well.  On this front, reductionists try to portray the conflict as a simple litany of offenses perpetrated by the less intelligent, envious Natives against the Jews.  This is, in fact, the basis of a rather common narrative in some Zionist circles.  The Shiloh Institute’s Rabbi David Bar-Hayim contends that the Jews, “with their labor and intellect, strived and succeeded where Moslems had only failed,” and thus concludes that the Moslems in Palestine, mad with resentment, are prone to take “an explosive vest, catch a bus, and blow up some Jews.”  Once again, we find an overly simplistic explanation for an intractably complex social problem.

Although Israeli Jews have long faced invidious anti-Semitism from extremist Palestinian factions, there is too an ignominious and well-established history of Zionist-inspired violence against the purportedly “primitive, stupid” Arabs. For example, during the 1948 Nahshon Operation, the Lehi and Etzel entered Deir Yassin to slaughter upwards of 100 Arab civilians, including children, with presumably lower IQs than the Jews who murdered them. Frightening many nearby Arabs, the attack helped precipitate the 1948 Palestinian Exodus, which was itself replete with violent dispossession at the behest of Haganah members, who, as mostly Ashkenazi Jews, would have scored substantially higher than average on IQ tests. Again, this history does not preclude the existence (or sheer depravity) of Palestinian suicide missions, but nonetheless undercuts the fabricated association between super-high IQ and non-criminality.

The last of the IQ reductionists’ premises maintains the riff about low IQ thugs, but takes us one further: smart people are not only less likely to commit crime, but are also more likely, because of their neurological composition, to do good things for the world.  They’re natural “anti-criminals,” and should perhaps, by that token, be favored once it comes time to design children.

Even though people with high IQ scores have undoubtedly done a lot of good, there’s no reason to think that people’s IQs cause them to be moral or immoral. As a telling example, a young Martin Luther King Jr. turned up below average results on the GRE verbal section; had his morality correlated with his test score, he would have been something of an apathetic jerk.  The general body of African-American students, whose average test scores fall below the white average, are also “more likely than white students to report working on various social projects with church groups, helping disadvantaged families, working with homeless people, or helping illiterate adults learn to read or write.” In that vein, it has been shown that wealthy white students, with high average test scores, are more inclined to affirm the permissibility of cheating on academic tests. (It’s unfortunate that, instead of decrying the corrosive culture of standardized testing itself, these students cheat their way to the top of our current system’s morally dubious academic hierarchy.)

What the future holds is never determinable, but if the past is any indication, there will forever exist groups, perhaps powerful ones, that will advocate “rectifying” social ills by manipulating humanity’s genetic composition. In the era of rapidly evolving prenatal care, these factions will almost invariably promise that which is manifestly impossible, as American eugenicists before them did: the creation of a higher moral order of “highly efficient people” predicated on the genetic eradication of “the feeble-minded.”  The creation of this sort of “higher” moral order would itself be immoral, and would therefore fail from its inception.  Cruelty and rule-breaking emerge from a wide variety of influential social sources, and may humans forever remember that the flexible thing called “IQ” simply isn’t one of them.

Yellow Card Warnings and Iraqi War Crimes

This piece was originally posted at

On the first day of first grade, my teacher introduced the class to the “guidelines” we would be expected to follow. We were told that minor transgressions would result in “yellow card” warnings and major ones would lead us “straight to red.”  Students “on red” would have to write reflections on what they had done wrong and multiple-offense miscreants would be sent to the principal’s office, but students who had no card pulled on them would be rewarded with candy at the end of each day.

When administrators visited the class, they explained that this color-coded discipline system would prepare us for second grade, third grade, and eventually, the “real world,” where we would be held totally accountable for our actions.  How simple and fair it all seemed: the good were honored, the bad were punished. Our world was one of rules and consequences.

And then, a few weeks later, the “real world” struck.

September 11, 2001.

When we returned to school, a boy in my class mentioned the attack, only to be reprimanded by a staff member who asked him to “save that conversation for home.”  Nobody in class again mentioned it for the rest of the school year.

I continued on through grade school with a baseline understanding of the US response to the attack. In 2003, we invaded Iraq under the false pretense that Saddam possessed nuclear weapons and had colluded with al-Qaeda to perpetrate the hijackings. Before April 2005, 9,200 Iraqi civilians, many of them children like me, had already died at the hands of our military for this colossal lie. When my peers and I wondered aloud why not so much as a “yellow card” was pulled on the US government for what was clearly a “red card” offense, we were again told to save the conversation for home.

Meanwhile, teachers were still writing up students for talking out of turn, insisting that the real world would be even harsher on us. In high school, they actually brought the real world to us, with the introduction of roving bands of security guards and a gun-wielding on-duty police officer. At this point, we were assumed to be at least somewhat competent, and thus prepared for more adult-appropriate consequences, like getting arrested for drug dealing. The architects of the Iraq War, however, had still not been brought to “real world justice” for their war crimes, and, with impunity, our government had started enhancing its aggressive drone program. One 2009 cluster bomb attack, almost undoubtedly the work of the US, left 21 children dead in Yemen’s al-Majalah.

As I left high school, I realized that our schools’ discipline systems fail when, in the real world around us, justice follows the ugly rules of power. In the school world, we’re “toughening kids up for the real world” with career-ruining marijuana arrests, while in the “real world” itself, we’re effectively absolving Donald Rumsfeld for his complicity in the destruction of an entire country. If we find it too embarrassing to tell children that, in the adult world, the powerful are well-equipped and well-positioned to wheedle their way out of punishment, I suggest that we start reconfiguring our adult system of justice so that fair and swift punishment awaits the bullies among us.

We can begin this push for universal accountability by bringing to justice those political figures, present and past, who have used their power to illegally wreak havoc on other nations. That Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and George Tenet have thus far been let off scot-free for their war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay, and in the Abu Ghraib prison, is simply incompatible with the notions of universal justice and fair punishment that we propagate in our schools.

If we want to create a model for schools to follow when designing their internal disciplinary structures, we should ensure that rehabilitation exists in the repercussions these international bullies face. Real justice will require them to spend the rest of their lives trying to mend the wounds they’ve inflicted, exacting from them hefty fines to be dedicated to the reconstruction of Iraq, and obligating them to serve in, say, internally displaced people’s camps or organizations working to alleviate the crisis of over-crowded housing in Iraq.

We should use the example of high-profile war criminals in Iraq to fashion a legal order that young people will be proud to join. We must also discuss with students what “justice,” as a concrete concept, will and should mean for them once they leave school. Marian Wright Edelman elucidated the inconsistency in the messages that children receive, lamenting that grown-ups tell “children to not be violent while marketing and glorifying violence…Adult hypocrisy is the biggest problem children face in America.” Indeed, if we hope to actually modify the behavior of disobedient students, surely we should show them that the most powerful disobedient adults in the world are undergoing similar behavior modification for their more serious assaults on peace.

A few bright spots?

With the fall of Qusayr to Hezbollah and Syrian government military forces the tide seems to have turned against the military forces that are allied against the Assad dictatorship in Syria. With Assad solidly allied with Hezbollah, which has one of the best militaries in the Mideast, and with Iran and Russia its appears that the regime will win against its enemies. Syria will remain an enslaved nation.

However there are a few bright spots on the horizon. The appointment by the Obama administration this week of Susan Rice as National Security Advisor and of Samantha Power as US Representative to the United Nations is definitely good news. Samantha Powers has been the foremost spokesperson in the cause of fighting genocides and other crimes against humanity for over a decade now. Both she and Susan Rice were very influential in the decision by the Obama administration to create a no fly zone in Libya in 2011. And Rice herself has been a strong backer of the idea that nation states can not simply be permitted to slaughter their own peoples in a civilized world.

Another promising development has been in the nature of the support that Syrian opposition forces are receiving from the Arab world. Recently Qatar which has been a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, a major and in the West unacceptable player in the Syrian opposition, has been almost completely replaced by Saudi Arabia which is now the chief supplier of military aid to rebel forces. Given the conservative nature of the Saudi state one would think that they would support the most reactionary of the revolutionary forces in Syria. But on the contrary Saudi Arabia has in general supported the most moderate forces led by General Salim Idriss in opposition to the dictatorship. These forces within the Syrian Free Army are forces that the United States should be able to support if it cares at all.

The significance of President Obama’s recent appointment of Rice and Power and of the fact that moderate forces within the Syrian opposition may now begin to receive at least some of the aid they need from Saudi Arabia makes it quite possible that the Obama team will decide hopefully soon to begin to support the Syrian opposition forces with strong imputes of military aid and training. While this in itself may not be able to turn the tide against Assad, it will at least give the Syrian people some possibility of long term victory against the regime. It may give them at least a fighting chance and perhaps possibly redeem part of American honor which has been lost by its unwillingness to give meaningful support to the Syrian people in this conflict.

Glenn King

The Dangerous Price of Ignoring Syria

Again I want to remind readers that the opinions of the writers here do not necessarily represent the stated position of the Social Democrats USA.

“America may think it does not have any interests in Syria, but it has interests everywhere the Syrian conflict touched.”

As regrettable as the Syrian conflict is with its loss of 70,000 Syrian lives, the United States has no national interest in intervening in the conflict. That mantra of “national self interest” is heard repeatedly by the majority of media pundits as represented by such well known figures as Ted Koppel and foreign policy professionals such as Robert E. Hunter who advise the Obama administration to refuse to get involved in the Syrian conflict in any way beyond its  role as a provider of humanitarian aid and of diplomatic posturing. Well Vali Nasr, Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University is also able to discuss America’s self interest. And he believes that it is in America’s national self interest to aid the Syrian people in their struggle against the Assad regime. I think he has the more credible position.

Glenn King

The Dangerous Price of Ignoring Syria

By: Vali Nasr

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune.

President Obama has doggedly resisted American involvement in Syria. The killing of over 70,000 people and the plight of over a million refugees have elicited sympathy from the White House but not much more. That is because Syria challenges a central aim of Obama’s foreign policy: shrinking the U.S. footprint in the Middle East and downplaying the region’s importance to global politics. Doing more on Syria would reverse the U.S. retreat from the region.

Since the beginning of Obama’s first term, the administration’s stance as events unfolded in the Middle East has been wholly reactive. This “lean back and wait” approach has squandered precious opportunity to influence the course of events in the Middle East. Click here to continue.