The Globalization of the IQ Wars

Far-right ideas about race and intelligence are migrating into the mainstream — and not just in the US.

Thilo Sarrazin, German Social Democrat and former Bundesbank board member, signs autographs at a book event in 2010 in Berlin as police keep a watchful eye. Sean Gallup / Getty

The IQ wars have broken out again, with skirmishes between the policy journalists at Vox, the popular podcaster Sam Harris, and the battle-scarred veteran, Charles Murray. The context seems unique this time in the wake of the 2017 campus clashes between antifa and the “alt right” and the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. For those who have followed the conflict over the decades, it can seem like eternal return. Questioned recently about the resurgence of the race and IQ wars, one educational psychologist asked, “When did they ever go away?”

But there is something different about the present battle. Though the fact has escaped notice in the United States, the last few years have seen the globalization of the IQ wars. Arguments from the far-right fringes have entered mainstream politics, not just when the world’s most powerful leader states his preference for Norwegian immigrants over Haitians and Africans but in the site of the twentieth century’s most murderous racist project: Germany.

For the last fifty years, the keepers of the flame of the idea of genetically based racial differences in intelligence have been the small group of psychologists and sociologists affiliated with the Pioneer Fund. Founded in 1937 for the “improvement of the white race,” the fund has been headed since 2013 by the notorious racial psychologist Richard Lynn, most recently in the news for his involvement with a secret eugenics conference held at the University College London.

Lynn was a close correspondent with Richard J. Herrnstein, Murray’s co-author on their 1994 bestseller, The Bell Curve, which Lynn read and offered comments on before its publication. In a letter to Herrnstein the year before, he shared his opinion that it was “inevitable that whites will become a minority in the US sometime in the middle decades of the next century and this will entail a considerable deterioration in the quality of social, cultural and economic life.”

Lynn expanded on this belief in what he presented as the sequel to Murray and Herrnstein’s book. The Global Bell Curve was published on “alt-right” impresario Richard Spencer’s imprint in 2008. While The Bell Curve had claimed to prove a racial hierarchy of average intelligence in the US, Lynn’s book purported to show this for the world. Lynn argued that the question “why are we so rich and they so poor?” had been solved: “The problem lies in them; they have some deficit. Something inside them stops them from earning as much money as we do.”

Lynn called for an end to the philosophy and practice of egalitarianism that subsidized the births of the poor and less intelligent at home and abroad and laid out a “new eugenics” that would use biotechnology to improve genetic health while also reviving programs to offer cash incentives to poor and dull women who submit themselves to sterilization. Lynn held out little hope for the west, where he observed that individual rights too often trumped group rights. Much more likely were worldwide eugenic programs under an eventual Chinese “world state.” This may include, he suggested, “the cloning of the elites of the European peoples.”

Color-coded world maps of Lynn’s international averages of intelligence, with and without his speculative sci-fi accompanying text, are regular features on far-right websites. They also surface in more mainstream venues, legitimated by the fact that Lynn’s collaborator was the previously mainstream political scientist, Tatu Vanhanen. The Oxford University–hosted project Our World in Data, for example, features a map based on Lynn’s argument on their page on “intelligence.”

Such league tables and maps have become the lingua franca in policy and journalism circles from the World Bank to the Economist amid recent fascination with human capital and the knowledge economy. Lynn’s invocation of “genetic human capital,” while bizarre for actual economists, piggybacks on the trend to claim an unearned legitimacy. He uses mainstream research to prove his points, referring not only to prenatal genetic screening — which he supports — but also to Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, whose work on abortion and crime he sees as evidence of positive eugenics in action.

In 2010, Lynn’s racialist intelligence arguments rode the wave of interest in public education and population policy into political discourse in Germany. That was the year of publication of Germany Does Itself In, authored by the social democrat and former Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin. The book has since sold over 1.5 million copies and been seen, justifiably, as laying the intellectual groundwork for xenophobic parties such as the far-right Alternative for Germany and the newly successful Austrian Freedom Party. Like Murray, who worked for the American Enterprise Institute for over two decades, Sarrazin crosses over into free-market advocacy circles. He has been hosted more than once by the Hayek Institute in Vienna and the Hayek Society in Germany.

Sarrazin’s book draws on the work of Murray and Herrnstein, Lynn and Vanhanen, and other Pioneer Fund beneficiaries to argue that, because intelligence is “50 to 80 percent heritable,” and the rich tend to be smarter than the poor, the falling birth rates of the rich and intelligent will ultimately lead to a drop in overall German intelligence. He pins most of the blame on Germany’s Muslim migrant population, who he says are both the least intelligent and most fecund. Beyond a general opposition to welfare support for the indigent and concern about mismatch with European values, group differences in intelligence become Sarrazin’s strongest case for stopping immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

The year Sarrazin’s book was published, Christian Democratic politicians called for intelligence tests for immigrants. Sarrazin has also been hosted by the Austrian Freedom Party, the current junior partner in the country’s ruling coalition, and by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) which took nearly one third of the vote in the last national election. In 2015, an SVP politician posted publicly that “the saturation point of supposed refugees has been exceeded. Especially refugees from Eritrea and Syria, who have been proven to have a very low national IQ, have no place economically in our country.”

A Racist Idea for a Postindustrial Age

What is the special resonance of the IQ test today? The fixation on intelligence is a fitting form of racial science for the postindustrial age. It is built upon mainstream concerns about the knowledge and innovation economy, national competitiveness, and analogies of human beings to information processors. It thrives on the craze for standardized outcomes, rankings, benchmarks, and indicators and offers a simple and powerful story about the world that naturalizes and hardens existing hierarchies, reinforces folk understandings of difference, and disempowers efforts of collective reform. Perhaps most effectively, it does so with the elegance of a single number — IQ becomes a biologized credit score etched onto human nature.

The renewed fascination with intelligence testing offers more evidence that the supposed backlash against neoliberalism in the form of right-populist and racist political movements only deepens the reduction of human nature to fitness for the market.