Sunday, November 14, 2010



Americans have had a long love/hate relation to measuring intelligence, giving it a name (the IQ or Intelligence Quotient), and using its categories (idiot, moron, normal, gifted, genius) as insults or pats on the back. It began in France in 1905 when Alfred Binet made the first attempt to identify students suited for more education or attention. It became the IQ in Germany a few years later and then became a national mania in the US to prepare standardized tests and administer these by the millions in schools. I took the test three times in public school and once as an entrance exam for freshman at NYU. My scores kept going up. I learned to sneak a peak at my scores in high school and my NYU advisor had the evaluation scores of my tests on her desk and I read them upside down. My scores went up by 49 points: 116, 136, 149, 165. I attribute this not to gene expression being turned on as I shifted to my teens, but to a passion to read widely, encouraged by my teachers and parents. I was a teacher’s pet and loved their praise and the demands they placed on me, from grading papers to preparing posters for school projects and events.

IQ scores were abused. If your ancestors came from Italy, Greece, the Balkans, Russia, or Poland you were considered less intelligent than Western Europeans and Harry Laughlin from the Eugenics Record Office would produce tables of IQ scores of immigrants and their children to prove why they should be barred from coming to the US where they would debase the national IQ score. That was the 1920s and it led to a discriminatory immigration law based on national origins. In the 1960s and 1970s criticisms of IQ scores erupted when they shifted to racial classification. Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans did not fare as well on tests designed by middle and upper class whites whose tests reflected their experiences and values. Too many school were using IQ tests to shift students into bright, average, and slow learners. The slow learners were frequently isolated to prevent the brighter students from being slowed down. The bright students effectively entered honors classes with enriched programs (we read Hamlet; the average students got Idylls of the King).

The IQ controversy is a complex one. IQ scores are rising around the world because more people are literate, go to school more, and they are exposed to more varied environments. This is called the Flynn effect, for a New Zealand psychologist who first reported the trend. Most psychologists refer to multiple intelligences. This makes sense. We vary in aptitude for art, music, “street smarts”, common sense, social relations, determination, persistence, dexterity, and creativity. These are not measured by a mass tested single number representing who you are or what you can become. Jim Watson’s IQ may be 120, but I am not 45 points smarter than he is and I would gladly trade my extra 45 points for his contributions to my field of genetics.

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