Letter from John T. Edsall, Fogarty International Center to Francis Crick
In this letter Edsall detailed his position on the controversy within the National Academy of Sciences over statements by
William Shockley, a Nobel Laureate in physics, that the lag in educational attainment among black Americans could be explained
by inherited racial deficiencies in intelligence, as measured by IQ tests. Edsall and six other scientists had sent a letter
to the president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Philip Handler, on August 21, 1970, in which they set forth their
"opinion that Dr. Shockley's proposals [that the Academy sponsor research into hereditary racial factors in intelligence]
are based upon such simplistic notions of race, intelligence, and 'human quality' as to be unworthy of serious consideration
by a body of scientists."
Among other clarifications, Edsall drew a distinction between Shockley's stance and that of the educational psychologist
Arthur Jensen, who drew similar conclusions but whom Edsall considered "thoughtful, careful, and scholarly."
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1971-03-05 (March 5, 1971)
Edsall, John T.
Fogarty International Center
Original Repository: Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine. Francis Harry Compton Crick Papers
I am glad to see that the British postal strike is about over, for I can now send an answer to your letter of 22 February,
concerning the National Academy and our statement of Shockley's proposals. I realize that some of the inferences you
have drawn from our statement are actually quite different from my personal beliefs, and I would deeply regret being misunderstood,
by you or others.
Let me say immediately that I consider inquiry into the role of genetic and environmental factors in the development of intelligence
as a valid and important field of research. It is also inherently difficult and complex. I think that, even with a good
deal of effort by able people, it will be a considerable number of years before we have any substantial body of well established
scientific data, and it will be some time after that before it will be possible to apply the scientific evidence to wise programs
of social action.
The trouble with Shockley, as I see it, is that he is calling on the National Academy to sponsor and push what is essentially
a crash program, formulated in very simplistic terms, to study the genetic basis for the inferred differences in intelligence
of whites and blacks. Moreover he urges it on the ground that this is a matter of the highest priority in providing a basis
for urgently needed social action. He has repeatedly called for this at Academy meetings, and has berated the Academy for
not sharing his views. I believe his view to be totally unrealist; the answers to the questions he is asking will not come
quickly or easily, and the premature application of data from scientific reports in social action programs is almost certain
to do more harm than good. A decision, by an official body like the Academy, to devote a large amount of funds and manpower
to a particular kind of project, on the ground that it is urgently needed to deal with important practical problems, is certainly
in large measure a political decision. Some such political decisions are good, some bad. We believed that the political
decision that Shockley wanted us to make was a bad one, and had virtually nothing to be said for it. Our reply, as you correctly
remark, was political also; it was a political reply to a political proposal. The sharpness of our tone was perhaps excessive,
and reflects the exasperation of many members of the Academy at having to listen to Shockley pushing his demands again and
again at Academy business meetings, when there was also other urgent business to be done. It did not spring, on my part at
least, from any desire to suppress research into the genetic basis of intelligence. I certainly believe that Shockley has
every right to present his views in papers presented at National Academy Scientific sessions, or other meetings. I think
his approach is rather superficial and naive, and he certainly presents his material in such a way as to arouse a maximum
of antagonism. Nevertheless, if I happened to be chairman of a session at which Shockley was presenting a paper, I would
do my utmost to see that he was heard without disturbance, and that the discussion was orderly and not disruptive.
In your letter you mentioned Jensen several times. You will note that our statement says nothing about Jensen and I would
draw a clear distinction between him and Shockley.
Last year, while taking part in a General Education course on biology and social issues at Harvard, I read Jensen's famous
and controversial article with some care. It did impress me as a thoughtful, careful, and scholarly piece of work. (When
I said this in class, without commenting on Jensen's conclusions, I was denounced as a racist by some of the students,
both white and black, though quite a few others backed me up). I think there is some evidence in it of emotional bias, but
in any case it is very hard to avoid that in this field. I certainly believe that such an article should be dealt with by
the usual methods of scientific criticism and controversy, and not by emotional outbursts, Lewontin (Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, March 1970) has offered a number of criticism of Jensen, some of which appear to me quite searching. At the same
time he makes his own emotional bias very plain.
There is one point in Jensen's article--not the only one--that exemplifies possible weaknesses in his approach. (I speak
from memory, as I have no copy here). He points out that I.Q. tests on American Indians have given higher average scores
than for negroes of certain groups, even though the negroes were distinctly better off from an economic point of view. He
concludes, not surprisingly, that the better performance of the Indians reflects a better genetic makeup, at least from the
point of view of intelligence as reflected by I.Q. values. However, I can think of at least one other possible explanation
here. The Indians--particularly the major tribes of our Southwest--in spite of living in often desperate poverty, are the
inheritors of a long and unbroken cultural tradition; this surely has a stabilizing and strengthening influence on the development
of the individual. Our negroes, on the other hand, suffered a virtually complete destruction of cultural continuity during
the centuries of slavery. Different tribes were mixed; families were broken up again and again, by selling some slaves and
keeping others. The damage so done may take generations to repair, and it could deeply influence scores on I.Q. tests. I
do not say that this hypothesis is adequate to explain Jensen's data; I mention it simply as one possible approach to
the problem, and to illustrate the complexity of any attempt to disentangle the genetic and the environmental factors in the
development of intelligence.
We have to keep in mind also the question whether I.Q. tests are the best tools for exploring the fundamental problems of
heredity in relation to intelligence. They are very useful for many practical purposes, but they clearly have their limitations
too. At present we have nothing better for research purposes either, and I have nothing better to suggest myself; but they
are tools that one must use with constant awareness of their limitations.
I think that, in studies in this field, much more needs to be done in characterizing the gene pool that various populations
represent. You have indicated your agreement with the last paragraph of our statement, and we should certainly get away from
simple minded classifications of "whites" and "blacks." I am no expert in this field, but it seems to me
that the administering of I.Q. or other tests to various populations should be accompanied by much more detailed characterization
of known genes within these populations, so as to give a clearer picture of the variety (or lack of variety) of the gene pool
in the population studied. As we get better maps of human genes, the process can be improved. I recognize that comprehensive
research of this sort can become very expensive.
Jensen has proposed that people with different kinds of mental ability need different kinds of schooling for their best development.
There is certainly nothing inherently unreasonable in the general idea; indeed, stated in this general form, it is practically
a truism. Whether Jensen's particular proposals are wise I am not competent to judge. In any case, if school pupils
are to be assigned to different kinds of training, they should be judged as individuals, not as members of racial groups.
From what you say, I gather that Jensen agrees with this.
I have now seen the report of the Academy Committee headed by Kingsley Davis. The general tenor of their report, and particularly
the summary, seems to me to make very good sense. Last spring, at the Academy meeting, they gave a preliminary report verbally,
which seemed to me and at least some others to be so noncommittal as to say almost nothing. Their final report is a vast
improvement, to my mind.
I do hope that this letter will serve to clarify what I really believe. It is of course just my personal view; I do not know
how far other signers of the statement would agree with what I say here. I have not mentioned this correspondence to any
of them, but I will keep some copies of this letter to send to them later, in case you decide to write to them all.
Do tell me if you have further questions or criticisms. I do want to clear up any possible misunderstandings; and of course,
without necessarily agreeing, I value your thought and judgment immensely.