What If There *Is* a Gender Difference in Intelligence?

Published by timdean on

It’s been stated many times before that there might or might not be a gender (or racial) difference when it comes to some kinds of intelligence or aptitude, and this difference might be partially accounted for by biology. I’m not looking to weigh in on this debate. It’s an empirical issue, and as far as I can tell, it’s still unresolved. As such, I’m agnostic.

What I want to do consider is how we should respond if it turns out there is some empirical evidence suggesting there are biological differences across gender or ethnic groups in at least one kind of intelligence or aptitude. Since this isn’t an issue that we can logically dissolve from the armchair, or wish away given the outcome we want to be true, we need to brace ourselves for whatever outcome is supported by the evidence. And I don’t feel that the debate has been at a mature enough level to seriously consider the implications of this kind of result.

Consider the finding regarding the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews having a higher-than-average intelligence. It was controversial, but there wasn’t nearly the magnitude of uproar at this notion as there was to Larry Summers’ infamous 2005 speech. But what if the finding was the other way around, that Ashkenazi jews had lower than average intelligence, and this was put down to biology? Can you imagine?

But such a result – concerning race or gender – could be just around the corner. It’s not up to us to choose, it’s up to the evidence.

What if evidence emerges that supports a biological difference? Let’s say that it’s found that Summers’ hypothesis* is true. Or even that it’s found that there is a gender difference when it comes to interest in pursuing particular careers, rather than an aptitude difference. These factors might not account for the entire observed gender difference in the workforce – clearly socialisation and entrenched cultural biases are potent forces – but it might account for a significant proportion of the difference. What then?

A couple of initial thoughts: one response could be to cite the naturalistic fallacy (or at least one reading of it) to assert that ‘just because something is natural (or biological), that doesn’t mean that it’s good‘. It might be true that there’s a biological difference in capacity x, but that doesn’t mean that we should be happy with this, nor try to do something to change it if it’s within our power to do so.

The second thing is to remember that there are accepted biologically-based differences in other capacities, such as physical strength – and as a result, more men’s sport is televised than women’s sport. But this doesn’t mean that we, as a society, ought to value men more than women. This is because we’re wise enough (or ought to be) to detach performance in sport from an individual’s value as a human being.

The third thing I’d suggest is that no matter how biology shapes capacities or aptitudes, we can choose to work to ensure that any biological differences don’t negatively impact an individuals’ wellbeing. We can make a value decision that no matter how capacities or aptitudes vary, each individual deserves to be valued, and deserves a chance to pursue their own wellbeing without discrimination.

I’m sure there are many more implications and responses should it turn out to be the case that there are real gender or racial differences – and these should be getting more attention. We can’t just wait to see if evidence emerges, and allow the more conservative elements leap on those results before the more progressive voices have a chance to respond in more rational or temperate ways.

So we need to ask, before the evidence emerges, ‘what if there are gender or racial differences?’, and get the dialogue going sooner rather than too late.

*Summers’ hypothesis is that average intelligence is the same between men and women, but that the standard deviation for men is greater, and that since only the top 0.01% in a particular area (such as mathematical ability) tend to seek work in a related area – such as a physics or maths professor – we’d expect a greater proportion of men than women in those extreme roles.


James Gray · 23rd June 2010 at 9:16 am

First, we need to know what “intelligence” means.

Second, we need to know if some groups are smarter in some areas than others.

Third, it would still be wrong to discriminate against people from a group. Individuals can be very smart from any group, so being in the wrong group shouldn’t disqualify anyone from a job.

If a woman is extremely athletic, then her qualifications could make it a good idea to put her on a sports team. This has happened to hockey, but it is quite possible that women belong in other sports teams as well.

Mark Sloan · 23rd June 2010 at 10:51 am

Your three suggested responses to there actually being gender or racial differences in intelligence sound fine to me.

It is not clear to me if your suggested responses are intended to only be prudent or to be the product of moral judgments. Perhaps it doesn’t make any difference in the end. In any event, I’d like to offer up what my pet hypothesis about morality would say on what responses would be moral.

My pet hypothesis says that, in order to be moral or morally neutral, our responses should not decrease, on average, the benefits of cooperation in our societies relative to other responses. Further, in order for the person acting on these responses to be morally admirable (to be moral), that person would have to be acting unselfishly at least in the short term and by those acts be increasing the benefits of cooperation.

With this guidance, I might rephrase your three responses as 1) asserting that it is a moral obligation to respond to this new knowledge in ways that are expected to, on average, result in higher benefits of cooperation in the society than all other options, 2) asserting that the level of moral consideration a person is due (same or equivalent to value as a human being?) is independent of their intelligence, and 3) asserting that “no matter how capacities or aptitudes vary, each individual deserves to be valued, and deserves a chance to pursue their own wellbeing without discrimination”.

Responses 2) and 3) appear to be examples of heuristics for behaviors “that are expected to, on average, result in higher benefits of cooperation in the society than all other options”. That, is they are heuristics of the type needed to comply with response 1).

Vincent · 19th July 2010 at 12:05 am

Where I live, I big differences between the major ethnic groups every day, just by observation on the street. On this evidence I couldn’t jump to conclusions whether they are ethnic or cultural.

The blacks, from Caribbean or Africa, have a positive body-consciousness. They like to be looked at, they dress to express pride in their bodies, they do their hair to look attractive. Not all, of course, but most. The Asians, almost all from Pakistani background, are at the opposite extreme. (I live near the mosque, so there is a higher proportion of actively-practising Muslims than there might be elsewhere.) The women tend to cover their bodies, wear clothes which neither flatter nor reveal. They walk in a kind of down-trodden way, averting their eyes. The men wear traditional Pakistani or Western clothes. they don’t look at ease with their bodies, or proud of them.

The whites, of whom I am one, are in another category, but at the moment I don’t find them easy to categorise on the above terms. Perhaps somewhere in the middle, but there is wide variation.

I’m unable to be objective about it, I do admit. I prefer the behaviour of the blacks. But I am married to a Jamaican.

On the matter of intelligence, any measure is merely a measure of performance against a defined set of criteria. Ipso facto, the criteria are those which are considered important to those who design the tests. Any individual or group is in general intelligent enough to survive and thrive. Nothing else matters, unless you are, for example, a particular employer, or an educational institution, having to set standards for selection.

On the same basis, my judgement based on body-awareness merely reflects criteria which seem of value to me.

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *