Friday, 4 November 2016

Kenan Malik on Race and the Science of Race


i) Introduction
ii) Malik's Philosophy and History of Racial Science
iii) Human Universals?
iv) Human Origins and Richard Rorty
v) Malik's Marxist Theory of Racism
   a) Racism and Prejudice
   b) 18th Century Racism
vi) On the Biology/Culture Opposition
vii) On the IQ of Black Americans
viii) Summary


I initially started this piece hoping to offer a commentary upon - or an analysis of - Kenan Malik's scientific and philosophical claims about race. I soon realised that he doesn't really offer many of his own. What Malik does do, however, is run though a history of many scientific and philosophical claims about race (mainly from the18th century to today). What he doesn't do is science or philosophy. Perhaps he never claimed to be doing this. Nonetheless, Malik does have a training in neurobiology. Despite that, it's his postgraduate study of the History of Science which always shines through his work.

Most of this piece is based on Kenan Malik's book Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature. I decided to focus on this book primarily because in his other books and journalistic pieces Malik more or less repeats the ideas found in the aforementioned book.

As just stated, the problem with Malik's extensive account of the history and ideas of “scientific racism” is that he rarely offers his own position on such things. Instead he runs through the history. Thus it's hard to decipher what his position actually is. (One of the only time he explicitly puts his position on race is on page 225, when he discusses the IQs of black Americans.) Although Malik's potted history is extremely interesting and very well written, it tells us very little - at least explicitly - about Malik's own position on these subjects. The one thing he does repeatedly stress is that culture/politics is bound to affect science and, indeed, he believes that this is a good thing. This position, of course, isn't specific to the science of race – it's been applied to all science. Thus, for example, Malik discusses Konrad Lorenz's theory of the “genetic decay of humans”. He goes on to say that this is a question which is “ideological, not scientific” (203). Yet here again Malik appears to break his own rules against such binary oppositions (to steal a term from post-structuralism). Here the binary opposition is science/ideology, and Malik comes down firmly on the side of ideology. Elsewhere there's the binary opposition of biology/culture; and, again, Malik comes down on the side of culture. Yet, throughout the book, Malik also appears to be arguing against such binary oppositions and the idea that one needs to take on board both sides of the argument. The problem is that Malik doesn't always heed his own advice.

Malik's History of the Science of Race

It's a little surprising that an anti-racist campaigner should state that the idea that there are no races is just as political or “social” (therefore ostensibly non-scientific) as the idea that there are races. Or, since Malik believes that there can be no complete separation of science from culture (therefore from politics), both positions (i.e., racism and anti-racism) can, in effect, be seen as scientific and political/cultural.

There is one place, however, in which Malik appears to put the case for the existence of different races (i.e., without putting his words into the mouths of other theorists). He calls this position “the racial view of human nature” (146). Indeed he puts his position within the context of exhibiting the extreme position (held by Franz Boas and Alfred Kroeber) that men are literally nothing other than “cultural beings” (146). To quote Malik in full:

In denying the racial view of human nature, cultural anthologists denied human nature itself. Humans, they argued, had no intrinsic nature. They were motivated by no instincts. They were simply creatures of cultural habit.” (147)

Malik's critique of certain (past?) brands of anthropology goes on for a full two paragraphs. And the gist of those paragraphs is that stressing culture at the expense of biology is as bad as stressing biology at the expense of culture. Both positions, according to Malik, are immoderate. Yet things aren't what they seem. Malik, in the end, nearly always opts for culture being at the top of the hierarchy. (No doubt Malik may say that seeing things in terms of a hierarchy makes little sense.)

In terms of the full quote above, what Malik may be saying is that it's okay to reject or deny racial human nature. However, these anthropologists threw the baby out with the bathwater when they rejected - or denied - human nature in toto! The point is that Malik's talk of “intrinsic nature” and “instinct” doesn't necessarily entail views on race (as such). Thus, despite appearances, Malik himself may be rejecting (or denying) “the racial view of human nature”; though he's not also rejecting (or denying) “human nature” in its entirety.

This means that mentioning the racial view of human nature may well be a red herring. That is, the science of race isn't pursued in further paragraphs. However, culturalism (for want of a better word) is pursued – and it's criticised by Malik. This complete rejection of “human nature” (or biology) is seen to take on a Marxist tinge (although Malik doesn't mention either Marx or Marxism). Take these words, for example:

In his Science of Culture, [Leslie] White argued that individual consciousness had little on social behaviour because 'it is the individual who is explained in terms of culture, not the other way round'... 'we now seem him [the individual] as a component part, and a tiny and relatively insignificant part at that, of a vast socio-cultural system...'...” (147)

I take this as pure Marxist theory; at least in this limited rendition of the position of an individual anthropologist (i.e., Leslie White). Marx, of course, explicitly stated such themes; though he talked, instead, of “class consciousness” and the “laws of history”. In Marx's case, it was a sociological and historical rebellion against the Great Individuals Version of History. (Arguably the Marxist and Stalinist Louis Althusser took this position even further than Marx when he referred to individuals as being mere cogs in the machine that is capitalism.)

Despite that little aside and to repeat: there's nothing about race (or “the racial view of human nature”) in this commentary by Malik. Is it that racial science isn't discussed not because it's false in every respect; but simply because it mustn't be discussed? Indeed could it be that it mustn't be discussed because it's true – at least in some respects? No answer to these questions can be ascertained from reading Malik. Perhaps, in this book at least, Malik will argue that it wasn't his job to discuss the science of race. (Having said that, in his other books and newspaper pieces he covers pretty much the same racial issues in pretty much the same way.)

Human Universals?

Additionally, Kenan Malik castigates culturalist anthropologists when he asks the following question:

In what way, you might ask, is this idea of human variety different from the ideas of racial thinkers?” (141)

Indeed culturalists - from Montaigne to Levi-Strauss to modern Leftist multiculturalists – say, Vive la difference, don't they? They also say “embrace diversity” and all the rest. Of course racial theorists didn't embrace difference; though they certainly acknowledged it. It terms of Malik's position (or his implied position), surely it must be that there is no racial “human variety”. Yet that can't be the case. So where, exactly, is Malik coming down in this argument? Perhaps there are human “universals” which transcend both cultural and racial variety. Nonetheless, those universals may still be biological/racial in some way. So, again, is Malik coming down in favour of biological/racial universals or only of cultural universals? Perhaps he accepts both, which begs the question: Which ones does he accept?

Interestingly enough, Malik does quote a very long list of “human universals”
(as cited by the anthropologist George Murdock). That list includes over 100 features of all humans – and none of them are biological. It includes, amongst many others,

'calendars... cooperative labour... mealtimes... modesty concerning natural functions.... numerals... postnatal care... pregnancy usages.... visiting... and weather control'” (260).

This long list, according to Malik, has “become rightly celebrated and often cited by sociobiologists” (260).

Perhaps we should ask Malik, in response, two questions:

1) Are there any human biological/racial characteristics which aren't universal and what are they?

2) If there are biological particulars, what are the philosophical and political consequences of accepting - and then highlighting - them?

Human Origins & Richard Rorty

One of the rare places in which Kenan Malik does come out of the closet to state which side of the fence he's on (to use two commonplaces) is on the subject of human origins. Malik says that he's “persuaded that the weight of evidence favours the Out of Africa story” (19). Despite saying that, he continues by saying that he “also [recognises] the importance of changing political sensibilities in gathering support for the idea”. Indeed, as already stated, that's a common theme in Malik's work. Thus it's almost too obvious to say that African Eve story favours an anti-racist stance. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that Malik - an anti-racist campaigner par excellence - should endorse today's anti-racist “political sensibilities” (as he calls them).

Yes! But is the Out of African theory true?

I suspect that such a direct question would hardly make sense to Malik. Perhaps he thinks it's naïve. It can't be denied that Malik frequently puts both sides of the argument. In this case, for example, he finishes off by saying that “[h]ad the same evidence been available a century earlier, most scholars would probably have used it to construct a multiregionalist explanation” (19). Thus were these “scholars” simply backing-up their politics with scientific theories? Or, again, is such a question naïve? If it is naïve, then E.O Wilson and Charles Lumsden are naïve when they state (as quoted by Malik) the following:

'The flaw in their [the Marxist Sociobiology Group]... is the assumption that scientific discovery should be judged on its possible political consequences rather than whether it is true or false. That mode of reasoning led earlier to pseudo-genetics in Nazi Germany and Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union.'” (173)

Isn't the position of the Marxist Sociobiology Group at least partly endorsed by Malik? It's hard to say. It's especially hard to say if one bears in mind the extensive commentary on Richard Rorty in the final chapter. Rorty's position on science and truth is tantamount to either pure relativism (at least according to some) or to mindless pragmatism (at least according to some). Malik too has a big problem with Rorty's positions on both truth and science. Yet perhaps Rorty simply took Malik's culturalist position to its logical conclusion.

Here's Malik expressing his critique of Rorty (which is, surely, a scientifically realist position). Thus:

Science is only possible, and necessary, if the way things seem to us is not the same as the way things are, and we require a means of travelling from the one to the other. Once the distinction between appearance and reality disappears, then any theory becomes acceptable.” (345)

Indeed! How, exactly, does Malik extract himself from these Rortian and/or postmodernist conclusions without falling back into what some may call a naïve view of science and truth; which is a position which Malik otherwise castigates? A middle line between Rorty and scientific realism exists; though it's hardly captured by Malik.

Malik's Marxist Theory of Racism

It's strange that such a independent writer – albeit one who's been very active against racism – adheres almost completely to the Marxist history and theory of racism. Or, more correctly, to the Marxist history and theory of scientific racism. As if a Marxist himself , Malik says that scientific racism “justified the superiority of the capitalist class to rule over the black” (130). (Malik, in his excellent From Fatwa to Jihad, says he was once an active member of the Socialist Workers Party.) It's this delicate distinction between racism and scientific racism that under-girds much of what Malik and Marxists say about racism. More concretely, when a Marxist says that “racism is a European and capitalist invention” (as many do), what they should really say is: Scientific racism is a European and capitalist invention. However, even this can't be completely accepted. (Marx also said that prostitution, amongst many other things, was intrinsic to – or even invented by – capitalism; and, here again, he did so simply by focussing on those aspects of prostitution which were indeed specific to capitalist society.)

It's simply false that “the idea of race is a modern one” (i.e., post 18th century, according to Malik). Scientific racism can be said to have begun in the 19th century; though not racism itself. However, even this isn't entirely true; and that's according to Malik's own account.

Thus it can even be questioned whether the “science of race” (as it's called) did begin in the early or mid-19th century. Malik himself makes much of the distinction between what went on before and what went on during the 19th century. Yet even some of the examples he himself cites show us that a science of race did exist in the 18th century. (Thus before the industrial “capitalist hegemony” over-wise dated to the 19th century.) Of course all this depends on when one places the beginnings of capitalism. Nonetheless, according to Malik and Marxist theory, talk of “scientific racism” refers to something peculiarly 19th century and capitalist in nature.

It can safely be said (as Malik himself does) that just as evolutionary theories existed before Darwin, so racism existed without science – or, at the least, without much science.

According to Malik, racism can't exist without “any concept of permanent hereditary differences between human groups” (119). That depends on how the words “hereditary differences” are cashed out because it needn't be seen in strictly 19th-century scientific terms. If it is seen in strictly 19th-century terms, then, by definition, racism didn't exist in earlier times. Thus we have this added reality (made much of by Marxists):

If racial science is a truly 19th century phenomenon,
and modern (industrial) capitalism also largely began in the 19th century,
then we can forge a tight link between capitalism and racism (as many Marxists, as well as Malik, have done).

This resulted in a conclusion that's summed-up in an often-quoted phrase spoken by Malcolm X. Thus: “You cannot have capitalism without racism.”

Racism and Prejudice

Again, there are two different things here: racism and scientific racism. Secondly, there's the implicit belief that non-scientific racism isn't, well, racism. It is, instead (as many Marxists also have it), “prejudice”. The problem is that you must accept a hell of a lot of Marxist theory before you can accept that non-scientific racism (as it were) is simply prejudice. One must also have read a lot of Marxist theory in order to believe that racism can only be scientific.

At one point Malik himself makes this classic Marxist distinction between racism and prejudice. The vast majority of times I've heard that, say, “Blacks can't be racist, only prejudiced”, it's never explained why that's the case. It's simply stated as some kind of diktat. And, yes, Malik does exactly the same thing when he writes the following:

... today's Darwinists often claim that racial discrimination is universal and innate. In fact... the idea of race is a modern one. Certainly, in most human cultures there is prejudice against, and often fear of, certain types of outsiders. But it would be wrong to lump all such prejudices and fears together as 'racial'.” (116)

Of course semantically the words “racism” and “prejudice” are different and I'm not arguing that they're the same. The Marxist idea, however, is something different and something extremely theoretical. It usually goes along the lines of the idea that prejudice alongside political and economic power is – or can be - racism; without it such power, it's mere “prejudice”. Thus, when a black man says that he “hates honkies”, or even when he says that “whites are evil and subhuman” (sometimes heard from the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, etc.), that, according to Marxists, isn't racism. It isn't racism because Marxists must literally believe that all blacks lack political and economic power. (In their eyes, even the blacks who do have economic and/or political power... don't.) Having said that, Malik doesn't make explicit that Marxist point; though he clearly accepts the Marxist distinction.

To repeat, the Marxist theory exists to tell us why blacks can never be racist. Nonetheless, most people who accept the racism/prejudice distinction don't know the theory behind it. (Though they may be aware of the tiny little bit about social and economic power; which also has the flavour of a diktat.) And even when the theory is known, that theory still has the flavour of a stipulation. In other words, the counter-argument could very easily be that a black person with zero economic and/or social power could still be racist simply because he accepts the existence of, well, inferior races (if in a rudimentary form). In addition, it can also be argued that just as many blacks believe in the existence of races as whites do.

18th-Century Racism

It's just been said that Kenan Malik makes a lot of the idea that scientific racism began in the 19th century. (Not, racism – scientific racism.) Yet he too acknowledges the work of the French naturalist, Georges-Louis Buffon. (Buffon died in 1788.) Malik says that Buffon “is often portrayed as the founder of racial science” (123). What's more, Malik quotes Tzvetan Todorov as saying that “'the racialist theory in its entirety is found in Buffon's writings'” (123).

Malik has a problem with this description of Buffon. Why is that? He does so simply because Buffon's racial science isn't exactly the same as 19th-century racial science. Of course it isn't! Then again, the racial sciences of two 19th-century racial scientists wouldn't have been identical either. This, to me, is simply an attempt to tie racism to 19th-century capitalism; which is, of course, a long-running and vitally important Marxist theme.

In order to justify his point about Buffon, Malik says that that “[h]uman differences, including physical differences, were, [Buffon] asserted, the product of environmental or cultural factors” (123). I don't understand this at all. Why would any 19th century racial scientist have had a problem with this specific position of Buffon's? Assuming that all 19th-century racial scientists believed in evolution of some description, then why would they have had a problem with Buffon's idea that different races were “the product of environmental or cultural factors”? Doesn't this describe the nature of evolution - at least Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution - to a T? Of course racial differences, from an evolutionary perspective, would have been the result of environmental factors. As for cultural factors, things aren't quite so clear. Nonetheless, there's also the argument that cultural factors themselves are ultimately a consequence of biological factors (the “sociobiological" position?). Or, at the least, that the culture/biology opposition is often hard to unfold in evolutionary or genetic terms.

Just to stay on this theme of 19th century racial science versus 18th century racism. In this case Malik simply puts the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's position, rather than his own.

According to Malik, Blumenbach's “'varieties' were very different from modern “'races'” (122). Again, the fact that 19th century racial science (or racism) is different to 19th century century racial science (or racism) almost amounts to a truism.

The following technical detail is also problematic. According to Malik's Blumenbach, the “differences in body structure and skin colour were not immutable” (122). A few pages later, Malik speaks for himself (rather than for another thinker or scientist) by saying something similar. He states that “[e]very measure of racial type used by racial science, from the shape of the head to the type of blood, was shown to be changeable” (131).

No 19th-century racial scientist would have contradicted this, surely. If such a scientist believed in evolution, then how could he have believed that racial characteristics were “immutable” (or not “changeable”)? The very essence of evolutionary theory, in the majority of cases, stresses mutability, not immutability. Take this scenario. A theoretical human race could be at an extremely low level of physical and cognitive development - yet there's still no reason for a racial scientist (or plain racist) to believe that this particular race should stay at that low level for all time. The racial scientist - in this respect - deals with the racial here and now and has no need to believe in eternal racial immutability.

Finally, one underlying theme of Malik's (hinted at rather than stated) is that because racial science is itself mutable or changeable, then its theories are suspect (or simply false). Strange. Nearly all the theories of every science - from physics to biology - are mutable or changeable. Indeed that's a hallmark of science. So why point the finger specifically at racial science; especially when Malik himself (elsewhere) stresses this mutability of other areas of science?

On a similar theme, Malik states that “[r]ace was a social category, not a scientific one” (132). Malik here is discussing sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz. It's clear that this is Malik's position too (in relation to all science/scientific theories). However, I doubt that Malik would be so explicit as to say, for example, that evolution is a social category, not a scientific one (or that a specific genetic theory is a social category, not a scientific one). Yet this is one of Malik's important themes (specifically in the last two chapters of Man, Beast and Zombie).

Malik also states that the “prejudice” (not racism!) of Sir Thomas Herbert (a traveller and historian) towards Africans “should not be confused with modern racism”. Indeed to “do so would be like viewing medieval Europe with modern eyes” (119). That sounds fairly convincing, prima facie. But is it? Is it any more subtle than the following rewrite? -

Palestrina's music shouldn't be confused with modern music. To do so would be like viewing renaissance Europe with modern eyes (or ears).

In other words, of course 19th and 20th-century racism was different from 18th-century - and earlier - racism in the simple way that, say, 20th-century cutlery is different from earlier kinds of cutlery. Nonetheless, cutlery remains cutlery; just as racism (even without much - or any - science) remains racism.

On the Biology/Culture Opposition

It's already been seen that Kenan Malik's idée fixe is that both biology and culture should be taken account of in science – especially when it comes to race . In other words, why not have the best of both worlds? Take this passage:

There is nothing ethical about believing in group selection, any more than there is anything reactionary or immoral about arguments for gene selection.” (161)

In other words, “go where the arguments take you”. Or, alternatively, we can say that science is neither moral nor immoral. Additionally, there is - so the tradition has it - both scientific fact and non-scientific value.

As Malik himself often stresses, many have made much of the political ramifications of particular scientific theories. (Even seemingly innocuous ones.) What's more, Malik, at times, also makes the point that it's impossible - or simply counterproductive - to try and divorce science from culture/politics/ethics. Science, especially individual scientific theories, always contains a germ or two of culture/politics/ethics. So, if that's the case, then see how the following rewriting of the full quotation from Malik (above) fares. Thus:

There is nothing ethical about believing that blacks have the same IQs as whites (statistically), any more than there is anything reactionary or immoral about arguments for believing that blacks have lower IQs than whites.

See my point?

To continue on this theme, here's Malik again showing his open-mindedness (at the very same time, may I add, as utterly castigating James Watson):

On the one hand, Watson got his facts in a double helix. On the other, the arguments of Watson’s critics were equally in a twist.”

Here Malik attempts to affect a deep divergence between thinking about genes and thinking about race. Yet it simply doesn't work. Not even anti-racist political bias (which Malik admits to when discussing scientific racism) will make it work.

Firstly, Malik talks about “real genetic differences” between, not races, but between “human populations”. Thus, in the introduction to his book, Strange Fruit, Malik writes:

There are certainly real genetic differences between human populations and the scientific study of these differences can help unravel the roots of disease, develop new medicines, unpick the details of deep human history; perhaps eventually even tell us something about the nature of intelligence.”

All that, Malik believes, is politically uncontroversial (at least from an anti-racist point of view). Yet didn't 20th-century racists think of races in terms of genes and “human populations”? What is Malik offering that truly contradicts these former racist views? (Malik, as you can see, even mentions genetic research into “the nature of intelligence”.)

As I said, Malik believes all this has nothing to do with race. Of course all that depends on Malik's take on race. And here is Malik's position on the notion of race:

Such genetic differences are, however, not the same as racial differences. Race provides a means, not just of categorising humanity, but also of imputing meaning to those categories and of selecting certain categories, based on skin colour, appearance, or descent, as being of particular importance.”

It's already been stressed that Malik often highlights the political nature of science. And here's he is stressing his own political interpretation of a scientific position. Again, how is the notion of “genetic populations” not exploitable in the way that notion of race is exploitable?

It appears that it's the interpretation of scientific theories that betrays the politics. And if you're an anti-racist, it's best to think in terms of genetic populations than races. On the one hand racists are “imputing meaning” to “categories” and then they select some of those categories to be “of particular importance”. On the other hand anti-racists impute the meaning of other categories and then they select some of their own categories to be of particular importance.

Here, again, I hope it can be seen that science isn't doing the job Malik hopes it will do because his philosophy of the science is muddled. In the end, then, it must all boil down to the choice between an anti-racist or a racist interpretation of the science. Why is that? Primarily because Malik's interpretation of the science doesn't do the work for you.

The IQs of Black Americans

It's interesting that Kenan Malik offers a short account of various academics who've published papers and books which argue that the IQ of black Americans is lower than that of white Americans. He mentions Arthur Jenson (an academic at Harvard University), Richard Herrnstein (another Harvard academic and joint author of The Bell Curve) and the British psychologist, Hans Eysenck. At the end of the paragraph, Malik states the following:

Meanwhile, the rise of inner-city violence, particularly in America, has led a number of scientists to consider the biological reasons for aggressive behaviour.” (185)

and that's it! No further commentary except to say that “opponents of such claims [are] more determined to challenge them” (185). But Malik doesn't challenge them. Perhaps that wasn't the place to do so. In addition, it can of course be the case that aggressive behaviour can be studied without any focus on race. Nonetheless, Malik does make a statement about “biological reasons for aggressive behaviour” just before the comments about black IQs.

Malik hints at why he doesn't tackle these claims about the IQ of blacks by discussing the statements of Margaret Mead on the same subject. Firstly, Malik says that Mead “took a conscious decision not to explore the biological bases of human behaviour” (181). He then quotes Mead herself giving the reason for this. She said that it would be “dangerous” (Malik's word) because “'of the very human tendency to associate particular traits with sex or age or race, physique or skin colour'” (Mead's words). What's more, Mead concludes by saying the following:

'It seemed clear to us that further study of inborn differences would have to wait upon less troubled times.'” (181)

This isn't to argue that there aren't arguments elsewhere (there are). However, it seems that both Mead and Malik today (to quote Mead again) simply assumed that racial scientists “'make invidious comparisons based on such arbitrary associations'” (181). (Why “invidious”? Were all the “associations” truly “arbitrary”?) As I said, arguments against racial science exist elsewhere. Nonetheless, platitudinous remarks and smug assumptions seem to rule the roost on most occasions when race is discussed.

Malik also makes an astonishing claim when he confesses (if that's the correct word) that “[s]tatistically, the average IQ of African Americans is lower than that of white Americans” (224). Nonetheless, he immediately states that

unless we believe that African Americans are less intelligent than whites, we must recognise than an important part of the explanation lies in the social position of African Americans as a whole in American society” (224).

It appears that because Malik stresses the important impact of culture - and therefore politics - on science, then this must be an ideal case to give a political (rather than a scientific) explanation of the facts. Indeed since conscience and morality/ethics are part of culture, perhaps it's only right and proper to assume that the differences of IQ between blacks and whites simply must be to do with the “social position of African Americans in America today”. However, at least prima facie, the first way to interpret the fact that black IQs are lower than white IQs is because of genes or brains. Sure, such a quick conclusion can never contain the entire truth; yet at least it must be so much as stated.

The other possible conclusion is that American blacks have a poor “social position” partly because of their low IQs. After all, many other American racial groups - which started off from disadvantaged social positions - eventually became more and more successful and better off (such as Jews, the Chinese, the Irish and so on).

Throughout his book Malik (either directly or indirectly) stresses the point that it's scientifically - and perhaps philosophically - illiterate to stress biology at the expense of what he calls “culture”. True, yet - in this passage at least - Malik stresses culture (or “social position”) at the expense of biology. Indeed even though Malik repeatedly refers to that binary opposition between biology or genes and culture, he does seem to come down on the culture side on every occasion – not only this one.

Malik also repeatedly stresses that individual scientific theories partly – sometimes wholly – express the culture and therefore the politics of their day. Does that mean that Malik's science expresses the the anti-racism of our day? After all, Malik says that all science (even anti-racist science) must express the politics or culture of its day.

None of this is to deny that American blacks have experienced what Malik calls “social discrimination” and that they've done so “as a group” (which, to Malik, means this isn't about “individual blacks”). Nonetheless, Malik focuses entirely on such social discrimination and seems to assume - or conclude - that this is the entire explanation of the fact that American blacks have lower IQs than American whites.

Perhaps this is an argument against what's called “methodological individualism” (which Malik critically mentions elsewhere). That is, cultural/political interpretations trump biological/genetic interpretations when it comes to statistics... and much else. The IQ of individual black Americans, then, isn't to the point. (Not even the IQs of large groups of black individuals is to the point.) What matters is “African Americans as a group” (Malik's italics). And such a group suffers from “social discrimination”. That must mean that culture and/or politics not only trumps biology, it may also trump statistics.

Malik puts the case against methodological individualism (without using those two words) more explicitly - and on the same page - when he writes that

[u]nlike animals, for whom social behaviour can be understood as the sum of individual actions, for humans there are aspects of the social which are irreducible to the individual level, and which can only be understood in social terms” (224).

Malik backs up his argument with a quote from the philosopher Bernard Williams. Thus:

'What is true is that each action is explained, in the first place, by an individual's psychology; what is not true is that the individual's psychology is entirely explained by psychology.'” (225)

At least in this instance, Bernard Williams stresses both sides of the binary opposition that is (individualistic)psychology versus culture. Nonetheless, this may well be a rather innocuous (i.e., non-political) point about philosophical externalism (a position in the philosophy of mind). In other words, Williams mightn't have been singing from the same (political) hymn-sheet as Malik himself.


Despite my criticisms of Kenan Malik, I find his writing extremely informative (factually speaking) and well written. However, when it comes down to it, he advances a biased anti-racist position which effectively diminishes his words on what he calls “scientific racism”. That's fine, except, as I argue, it results in his work not having the effect he seems to hope it will have.

What I mean by those words is that on the one hand Malik questions the ignorance - and downplaying of – biology/genes/evolution. Yet on the other hand he plays-up culture and politics. Thus, philosophically and scientifically, Malik doesn't provide us with a “middle way”. (The more one reads his pieces for newspapers and magazines, rather than his books, the more this seems to be the case.)

Thus, despite his strong defence of free speech, his own anti-racist position often ends up being indistinguishable from the zealous and extreme anti-racism he otherwise argues against.

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