End Product of Society

By Matthew Hyland & JJ King, 6 July 2004


In the light of eugenic IQ-monger Charles Murray’s recent visit to London’s ICA, Matthew Hyland and JJ King investigate the function of ‘intelligence’ in contemporary biopower


Quand on est bête, c’est pour longtemps 

– 19th century educational axiom denied by Alfred Binet


Cognitive intelligence testing is easy to dismiss as antiquated science, a surviving fragment of an obsolete apparatus of discipline. Yet its logic, historically inseparable from the eugenic dream realised by contemporary genomics, is applied more vigorously than ever today in, for example, work and education.


The recent visit to the ICA by Charles Murray, co-author of the infamous The Bell Curve and the most famous living exponent of eugenic IQ, at least served as a timely reminder of this fact. (A reminder rich with historical resonance, incidentally. Murray was talking about ‘objective standards’ of cultural value, a topic dear to the 20th century’s greatest IQ missionary, Sir Cyril Burt. Burt tested aesthetic judgement ‘objectively’ by asking subjects to rank 50 postcards, from ‘great master’ reproductions to ‘flashy’ birthday cards from ‘the slums’. A statistical correlation between the rankings led him to proclaim the discovery of a universal standard of beauty.)


Starting from The Bell Curve, Nancy Ordover’s new book American Eugenics goes on to situate intelligence testing in a eugenic tradition that goes back far beyond its apotheosis in Nazi science and continues to flourish today. Ordover describes how IQ achieved scientific and political orthodoxy in the early 20th century at the height of the white American bourgeoisie’s anxiety to preserve the racial purity (read: political tractability) of ‘its’ proletariat from African and immigrant corruption. Intelligence testing held out the hope that disorderly social flux might be managed scientifically, hence its cross-party appeal to parochial socialists, liberal rationalist planners and straightforward racists.


Henry Herbert Goddard, director of the Vineland Institute for Feeble-Minded Boys and Girls and father of the diagnostic category (and subsequent vernacular epithet) ‘moron’, conducted the first group IQ tests on American soil. From 1912, Goddard oversaw standardised testing at Ellis Island of all immigrants travelling in steerage. Foreshadowing the recent breakthrough into the measurement of ‘emotional intelligence’, Goddard’s officers pursued not only ‘feeble-minded defectives’, but also ‘potential defectives’, who might betray themselves through ‘nerve storms, poorly controlled grief, ...untimely mirth, sensual morbidity and perversion, sullenness, facial tic...sick headaches...signs of genius in certain lines...the formation of strong habits, mannerisms, speech defects[...]’ The ‘linguistically neutral’ tests yielded the expected hierarchy of races’ intelligence, and, Ordover says, ‘by 1917, the United States had a store of immigration restrictions that were ideologically, if not explicitly, aligned with eugenic goals.’

Ordover shares with Stephen Jay Gould a preoccupation with the ‘heredity myth’ extracted from IQ scoring and its role in systematising‘ group prejudice’. (Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man remains the most detailed historical critique of ‘intelligence’ and may be a source for American Eugenics.) Thus they concentrate on interpretation of IQ data, the processing of statistics into scientific common sense about social facts. Yet the biopolitical uses of the question of ‘intelligence’ are hardly limited to the fact that certain answers to it offer alibis to racism. A doctrine like IQ need not attribute biological meaning to statistics in order to generate institutionally usable individual profiles of tested lives. Regardless of whether group variations in results are attributed to hereditary causes, standardised testing’s claim to ‘factor out’ language and ‘culture’ – to isolate an unlearned element of thinking – ‘naturalises’ that element, in the sense of making it interior to the tested person, locating it ‘in her nature’. And naturally, this location makes ‘intelligence’ an object of scientific authority rather than social contestation.


Contrary to the opinions of Ordover, Gould, and all those who mistake division of labour for ‘social exclusion’, the main problem with this interiorising of intelligence does not lie in the equation of innateness with immutability – effective as this pretext for not educating proletarians has been. On the contrary, the idea of an individual nature that’s scientifically measurable and institutionally modifiable is perfectly suited to the control of social life through personalised risk-profiling and pre-emptive intervention.

Thus Alfred Binet, the inventor of the original IQ scale (a modified version of which remains standard today), insistently denied measurable intelligence to be innate and unchanging, precisely in order to emphasise its usefulness to institutional attempts ‘to identify and help’, i.e. as a diagnostic tool facilitating the adjustment of low scorers’ thinking to the desired model embodied in ‘correct’ answers. (It should be noted here that Binet’s ensemble of ‘short tasks, related to the everyday problems of life’ included such exercises as ‘counting coins, or assessing which face is “prettier”’.) In fact such applied psychometrics go back as far as the great 19th-century criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, a fanatical hereditarian and pioneering liberal. Lombroso’s theory of cross-species atavism (criminals are essentially childish and apish, apes and children are essentially criminal!) has gone out of fashion. But this theory inspired his attempts to taxonomise criminal predisposition and his advocacy of punishment according to the criminal’s personal qualities rather than the legal status of the act.


Today, of course, the scientifically mediated personalisation of criminal risk and police response takes forms ranging from the UK’s ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders – ad hoc judges’ decisions making a given act a crime when committed by a specified person) to international biometric databases. In the US, SAT scores organise education entirely around constant testing. The present UK government vigorously promotes standardised testing of 7-, 11- and 14-year-olds, effectively reviving the 11-plus system introduced in the 1940s after lobbying on eugenic principles by Burt.


Complaints that one test or another is ‘biased’ or ‘inacccurate’ not only continue the tendency towards the reification of an intelligence that ‘exists somewhere’ in an as-yet inadequately captured form; they also entirely miss the training function of continuous testing, in which the subject is gradually habituated to a variety of testers’ preferences. These, like Murray/Burt’s standards of cultural value, specify a set of social conditionalities that are only more ‘real’ for being fully functional. The attack on scientific measure by the likes of Ordover and Gould – for exacerbating ‘social exclusion’ by naturalising it – only decries an obvious functionality. They fail to see that such measures work not through exclusion, but by including all social life on a wholly ‘egalitarian’ tabula rasa, in which the individual is the intersection of clinical-financial-criminal-etc. profiles. On this plane, all life becomes equally ‘accessible’ to the institutions that administer the law of value, and the distribution of class.


Matthew Hyland <convolute AT> lives on his defective wits (pictured).

JJ King <jamie AT> has recently completed his first novel, Dead Americans