Eugenics and the IQ Test

by Adib Rashad ~

Between 1890 to 1930, over one hundred social intelligence studies of
African Americans, Asians, Africans, South Americans, and Eastern and Southern
Europeans were published in various professional and scholarly journals.
These studies comprised a mass of theories pertaining to racial differences
that was accepted as scientific evidence.  The theories and the methods of
these studies were parallel.

The conclusion of these studies varied, but only according to average IQs or
traits. However, one factor alone, the investigators were united on the
racial inferiority of poor American Caucasians, Southern Europeans, and
non-Caucasian nationalities and races prevailed.

Academicians such as E. J. Thorndike, E. A. Ross, Lewis Terman, and Robert
Yerkes were active in promoting scientific racism.  Each of these
individuals advocated, and were active in campaigns for forced sterilization of
so-called social deviants.  Their activities in the eugenics movement constituted one aspect of the resolution to the presumed threat to the social order.  Since,
they claimed, the nature of the social order was a sum total of inherited
characteristics, a quick solution would be a form of birth control through
forced sterilization.  By 1907 fifteen states had passed sterilization laws,
and by 1928 at least 8, 500 people were sterilized through the enforcement
of these laws.  This was one extreme component of scientific racism.  The
popular form which appears most often in the literature was the simple
identification of physically distinct peoples as biologically, or
instinctively inferior.

Initially, racism was only a subsidiary aspect of the IQ testing movement
and was not generic to intelligence testing.  The most important function of
testing was to provide an ideology within the educational institution for
purposes of training.  The argument that Mexicans, African Americans, or
Asians as a group were less intelligent did not need that argument for the
tests to constitute reporting that the above mentioned ethnic groups were
“less intelligent.”  The testing instrument was not designed or intended to
select ethnic groups or races to be one thing or another.  Its basic
function or purpose was the realization of a stable society, and as such it would
relegate poor children to commensurate socialization and skill training.
Therefore, scientific racism and intelligence testing served complimentary
goals, and when scientific racism appeared to have lost its appeal and to
have collapsed under the blows of objective minded scholars during the
1930s; intelligence testing continued to serve an identical function: sifting out
the “desirables” and undesirables” in the process of education.
Eugenics claims to apply genetic principles to the “improvement” of mankind.
There are two general subdivisions in its efforts.  Positive eugenics–
increasing the reproduction of especially “fit” individuals, and negative eugenics–
reducing the breeding of particularly “unfit” types. 

At the turn of the century, the eugenics movement proposed both types of
programs and had a wide influence.  Between 1905 and 1920, eugenics courses
were popular in colleges.  Eugenics and Eugenicists exerted a considerable
influence on popular opinion and on state and federal legislation.
Twenty-four states passed sterilization laws for various social “misfits”
e.g., criminals, mentally retarded, or the insane).  Some thirty states
passed miscegenation laws restricting or outlawing interracial marriage.
The eugenics movement’s major triumph was the passage in 1924 of the Johnson Act by the congress.  This immigration law almost stopped immigration into the
United States from Eastern European and Mediterranean countries.  This act
heightened the popularity of the movement.

From its beginning, the eugenics movement was closely associated with a
sense of white Anglo-Saxon superiority and racism.
Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin and the founder of the
movement, was an elitist and a racist.  He was initially drawn to the study of human heredity and eugenics looking for a genetic source of his own family’s
so-called genius.

The American eugenics movement began in 1904, when Charles Davenport
persuaded the Carnegie Foundation to establish a laboratory for experimental
evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, of which he became the director, and at the
same time leader of the American eugenics movement.
Davenport shared Galton’s belief in superior and inferior races (with the
Anglo-Saxon at the pinnacle).

Galton had remarked, “There exists a sentiment, for the most part quite
unreasonably, against the gradual extinction of an “inferior race.”
Davenport stressed the ill effects of “race crossing,” especially between
Blacks and Caucasians.  Undoubtedly, racism was a pronounced feature in the
Anglo-Saxon middle-class society at the time, and easily became the
hereditarian doctrine.

Intelligence was prominent among the traits that eugenicists tried to
demonstrate as inherited.  With the newly designed Alfred Binet test for
intelligence as the standard of measurement, studies flowed forth showing
connections between low test scores (feeblemindedness) and delinquency,
criminality, sexual promiscuity, and degeneracy.  Needless to say, the
“evidence” for such claims was meager, based largely on assumptions, gross
biases, analogies, and a variety of non-rigorous methods of “proof.”
Cyril Burt was influenced by the eugenics movement; he tested boys from a
preparatory school and a higher elementary school in Oxford, and a school in
the Liverpool slums.  In 1912 he published a paper with R. C. Moore in which
he compared the mental tests of the Liverpool slum boys with the preparatory
and Oxford school boys.  Their language was acerbic and idiotic to the
rational ear.  They said having tested over a thousand children, they
obtained results with “investigations of savage and civilized races.”  They
also reflected upon sexual differences, concluding “the mental life of a man
is predominantly cortical, that of a woman is predominantly thalamic.”  Men,
they said, were like “Teutons,” women like “Mediterraneans.”
In the same year the London county council, which administered London’s
schools, appointed Burt the world’s first education psychologist.  His main
task was testing so-called backward children to decide which ones should be
sent to special schools.  In 1946 Burt was knighted for his obnoxious

The eugenics movement was predicated on classism, sexism and racism.  Its
philosophy was primarily designed to relegate poor workers, women, and
people of color to positions of societal inconsequentiality.  Race, sex, and class
theories of society were useful only when they served the need for the
continuation of the social order.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the
movement was founded, supported, and financed by an American racist, ruling

People such as Mrs. E. H. Harriman, wife of railroad and telegraph magnate,
E. H. Harriman, J. H. Kellogg, founder of Kellogg foods, and Madison Grant,
who was a rabid racist and wealthy lawyer from a New York aristocracy
comprised the financial and racist patterns of the movement.
For these individuals, John Locke’s argument that one’s station in life was
based on the type of education one received, and that industriousness was
the basis for the distribution of property was the key motivating factor for
ongoing support for this pseudoscience.  Locke intended an unequal education
for an unequal society.  Political conditions of the time made the task of
distributing unequal education fairly easy.  One task of IQ tests was to
make it appear that equal educational opportunity was given, but unequal
education dispenses, not on the basis of class, but on the basis of so-called innate ability in practice.

Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher also formed the ideological backdrop
to the initial popularization of IQ tests.  Spencer and his disciples
defined education in Lockean and Darwinian terms.  Thus, class still defined the
education one received and it was not the educational system which was to
sort out classes.  The type of education to be given depended on one’s
socioeconomic class.  The need to make education appear “equal” while basing
inequality in education on the intelligence of students, derived from the
socioeconomic, and political forces of Western economic interests.
Spencer advocated the theory of “social Darwinism” just as Darwin proved
there is a struggle for survival of the “fittest” between different species,
Spencer claimed, there is also such a struggle within human society.
The complexity of the nervous system determines intellectual ability,
Spencer proclaimed.  This is stronger in the rich, in men, and in Caucasians, than
in the poor, women, and non-Caucasian.  If poverty did not raise the death rate
among the poor, Spencer argued, humanity would inevitably degenerate.
Attempts at social reform, consequently, can only do damage to humanity.
Spencer advocated a fierce injunction against the undeserving poor, against
free universal education, against clinics, hospitals, and social services
for the non-rich.  He opposed every progressive law for poor people, and
salaried workers.  He not only proclaimed the rights of the “Deserving Rich” to
heaven, but he also denounced the immorality and impracticality of health,
education, safety, and welfare programs that would have materially increased
their taxes here on earth.

The cruel Spencerian concept of millions of inferior people born worthy of a
quick and unmourned death, and of far lesser numbers of superior people
prospering because they were “born fittest to survive,” formed an important
element of the conventional wisdom of the educated classes of the nineteenth
century.  The “survival of the fittest” concept was what evolution was all
about that most educated people believed that it was Charles Darwin, and not
Spencer, who had coined this phrase originally.

Although Darwin considered Spencer to be a conceited and ill informed boor
who made sweeping scientific statements on the basis of inadequate evidence
and personal observation, this did not stop educated people from regarding
Spencer as the man who had applied Darwinian evolution to sociology.
Although Spencer formulated his ideas as scientific laws, he made no attempt
to verify them empirically.  However, Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, did.
Galton sought to construct a science of individual hereditary derived
differences, including intelligence.

Initially, Galton cited eminence as a measure of intelligence.  Tracing
family tables of the famous he discovered people with eminent relatives.
From this he concluded that talent was inherited.

Alfred Binet, French psychologist, developed tests to predict how well
children would do in school.  He found that by giving children simple
problems similar to those they did at school he could make such predictions
with a fair degree of accuracy.  He did not regard his tests as measuring
innate intelligence.  He advocated performance of the children who made low

Contrarily, the American translators, defenders, and elaborators of Binet’s
tests regarded them as providing an “intelligence quotient,” an innate and
constant index of intelligence–and drew racist conclusions from them.
On the other hand, investigators in England and France reported differences
in intelligence between socioeconomic classes.  When the initial conclusions
indicating class differentials in intelligence were sent to Binet, he
wavered on the question of nature versus nurture.  He suggested, however, that
individualized instruction was one possible cause of the superior
intelligence of the rich.  During the last phase of his work, Binet, moved
the intelligence between socioeconomic classes, urged psychologists to begin
to make comparative studies of groups.  This should be done rather than
continue in the development of the measuring instrument.  Binet urged
cooperative analysis of the results, comparing the results of the poor and
the rich.  Binet had assumed, long before he had begun the development of
his tests, that the poor were inferior to the rich, but he had never intended
his tests as devices for comparing classes, only individuals.

Binet proved to be a great asset to France by pointing out the significance
of mental tests for more effective military recruitment.  He urged slower
students to study nonacademic courses.  Consider his following statements
that pertain to class and gender:
“Certain children to whom the ordinary work of the class is distasteful make
compensations in manual work, sewing, designing…little girls, weak in
orthography, are strong in sewing and capable of instruction concerning
housekeeping; and, all things considered, this is more important for their

The eugenicists would seize the opportunity to wage their racist and class
battle against the have-nots and salaried workers of America.  The first
application of the Binet test theory was in the military.  Moreover, Binet’s
scale in the United States would serve as an identifier of social problems
with intelligence, and correlation with Mendelian principles of inheritance.
Henry H. Goddard’s book, “The Kallkak Family,” published in 1914, condemned
the poor for being mentally deficient and conjured up lurid scenes from the
netherworld of the slums.  His conclusions were drawn from the application
of Binet’s tests to inmates at a mental institution in New York.

The IQ tests were given to nearly two million soldiers in the United States
army during World War I; a well publicized finding was that African
Americans scored on the average fifteen points less than Caucasian Americans.
A less publicized finding was that Polish, Italians, and Russian immigrants, Native
Americans and Mexicans did almost as poorly as African Americans, as well as
those of Northern European origin.  Nevertheless, the eugenics used these
scores to confirm and justify their odious theories.

A closer scrutiny of the data from the army IQ tests showed that African
Americans in Northern states with relatively good educational backgrounds
scored higher on the average than European Americans in Southern states with
poor educational backgrounds.  This unequivocally proved that lower scores
were due not to racial factors, but to poorer educational backgrounds.
Subsequent studies have shown conclusively that changes in environment make
a great difference in the result of IQ tests.  Equally important, the IQ tests
have a cultural bias in favor of the European American middle-classes.
Furthermore, the test scores, while predicting so-called scholastic
achievement with fair accuracy, are of no value in predicting performances
after schooling is completed.

As a result of strong ongoing attacks from geneticists such as J. B. S.
Haldine and Hermann Muller, and anthropologist, Franz Boas, IQ tests came to
be recognized in scientific circles as measures of test taking
abilities–not guides to general intelligence.

Before I conclude, I must point out that the methodologies employed for
explaining and relating the social order by intelligence and genes was
designed to dissolve and quell social discontent by socializing the racial
minority and poor Caucasian groups to accept their so-called inferiority as
“natural.”  Furthermore, by artificially separating workers from each other
on the basis culture, nationality, or race, the workers would be segmented
within themselves.  The effects of this plan would be to prevent a conscious
and potential mobilized work force, and to place the explanation of the
unequal distribution of wealth and unequal education on the lack of
intelligence of racial and socioeconomic groups.

In conclusion, people in the United States that were subjected to
sterilization numbered over 60,000 up to the 1960s; however, in 1974 US
District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell said that “Over the last few years, an
estimated 100,000 to 150,000 low income persons have been sterilized
annually in federally funded programs.”  The late Allan Chase in his book, “The
Legacy of Malthus,” quoted these same statistics and noted that the United States rate equaled that of Nazi Germany where the 12 year career of the Third
Reich after the German Sterilization Act of 1933 (in part inspired by US laws) saw
two million sterilized as social misfits.

Gesell pointed out that though Congress had decreed that family planning
programs function on a voluntary basis “an indefinite number of poor people
have been improperly coerced into accepting a sterilization operation under
the threat that various federally funded benefits would be withdrawn.
Patients receiving Medicaid assistance at childbirth are evidently the most
frequent targets of this pressure.”

Beginning in the early 1990s poor women and women of color–particularly
African American women–were allowed Medicaid funding to have Norplant
inserted into their arms, then when they complained of pain and other
unwelcome side effects they were told no funding was available to have the
Norplant rods taken out.  This, was undoubtedly, involuntary sterilization
in a recent guise.


In Search of Human Nature The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American
Social Thought, By Carl N. Degler
The Mismeasure of Man, By Stephen Jay Gould
Racial Hygiene:  Medicine Under The Nazis, By Robert N. Proctor
The Legacy of Malthus The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism,
By Allan Chase
In The Name of Eugenics: Genetics and The Uses of Human Heredity,
By Daniel J. Kevles.
Aspect of Eurocentric Thought: Racism, Sexism and Imperialism,
By Adib Rashad
Bad Blood The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment- A Tragedy of Race and Medicine,
By James H. Jones


Adib Rashad ( is an education consultant, education
program director, author, and historian. He has lived and taught in
West Africa and South East Asia.

This article was previously published by theMarcusGarveyBBS (an entity of TheBlackList)
and TheBlackList at

One thought on “Eugenics and the IQ Test

  1. Pingback: Australian Eugenics Debate & The Neo-Eugenics War On Humanity | peter's space

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