Sunday, April 21, 2013

Intelligence & Eugenics

     I was around the age of six when I was administered an intelligence test. It was a requirement at the school I was attending at the time. Naturally, I was too young to question or understand why I was taking this test or what, exactly, the results would show. I remember sitting on a couch with a friendly man across from me, he brought with him a series of pictures and words. I was asked a variety of questions but I recall with clarity that I enjoyed taking the test. I remember being asked to select pairs of images that go together, to recreate patterns according to an image he showed me. I had to explain how two particular words were alike. I also remember having to identify missing parts of an image he showed me. In retrospect, I can evaluate this experience from a different perspective; I question the purpose and accuracy of the test. With a heightened awareness of the relationship between eugenics and intelligence, I question what intelligence is exactIy and at what point society was able to attribute one’s cognitive capacity with a score? I also wonder how eugenics has played a role in shaping the definition of “feeble-mindedness” and “intelligence”. To attempt to find answers to some of these questions, I looked to the work of Henry Goddard, an American psychologist from the early 20th century and an advocate for the use of IQ testing. 

     Goddard held a research position at the New Jersey Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys. There, he searched for a way to measure the cognitive function of the children. He utilized French psychologist, Alfred Binet’s standardized intelligence test as a starting point. By 1908, he created his own version of the scale, “The Binet and Simon Tests of Intellectual Capacity”. Goddard utilized the word “moron” to describe those who ranked low on his scale of intelligence. His IQ test gained popularity in America and was introduced to public schools and Ellis Island immigrants by 1913. Ultimately, his test helped society identify people based on their intellectual capacity--or Goddard’s definition of intellectual capacity. This became problematic as society attributed race, gender and class with intelligence and feeblemindedness. It is at this point in Goddard’s research that I can see the correlation Goddard and many others made between intelligence and eugenics.

     Goddard wrote, “The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Hereditary of Feeble-Mindedness”, in which he argues that members of society identified as feebleminded should not reproduce as they would pollute the population with more feebleminded children. Through extensive field research and standardized intelligence testing, Goddard worked with the American Breeders Association to understand the influence of genetics on intelligence. Goddard studied generations of families to trace the path of intellectual capacity. He would observe that at certain points in family trees, a new partner would be introduced and there would be a marked change in the intellectual capacity of that couples offspring. Naturally, this finding helped validate his promotion of eugenics. This answers one of my many questions; it appears as though eugenics has not played a role in shaping the definition of “feeblemindedness” or “intelligence” but the other way around. Goddard’s identification of these characteristics help society decide who is and is not worth of reproducing--thus, promoting eugenics. 

     I can’t say that my research has provided me with clarity. While I am more informed about the relationship between IQ and eugenics, I am not sure I understand the purpose of testing IQ for the sake of improving society. The IQ test that I was administered had no effect on my path in life. I can imagine that the for others, an IQ test could help identify and diagnose learning disabilities. This is an instance in which uncovering these differences at a young age could improve a child’s life. While learning disabilities may be uncovered, the test does not provide a method of intervention, so again, I question the need to identify a child’s IQ. Learning disabilities could be discovered in a classroom setting, in which a teacher would have the opportunity to identify the most effective teaching methods for that student. While there is a clear relationship between genetics, eugenics and intelligence, it is my opinion that society requires a body of people that function with a variety of cognitive capacities. I don’t believe that breeding out the ‘feebleminded people’ will positively change any culture. I also find that ‘intelligence’ lacks a solid definition. How can we administer a standardized test that places a numerical score on a person when there is no standard definition for the word intelligence?

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