The roots of our “IQ way of thinking” are not pretty. The genesis of officially ranking human beings based on their test scores started with the cousin of Charles Darwin, Sir Francis Galton, who is recognized as the father of “intellectual measurement.” A Cambridge-educated statistician, Galton was the first scientist to develop methods that made it possible to test members of the human species and then rank them in terms of what he believed to be their intellectual powers. Why did he want to test and rank humans? So he could breed a superior race.
Galton was a very insecure man who, in an effort to emulate his cousin’s adventures, took an expedition to Africa, where he become convinced of the inherent inferiority of any races that were not of European descent. His insecurities led him to take a particular interest in those who were born into the “right families,” or possessed certain forms of genius. After reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Galton began to rework his cousin’s theories to meet his own social and emotional needs. Darwin’s great discovery was that nature naturally selected the most “fit” members of a species to propagate. He used the term “natural selection” to describe the process that leads to the development of a successful species. Galton’s great idea was to take Mother Nature and “natural” out of the selective process and insert his intelligence tests as the primary selector of those who should propagate.
To accomplish his goals, Galton developed the philosophy of eugenics and founded the Eugenics Education Society of London in 1907. Eugenics’ goal was to “improve the breed” and purify the population. With his concept of “heredity improvement,” Galton believed the privileged and educated classes should consider it their “paramount duty, to anticipate the slow and stubborn process of natural selection, by endeavoring to breed out feeble constitutions and petty and ignoble instincts and to breed in those which are vigorous, noble and social.” Intelligence testing was the management tool that eugenics would use to prevent the European stock from deteriorating, while at the same time creating a superior strain of intelligent individuals who could rule over the less intelligent masses. In today’s sound bite terms, the eugenics movement could be called the “test ’em and breed ’em” movement.
In the early 1900s, eugenics quickly spread to America, where immigration and intermarriage were threatening the dominance of our European forefathers and was thought to be ruining the “country’s vigor.” The famous lawyer Clarence Darrow clearly expressed the fears of the European founders of America, saying, “The good old Mayflower stock is suffering the same unhappy fate as the good old pre-prohibition liquor. It has been mixed with all sorts of ailing and debilitating substances.” Pundit George Bernard Shaw went as far as maintaining, “If we desire a certain type of civilization, we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit in.”
The eugenics movement was no small movement in America. It raised money from the Carnegie Institute, the Harriman Family, and John D. Rockefeller, and the genetic laboratories of renowned schools such as Harvard, John Hopkins, Cornell, and Columbia were sympathetic to eugenics, promoting it in their research. The former president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, chaired the America Breeders Association Committee on Eugenics, whose goal was to research heredity and to “emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood.” Eugenics laid the groundwork for Hitler, the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and the skinheads. Charles Lindbergh’s famed sympathy for the Nazis came from his preoccupation with eugenics. In a dark chapter of our American history, from 1907 to 1965 intelligence tests were used as criteria to enforce laws in approximately 30 states, which allowed tens of thousands of individuals to be sterilized for such conditions as pauperism and “feeble mindedness” (see “What Is Intelligence?“).
The methods that Galton and his followers first used as criteria for breeding the most intelligent of the species were rather off target. Galton equated intelligence with such things as an individual’s ability to hear high-pitched tones, his/her level of sensitivity to the smell of rose plants, and the ability to discern the differences between the weights of identical-appearing gun cartridges. Other intelligent researchers of the day added handshake pressure and tolerance to pain to the basis for judging intelligence.
About the time that eugenics was attracting a strong following, the French government passed a law that mandated schools for all children. Alfred Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon (in whose lab the famous developmental psychologists Jean Piaget worked in his youth) were commissioned to develop a test that could separate those who could succeed in the school system from the retarded students who could not. Referring to Galton’s intelligence tests based on sensory acuity as a “waste of time.” Binet and Simon developed the world’s first pen and paper IQ test. It is interesting to note that their 30-question test of language and abstract concepts, upon which all of today’s intelligence tests are built, was never intended to ascertain who would adapt or succeed in the real world, only those who would do well in an academic setting.
Unfortunately, like many good ideas that catch on, the IQ test came to be used far beyond the academic domain in which it worked best. Different forms of the Frenchmen’s tests were used in Europe and America in order to help the eugenics movement rank human beings and label which ones were fit for breeding. In America, in the early part of 20th century, immigrants just off the boat were given written IQ tests in an effort to rank their intelligence, even though most of these people could not read the English they were written in! This misstep helped paint a picture that immigrants were ignorant, which turn bolstered the Mayflower stock and racists in their support of eugenics and sterilization. Following Simon and Binet’s lead, James Conan created the next level of IQ testing to support the eugenics movement, the Standard Aptitude Test, or SAT. Unbeknown to most of us, who had the fear of God driven into our hearts by this test, Conan’s stated reason for developing the SAT was to help identify, label, and select a preferred aristocracy, creating a new frontier for the select few (see “What Is Intelligence?“).