Unless you are seriously interested in diet and nutrition, you’ve probably never heard the name of Ancel Keys (1904-2004). Yet he was one of the most influential men of the 20th century, at least within the area of nutrition studies, government food policy, and official dietary recommendations. He developed the so-called ‘Mediterranean diet’, although it could more accurately be called a post-war scarcity and austerity diet, since we now know it has little in common with the pre-war traditional Mediterranean diet that prioritized lard and not olive oil. Because of his public campaign against animal fats and his research on heart disease, he was sometimes referred to in the press as ‘Dr. Cholesterol’, despite not being a doctor. He was academically successful and had a scientific background, but oddly considering his career path he had absolutely zero formal education and professional training in nutrition studies or in medicine. Instead, his extended higher education included chemistry, economics, political science, zoology, oceanography, biology, and physiology.
His career as a scientific researcher started in 1931 with a study on the physiology of fish and eels, his main area of expertise at the time, whereas his first work in diet and nutrition happened later on by the accident of historical circumstances. The US military sought to develop prepared rations for soldiers and, as no one else at the University of Minnesota wanted this lowly assignment, Keys at the bottom of the totem pole saw it as an opportunity and took advantage of it to promote his career. In his lack of requisite knowledge and expertise, according to his colleague Dr. Elsworth Buskirk, “he was told to go home and leave such things to the professionals,” but he persisted in obtaining funds and came up with something that met specifications (From Harvard to Minnesota: Keys to our History). This became what is known as the K-Ration. During the Second World War, he did much other work for the military and that paved the way for his entering the field of nutrition studies. It was through the military that he did research on humans with much of it focusing on extreme conditions of stress, from high altitudes to starvation. This led to a study on vitamin supplementation during that time period and after the war a prospective dietary study in 1947.
Yet Keys wouldn’t fully enter the fray of nutrition studies until the 1970s. He was about 70 years old when, in his battle with the British sugar researcher John Yudkins, he finally became a major contender in scientific debates. His controversial Seven Countries Study, although done in 1956, wasn’t published until decades later in 1978, almost 40 years after his first involvement in animal research. The height of his career extended into his 80s, having given him many decades to have mentored students, allies, and followers to carry on his crusade. He had a towering intellect and charismatic personality that gave him the capacity to demolish opponents in debate and helped him to dominate the media and political battlefield. Think of Keys as a smarter version of Donald Trump, as seen in an instinct for media manipulation of public perception, maybe related to Keys’ geographic and familial proximity to Hollywood: “As the nephew of silent screen star Lon Chaney, Keys also filmed all of his scientific work and was a first-rate publicist, frequently writing for popular audiences” (Sarah W. Tracey, Ancel Keys). He was a creature of the mass media that took hold during his lifetime.
Though now largely forgotten by the general public, Keys once was a famous figure whose picture was found on the covers of national magazines, from Time to Life. He personally associated and politically allied himself with many powerful politicians, health experts, and leading scientists. Whether or not you know of him, his work and advocacy shaped the world most of us were born into and he had a direct impact on the modern food system and healthcare practice that has touched us all. A half century ago, his fame was comparable to that of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), a Seventh Day Adventists and eugenicist from an earlier generation who also worked in the field of diet and nutrition in having been one of the earliest vegans, in having invented breakfast cereal, and in having operated a sanitorium that was popular among the elite: politicians, movie stars, writers, and artists. Dr. Kellogg preached against race mixing, and warned of race degeneracy, and to promote eugenics he co-founded the Race Betterment Foundation that held several national conferences. He advocated the development of a “eugenic registry” to ensure “proper breeding pairs” that would produce “racial thoroughbreds,” but for inferior couplings he advised sterilization of “defectives.” Though coming from different ideological perspectives, Keys and Kellogg were the twin forces in shaping anti-fat ideology and, in this scapegoating of animal fats, shifted the blame away from sugar which was the actual cause behind metabolic syndrome (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver, etc). That misdirection sent nutrition studies down a blind alley and misled public policymakers, a quagmire we are still in the middle of.
To be fair, it must be clarified that Keys never showed any proclivities toward eugenics, but I bring it up because there is a connection to be explored. As a child, he had tested as high IQ. After Keys’ parents “signed him up while he was a student at Berkeley High School,” according to Richard C. Paddock (The Secret IQ Diaries), he was given entrance into a study done by Lewis Terman (1877-1956) who was a noted psychologists and, like Dr. Kellogg, was an early 20th century racist: “He joined and served as a high ranking member in many eugenic organizations (the Human Betterment Foundation, the American Eugenics Society, and the Eugenics Research Association), and worked alongside many others (such as the American Institute of Family Relations and the California Bureau of Juvenile Research)” (Ben Maldonado, Eugenics on the Farm: Lewis Terman). In studying and working with gifted youths like Keys, Terman sought to prove the hypothesis of social Darwinism through eugenics (‘good genes’). He believed that such an ideological vision could be made manifest through a genetically superior intellectual elite who, if promoted and supported and given all the advantages a society could offer, would develop into a paternalistic ruling class of enlightened aristocracy with the potential of becoming humanity’s salvation as visionaries, creative geniuses, and brilliant leaders. It was a humble aspiration to remake all of society from the ground up.
This attitude, bigoted and socially conservative (e.g., prejudice against “sexual deviancy” in seeking to enforce traditional gender roles), was far from uncommon in the Progressive Era. Keep in mind that, at the time, ‘progressivism’ wasn’t solely or even always primarily identified with social liberalism. Among the strongest supporters of Progressivism were Evangelicals, Mormons, Klansmen, Jim Crow leaders, white supremacists, WASP elites, military imperialists, and fascists — think of one of the most famous of Progressive leaders, President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a racist and imperialist; and even his distant cousin, the Progressive President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was not without racist and imperialist inclinations. Progress back then had a different connotation, and many of these American eugenicists were a direct inspiration to Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders. After all, the enactment of progressive Manifest Destiny was still playing out in the last of Indian Wars all the way into the 1930s, before the remaining free Indians were finally put down. The proto-neocon Civilizing Project was long and arduous and more than a bit bloody. This ideology continued even after the defeat of the Nazis, as sterilization of perceived inferiors in the United States was still practiced for decades following the end of Second World War, all the way into the 1970s. Eugenics has been persistent, to say the least.
Inspired by this idealistic, if demented and distorted, ideology of evolutionary advancement and Whiggish progress, Terman invented the Stanford-Binet IQ Test. During the First World War, he worked in the military to implement the first mass testing of intelligence. His own IQ test was the initial attempt to scientifically measure what is now called general intelligence or the g factor but for which he coined the term “intelligence quotient” (IQ), a mysterious essence that many at the time believed to be inherent to the individual psyche from birth, as genetically inherited from one’s parents. The Stanford-Binet was a measure of academic ability or what today we might think of as ‘aptitude’ — specifically having assessed attention, memory, and verbal skill in measuring ability in arithmetical reasoning, sentence completion, logics, synonyms-antonyms, symbol-digit testing, vocabulary, analogies, comparisons, and general information. The focus was on crystallized intelligence, but it was also culturally biased and coded for socioeconomic class.
The Stanford-Binet was modeled after the intelligence test of the French psychologist Alfred Binet. There was a significant difference, though. Binet used his test to identify those most in need in order to help them improve, whereas Terman saw these ‘deficient’ children as a danger to society that should be eliminated, quite literally with sterilization — this had real world application and consequences: “Terman’s test was also used regularly to determine who should be sterilized in the name of eugenics: individuals with an IQ of under 70 (deemed feebleminded) were targeted for sterilization by the state, such as in the famous case of Carrie Buck. In the United States, over 600,000 people were sterilized by the state for eugenic reasons, often because of IQ test results. For many eugenicists, Terman’s research finally presented a way to efficiently and “objectively” judge the eugenic worth of human lives” (Ben Maldonado, Eugenics on the Farm: Lewis Terman). Instead of helping the poor and disadvantaged, he hoped to use his own adaptation of Binet’s test to identify the smart kids so as to ensure they would become high achievers in gaining the success and respect they supposedly deserved. This was a response to his own childhood struggles as a sickly nerd growing up among other farm kids in rural Indiana.
By the way, this was the specific area that later on would become the stronghold of the Second Klan with the Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson having set up base in Terman’s old hometown. The Second Klan rose to power at the very moment the adult Terman, having left Indiana, began his eugenicist project of IQ testing. That was no coincidence. Following upon a period of moral panic, there was a mix of fear and hope about the future and, central to public debate, threats to the survival of the white race was a major concern (The Crisis of Identity). The purpose of eugenics was basically to show that the right kind of people were a special breed of humans that, in eliminating what held back their genetic potential, would rise up to make America great again and so return Western Civilization to its previous glorious heights. The agenda, of course, wasn’t to create a fair and objective measure of human worth and human potential for the assumptions it was built upon presupposed the race and class of people who, by definition, were the best of the best. Terman was simply seeking to prove what he already ‘knew’ as a true believer of social, moral, mental, and racial hygiene.
With this hope in mind, Terman began in 1921 to gather a large group of children who scored high on his IQ test, a total of 1,521 subjects, including the teenage Ancel Keys. His selection process was highly subjective and idosyncratic. It just so happened that, among a total sample of 168,000 students, Terman included only 6 Japanese-Americans, 2 African-Americans, 1 Native American, and 1 Mexican-American. The vast majority of those chosen were white, urban, and middle class boys largely drawn from the college towns and suburbs of Northern California. These were known as Terman’s kids or ‘Termites’. Betraying scientific objectivity, he intervened in the lives of his subjects, sometimes openly but also behind the scenes. He followed these subjects into adulthood to find out how they turned out and to ensure they gained advantages, such as his having written letters of recommendation for college entrance, job applications, and professional contacts. The eugenics project was not a passive endeavor of neutral scientific observation.
Whatever is to be thought of it, there is no doubt that the study of Terman’s children was the first and maybe only time a hypothesis of social Darwinian eugenics was so fully tested at such an ambitious level. In general across all scientific fields, there is no other longitudinal study that lasted so long and, as some of the subjects remain alive, there are scientists carrying on the work to this day with the last of the surviving Termites still dutifully filling out the surveys sent to them (Ancel Keys remained a participant into his 90s until his death in 2004, two months shy of his 101st birthday). One has to give Terman credit for having dared to scientifically test his belief system in a falsifiable study, ignoring the problems with confounding factors. He put his convictions on the line, although Hitler was even more ambitious in using war as a test of sorts, forcing an end result of either total domination or total destruction, to prove or disprove the hypothesis of German racial supremacy. I guess we can be grateful that Terman took a less violent approach of scientific analysis that didn’t require vast desolation of battlefields and doctors experimenting on unwilling victims in concentration camps.
Terman’s decades-long experiment, continuing as it did into the post-war period, ended in failure by his own standards of expectation. Before his death in 1956, he was able to see how few of the children grew up to amount to much, beyond many of them becoming moderately successful middle class professionals, although a few attained some prominence: “Among some of the original participants of the Terman study was famed educational psychologist Lee Chronbach, “I Love Lucy” writer Jess Oppenheimer, child psychologist Robert Sears, scientist Ancel Keys, and over 50 others who had since become faculty members at colleges and universities” (Kendra Cherry, Are People With High IQs More Successful?). In Cradles of Eminence, Victor and Muriel Goertzel analyzed the Termites according to eminence, defined as having multiple biographies written about someone without their being either royalty or a sports star. It turns out none of Terman’s subjects had even a single biography written about them. Crystallized intelligence, at best, moderately predicted being professionally successful and conforming well within the social order. However, once later tests removed the cultural and class biases, IQ tests stopped even being useful for predicting even this much. When environmental factors and family background are controlled for, almost all IQ differences disappear. A lower IQ rich person is more likely to be successful than a higher IQ poor person. Surprise, surprise!
Interestingly, in comparing the Termites to their peers, “two children who were tested but didn’t make the cut — William Shockley and Luis Alvarez — went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. According to Hastorf, none of the Terman kids ever won a Nobel or Pulitzer” (Mitchell Leslie, The Vexing Legacy of Lewis Terman). It’s ironic that Shockley later followed Terman’s example by also having become a eugenicist and, through his friendship with Terman’s son Frederick, was hired on as a professor at Stanford where the senior Terman had done his scientific work, the reason his IQ test was called the Stanford-Binet. Shockley and Frederick Terman came to be known as the fathers of Silicon Valley in having developed the high tech start-up model and in having played a central role in bringing in the massive Pentagon funding that has defined and dominated the American tech industry ever since (e.g., Jeff Bezos sitting on a Pentagon board and with numerous government contracts). Social Darwinism, intellectual elitism, and paternalistic technocracy remains the ascendant ideology of Silicon Valley tech bros and the capitalist class of entrepreneurial philanthropists who seek to shape society with their gifted genius, not to mention their wealth (e.g., Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation).
Lewis Terman privately admitted that some of his strongest bigoted views were wrong, but unlike many other eugenicists he never publicly recanted his earlier racism. Nonetheless, he was honest enough to conclude that a pillar of eugenicist dogma was flat-out wrong, in having stated that, “At any rate, we have seen that intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.” Of the 730 subjects he was able to follow into adulthood, he divided them into three groups: In Group A of those he deemed successful, only 20% of the kids were categorized. He judged an equal number, 20%, to fall into a Group C of failures. Most of them fell into the middle Group B that included those working in positions “as humble as those of policemen, seaman, typist and filing clerk.” That is rather unimpressive. Writing about this, one person noted that, “The ones among Group A overwhelmingly were from the upper class. The Cs were majorly from the lower class. Majority in the group had careers that were quite ordinary. […] Sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, in his critique of the study, argued showing that Terman’s selected group of children with high IQs did about as well as a random group of children selected from similar family backgrounds would have done.”
Beyond the unsurprising prediction that wealthier people with better chances have better outcomes, the predictive ability of his IQ test was completely off the mark. The Termites, for all their test-taking ability, showed no advantages over the general population. The IQ test did demonstrate academic ability, for whatever that is worth. Among Termites, the rate of college graduates was extremely high (70%, ten times that of their peers), but on average they still were only getting B grades in their classes and a college degree didn’t translate to greater real world accomplishment. They were smart, even if no more successful than their socioeconomic equivalents. If they were wealthy, they did as well as other wealthy people. And if they weren’t wealthy, then they followed the typical path of underachievement. Supposed superior genetics offered no protective advantages beyond the social, racial, and economic privileges given or denied in the lottery of birth.
Even among the successful Termites, there was nothing unusual to be praised. “Rebels were scarce among the Termites, and Henry David Thoreau’s different drummer would have found few followers,” wrote Shurkin in Terman’s Kids. “They did not change life; they accepted it as it came and conquered it.” As good test-takers and students, they were the ultimate conformists, well-lubricated cogs in the machine. They knew how to play the game to win, but the game they played, that of mainstream success and conventional respectability, had rules they followed. These weren’t the types to rock the boat. Rather, Termites were simply well-educated sheep (see: A Ruling Elite of Well-Educated Sheep; & William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep). “This is unsurprising,” Elizabeth Svoboda points out, “given that the kinds of people who ace aptitude tests are, by definition, those specialising at jumping through the hoops that society has set up. If you believe that your entire purpose on Earth is to finish the course, chances are you’ll remain within its boundaries at all costs” (The broad, ragged cut).
As expected, the single greatest factor is environment. It’s not so much who we are, as if we have an inborn psychological profile where character is fate, since who we are is dependent on where we are (Dorsa Amir, Personality is not only about who but also where you are), although we know from epigenetic research it also matters where were our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and on back as environmental factors carry forward in our family inheritance, such as the grandchildren of famine victims having higher rates of obesity. The world is complex and humans are shaped by it. Despite Terman’s ideological failure, many aptitude tests were based upon this model. Our entire education system has since been redesigned to teach to such tests and as a filtering process for educational advancement, in an assumption of a pseudo-meritocratic dogma not all that different from Terman’s eugenicist dream of a better humanity.
As with fascism, the dangers and harms of eugenics linger on within our institutions and within our minds. We are trapped within false and misleading systems of ideological realism. That isn’t particularly smart of us, as individuals and as a society. We’d be better off promoting the development and opportunities of the majority (James Haywood Rolling, Jr., Swarm Intelligence), rather than investing almost all of society’s resources in a privileged elite who we desperately hope will be our salvation. Considering the national and global failure among the ruling class and capitalist plutocrats, maybe we should create a citizenry that can solve their own problems. Basically, maybe we should take seriously democracy, really and fully try it for the first time, not as superficially inspiring rhetoric to cling to in the darkness but as a lived reality. As ambitious experiments go, democracy is definitely worth attempting.
Up to this point, the democratic experiment has been more of a hypothesis waiting to be tested. The oligarchic and filthy rich American ruling elite, for some reason, have never been in favor of testing the potential for self-governance among the American people. Eugenics has been more thoroughly researched over the past century than has liberty and freedom. That speaks volumes about American society. But it isn’t only about eugenics, as authoritarian elitism and paternalism has taken many other forms. Let’s bring it back to Ancel Keys. Even though he was one of the Elect personally groomed by Lewis Terman to be a leading member of the master race, Keys rejected “Terman’s hereditarian bias” and thought that “personal will. . . is a greater factor in success than inherited intelligence” (Richard C. Paddock, The Secret IQ Diaries).
Even so, it appears that Keys carried on the sense of personal superiority that Terman helped instill in him. As part of the supposed meritocracy, he didn’t feel a need to humbly seek to make scientific advancements in workman-like fashion of careful research and cautious analysis. He had such immense confidence in knowing he was right and that inferior minds were wrong that he saw no need for scientific debate and, instead, used his political power and media influence to effectively shut down debate by silencing his opponents. As a self-identified genius imbued with noblesse oblige (with great power comes great responsibility), he wanted to change the world and had the zealous conviction to enforce his will upon others. It was irrelevant that he dismissed the idea that his elitist worth was based on genetics, as it was the same difference no matter what he believed was the justification for his dogmatic mission of dietary evangelism (The Creed of Ancel Keys). Following in the footsteps of Lewis Terman, he aspired to be a paternalistic technocrat who would save the lesser folk from their wrong thinking and behavior. He simply knew what was right.
Ancel Keys, in embracing his role as part of the wise ruling class, ended up being the greatest success story of Lewis Terman’s eugenics project. He also demonstrated its failure, in that it turns out that being smart is not enough. He was brilliant in his aggressive displays of intellectual prowess and he was successful in his professional achievement by climbing the ladder of power and prestige, but he was neither a creative genius nor a a visionary leader. Instead of thinking outside of the box, he forced everyone else into the box of his ideological biases that commanded the stunting effect of groupthink among several generations of scientific researchers and health experts, nutritionists and doctors. Maybe we should be unsurprised by this unhappy result (Quickie Post — Young Prodigies Usually Do Not Turn into Paradigm-Shifting Geniuses).
It could be argued that, at least in this case, the name of ‘Termite’ was aptly descriptive of the harm caused society. Now we are all suffering for it in the tragedy of our ever worsening public health crisis. And as if that weren’t bad enough, we have a new generation of paternalistic overlords who are repeating the same mistake in once again trying to enforce dietary dogma from up on high (Dietary Dictocrats of EAT-Lancet), in being led by Walter Willett who is the direct heir of Ancel Keys. The experiment of elite rule goes on and on.
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The broad, ragged cut
by Elizabeth Svoboda
Despite initial resistance, the public accepted the notion of a test-driven meritocracy because it twined together two established strands of thought: first, that the spoils should go to the declared winner, and second, that high-performers’ abilities should be harnessed for the good of the nation. ‘To each according to their ability’ became the tacit watchword, a neat variant of the Marxist injunction ‘to each according to their need’.
The first aptitude-testers promoted the idea that each person had an innate, more-or-less fixed intellectual capacity. In the context of the early 20th century’s growing eugenics movement, the tests were often deployed to justify widespread racial discrimination. Terman claimed that what he called borderline deficient scores on the Stanford-Binet were ‘very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes’. ‘Children of this group should be segregated into separate classes,’ he wrote in 1916. ‘They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers … From a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.’ In Terman’s mind, then, low IQ scores were simply and unarguably the result of objective deficiency.
We now understand just how wrong that notion was. Today, many psychologists understand IQ and aptitude tests to be ‘culture-bound’ to one degree or another – that is, they evaluate abilities prized in the dominant Western culture, such as sorting items into categories, and can privilege those raised in that milieu. Such inequities have persisted despite attempts to make the tests fairer to those from non-dominant cultures.
As the US marinated in social Darwinism after the First World War, the government began devising its own sinister solution to the ‘grave problem’ of which Terman had warned. The US Supreme Court case Buck v Bell in 1927 ruled for compulsory sterilisation of the ‘feeble-minded’ in the name of public welfare. For more than four decades thereafter, US states sterilised thousands of people with low IQ scores; a disproportionate number of victims were nonwhite. In later years, though aptitude tests’ eugenic roots would fade from view, the ranking of test-takers according to perceived social value would continue unabated.
The History of Eugenics in America, Part II
by Steven Vigdor and Tim Londergan
In light of our current knowledge of nutrition and fitness, we now view J.H. Kellogg’s practices as a combination of exceptional insight, mixed with positively bizarre notions on medicine and health. The field of eugenics also combined significant advances in applied science with a set of misguided, and in some cases tragic, biases and prejudices.
J.H. Kellogg was an enthusiastic proponent of eugenics, and in 1911 he established the Race Betterment Foundation in Michigan. That Foundation held three national conferences on Race Betterment in 1914, 1915 and 1928. The Race Betterment congresses allowed advocates of eugenics to share their suggestions for the most effective practices that would lead to maintaining or improving ‘racial purity.’ Kellogg himself had a complicated relationship with the notion of racial purity, particularly with respect to blacks. He and his wife had no children, so over the course of their lives they raised a large number of foster children; this included a number of black youths.
On the other hand, Kellogg was a strong supporter of segregation and a firm believer that different races should not mix. Here Kellogg adopted a common theme from the eugenics movement that Nordics, Mediterraneans, Alpines, Mongolians and blacks all represented different ‘races.’ Kellogg warned of “the rapid increase of race degeneracy, especially in recent times,” and urged the adoption of steps that he claimed would result in the “creation of a new and superior human race.”
With his characteristic energy and ambition, Kellogg proposed a multi-step plan to save the U.S. from a calamitous fate. His plan included “a thoroughgoing health survey to be conducted in every community every five years, free medical dispensaries for the afflicted, the inspection of schools and schoolchildren, health education, prohibition of the sale of alcohol and tobacco, strict marriage laws in every state, and the establishment of experiment stations [devoted] to investigating the laws of heredity in plants, animals, and humans.”
A central feature of Kellogg’s plan was the creation of a ‘eugenic registry’ that would establish criteria for ‘proper breeding pairs.’ The idea was that individuals would provide their credentials to a central clearinghouse. Males who met the highest standards for racial ‘fitness’ would be paired with similarly ‘fit’ females and encouraged to marry (the idea was clearly inspired by similar matings with ‘pedigreed’ dogs and ‘bloodlines’ for horses).
Kellogg proposed central record-keeping offices for family pedigrees and the establishment of contests for ‘best babies’ and ‘fittest families.’ A few years later, such contests became common at state fairs across the U.S., as we will describe in the next section. In addition to the fairly sinister aspect of ‘racial purity,’ such contests also placed an emphasis on wellness, and offered useful tips on healthy diets and nutrition for young children. […]
The study of intelligence testing was then taken up by scientists such as Lewis Terman and Robert Yerkes. Terman, a psychologist at Stanford, made major revisions in Binet’s tests. He organized the tests into two parts. Part A included sections on arithmetical reasoning, sentence completion, logics, a synonym-antonym section, and a symbol-digit test. Part B included sections involving sentence completion, vocabulary, analogies, comparisons, and general information. Terman and associates tried out their tests on numerous cohorts of school children. Their aim was to determine the average performance of children in each grade from 3 to 8, and to administer the test to as many students as possible. They also performed numerous statistical tests, and arranged the grading to achieve an average of 100 for every grade, with a standard deviation of 15. The resulting “Stanford-Binet” test fairly rapidly became the standard in the field.
Terman was quite candid about his motives for universal testing. “It is safe to predict that in the near future intelligence tests will bring tens of thousands of those high-grade defectives under the surveillance and protection of society. This will ultimately result in curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency.” So, while Binet had insisted that his tests be administered only to provide assistance in improving the skills of slow learners, Terman and his hereditarian brethren were determined to identify, isolate and stigmatize precisely this group of children. Terman had no doubt that his tests represented measurements of innate intelligence, and that intelligence was almost entirely determined by heredity. “The children of successful and cultured parents test higher than children from wretched and ignorant homes for the simple reason that their heredity is better.”
Terman also recommended that businesses use IQ tests in hiring decisions. He argued that “substantial success” as a leader required an IQ of at least 115 to 120. Furthermore, people with IQs below 100 should not be hired for demanding or high-paying jobs. Terman was even more specific: people with IQ below 75 should only be qualified for menial tasks, and the 75-85 level for semi-skilled labor. People with an IQ of 85 or lower should be tracked into vocational schools, so that they would not leave school and “drift easily into the ranks of the anti-social or join the army of Bolshevik discontents.”
The Vexing Legacy of Lewis Terman
by Mitchell Leslie
Terman, who had grown up gifted himself, was gathering evidence to squelch the popular stereotype of brainy, “bookish” children as frail oddballs doomed to social isolation. He wanted to show that most smart kids were robust and well-adjusted — that they were, in fact, born leaders who ought to be identified early and cultivated for their rightful roles in society.
Though the more than 1,000 youngsters enrolled in his study didn’t know it at the time, they were embarking on a lasting relationship. As Terman poked around in their lives with his inquisitive surveys, “he fell in love with those kids,” explains Albert Hastorf, emeritus professor of psychology. To the group he always called “my gifted children” — even after they grew up — Terman became mentor, confidant, guidance counselor and sometimes guardian angel, intervening on their behalf. In doing so, he crashed through the glass that is supposed to separate scientists from subjects, undermining his own data. But Terman saw no conflict in nudging his protégés toward success, and many of them later reflected that being a “Terman kid” had indeed shaped their self-images and changed the course of their lives. […]
A story of a different kind emerges from Terman’s own writings — a disturbing tale of the beliefs of a pioneer in psychology. Lewis Terman was a loving mentor, yes, but his ardent promotion of the gifted few was grounded in a cold-blooded, elitist ideology. Especially in the early years of his career, he was a proponent of eugenics, a social movement aiming to improve the human “breed” by perpetuating certain allegedly inherited traits and eliminating others. While championing the intelligent, he pushed for the forced sterilization of thousands of “feebleminded” Americans. Later in life, Terman backed away from eugenics, but he never publicly recanted his beliefs. […]
Many who did well in their fields had received no boost from Terman beyond an occasional pat on the back and the knowledge that they’d qualified for his study. For others, like Dmytryk, Terman’s intervention was life-changing. We’ll never know all that he did for his kids, Hastorf notes. But it’s clear that Terman helped several get into Stanford and other universities. He dispatched numerous letters of recommendation mentioning that individuals took part in his project. And one time, early in World War II, he apparently pulled strings on behalf of a family of Japanese-Americans in his study. Fearing they were about to be interned, they wrote to Terman for help. He sent a letter assuring the federal government of their loyalty and arguing against internment. The family remained free.
From a scientific standpoint, Terman’s personal involvement seems foolish because it probably skewed his results. “It’s what you’d expect a mentor to do, but it’s bad science,” Hastorf says. As a conscientious researcher whose work got him elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Terman should have known better — but he wasn’t the first or last to slip. Indeed, the temptation to meddle is an occupational hazard among longitudinal researchers, says Glen Elder Jr., a sociologist at the University of North Carolina. A certain degree of intimacy develops, he explains, because “we’re living in their lives and they’re living in ours.”
It’s difficult to gauge Terman’s influence on the kids because so many are deceased or still anonymous. One survivor willing to speak on the record is Russell Robinson, a retired engineer and former director of aeronautical research at NASA Ames. He was a high school student in Santa Monica when, he recalls, “someone in the school system tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Dr. Terman would like to test you, if you’re willing.'” Robinson, now 92 and living in Los Altos, doesn’t think being in the study significantly changed his life, but he did draw confidence from knowing that Terman thought highly of him. Several times during his career, he mentally invoked Terman to shore up his self-image. “Research is a strange business — in a sense, you’re out there alone,” he says. “Sometimes, the problems got so complex I would ask myself, Am I up to this? Then I would think, Dr. Terman thought I was.”
Others have echoed that sentiment, Hastorf says. In fact, the study meant so much to some of the subjects that the Terman project now runs entirely on their bequests.
Several Terman kids have cited a negative impact on their lives. Some complained of being saddled with an unfair burden to succeed, Hastorf says, while others thought that being dubbed geniuses at an early age made them cocky and complacent. For better or worse, a quarter of the men and almost a third of the women said they felt that being a Terman kid had changed their lives. And since Terman often did his meddling behind the scenes, others may have been influenced without ever realizing it.
His support of the gifted was heartfelt, but an equally fundamental part of Terman’s social plan was controlling the people at the other end of the intelligence scale. Both were aims of eugenics, a movement that gained momentum early in the 20th century.
The eugenicists of Terman’s day held that people of different races, nationalities and classes were born with immutable differences in intelligence, character and hardiness, and that these genetic disparities called for an “aristogenic” caste system. Traits like feeblemindedness, frailty, emotional instability and “shiftlessness,” they believed, were controlled by single genes and could be easily eliminated by controlling the reproduction of the “unfit.” In the United States, the movement peddled a topsy-turvy form of Darwinism, claiming that the “fittest” (defined as well-to-do whites of Northern European ancestry) were reproducing too slowly and in danger of being overwhelmed by the inferior lower strata of society. America was jeopardized from within, eugenicists warned, by the rapid proliferation of people lacking intelligence and moral fiber. From without, the threat was the unchecked arrival of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Together these groups would drag down the national stock.
Terman’s letters and published writings show that he shared these beliefs and argued for measures to reverse society’s perceived deterioration. He was a member of the prominent eugenics societies of the day. “It is more important,” he wrote in 1928, “for man to acquire control over his biological evolution than to capture the energy of the atom.” Yet he wasn’t a renegade howling from the fringe. Eugenics was “hugely popular in America and Europe among the ‘better sort’ before Hitler gave it a bad name,” as journalist Nicholas Lemann puts it. Luminaries who supported at least part of the early eugenic agenda include George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Calvin Coolidge and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In fact, Terman sat on the boards of two eugenics organizations with Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan.
Early eugenicists managed to push through several laws. Thirty-three states, including California, passed measures requiring sterilization of the feebleminded. As a result, more than 60,000 men and women in mental institutions were sterilized — most against their will and some thinking they were getting an emergency appendectomy. In 1924, Congress set quotas that drastically cut immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Though pressure to stem immigration had come from many sources, including organized labor, the quotas had an undeniably racist taint. Terman cheered these efforts.
During the 1930s, as the brutality of Nazi policies and the scientific errors of eugenic doctrines became clearer, the eugenics movement withered in the United States and Terman inched away from his harshest views. Later in life, he told friends he regretted some of his statements about “inferior races.” But unlike several prominent intelligence-testers, such as psychologist Henry Goddard and sat creator Carl Brigham, Terman never publicly recanted.
At least one eugenic measure proved as stubborn as he was. News of the Nazis’ mass sterilization program did not put an end to the practice in the United States, where sterilizations of the mentally ill and retarded continued well into the 1970s.
Terman left a difficult legacy. On one hand, his work inspired almost all the innovations we use today to challenge bright students and enrich their education. As he followed the lives of intelligent kids, he also became their best publicist, battling a baseless prejudice. As a scientist, he devised methods for assessing our minds and behaviors, helping put the field of psychology on an empirical and quantitative foundation. He was one of Stanford’s first nationally prominent scholars, and as a department chair for two decades, he transformed the psychology department from a languid backwater into an energetic, top-ranked program. He established the longitudinal method and generated an archive of priceless data. Longitudinal studies have “become the laboratory of the social sciences” and are growing in importance as the population ages, unc sociologist Elder observes.
On the other hand, as biographer Minton points out, the very qualities that made Terman a groundbreaking scientist — his zeal, his confidence — also made him dogmatic, unwilling to accept criticism or to scrutinize his hereditarian views. A similar paradox existed in his social agenda. Terman was a visionary whose disturbing eugenic positions and loving treatment of the gifted grew out of the same dream for an American meritocracy.
“He was a very nice guy, but I have some things I would argue with him about,” Hastorf declares. His conclusion is that Terman was as much a product of his time as a force for change — and that, like many powerful thinkers, he was complex, contradictory and not always admirable.
The Parable of the Talents
by Scott Alexander
from comment section:
Harald K says:
“The IQ pioneers were social reformers who wanted to reduce human suffering.”
Oh sure. By turning as much as possible of decision making over to them, or resisting efforts to take away the privileges they already had, i.e. egalitarian efforts. I don’t hold much faith in the good will of US eugenicists, any more than their German cousins. The decision of which of other people’s genes deserve to survive to the next generation, is one which every human is hopelessly biased, and every decision is hopelessly corrupt.
Sure, many socialists were fooled too by the eugenicists’ crocodile tears for humanity, but it’s an inherently and irreparably selfish practice, only morally compatible with every man for himself/might makes right morality. I could have told them (and many DID tell them).
Binet can get a pass, sort of. His concern was mainly about who would do well in the French school system. Goddard imported the Binet test before Terman turned it into the first IQ test, so hardly “the man who brought IQ tests to America”. I wonder who can look at Goddard’s wikipedia page for arguments that he had such noble intentions, and overlook how he argued that Americans were unfit for democracy, or how he let first and second class skip the intelligence testing for immigration demand on Ellis Island.
IQ tests were invented in America, by Lewis Terman. From the moment Terman touched the test, it was conscripted to the service of racism and elitism.
“Does that sound like radical antihumanism? Nope.”
Yes, it does. Note how it promotes the welfare of humanity in the abstract, at the expense of concrete humans living here and now. But as I’ve argued, even that is just a fig leaf for the crudest power-grab a biological human can possibly make.
Harald K says:
“And ended up making a tool that predicts that the Chinese and Jews should be doing it instead of them.”
Ah, here it becomes relevant that the IQ of today isn’t really Terman’s IQ. Today’s test make Chinese people look good, but Terman’s test didn’t. It didn’t try to be culturally independent at all, so if you administered it to a Chinese person, he’d score horribly. There were even questions which obviously coded for social class, like where would you go to buy certain products.
It was in response to such criticism that they gradually tried to make the tests more independent of culture and language. It was not such a great sacrifice for them to open up for the possibility that some groups may on average do slightly better than your group, once the tests had scientifically established that they, individually, were superior beings.
But as they did so, the tests became less useful for prediction of success. (It turns out upper class white kids are more successful than kids who go to the liquor store to buy sugar, even if the latter kids are otherwise clever. Who knew?).
Elof Carlson says:
There are several difficulties with using a single number to measure intelligence, in a spectrum running from retarded to genius. Issue one is the diversity of talents. As you point out musical genius is not correlated to IQ test genius because there are many people in the 160 plus range who have little music appreciation n or talent. My mentor, HJ Muller, had a 165 IQ measured by Anne Roe, but he had no ear for music. The same might be true for artistic expression among museum quality artists. It might also be true for creativity. The second issue is the role of home environment. This varies a lot. In general those in poverty have lower IQ scores than those who have wealthy home environments. Premeds who take MCAT Kaplan courses do better than those who do not. Those who go to elite private schools do better than those who go to public high schools. Having a private tutor helps even more. The wealthy can afford such luxuries for their children. The poor cannot.
A book that changed my mind about the usefulness of IQ scores was Cradles of Eminence by Victor and Muriel Goertzel. They wanted to compare Terman’s study of 1000 high IQ California kids with eminence. They defined eminence as having two or more biographies written about a person who is not royalty or a sports figure. They found that none of the Terman kids had biographies written about them. They mostly became health professionals, CEOs, lawyers, engineers and solid middle class and contented adults. They found that those who had biographies written about them often had unstable middle class homes (e.g., a neurotic or psychotic parent, an alcoholic parent, a financial collapse in business leading downward in social class, a parent who was a zealot for a cause). They argued that it was the conflict at home (the parents were nevertheless loving to their children) that led these students to creative activities that set them apart. The Terman kids were teachers’ pets, loved school, and aced all their tests. The Goertzel biographees often disliked school (they were bored by it), were often misinterpreted by their teachers as lazy or mentally disturbed or nonconforming. Very few of the high IQ Terman kids were in the arts or wrote fiction. Many of the Goertzel biographees had careers in the arts (but about a majority of both groups chose science careers). None of the Terman kids won a Nobel or Pulitzer. Numerous of the Goertzel biographees did win Nobels and Pulitzers.
I hope you will read that book and comment on it. I believe IQ measures effectiveness in test-taking. That may be innate. It certainly has value in who gets into medical school or who succeeds academically. I believe creativity is independent of IQ score and no one has developed an objective quantitative measure of that creativity in whatever field people excel.