THE BLACK RACE AND THE INTELLIGENCE DEBATE: CHALLENGES TO NIGERIAN LEADERSHIP CRISIS
A Seminar Talk at American University of Nigeria on April 18, 2012.
Today, I begin to frame a debate around the intelligence of the black race—
What is intelligence? How can we measure intelligence? What role does intelligence play in shaping the leadership of a people? How do we situate the lack of intelligence among the probable reasons for the failure of leadership in the largest conglomeration of black people on the earth—Nigeria?
This talk is the first in the Nigerian History and Leadership series, which I hope shall provoke a reasoned debate on our campus about the practical leadership issues that surround, not only Nigeria, but the entire black race.
On October 14, 2007, the Sunday Times of London reported that a foremost Nobel prize-winning geneticist, Dr. James D. Watson said that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really." Dr. Watson acknowledged the prevailing belief that all human groups are equal, but he added, "People who have to deal with black employees find this not true." Expectedly, this stirred up tremendous outrage among not a few black scholars. I wish to present a debate about this Watsonian postulation.
According to the principle of historical materialism, our knowledge of the past enlightens our present, while knowledge about the past and present predicts the fortunes of the future. History influences us, we cannot influence it. We can make meaning from history, but we cannot change it. Our responsibility is to interpret history in the context of the present; we can't and should not revise it to suit our secret wishes.
On the subject of intelligence, Alfred Binet, a French psychologist who pioneered the study of Intelligence Quotient, said, "It seems to us that in intelligence, there is a fundamental faculty, the alteration or the lack of which, is of the utmost importance for practical life. This faculty is judgment, otherwise called good sense, practical sense, initiative, the faculty of adapting one's self to circumstances. A person may be a moron or an imbecile if he is lacking in judgment; but with good judgment, he can never be either. Indeed the rest of the intellectual faculties seem of little importance in comparison with judgment. Intelligence is everything, and at the same time, nothing at all."
If we use Binet’s statement on intelligence as a guide to our discourse on intelligence, we can safely conclude that intelligence is the faculty of good judgment that manifests in good sense, practical sense, initiative, and the ability to turn disadvantage into advantage. A man is not intelligent who hands over leadership of ideas to others, and is afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. A man is not intelligent who is lacking in initiative, but only mops up where initiators have ended harvest. Intelligence is not so much in passing tests with fabulous scores as it is about judgement. And intelligence is not about aping the intelligent. Intelligence consists in inventions for a better personal life, family life, and societal life; better, in terms of quality, safety, and ease.
In my book, From My Heart—The Black Race: Myths, Realities, and Complexes, I have presented a debate on the Watsonian belief. Let me present the narrative:
The claim that Africans are less intelligent than their white counterparts elsewhere in other continents has been in the news all over the world since several years ago. On June 16th, 2006, the Wall Street Journal Online reported the result of a study of the brain in human genetics by Professor Bruce Lahn, of the University of Chicago, who "stood before a packed lecture hall and reported the results of a new DNA analysis: He had found signs of recent (progressive) evolution in the brains of some people, but not in the brains of Africans.” A year after that Dr. Watson made his claim in concurrence with Lahn’s find.
In the study of race and intelligence, findings are never final. But I strongly believe that we cannot fight facts in denial; we can only succeed by undoing the evidence. What have some white scholars seen in blacks that informs such relatively provocative assertions? We must exclude emotive outbursts in this enquiry.
Africans lived with epidemics such as malaria for years until the white man researched and found the cure. Does anyone expect that solutions to major global afflictions such as HIV/AIDS and cancer would come from Africa? No African scholar of note will deceive himself or herself into believing that all is well with Africa, or that Africa is making progress no matter the indices of measurement that may be employed. There is one ingredient of development that is always missing in Africa—intelligent collective leadership. Leadership is all about good judgement, vision, and consequential influence because of consequential ability to solve people’s problems.
Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana espoused the concept of pan-Africanism, raising hope of a homebred African leader. Ghana failed to carry the burden. An African state leader must have an intelligent head of state. Yet, such intelligence must be embraced by the state in order to attain such leadership status. Ghana failed to leverage on the gift of Nkrumah, so Africa lost.
Jomo Kenyatta followed in the example of Nkrumah. But the dream was killed by the toxin of corruption of absolute power in Kenya. Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal suffered the same fate in spite of his embodiment of wisdom. While the vacuum continued, self-contrived hunger, diseases, and wars ravaged the continent, thus reducing the rating of the African continent on all human development indices.
For decades South Africa suffered in the hands of the minority white population, only succeeding to gain political freedom towards the end of the last century. All symbols of growth and modernity in South Africa are credited to the white man, even as the country is yet struggling to even up distribution of wealth so that the black man will have some kind of dignity in his livelihood. South Africa cannot claim the leadership of black Africa; the truth remains fresh on the conscience of the black man. Accordingly, the present challenge facing the African continent is the emergence of a homebred leader—an African state built up by Africans, with African genius; a shining star on the dark horizon that the rest of Africa can aspire to imitate, and the world would take note of and shift its verdict on the intelligence of the black race. That is the challenge for Africa; that remains the challenge to African scholars and opinion leaders today. Nigeria was seen as a rising star, especially between 1963 and 1966, and in the days of Yakubu Gowon after the unfortunate civil war. What went wrong?
In 2007, Robert I. Rotberg authored a report on Nigeria that was published by the Council for Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), an independent national membership organization and nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that its members, policymakers, students, and journalists both in USA and other countries can better understand the world and foreign policy choices facing the American government and governments of other nations. In this 53-page report on Nigeria, it is stated as follows:
Nigeria's vital importance for Africa's political development, for US and European interests, and for world order cannot be exaggerated. Nigeria's sheer aggregate numbers—possibly as many as 150 million of the full continent's 800 million—and its proportionate weight in sub-Saharan Africa's troubled affairs, make the country's continuing evolution from military dictatorship to stable, sustained democracy critical.
The report identified four important factors, namely, Nigeria's large population (which makes fighting against killer diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, polio, and malaria in Africa impossible if the battle is not won in Nigeria); Nigeria's huge oil reserves (3.22 per cent of the world output, supplying 8.5 per cent of all US import); Nigeria's religious population, split almost evenly between Muslims and Christians (which either makes for an exemplar in Christian-Muslim harmony if the country is well led or makes Nigeria a potential sanctuary of Islamic terrorism if the country is poorly led); and Nigeria's great economic potential beyond oil. (The report said Nigeria "is the fastest-growing telecoms market in the world. Its stock market is thriving. Nigerians do not lack entrepreneurial talent.") The report painted a sorry state of things in Nigeria, quoting statistics that clearly reflected the spate of poor leadership that had characterized the Nigerian state for much of its post-colonial years.
Let me present a dialogue between two African scholars, Nigerians, on the issue of intelligence and its follow-ups—superiority and inferiority:
AGBO DINA: "We cannot reduce human history to the last 500 years (incidentally a period when Africa's development was arrested mostly as a result of exogenous factors)."
BAYO JOHN: Conceding that exogenous factors "arrested" the development of Africans already sets the premise for the conclusions that will follow. Would it not be fair to assume right from here that a "superior" or better adapted exogenous group oversaw this development?
AGBO DINA: "No one has told me where Homer's great grandmother was when Africans built pyramids and invented agriculture."
BAYO JOHN: Building the pyramids on their own proves nothing about a predominantly Arab people who were "foolishly" obsessed with the concept of eternity and wasted all their energy and resources to create monuments for the sake of a limited number of individuals in their society. If we analyse the cost-benefit and value of the pyramids to the Egyptian populations we will see what an "unintelligent" endeavor this so-called wonder of the world was. It served the Egyptians very little purpose but did cost a hell lot both in resources and human capital. If the pyramids served as a spring board on which successive Egyptian developments rode, I would hail it as a great achievement.
AGBO DINA: "How many people did Africans sell to the Europeans and how many people did the Europeans capture on their own? Did Africans invite them to their corner of the world?"
BAYO JOHN: No, they didn't invite them; but it is a known fact in human evolution that the "strongest will survive" and the strongest, on their way to ensuring their survival, will trample on the disadvantaged. Doesn't this again point to some advantage of a certain group of people over others?
AGBO DINA: "We have to take due cognizance of the mentality or plight of the defeated people—they turn on each other."
BAYO JOHN: If one is defeated in any competition, it is fair to conclude for whatever reasons that the loser put up an "inferior" challenge. Explaining away the reasons for the loss, to my mind, amounts to self- denial.
AGBO DINA: "The only crime of Africans was that they had resources the Europeans needed for their survival. That was nefarious rather than something to be glorified and replicated. How does perfecting the instrument of violence and destruction translate to biological superiority?"
BAYO JOHN: Because survival on this planet does not hinge on moral considerations. The fittest, given all possible considerations, will take the upper hand and survive to propagate the continuity of their race.
AGBO DINA: "The colonization of Africa and other parts of the world was done at gun points. The neo-colonial machinations have continued to put the West at a tremendous advantage."
BAYO JOHN: Development of gun powder and the gun was a landmark invention that changed the course of history. Where did this invention come from? Why was it preferentially used by certain people to subjugate others? Does this not point to a certain advantage in projection of future needs of a people over others and clearly showing a step ahead in strategic reasoning?
AGBO DINA: "The fact that we're discussing this issue the way we are shows the extent to which Euro-centricism has eclipsed us."
BAYO JOHN: If the black race is gullible enough to be overwhelmed by Euro-centricism, it again points to a reality which we cannot push under the table. Some people have been smart enough to influence our thinking and ways to the point where they can manipulate us at their beck and call. What conclusions can we derive from this reality?
AGBO DINA: "What makes me different from a European? Should my skin, meant to save me from the scorching African sun, be the sole distinguishing characteristic rather than elements beneath it?"
BAYO JOHN: It is probably not just the color of the skin. But the total baggage that can be associated with skin color. Both in social studies and scientific analysis, a preponderance of evidence inevitably leads you to conclude in a certain way about issues. We cannot be lagging behind in so many indices and claim to be so because someone else is stopping us. Why is the reverse not the case?
AGBO DINA: "These are the questions which the Genome Project is addressing, but it's a relatively recent endeavor. That we are willing to accept these claims so readily is astonishing to me without end. That is in part why others say we are undereducated."
BAYO JOHN: The fact that we are undereducated again serves just to prove the argument. Someone else was smart enough to set out to under-educate us in a way that we will be subjugated to their ways and controls. Does this not point to some superiority in thinking and strategic considerations?
AGBO DINA: "What exactly do we mean by superiority and inferiority?"
BAYO JOHN: A superior person or superior performance is simply an outcome between two groups that clearly puts the other person at an advantage going forward.
It is easy to stand on the shoulders of a giant and claim one is as tall as a giant. What some of us are saying again and again is, "Let us not be defensive about the relatively poor performance and poor adaptability of the black-colored people worldwide."
We argue that if we are put in the same environment, with the same conditions, we will do better or out-perform the white race. I ask—which environment do we want them to use as the controlled environment for the double-blinded experiment? The one the whites have perfected or our traditional environment that we have done very little to conquer all these years?
AGBO DINA: "But nations and people rise and fall, not because they are inferior or superior, but because of the dynamic of human history theorized variously in social science as long cycle, hegemonic stability, and so on and so forth. That is why the Aztec, Nubian, Ethiopian, Chinese, and even Roman and Greek civilizations rode high at one point and crumbled later and were even overtaken by others, perhaps to rise again."
BAYO JOHN: Yes. But out of all these civilizations, which of the ones from Africa bequeathed any significant discovery or invention that is indispensable to modern living? None that I can readily think of, but I may be wrong. I need to be educated on this.
AGBO DINA: "The comparison of a black man’s commitment to a volunteer group with his commitment to their paid job is misplaced. One may choose to join or ignore a volunteer group without any consequences whatsoever. My livelihood does not depend on it. But if I fail to show up for my day job in time, I may lose it and will not have a place to stay or food to eat. Above all, I will not be remitting money to relatives at home, who depend on me for their survival. That, to me, is the key."
BAYO JOHN: And this is also where the black race makes a terrible mistake—the lack of understanding that there is a need for volunteerism and selfless commitment to communal endeavors that do not necessarily benefit us directly but have the potential for larger returns for society. The problem of individuality as the centerpiece for measuring our life successes sadly fuels the behaviors we see manifest in leadership across the black world, with devastating consequences.
AGBO DINA: "Sorry I have to say this. Humans were not meant to live that long so they may die and create room for others. In that way, resources of the world may be shared among those who survive. It is not all that bad. The problem arises when others find all kinds of ways to live longer and go after resources all over the world to support their aging populations. Thus, it becomes necessary to impose sanctions, contrive wars of liberation, and generally create chaos to justify the need for their illegal penetration of other nations and/or their superiority. The biggest political problem the Western world faces is what to do with their greying population that is politically active to the extent that the politicians are afraid to cut their benefits. The expenditure required to take care of the baby boomers who are exploring the possibility of elongating lifespan to 150 years will bankrupt these economies unless radical reforms are implemented. If you deem this a mark of development or superiority, you should at least give thought to the negative consequences."
BAYO JOHN: The mark of development here is the fact that these people realize the disturbing trends and understand them and are doing something about them. Contrast this with lack of appreciation of our key burdens and the seemingly oblivious foolhardy way we laugh and dance about our existence while we flirt with possible extinction of the black race by diseases and illnesses that the other societies manage to control and tame successfully.
There is a video by the eminent historian Basil Davidson. It is titled Different but Equal. I would recommend this video to anyone. He makes the point that racism is a very modern sickness that came about because of slave trade. Prior to that, whites saw Africans as different but equal. To buy and own slaves, it was necessary to dehumanize them, to commoditize them, which over time eroded the mutual respect that whites and blacks shared.
AGBO DINA: "I have all episodes of Davidson's The Africans. Since you have concurred with him, you have effectively negated your argument. In the one you have cited, he interviewed Sheikh Anta Diop, who argued that Africans built the Egyptian civilization, contrary to other claims. Isn't that enough evidence that our forebears had done something for which we should be proud?"
BAYO JOHN: I always ask this question: What really did the much-talked-about Egyptian civilization bequeath to modern society? Is it the wheel, the locomotive engine, electricity, medical techniques or what?
AGBO DINA: "If I am to believe the involvement of Africans in the shipping off of more than 12 million of their people into slavery, you have to demonstrate concretely the extent of their involvement and explain why you think possessing greater capacity for violence is a mark of superiority. I posed some questions above which you may wish to address."
BAYO JOHN: By deductive reasoning, if 12 million people were moved from Africa through slavery and we know that only a few ships were involved in this, there must have been a massive involvement of the Africans themselves to enable this to happen. Anyone who can persuade an individual to turn against his kith and kin and sell them off to slavery must possess some superior skills to make this happen.
AGBO DINA: "While this behavior is repugnant, I fail to see why the act of a minority of Africans or black people defines the entire race."
BAYO JOHN: It defines the entire race because the leaders are a product of the environment from where they come. The values that they propagate in leadership are acquired from the society from whence they come and are a reflection of the level of sophistication of their societies. They reflect the inadequacies inherent in their societies.
AGBO DINA: "Should we say that the Euro-types who misbehave have tarnished the image of all Euro-types and have dehumanized their people? Not so, I think. We should not reduce Africans to the worst among them."
BAYO JOHN: The strength of a chain is usually measured by the weakest link. In the European societies, they understand this and have clear ways of managing and controlling criminality in their areas! In the black world, we glorify criminality in so many ways. Is this not a reflection of lack of higher reasoning, knowing full well the ultimate consequences it will have on society? Are we thinking long term?
AGBO DINA: I may have to come back and explain how eugenics was included in college curriculum in USA up to the 1950s and the role it was supposed to serve. Watson, without doubt, came out of that generation and cannot help himself. But it was roundly condemned even then by "scientists" who readily debunked those false claims of racial superiority."
BAYO JOHN: What we saw from the reaction to Watson from the white world was expected and we should recognize it for what it is—strategic objection to release of information until when they have assessed the political consequences. Watson is probably regarded as a loose cannon, who has broken ranks with his likes and is spilling the beans ahead of when they must have perfected ways of managing the fall-out of their understanding. They are cunning like foxes, something we choose not to learn.
One is not clamouring here to justify that we are dunces, and this should be clear to those who see this as a personal attack on their individual achievements or egos. I am one (proud to be black) man who stands quite often in front of white folks to share knowledge and is recognized for it and paid very well for doing it. But I cannot help looking around my own and recognizing the obvious gaps that I can attribute only to lack of deep thought on the part of my people.
I weep internally every day when I see clearly what could have been but is not. How on earth can I not recognize the root cause of the problems when I have myself contemplated many times in this direction we totally refuse to imagine because of our egos?
My position on the issue of intelligence is constant. The evidence of abiding intelligence is a desideratum that naturally manifests in the outcomes of human endeavor, and quality of social, political, and economic life of a people. In order to protest any verdicts of the lack thereof, any people must undo the evidence. Alfred Binet spoke of the "alteration or lack of fundamental faculty—judgment (good sense, practical sense, initiative, and the faculty of adapting oneself to circumstances)" in defining intelligence. This pioneer suggests some "alteration" to intelligence in the course of evolution of society even as he concludes that "intelligence is everything, and at the same time, nothing at all." Thus, he puts the argument on those elements of a particular race that hurt from generic ascriptions of lack of intelligence. The onus on enquirers is to find out the cause or causes of those "alterations" to intelligence of a race or people.
Watson himself said, "A priori, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of people geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically." Questioning the degree of intelligence of black people against observable gaps of development between them and other more advanced races, therefore, is simply, putting it mildly, a friendly nudge to re-assess, re-evaluate, and deeply search the course, attitudes, beliefs, superstitions, and methods of blacks over the course of time.
The lessons that Watson stated in his book Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science throw some light on reasons for black Africa's relative backwardness:
A. Watson said, "College is for learning how to think." This is very vital since quality of thought determines quality of social life of any people. He then says, "Learning 'Why?' something occurred is much more important than a few facts."
What black Africans don't understand, there is a convenient tendency to ascribe to the "gods." Over time, a web of superstition is woven around it, and any attempt to unravel the "mystery" is viewed offensively as an audacious attempt to break a taboo. This historical attitude suppresses research, which is the engine room for evolution of civilized societies. It is with little difficulty, therefore, that we understand why governments in much of black Africa spend ludicrous sums on education of their people. The focus of education in much of black Africa is simply to gather facts without much enquiry into why things happen, which is the foundation for inventing cures and remedies. This lazy attitude towards unravelling environmental phenomena places little demand on potential intelligence, whose regular exercise against the puzzles of our environment releases the needed enlightenment that drives great societies.
B. Watson said, "Students should choose courses that naturally interest them, and if one's grades are not largely A, they likely have not yet found their intellectual calling. One should narrow down their career objectives while still in college."
By this assertion, Watson seems to strike at the heart of failed experiments of systems of governance in much of black Africa. Although representative democracy is generally attractive, the forms and practices don't have to be exactly the same all over the world. Different intelligent people must modify it to suit their culture and attitudes. As students of representative democracy, black Africans must not stubbornly insist on forms and practices that are too expensive and in which they have persistently got poor grades. A nation has yet to find its intellectual calling in its political life if political transitions of power are not generally smooth and without undue rancour. Self-confidence is required for societies to evolve a democratic system of government that reflects their history and natural experiences, and which a majority of their people can without much indoctrination relate to.
C. Listen to Watson—"The academic world abounds in triviality. Choose a young thesis adviser— the older ones' expertise is most likely in fields that long ago had seen their better days, leaving devotees with diminished job expectations. Those breaking new ground inevitably threaten minds continuing in old ways. Extend yourself intellectually through courses that initially frighten— Example, Math is necessary to pursue the frontiers of genetics. Never accept invitations to senior faculty homes unless you have reason to anticipate a very good meal or a fetching face."
I find this statement very revealing. In black Africa, deference to old age is a religion, and to question its "wisdom" is an abomination. Succession and deputizing are all alien. Innovative ideas that go against what is "normal" are viewed with great suspicion and in extreme cases, disdain. A young revolutionary may even be considered too ambitious for his age, and too much in a hurry. Thus, the oxymoron "make haste slowly" could find a traditional home in the linguistic phraseology of black Africans. The unattractiveness of new ideas to traditional and protracted political leaderships in many parts of Africa, which have outlived their usefulness, has left the continent with old methods that have seen their better days, which barely hold up to today's challenges. It then becomes intellectually suicidal for young and brilliant people of ideas to associate with black leaders who are concretely set in their old ways as their proclivity to breaking new grounds suddenly threatens the old order, thus setting the two on a collision course. The result is that there are so many brilliant and well accomplished black people all over the world, but with a deformed continent back home that has pathetically under-performed.
D. Watson: "Exercise exorcises intellectual blahs. If you are just a little sloppy you have a good chance of introducing an unsuspected variable and nailing down an important new phenomena; too sloppy, however, and you never get reproducible results."
The laziness of the educated class in black Africa has failed to get reproducible results. The inclination to short-cuts because of the rigors of the meticulous is black Africa's undoing. Why is this case? Why is the political class so sloppy? One explanation could be the belief in the metaphysics of fatalism. This relates to my submissions in A) above.
E. Watson: “Choose a research objective apparently ahead of its time— mopping up the details after a major discovery by others will not likely mark you as an important scientist; however, only take on problems where meaningful results can come over a 3-5 year interval. Work with a teammate who is your intellectual equal—this helps shorten flirtations with bad ideas.”
Lack of long-range planning by black leaders has contributed to the black race's relative backwardness. Seminal research is very rare, probably because of the impatience of political leadership or unwillingness to undertake capital-intensive research. The lack of relay-race mentality in much of black Africa has crippled teamwork and strewn the continent with many unfinished projects, which contributes to further impoverishment of the continent. Since each leader emerges with his or her "Agenda" or "Reform," the people keep swirling in a circle, going nowhere beyond the circular perimeter of motion. Finally, the poor choice of team members, many of which choices are reward-oriented rather than merit-driven, yields a poor intellectual mix, which makes it difficult to make meaningful progress. Eventually, the few brilliant black technocrats who accept to serve are viewed unfairly as failures that could not practice their earlier sermons preached outside the sanctuary of public governance.
F. Watson said: "Teaching can make your mind move onto big problems—especially when challenged by advanced students. Exaggerations do not void basic truths; emphasizing exceptions and qualifying terms is not the way to get ideas across initially. Controversial recommendations require political backing."
The traditional tendency by governments in black Africa to suppress opposition, contrary opinions, and alternative views has contributed in pushing the race behind the rest. It is the constructive challenge of government's mediocre policies that alerts it to their deficiencies. It is the point-by-point puncture of government's exaggerations that brings it back to the world of reality. The error the intellectual class in black Africa has made repeatedly is to attempt to push controversial social agendas without political muscle. By political muscle, I mean well-organized networking machinery that has the influence to force government's respectful regard.
There is therefore the need for the intellectual class in black Africa to draw on their intellectual prowess to pull up the mass of the people from the dungeon of despondency, by boldly confronting their governments, not with cudgels, guns, or money, but with ideas that throughout history have continuously trumped money, guns and lawlessness. Incidentally, tremendous material resources have always pursued after great and workable ideas. The great democracies of the contemporary world were all shaped and created by ideas, not money. The ideas emanating from great philosophers (Rousseau, Locke, Mao, Gandhi, Mandela, etc.) caught fire in the hearts and minds of the people and they threw in the little they had to support and grow these ideas. Any intellectually-driven movement that will salvage any nation must be one that identifies with the painful life experiences of the suffering poor and the down-trodden.
The advanced degrees that we have earned with our sweat qualify each of us in the educated class to be an intellectual just as it is elsewhere in the world. This intellectualism in us affirms the attributes and virtues of reason, which explains that faculty or cognitive instrument that discovers the means and rightly applies them, discovers the certainty and probability of social reality and empowers our metaphysical activism. Other folks will say "Knowledge is Power."
Written By Leonard Shilgba