Genetics, Personality, and Race

Personality appears to be greatly
influenced by heredity. Do races differ in "average personality"?

by Samuel Taylor

It usually takes time for scientific knowledge to become generally accepted. Even when there is no entrenched opposition to new ideas, information spreads slowly. Sometimes, though, powerful vested interests mount such effective attacks on scientific inquiry that they are able to keep discoveries almost completely sealed off from the public. 

This has been the case with recent research on race and IQ. Today, there are almost no qualified geneticists or experts in mental testing who claim that racial differences in intelligence are not due, in large part, to genetic differences. And yet, the popular press overwhelmingly supports the view that intelligence is almost exclusively a product of environment rather than heredity.

It may be even less well known that many of the traits we think of as "personality," such as gregariousness, political views, personal mannerisms, and even choice of hobbies appear to be governed to a significant degree by heredity. The power of genes that has been confirmed in recent studies has surprised even the most convinced geneticists.

The new findings have racial implications. After all, the races have a great many physiological differences that are clearly inherited (see AR, Dec. 1992) and the evidence for racial differences in average intelligence is overwhelming (see AR, Nov. 1992). Are there then group psychological differences that are inherited? Is there such a thing as an "average personality," like an average intelligence, that differs from race to race? The small number of studies done in this field suggest that there is.

The most eye-opening findings on how genes determine personality – whatever a person's race – have come from studies of identical twins who were separated at birth and reared apart. Since identical twins have identical sets of genes, they are ideal subjects for study. Even when they have been reared in different families in different environments they show astonishing similarities that can be explained only by their shared genes.

Identical twins show astonishing similarities that can be explained only by their shared genes.

Thomas J. Bouchard and his colleagues at the Minnesota Center for Twin and Adoption Research have done the most extensive and convincing research on identical twins separated at birth. They have found more than 100 pairs of such twins and have been studying them for more than 12 years. Time and again they have found similarities that cannot be explained by coincidence.

For example, of all their subjects, only two were afraid to go into an acoustically shielded room for special testing. The same two people agreed separately to enter the room only if the door were wired open. Whenever they were at the beach, they went into the water backwards and only up to their knees. They were, of course, a pair of identical twins, and since they had been reared apart their curious behavior can only be explained genetically.

Another pair of twins discovered on their first meeting as adults that they both used Canoe shaving lotion and Vademecum toothpaste, and smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes. After they parted, they exchanged birthday presents that crossed in the mail and proved to be identical.

Some similarities are even more uncanny. One pair of twins had both divorced women named Linda and then married women named Betty. They later discovered that before they met each other as adults, they had taken several Florida vacations on the very same stretch of beach and had driven there in the same model of Chevrolet. They had both named their sons James Alan (one was "Allen") and both chain smoked Salems. Both chewed their nails and had woodworking shops in their basements.

Another pair of twins who were reunited at age thirty found that they had similar mustaches and hair styles, aviator glasses, big belt buckles and big key rings. Both were volunteer firemen and had jobs installing safety equipment. Both drank Budweiser and crushed the empty cans

Separated at birth.

One pair of twins confessed that they did not vote in elections because they did not think they were well enough informed to make wise decisions, another pair had each been married five times, and a third pair firmly refused – in separate interviews, of course – to answer controversial questions. One pair of twins were habitual gigglers and said that until they finally met the other twin they had never known anyone who laughed so freely.

Dr. Bouchard and his colleagues found that similarities of this kind were the rule rather than the exception. Moreover, identical traits are uniquely characteristic of identical twins. Fraternal twins, who are no more genetically alike than ordinary siblings, do not show this kind of remarkable similarity even when they are reared together in the same family. As for intelligence, it was discovered long ago that identical twins reared apart have IQs that are closer to each other than those of fraternal twins reared together. 

No one would argue that environment has no effect on the mind. However, it is increasingly clear that there are deep-seated psychological and personal traits that are established at birth and are unaffected by environment.


In an article in the Dec. 1992 issue of American Psychologist, Dr. Bouchard and his colleagues have speculated on what their findings mean for genetic theory. The traditional Mendelian approach has been to look for traits that run in families. High intelligence, schizophrenia, diabetes, baldness, and blue eyes are all likely to appear in succeeding generations and are therefore accepted as having genetic origins. 

But what about a liking for woodworking or Budweiser, or the conviction that one is not well-enough informed to vote? These traits are either not likely to run in families or, if they do, have usually been thought to be caused by parental influence. However, since the Minnesota twin studies suggest that genes are at work even at the level of individual personality traits, genetic theory must be revised to explain this.

In addition to those physical traits that are clearly genetic, and distinct conditions and diseases for which the genetic origins have been discovered, it appears that we all have many traits that are genetically influenced in complicated ways that are not yet understood. David T. Lykken, one of Dr. Bouchard's colleagues, has coined the term "emergenesis" to describe this phenomenon. According to his definition, an emergenic trait is a "novel or emergent property" that results from combinations of more basic genetic traits. 

The random genetic mixing that takes place through sexual reproduction can produce chance combinations that result in traits not seen in any ancestor. Since these traits do not run in families, they would not ordinarily be thought of as genetic. The 

If genes are at work even at
the level of personality traits, genetic theory must be revised.

remarkable similarities found in identical twins suggests that even those uniquely individual traits heretofore thought to be products of environment or of chance occurrence are strongly influenced by genetics.

The American Psychologist article gives an example of how twin studies have shifted our understanding of the balance between environment and heredity. In one case of identical twins reared apart, both developed serious psychological problems by age ten. According to a psychoanalyst who examined both girls, their disorders were so similar that he described them as "equivalently pathological." However, he also noted that if each child had been studied separately, most clinicians would never have suspected a genetic cause. Although their families were very different from each other, it would have been tempting to explain the girls' conditions in terms of parental personality and family dynamics. It was only because the children were identical twins and had become "equivalently pathological" at the same age that doctors realized that this was probably a genetic problem.

The study of identical twins therefore suggests that heredity accounts for much more of our personalities and characteristics than even geneticists had thought possible. As Dr. Bouchard puts it, "the vast majority of psychological traits are influenced to some degree by genetic factors." Personality testing of twins has led him to conclude that although environment has a clear effect on personality, even such things as religious fervor, political convictions, gregariousness, and moral integrity appear to be 40 to 50 percent determined by heredity.

Satisfaction deferred.

How do these new findings apply to the different races? Although it is difficult to evaluate personality, and the political pressures against racial comparisons are enormous, a certain amount of data has nevertheless come to light.

For example, it is well known that criminals typically have lower IQs than non-criminals. The lower average intelligence of blacks and Hispanics as compared to whites and Asians doubtless explains much of the differences in crime rates. However, other genetic factors may be involved.

In their wide-ranging book, Crime and Human Nature, James Wilson and Richard Herrnstein point out that criminals are almost always more impulsive than non-criminals. They cannot put off the satisfaction of their desires, even if immediate satisfaction means smashing and grabbing. Other researchers, whose work has been exhaustively summarized by J. Philippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario, have found that blacks are more impulsive in this sense than whites, who are in turn more impulsive than Asians. 

If it is true that blacks favor immediate impulse over long-range goals and if they are less able to sacrifice today for rewards tomorrow, it would help explain not just high rates of criminality but the chaos and lack of development that characterize all black societies. It takes foresight and self-control to work at a boring job rather than rob a liquor store, or to invest money rather than spend it, or to do homework rather than watch television. Any group that cannot defer satisfaction will not progress very far.

Prof. Herrnstein and Prof. Wilson also point out that blacks and whites get different scores on standard, pencil-and-paper personality tests. The best known such test is the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory), which measures the extent to which someone deviates in various ways from the norm. Black men get higher scores – meaning they are less "normal" – than whites on every measure except femininity. Whether or not, as Prof. Wilson and Prof. Herrnstein suggest, the MMPI is based on an arbitrarily white definition of "normal," it is still significant that blacks and whites get different scores. It makes no difference if, by black standards, it is whites who are abnormal; what matters – and is scarcely known outside the expert community – is that measurement of personality consistently gives different average results for different races.

Victor Elion and Edwin Megargee have tried to test the validity of the MMPI for blacks by concentrating on just one of its components, the Psychopathic deviate (Pd) scale. They compared the scores of college students, first-time criminals, and repeat offenders – for both blacks and whites – and found that for both races, Pd scores rose with the degree of criminality. Their conclusion is that the MMPI is an accurate predictor of deviance. Therefore, higher average scores among blacks probably reflect a real, underlying difference in personality.

The view that the races differ psychologically is scarcely new. In a recent paper, Michael Levin notes that 15th-century Arab slaveholders concluded that blacks were unintelligent, had a good rhythmic sense, and were highly sexed. These were opinions of men who had had no previous contact with blacks and had no other information about them.

In our own era, a number of authorities have concluded that psychological differences between the races are as striking and profound as physical differences. The great British anthropologist, Sir Arthur Kieth, maintained that "the primary marks of race are psychological." Louis Leakey of more recent fame has said, "I would be inclined to suggest that however great may be the physical differences between such races as the European and the Negro, the mental and psychological differences are greater."

Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life to ease the sufferings of Africans concluded at the end of his career: "They [Africans] have neither the intellectual, mental or emotional abilities to equate or to share equally with white men in any of the functions of our civilization."

The views of such men as Dr. Leakey and Dr. Schweitzer are confirmed by the consistent failure of blacks to conform to the demands of white society. It may well be, as Michael Levin is brave enough to suggest, that it is foolish to expect them to do so. As he puts it: "At an aggregate statistical level it may not be possible for blacks to satisfy white norms .. . . . If so, blaming Negroids for deviation from white norms of self-restraint is as pointless as blaming cats for not eating hay." 

Foundations of Liberalism

Clearly stated conclusions like this account for why any discussion of inherent genetic differences terrifies the defenders of orthodoxy. Virtually every attitude that can today be described as "liberal" depends on blind faith in the power of environment to overcome the consequences of genetics. (An interesting exception to this is the acceptance among many liberals of the view that homosexuality is biologically determined. People who would be horrified at the idea that women are biologically better suited than men to child-rearing or that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites seem to turn into instant geneticists when it comes to homosexuality.)

Liberals believe that crime, stupidity, poverty, and deviance must not be the result of hereditary limitations and must be caused by bad surroundings. Government must therefore intrude into every corner of our lives as part of its sacred mission to improve those surroundings. Likewise, since it is only accidents of environment that cause people of different races to attain different levels of civilization, environmental tuning can raise people of any race to the highest levels. It therefore makes no difference if whites are displaced by waves of non-white immigrants.

Since liberalism does not even begin to make sense unless these things are true, its defenders are ruthless opponents of any scientific inquiry that might unearth awkward facts. That is why a conference that was to be underwritten last year by the National Institutes of Health suddenly lost its funding when the guardians of orthodoxy learned that it was to study genetic causes of crime. They were afraid – perhaps justifiably – that blacks would be found to be more inherently crime prone than other races.

For the last several decades, the forces of militant liberalism have been remarkably successful at preventing even the expression of inconvenient facts, much less further discovery. This is beginning to change. Facts can be suppressed for only so long before they come tumbling out in a rush. The dam is cracking and before long it will break. Text end.