a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

A German “Bell Curve”? Sarrazin’s “Deutschland schafft sich ab”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 8th, 2010

Thilo Sarrazin (TEE-lo sahr-ah-TSEEN) is a high-ranking member of Germany’s left-wing SPD party, having served in the “Treuhand” agency charged with privatizing East German assets after reunification, and as finance minister for the city-state of Berlin.  In 2009, he was appointed to the Executive board of the Deutsche Bundesbank — more or less Germany’s Federal Reserve.

“Germany is abolishing itself: How
we are putting our country at risk”

None of which is particularly interesting.  But Mr. Sarrazin is also the author of a regrettable book titled “Deutschland schafft sich ab” — “Germany is abolishing itself.”  How is Germany doing so?  By allowing Muslim immigration that inexorably makes Germany less integrated, poorer and less intelligent.

Establishment Germany — most prominently Chancellor Angela Merkel — has for the most part reacted with disdain to Sarrazin’s book and arguments, but advance book sales are apparently high enough that the book is currently at or near the top of the German charts, and the continued publicity is likely to keep it there for a while.

SPIEGEL Online reports that Merkel’s reaction was: “The statements from Mr. Sarrazin are completely unacceptable. They are exclusionary in a way that shows contempt for entire groups within our society. For me, the worst part is that by confronting the issue the way he does, he makes a discussion of that issue much more difficult.”

So what are those statements?  It would be best if I had a copy, of course, but excerpts show a book that seems to range from Islamophobia to outright eugenic racism:

  • In no other religion [than Islam] is there such an easy crossover to violence, dictatorship, and terrorism.” (link)
  • The cultural foreignness of Muslim immigrants could be deemed less significant if these immigrants promised special skills or intellectual potential.  But indications are the opposite, and it’s by no means certain that this is only due to the educational poverty of their origins.   Genetic burdens — caused by the common intermarriage of relatives — also play a major role among immigrants from the Middle East and bring about higher than average proportion of various heritable diseases.” (link)
  • “The problem is not that the number of descendants of people with an advanced education shrinks from generation to generation. That would not be so important if all people were equally gifted, because then education would be a mere question of upbringing. But since the education level and inherited intelligence impact one another, this represents a negative trend over time for the population’s intellectual potential when people with a high educational level show below average fertility and people with low education show an above average fertility. […] …human evolution ultimately depends on the process of natural selection: The genetic material of those who survive the best and reproduce the most spreads. Since the survival chances in modern society are identical, the genes of those with the highest fertility are spread the farthest.” (link)

The beam in our own eye
Sarrazin seems to want to revive the kind of pseudo-Darwinian consensus that… unfortunately reigned in the United States for much of the 20th century.  And that’s not the only reason Americans today have no right to engage in Schadenfreude or tut-tutting of our own about this, of course.  The summer’s disgraceful “not a mosque not at the World Trade Center” Islamophobia boils and simmers on, with Newt Gingrich ready to stir the pot once more on September 11th.

Moreover, American receptiveness to pseudogenetic arguments has always borne watching at least since the days of slavery, and as recently as the 1990s.  Sarrazin’s statements and arguments seem to echo those made by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in their best-selling 1990s book “The Bell Curve,” in which they, too, argued that part of the reason there was a national racial underclass was that that class was genetically disadvantaged when it came to intelligence, and was likely to stay that way.

As my wife reminded me, I was somewhat taken in by the alleged statistical mastery and kudos from magazines like The New Republic, the New York Times, and others when that book came out.  For my part, I recall mainly taking the tack “what if it were true?”, and defending the right to wonder whether it was so.

But I could and should have been much smarter much faster than that about it.  My own graduate coursework in genetics, for example, tells me that whatever differences differing selection pressures can bring about between two populations, they can be easily and almost immediately swamped by gene flow — migration and interbreeding create a single population, no matter what its members may believe to be the case.

That could end the conversation, I think; humanity is effectively one population, under shared selection pressures when it comes to something as vaguely defined yet globally necessary as “intelligence.”  But assuming gene flow between human populations was sufficiently low to justify further inquiry, then add to the difficulty of controlling for gene flow…

  • the difficulty of meaningfully classifying humans as members of one ‘race’ or another (“one drop” rule? self-report? obscure genetic marker?),
  • then adding to that the difficulty of reliably measuring a single, life-long “intelligence” factor in a way that matters (as opposed to a way that measures, say, test-taking skills),
  • and then adding to that the difficulty of statistically assessing the claim that the relationship of one proxy measure to another still means anything in the real world,

…and you have a subject where the author’s assumptions are going to swamp the value of anything he or she claims to know about racial, heritable differences in intelligence.  That, in turn, makes any resulting broad policy or sociological conclusions — themselves subject to error under the best of circumstances — doubly suspect.**

Not having read the book, it’s merely my impression that Sarrazin’s book is not even as well-founded as Murray and Herrnstein’s; the latter acquired numerous academic defenders and could require careful review to rebut.  In public appearances, Sarrazin’s verbal defense seems halting, his command of the subject matter poor.  Moreover — and like Murray and Herrnstein in this regard — Sarrazin was careful not to subject the book to meaningful peer review, reputedly arguing instead that his wife (an elementary school teacher) had given it a careful reading.

“Strangers in our own land”
Sarrazin — who seems to relish the role of provocateur — proceeded to pour gasoline on the media wildfire by musing about “Jewish genes” (and Basque ones) in an interview.  Despite plausible later claims that he would essentially welcome Jewish gene immigration to Germany (after all, smart people, smart genes),  Sarrazin’s failure to anticipate or at least care about allergic official and public reaction in Germany to any sentence combining “Jewish”, “gene”, and “race” may have had as much to do with Merkel’s reaction as a book full of anti-Muslim comments.

Now Sarrazin is apparently going to lose his position at the Bundesbank, an unprecedented step that may may lack legal authority and will almost certainly be contested; the president of the bank is speaking of a “breach of trust” and has supplied a 20 page document listing the ways in which Sarrazin’s book and statements since taking office constitute a failure to  practice the “moderation and reticence which derive from his place in the public and in relation to the duties of his office.”

This is all not to say there aren’t a few kernels of truth at the bottom of a well of racist pseudoscience in Sarrazin’s book.  There is arguably a Muslim underclass in Germany, and (almost by definition) it isn’t well integrated with the rest of Germany.  But well-integrated means different things to different people; what Sarrazin wants seems less like integration than complete assimilation as secular Germans, perhaps with some deracinated form of Islam he can feel comfortable with:

  • I don’t want us to end up as strangers in our own land, not even on a regional basis.” (link)
  • “I don’t want the country of my grandchildren and great grandchildren to be largely Muslim, or that Turkish or Arabic will be spoken in large areas, that women will wear headscarves and the daily rhythm is set by the call of the muezzin. If I want to experience that, I can just take a vacation in the Orient.” (link)

It’s statements like these that probably resonate the most with the general public.  They’re still scare-mongering, but at least they’re simple “I don’t want” statements without the pretense of scientific expertise.  And yet: why not women wearing headscarves?  Why not muezzin calls?  Are modern German values or some ineffable “Germanness” really endangered by that?

Maybe it’s mainly the uneasy relationship between traditional Germanness and the newer phenomenon Habermas called Verfassungspatriotismus (constitutional patriotism) that’s on display here.  For Germans with no qualms about cheering for a third generation Turkish-German soccer player as one of their own, Sarrazin’s arguments may be less impressive, his warnings less dire.  But for those whose Germanness remains primarily — to be a little unfair — a matter of bloodlines, Wurst and Bier, Sarrazin has put his finger on some shared apprehensions.

“At least there’s a debate now
The question is whether a book based on racist assumptions dressed up as science is the best way to start a discussion about all that.   Some are commenting in Germany and elsewhere that whatever else one may say, Sarrazin may have at least successfully brought a heretofore ignored debate to center stage. For example, writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Gerd Nonnenmacher opines that, Sarrazin’s “half- and misunderstood” grasp of human genetics and psychometrics notwithstanding,

..[t]he public approval that Sarrazin  enjoys , in contrast to the almost unanimous condemnation by the establishment, is not for his shaky** or flatly wrong assertions.  It is for a description of misuse of the welfare state and a refusal to integrate that almost everyone has examples for.  The argument that this is all known and doesn’t need to be rehearsed yet again in such provocative fashion is ridiculous.  Have those who have said similar things, like Neu-Koelln mayor Buschkowsky or youth court judge Heisig, been listened to and honored by the Berlin city SPD?   If Sarrazin’s descriptions are old news, why has so little been done against the sad state of affairs? […]  Sarrazin went looking for a quarrel and got one.  If his banning leads not just to discussion of the problems he names, but also dealing with them, then that quarrel will have had a purpose.

That outcome seems doubtful to me, but so does the premise: that any discussion is a good discussion, as long as it airs a few truths in the process.  First, the controversy so far does not promise much thoughtfulness, thanks both to journalists arguably more interested in entertainment than a debate and to Sarrazin’s own behavior (e.g., off-the-cuff comments about “Jewish and Basque genes”).

But it’s not just about Jews, Basques, or even immigrant Muslims — the focus of Sarrazin’s fears.  At bottom, Sarrazin is a eugenicist.  There’s no closing the Pandora’s box he’d like Germany to open; once you grant that immigration policy should be based on intelligence measures, their alleged heritability and their alleged racial differences, the door is wide open to basing other policies — welfare, education, health care, voting policies — on such grounds as well.  Yet there are plenty of native Germans who might not be smart enough to pass such tests either — and plenty of second-, third-, and later-generation immigrants whose hostility Germany will have earned whether or not it applies Sarrazin-style eugenic reasoning to them.

The discussion Nonnenmacher wants — whether about integration, the welfare state, or Islam in the West — is probably one worth having.  But this is not that discussion.  This discussion rests on premises so dangerous that Germany had to spend the balance of a century to overcome the consequences of the last time it accepted them; it’s given a veneer of respectability by the unearned, unchecked authority of an economist turned racist populist.  This discussion is not one worth the candle.  Too many people are only confirming their worst fears and prejudices in a book by a man almost completely unqualified to write it.

* TRANSLATION NOTES: “skills”: qualifikatorisch; “educational poverty”: bildungsfern: +/- neologism, =lit., distant from education; “shaky or flatly wrong assertions”: schraegen oder falschen Thesen (EDIT, 9/16, from “poorly expressed or wrong-headed theses”)
** For more on “The Bell Curve” and ensuing controversy, read here. A critical review of the book by Nobel Prize winning econometrician James Heckman in Reason Magazine can be found here, a summary of a journal article by him on the same topic can be found here.

4 Responses to “A German “Bell Curve”? Sarrazin’s “Deutschland schafft sich ab””

  1. James Says:

    Like all the rebukes against this book, you fail to discredit any of the book. You rely on rhetoric and denial. You talk about ‘questionable’ and ‘discredited’ and such like, as if there is some source opf truth that you have access to and we don’t need to know what it is. Actually you do have this-but it is only in your head.

    THat is the nature of ‘belief’ and fundalmentalism…. you are a fundamentalist too. Not a fundamentalist Muslim, but a fundamentalist ‘liberal’. You don’t need truth or proof… you are happy with logical-sounding rhetoric that agrees with your prejudices.

    Yes, there are problems with racil profiling… because races interbreed and any racial charactoristic is averages, in the typical case, by-and-large, etc etc… look at Obama, nobody says he is stupid (but nobody says he is pure negro either)

    What we do need is to remove the welfare incentives that make welfare reciepients have many children… and to create tax incentives so professional educated and wealthy can actually afford the families they currently can’t aford. Stop handing out cash for kids and instead make kids reduce your tax. The more tax you pay, the more money you are allowed to keep to support your kids.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Not to make too much of it, but I’ve just checked and I don’t use either the word “questionable” or the word “discredited” anywhere in my post. Is this a one size fits all argument you’re spreading around when you find someone isn’t a fan of Sarrazin? It doesn’t seem like you spent much care responding to the post I actually wrote, as opposed to the one you see in *your* head.

    Be that as it may, I think I was pretty factual about the genetics and psychometrics of this, and pretty factual in claiming Sarrazin is not. So we disagree on that. I think your parenthetical Obama comment gives the game away: he’s half white, no wonder he’s smart. As to “creat[ing] tax incentives so professional educated and wealthy can actually afford the families they currently can’t aford: (a) afford, not aford; (b) do you even read what you write? Does it need to make sense to you? Do you seriously believe the wealthy need help raising a family?

  3. James Says:

    YOur refutation of his book and of “The Bell Curve” are feeble. You talk about ‘gene flow’ forgetting that Sarrazin is talking about a self-segregated racial underclass (hence no interbreeding and no gene-flow). THe Bell Curve also talks about the fact that people who marry and have kids together tend to have very similar IQ’s. Smart people generally don’t marry stupid ones and visa-versa.

    You also talk about how evil it would be if it were true… and since the prospect of it being true is so bad, then it must be wrong. What a weak rhetorical argument -ostriches do a better job by burrying their heads in the sand.

    If it is true, the results are indeed horrific! Just like Global Warming, if it is possible, and the result is horrific, then we really must do something, even if it is unlikely.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    You again.

    “Sarrazin is talking about a self-segregated racial underclass (hence no interbreeding and no gene-flow) … Smart people generally don’t marry stupid ones and visa-versa”
    Leaving aside that you’re presuming that which you wish to prove (a genetically inferior underclass whose rights you can strip away), your assertion of *no* gene flow is simply unsupportable. It may disturb you, but it happens, and it doesn’t take much of it at all to unify the 2 allegedly separate populations involved, as little as 1% per generation IIRC to swamp even strong selection pressures. Your “smart people/stupid people” statement is accurate merely because you add the weasel word “generally.” People have children with people of differing intelligence (however meaningfully that can be measured), and while it may be generally true that people of *extremely* different intelligence very rarely have children together, rarely isn’t never, and meanwhile they are quite likely to have children with people of *unextremely* different intelligence. So gene flow is maintained between the rungs of the intelligence ladder, however that ladder is defined.

    I don’t think I argue that “it” — genetically based, permanent racial inferiority of Muslim immigrants to Europeans — would be evil even if it were true. I argue that it is *not* true, that claiming to *know* that it *is* true is tipping over a can of gasoline, and claiming social policy consequences are therefore justified is lighting the match. Sarrazin seems such a misfit clown to me that “evil” may be over the top; maybe he’s simply, say, “disastrously feckless” — more like a child trying to fly a jet plane than sociopaths like Hitler or Pol Pot who actually understand and relish what they are up to.

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