‘The Bell Curve’: A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (New York: Free Press, 1994). 

There’s no such thing as bad publicity’ – or so contends a famous adage of the marketing industry. 

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America’ by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray is perhaps a case in point. 

This dry, technical, academic social science treatise, full of statistical analyses, graphs, tables, endnotes and appendices, and totalling almost 900 pages, became an unlikely nonfiction bestseller in the mid-1990s on a wave of almost universally bad publicity in which the work was variously denounced as racist, pseudoscientific, fascist, social Darwinist, eugenicist and sometimes even just plain wrong. 

Readers who hurried to the local bookstore eagerly anticipating an incendiary racialist polemic were, however, in for a disappointment. 

Indeed, one suspects that, along with The Bible and Stephen Hawkins’ A Brief History of Time, ‘The Bell Curve’ became one of those bestsellers that many people bought, but few managed to finish. 

The Bell Curve’ thus became, like another book that I have recently reviewed, a book much read about, but rarely actually read – at least in full. 

As a result, as with that other book, many myths have emerged regarded the content of ‘The Bell Curve’ that are quite contradicted when one actually takes the time and trouble to read it for oneself. 

Subject Matter 

The first myth of ‘The Bell Curve’ is that it was a book about race differences, or, more specifically, about race differences in intelligence. In fact, however, this is not true. 

Thus, ‘The Bell Curve’ is a book so controversial that the controversy begins with the very identification of its subject-matter. 

On the one hand, the book’s critics focused almost exclusively on subject of race. This led to the common perception that ‘The Bell Curve’ was a book about race and race differences in intelligence.[1]

Ironically, many racialists seem to have taken these leftist critics at their word, enthusiastically citing the work as support for their own views regarding race differences in intelligence.  

On the other hand, however, surviving co-author Charles Murray insisted from the outset that the issue of race, and race differences in intelligence, was always peripheral to he and co-author Richard Herrnstein’s primary interest and focus, which was, he claimed, on the supposed emergence of a ‘Cognitive Elite’ in modern America. 

Actually, however, both these views seem to be incorrect. While the first section of the book does indeed focus on the supposed emergence of a ‘Cognitive Elite’ in modern America, the overall theme of the book seems to be rather broader. 

Thus, the second section of the book focuses on the association between intelligence and various perceived social pathologies, such as unemployment, welfare dependency, illegitimacy, crime and single-parenthood. 

To the extent the book has a single overarching theme, one might say that it is a book about the social and economic correlates of intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, in modern America.  

Its overall conclusion is that intelligence is indeed a strong predictor of social and economic outcomes for modern Americans – high intelligence with socially desirable outcomes and low intelligence with socially undesirable ones. 

On the other hand, however, the topic of race is not quite as peripheral to the book’s themes as sometimes implied by Murray and others. 

Thus, it is sometimes claimed only a single chapter dealt with race. Actually, however, two chapters focus on race differences, namely chapters 13 and 14, respectively titled ‘Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability’ and ‘Ethnic Inequalities in Relation to IQ’. 

In addition, a further two chapters, namely chapters 19 and 20, entitled respectively ‘Affirmative Action in Higher Education’ and ‘Affirmative Action in the Workplace’, deal with the topic of affirmative action, as does the final appendix, entitled ‘The Evolution of Affirmative Action in the Workplace’ – and, although affirmative action has been employed to favour women as well as racial minorities, it is with racial preferences that Herrnstein and Murray are primarily concerned. 

However, these chapters represent only 142 of the book’s nearly 900 pages. 

Moreover, in much of the remainder of the book, the authors actually explicitly restrict their analysis to white Americans exclusively. They do so precisely because the well documented differences between the races in IQ as well as in many of the social outcomes whose correlation with IQ the book discusses would mean that race would have represented a potential confounding factor that they would otherwise have to take steps to control for. 

Herrnstein and Murray therefore took to decision to extend their analysis to race differences near the end of their book, in order to address the question of the extent to which differences in intelligence, which they have already demonstrated to be an important correlate of social and economic outcomes among whites, are also capable of explaining differences in achievement as between races. 

Without these chapters, the book would have been incomplete, and the authors would have laid themselves open to the charge of political-correctness and of ignoring the elephant in the room

Race and Intelligence 

If the first controversy of ‘The Bell Curve’ concerns whether it is a book primarily about race and race differences in intelligence, the second controversy is over what exactly the authors concluded with respect to this vexed and contentious issue. 

Thus, the same leftist critics who claimed that ‘The Bell Curve’ was primarily a book about race and race differences in intelligence, also accused the authors of concluding that black people are innately less intelligent than whites

Some racists, as I have already noted, evidently took the leftists at their word, and enthusiastically cite the book as support and authority for this view. 

However, in subsequent interviews, Murray always insisted he and Herrnstein had actually remained “resolutely agnostic” on the extent to which genetic factors underlay the IQ gap. 

In the text itself, Herrnstein and Murray do indeed declare themselves “resolutely agnostic” with regard to the extent of the genetic contribution to the test score gap (p311).

However, just couple of sentences before they use this very phrase, they also appear to conclude that genes are indeed at least part of the explanation, writing: 

It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences [in IQ]” (p311). 

This paragraph, buried near the end of chapter 13, during an extended discussion of evidence relating to the causes of race differences in intelligence, is the closest the authors come to actually declaring any definitive conclusion regarding the causes of the black-white test score gap.[2]

This conclusion, though phrased in sober and restrained terms, is, of course, itself sufficient to place its authors outside the bounds of acceptable opinion in the early-twenty-first century, or indeed in the late-twentieth century when the book was first published, and is sufficient to explain, and, for some, justify, the opprobrium heaped upon the book’s surviving co-author from that day forth. 

Intelligence and Social Class

It seems likely that races which evolved on separate continents, in sufficient reproductive isolation from one another to have evolved the obvious (and not so obvious) physiological differences between races that we all observe when we look at the faces, or bodily statures, of people of different races (and that we indirectly observe when we look at the results of different athletic events at the Olympic Games), would also have evolved to differ in psychological traits, including intelligence

Indeed, it is surely unlikely, on a priori grounds alone, that all different human races have evolved, purely by chance, the exact same level of intelligence. 

However, if races differ in intelligence are therefore probable, the case for differences in intelligence as between social classes is positively compelling

Indeed, on a priori grounds alone, it is inevitable that social classes will come to differ in IQ, if one accepts two premises, namely: 

1) Increased intelligence is associated with upward social mobility; and 
2) Intelligence is passed down in families.

In other words, if more intelligent people tend, on average, to get higher-paying jobs than those of lower intelligence, and the intelligence of parents is passed on to their offspring, then it is inevitable that the offspring of people with higher-paying jobs will, on average, themselves be of higher intelligence than are the offspring of people with lower paying jobs.  

This, of course, follows naturally from the infamous syllogism formulated by ‘Bell Curve’ co-author Richard Herrnstein way back in the 1970s (p10; p105). 

Incidentally, this second premise, namely that intelligence is passed down in families, does not depend on the heritability of IQ in the strict biological sense. After all, even if heritability of intelligence were zero, intelligence could still be passed down in families by environmental factors (e.g. the ‘better’ parenting techniques of high IQ parents, or the superior material conditions in wealthy homes). 

The existence of an association between social class and IQ ought, then, to be entirely uncontroversial to anyone who takes any time whatsoever to think about the issue. 

If there remains any room for reasoned disagreement, it is only over the direction of causation – namely the question of whether:  

1) High intelligence causes upward social mobility; or 
2) A privileged upbringing causes higher intelligence.

These two processes are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it would seem intuitively probable that both factors would be at work. 

Interestingly, however, evidence demonstrates the occurrence only of the former. 

Thus, even among siblings from the same family, the sibling with the higher childhood IQ will, on average, achieve higher socioeconomic status as an adult. Likewise, the socioeconomic status a person achieves as an adult correlates more strongly with their own IQ score than it does with the socioeconomic status of their parents or of the household they grew up in (see Straight Talk About Mental Tests: p195). 

In contrast, family, twin and adoption studies and of the sort conducted by behavioural geneticists have concurred in suggesting that the so-called shared family environment (i.e. those aspects of the family environment shared by siblings from the same household, including social class) has but little effect on adult IQ. 

In other words, children raised in the same home, whether full- or half-siblings or adoptees, are, by the time they reach adulthood, no more similar to one another in IQ than are children of the same degree of biological relatedness brought up in entirely different family homes (see The Nurture Assumption: reviewed here). 

However, while the direction of causation may still be disputed by intelligent (if uninformed) laypeople, the existence of an association between intelligence and social class ought not, one might think, be in dispute. 

However, in Britain today, in discussions of social mobility, if children from deprived backgrounds are underrepresented, say, at elite universities, then this is almost invariably taken as incontrovertible proof that the system is rigged against them. The fact that children from different socio-economic backgrounds differ in intelligence is almost invariably ignored. 

When mention is made of this incontrovertible fact, leftist hysteria typically ensues. Thus, in 2008, psychiatrist Bruce Charlton rightly observed that, in discussion of social mobility: 

A simple fact has been missed: higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes (Clark 2008). 

For his trouble, Charlton found himself condemned by the National Union of Students and assorted rent-a-quote academics and professional damned fools, while even the ostensibly ‘right-wing’ Daily Mail newspaper saw fit to publish a headline Higher social classes have significantly HIGHER IQs than working class, claims academic, as if this were in some way a controversial or contentious claim (Clark 2008). 

Meanwhile, when, in the same year, a professor at University College a similar point with regard the admission of working-class students to medical schools, even the then government Health Minister, Ben Bradshaw, saw fit to offer his two cents worth (which were not worth even that), declaring: 

It is extraordinary to equate intellectual ability with social class” (Beckford 2008). 

Actually, however, what is truly extraordinary is that any intelligent person, least of all a government minister, would dispute the existence of such a link. 

Cognitive Stratification 

Herrnstein’s syllogism leads to a related paradox – namely that, as environmental conditions are equalized, heritability increases. 

Thus, as large differences in the sorts of environmental factors known to affect IQ (e.g. malnutrition) are eliminated, so differences in income have come to increasingly reflect differences in innate ability. 

Moreover, the more gifted children from deprived backgrounds who escape their humble origins, then, given the substantial heritability of IQ, the fewer such children will remain among the working-class in subsequent generations. 

The result is what Herrnstein and Murray call the ‘Cognitive Stratification’ of society and the emergence of what they call a ‘Cognitive Elite’. 

Thus, in feudal society, a man’s social status was determined largely by ‘accident of birth’ (i.e. he inherited the social station of his father). 

Women’s status, meanwhile, was determined, in addition, by what we might call ‘accident of marriage’ – and, to a large extent, it still is

However, today, a person’s social status, at least according to Herrnstein and Murray, is determined primarily, and increasingly, by their level of intelligence. 

Of course, people are not allocated to a particular social class by IQ testing itself. Indeed, the use of IQ tests by employers and educators has been largely outlawed on account of its disparate impact (or indirect discrimination’, to use the equivalent British phrase) with regard to race (see below). 

However, the skills and abilities increasingly valued at a premium in western society (and, increasingly, many non-western societies as well), mean that, through the operation of the education system and labour market, individuals are effectively sorted by IQ, even without anyone ever actually sitting an IQ test. 

In other words, society is becoming increasingly meritocratic – and the form of ostensible ‘merit’ upon which attainment is based is intelligence. 

For Herrnstein and Murray, this is a mixed blessing: 

That the brightest are identified has its benefits. That they become so isolated and inbred has its costs” (p25). 

However, the correlation between socioeconomic status and intelligence remains imperfect. 

For one thing, there are still a few highly remunerated, and very high-status, occupations that rely on skills that are not especially, if at all, related to intelligence.  I think here, in particular, of professional sports and the entertainment industry. Thus, leadings actors, pop stars and sports stars are sometimes extremely well-remunerated, and very high-status, but may not be especially intelligent.  

More importantly, while highly intelligent people might be, by very definition, the only ones capable of performing cognitively-demanding, and hence highly remunerated, occupations, this is not to say all highly intelligent people are necessarily employed in such occupations. 

Thus, whereas all people employed in cognitively-demanding occupations are, almost by definition, of high intelligence, people of all intelligence levels are capable of doing cognitively-undemanding jobs.

Thus, a few people of high intellectual ability remain in low-paid work, whether on account of personality factors (e.g. laziness), mental illness, lack of opportunity or sometimes even by choice (which choice is, of course, itself a reflection of personality factors). 

Therefore, the correlation between IQ and occupation is far from perfect. 

Job Performance

The sorting of people with respect to their intelligence begins in the education system. However, it continues in the workplace. 

Thus, general intelligence, as measured by IQ testing, is, the authors claim, the strongest predictor of occupational performance in virtually every occupation. Moreover, in general, the higher paid and higher status the occupation in question, the stronger the correlation between performance and IQ. 

However, Herrnstein and Murray are at pains to emphasize, intelligence is a strong predictor of occupational performance even in apparently cognitively undemanding occupations, and indeed almost always a better predictor of performance than tests of the specific abilities the job involves on a daily basis. 

However, in the USA, employers are barred from using testing to select among candidates for a job or for promotion unless they can show the test has ‘manifest relationship’ to the work, and the burden of proof is on the employer to show such a relationship. Otherwise, given their disparate impact’ with regard to race (i.e. the fact that some groups perform worse), the tests in question are deemed indirectly discriminatory and hence unlawful. 

Therefore, employers are compelled to test, not general ability, but rather the specific skills required in the job in question, where a ‘manifest relationship’ is easier to demonstrate in court. 

However, since even tests of specific abilities almost invariably still tap into the general factor of intelligence, races inevitably score differently even on these tests. 

Indeed, because of the ubiquity and predictive power of the g factor, it is almost impossible to design any type of standardized test, whether of specific or general ability or knowledge, in which different racial groups do not perform differently. 

However, if some groups outperform others, the American legal system presumes a priori that this reflects test bias rather than differences in ability. 

Therefore, although the words all men are created equal are not, contrary to popular opinion, part of the US constitution, the Supreme Court has effectively decided, by legal fiat, to decide cases as if they were. 

However, just as a law passed by Congress cannot repeal the law of gravity, so a legal presumption that groups are equal in ability cannot make it so. 

Thus, the bar on the use of IQ testing by employers has not prevented society in general from being increasingly stratified by intelligence, the precise thing measured by the outlawed tests. 

Nevertheless, Herrnstein and Murray estimate that the effective bar on the use of IQ testing makes this process less efficient, and cost the economy somewhere between 80 billion to 13 billion dollars in 1980 alone (p85). 

Conscientiousness and Career Success

I am skeptical of Herrnstein and Murray’s conclusion that IQ is the best predictor of academic and career success. I suspect hard work, not to mention a willingness to toady, toe the line, and obey orders, is at least as important in even the most cognitively-demanding careers, as well as in schoolwork and academic advancement. 

Perhaps the reason these factors have not (yet) been found to be as highly correlated with earnings as is IQ is that we have not yet developed a way of measuring these aspects of personality as accurately as we can measure a person’s intelligence through an IQ test. 

For example, the closest psychometricians have come to measuring capacity for hard work is the personality factor known as conscientiousness, one of the Big Five factors of personality revealed by psychometric testing. 

Conscientiousness does indeed correlate with success in education and work (e.g. Barrick & Mount 1991). However, the correlation is weaker than that between IQ and success in education and at work. 

However, this may be because personality is less easily measured by current psychometric methods than is intelligence – not least because personality tests generally rely on self-report, rather than measuring actual behaviour

Thus, to assess conscientiousness, questionnaires ask respondents whether they ‘see themselves as organized’, ‘as able to follow an objective through to completion’, ‘as a reliable worker’, etc. 

This would be the equivalent of an IQ test that, instead of directly testing a person’s ability to recognize patterns or manipulate shapes by having them do just this, simply asked respondents how good they perceived themselves as being at recognizing patterns, or manipulating shapes. 

Obviously, this would be a less accurate measure of intelligence than a normal IQ test. After all, some people lie, some are falsely modest and some are genuinely deluded. 

Indeed, according to the Dunning Kruger effect, it is those most lacking in ability who most overestimate their abilities – precisely because they lack the ability to accurately assess their ability (Kruger & Dunning 1999). 

In an IQ test, on the other hand, one can sometimes pretend to be dumber than one is, by deliberately getting questions wrong that one knows the answer to.[3]

However, it is not usually possible to pretend to be smarter than one is by getting more questions right simply because one would not know what are the right answers. 

Affirmative Action’ and Test Bias 

In chapters nineteen and twenty, respectively entitled ‘Affirmative Action in Higher Education’ and ‘Affirmative Action in the Workplace’, the authors discuss so-called affirmative action, an American euphemism for systematic and overt discrimination against white males. 

It is well-documented that, in the United States, blacks, on average, earn less than white Americans. On the other hand, it is less well-documented that whites, on average, earn less than people of IndianChinese and Jewish ancestry

With the possible exception of Indian-Americans, these differences, of course, broadly mirror those in average IQ scores. 

Indeed, according to Herrnstein and Murray, the difference in earnings between whites and blacks, not only disappears after controlling for differences in IQ, but is actually partially reversed. Thus, blacks are actually somewhat overrepresented in professional and white-collar occupations as compared to whites of equivalent IQ. 

This remarkable finding Herrnstein and Murray attribute to the effects of affirmative action programmes, as black Americans are appointed and promoted beyond what their ability merits because through discrimination. 

Interestingly, however, this contradicts what the authors wrote in an earlier chapter, where they addressed the question of test bias (pp280-286). 

There, they concluded that testing was not biased against African-Americans, because, among other reasons, IQ tests were equally predictive of real-world outcomes (e.g. in education and employment) for both blacks and whites, and blacks do not perform any better in the workplace or in education than their IQ scores predict. 

This is, one might argue, not wholly convincing evidence that IQ tests are not biased against blacks. It might simply suggest that society at large, including the education system and the workplace, is just as biased against blacks as are the hated IQ tests. This is, of course, precisely what we are often told by the television, media and political commentators who insist that America is a racist society, in which such mysterious forces as ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white privilege’ are pervasive. 

In fact, the authors acknowledge this objection, conceding:  

The tests may be biased against disadvantaged groups, but the traces of bias are invisible because the bias permeates all areas of the group’s performance. Accordingly, it would be as useless to look for evidence of test bias as it would be for Einstein’s imaginary person traveling near the speed of light to try to determine whether time has slowed. Einstein’s traveler has no clock that exists independent of his space-time context. In assessing test bias, we would have no test or criterion measure that exists independent of this culture and its history. This form of bias would pervade everything” (p285). 

Herrnstein and Murray ultimately reject this conclusion on the grounds that it is simply implausible to assume that: 

“[So] many of the performance yardsticks in the society at large are not only biased, they are all so similar in the degree to which they distort the truth-in every occupation, every type of educational institution, every achievement measure, every performance measure-that no differential distortion is picked up by the data” (p285). 

In fact, however, Nicholas Mackintosh identifies one area where IQ tests do indeed under-predict black performance, namely with regard to so-called adaptive behaviours – i.e. the ability to cope with day-to-day life (e.g. feed, dress, clean, interact with others in a ‘normal’ manner). 

Blacks with low IQs are generally much more functional in these respects than whites or Asians with equivalent low IQs (see IQ and Human Intelligence: p356-7).[4]

Yet Herrnstein and Murray seem to have inadvertently, and evidently without realizing it, identified yet another sphere where standardized testing does indeed under-predict real-world outcomes for blacks. 

Thus, if indeed, as Herrnstein and Murray claim, blacks are somewhat overrepresented among professional and white-collar occupations relative to their IQs, this suggests that blacks do indeed do better in real-world outcomes than their test results would predict and, while Herrnstein and Murray attribute this to the effect of discrimination against whites, it could instead surely be interpreted as evidence that the tests are biased against blacks. 

Policy Implications? 

What, then, are the policy implications that Herrnstein and Murray draw from the findings that they report? 

In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, cognitive science, linguist and popular science writer Steven Pinker popularizes the notion that recognizing the existence of innate differences between individuals and groups in traits such as intelligence does not necessarily lead to ‘right-wing’ political implications. 

Thus, a leftist might accept the existence of innate differences in ability, but conclude that, far from justifying inequality, this is all the more reason to compensate the, if you like, ‘cognitively disadvantaged’ for their innate deficiencies, differences which are, being innate, hardly something for which they can legitimately be blamed. 

Herrnstein and Murray reject this conclusion, but acknowledge it is compatible with their data. Thus, in an afterword to later editions, Murray writes: 

If intelligence plays an important role in determining how well one does in life, and intelligence is conferred on a person through a combination of genetic and environmental factors over which that person has no control, the most obvious political implication is that we need a Rawlsian egalitarian state, compensating the less advantaged for the unfair allocation of intellectual gifts” (p554).[5]

Interestingly, Pinker’s notion of a ‘hereditarian left’, and the related concept of Bell Curve liberals, is not entirely imaginary. On the contrary, it used to be quite mainstream. 

Thus, it was the radical leftist post-war Labour government that imposed the tripartite system on schools in the UK in 1945, which involved allocating pupils to different schools on the basis of their performance in what was then called the 11-plus exam, conducted at with children at age eleven, which tested both ability and acquired knowledge. This was thought by leftists to be a fair system that would enable bright, able youngsters from deprived and disadvantaged working-class backgrounds to achieve their full potential.[6]

Indeed, while contemporary Cultural Marxists emphatically deny the existence of innate differences in ability as between individuals and groups, Marx himself, laboured under no such delusion

On the contrary, in advocating, in his famous (plagiarized) aphorism From each according to his ability; to each according to his need, Marx implicitly recognized that individuals differ in “ability”, and, given that, in the unrealistic communist utopia he envisaged, environmental conditions were ostensibly to be equalized, these differences he presumably conceived of as innate in origin. 

However, a distinction must be made here. While it is possible to justify economic redistributive policies on Rawlsian grounds, it is not possible to justify affirmative action

Thus, one might well reasonably contend that the ‘cognitively disadvantaged’ should be compensated for their innate deficiencies through economic redistribution. Indeed, to some extent, most Western polities already do this, by providing welfare payments and state-funded, or state-subsidized, care to those whose cognitive impairment is such as to qualify as a disability and hence render them incapable of looking after or providing for themselves. 

However, we are unlikely to believe that such persons should be given entry to medical school such that they are one day liable to be responsible for performing heart surgery on us or diagnosing our medical conditions. 

In short, socialist redistribution is defensible – but affirmative action is definitely not! 

Reception and Readability 

The reception accorded ‘The Bell Curve’ in 1994 echoed that accorded another book that I have also recently reviewed, but that was published some two decades earlier, namely Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

Both were greeted with similar indignant moralistic outrage by many social scientists, who even employed similar pejorative soundbites (‘genetic determinism’, reductionism, ‘biology as destiny’), in condemning the two books. Moreover, in both cases, the academic uproar even spilled over into a mainstream media moral panic, with pieces appearing the popular press attacking the two books. 

Yet, in both cases, the controversy focused almost exclusively on just a small part of each book – the single chapter in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis focusing on humans and the few chapters in ‘The Bell Curve’ discussing race. 

In truth, however, both books were massive tomes of which these sections represented only a small part. 

Indeed, due to their size, one suspects most critics never actually read the books in full for themselves, including, it seemed, most of those nevertheless taking it upon themselves to write critiques. This is what led to the massive disconnect between what most people thought the books said, and their actual content. 

However, there is a crucial difference. 

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was a long book of necessity, given the scale of the project Wilson set himself. 

As I have written in my review of that latter work, the scale of Wilson’s ambition can hardly be exaggerated. He sought to provide a new foundation for the whole field of animal behaviour, then, almost as an afterthought, sought to extend this ‘New Synthesis’ to human behaviour as well, which meant providing a new foundation, not for a single subfield within biology, but for several whole disciplines (psychology, sociology, economics and cultural anthropology) that were formerly almost unconnected to biology. Then, in a few provocative sentences, he even sought to provide a new foundation for moral philosophy, and perhaps epistemology too. 

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was, then, inevitably and of necessity, a long book. Indeed, given that his musings regarding the human species were largely (but not wholly) restricted to a single chapter, one could even make a case that it was too short – and it is no accident that Wilson subsequently extended his writings with regard to the human species to a book length manuscript

Yet, while Sociobiology was of necessity a long book, ‘The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America’ is, for me, unnecessarily overlong. 

After all, Herrnstein and Murray’s thesis was actually quite simple – namely that cognitive ability, as captured by IQ testing, is a major correlate of many important social outcomes in modern America. 

Yet they reiterate this point, for different social outcomes, again and again, chapter after chapter, repeatedly. 

In my view, Herrnstein and Murray’s conclusion would have been more effectively transmitted to the audience they presumably sought to reach had they been more succinct in their writing style and presentation of their data. 

Had that been the case then perhaps rather more of the many people who bought the book, and helped make it into an unlikely nonfiction bestseller in 1994, might actually have managed to read it – and perhaps even been persuaded by its thesis. 

For casual readers interested in this topic, I would recommend instead Intelligence, Race, And Genetics: Conversations With Arthur R. Jensen (which I have reviewed herehere and here). 

Endnotes

[1] For example, Francis Wheen, a professional damned fool and columnist for the Guardian newspaper (which two occupations seem to be largely interchangeable) claimed that: 

The Bell Curve (1994), runs to more than 800 pages but can be summarised in a few sentences. Black people are more stupid than white people: always have been, always will be. This is why they have less economic and social success. Since the fault lies in their genes, they are doomed to be at the bottom of the heap now and forever” (Wheen 2000). 

In making this claim, Wheen clearly demonstrates that he has read few if any of those 800 pages to which he refers.

[2] Although their discussion of the evidence relating to the causes, genetic or environmental, of the black-white test score gap is extensive, it is not exhaustive. For example, Phillipe Rushton, the author of Race Evolution and Behavior (reviewed here and here) argues that, despite the controversy their book provoked, Herrnstein and Murray actually didn’t go far enough on race, omitting, for example, any real discussion, save a passing mention in Appendix 5, of race differences in brain size (Rushton 1997). On the other hand, Herrnstein and Murray also did not mention studies that failed to establish any correlation between IQ and blood groups among African-Americans, studies interpreted as supporting an environmentalist interpretation of race differences in intelligence (Loehlin et al 1973Scarr et al 1977). For readers interested in a more complete discussion of the evidence regarding the relative contributions of environment and heredity to the differences in IQ scores of different races, see my review of Richard Lynn’s Race Differences in Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis, available here.

[3] For example, some of those accused of serious crimes have been accused of deliberately getting questions wrong on IQ tests in order to qualify as mentally subnormal when before the courts for sentencing in order to be granted mitigation of sentence on this ground, or, more specifically, in order to evade the death penalty

[4] This may be because whites or Asians with such low IQs are more likely to have such impaired cognitive abilities because of underlying conditions (e.g chromosomal abnormalitiesbrain damage) that handicap them over and above the deficit reflected in IQ score alone. On the other hand, blacks with similarly low IQs are still within the normal range for their own race. Therefore, rather than suffering from, say, a chromosomal abnormality or brain damage, they are relatively more likely to simply be at the tail-end of the normal range of IQs within their group, and hence normal in other respects.

[5] The term Rawlsian is a reference to political theorist John Rawles version of social contract theory, whereby he poses the hypothetical question as to what arrangement of political, social and economic affairs humans would favour if placed in what he called the original position, where they would be unaware of, not only their own race, sex and position in to the socio-economic hierarchy, but also, most important for our purposes, their own level of innate ability. This Rawles referred to as ‘veil of ignorance’.

[6] The tripartite system did indeed enable many working-class children to achieve a much higher economic status than their parents, although this was partly due to the expansion of the middle-class sector of the economy over the same time-period. It was also later Labour administrations who largely abolished the 11-plus system, not least because, unsurprisingly given the heritability of intelligence and personality, children from middle-class backgrounds tended to do better on it than did children from working-class backgrounds.

References 

Barrick & Mount 1991 The big five personality dimensions and job performance: a meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology 44(1):1–26 
Beckford (2008) Working classes ‘lack intelligence to be doctors’, claims academicDaily Telegraph, 04 Jun 2008. 
Clark 2008 Higher social classes have significantly HIGHER IQs than working class, claims academic Daily Mail, 22 May 2008. 
Kruger & Dunning (1999) Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-AssessmentsJournal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6):1121-34 
Loehlin et al (1973) Blood group genes and negro-white ability differencesBehavior Genetics 3(3): 263-270  
Rushton, J. P. (1997). Why The Bell Curve didn’t go far enough on race. In E. White (Ed.), Intelligence, political inequality, and public policy (pp. 119-140). Westport, CT: Praeger. 
Scarr et al (1977) Absence of a relationship between degree of white ancestry and intellectual skills within a black population. Human Genetics 39(1):69-86 . 
Wheen (2000) The ‘science’ behind racismGuardian, 10 May 2000. 

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Peter Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’

Peter Singer, ‘A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation’, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1999.

Social Darwinism is dead. 

The idea that charity, welfare and medical treatment ought to be withheld from the poor, the destitute and the seriously ill so that they perish in accordance with the process of natural selection and hence facilitate further evolutionary progress survives only as a straw man sometimes attributed to conservatives by leftists in order to discredit them, and a form of guilt by association sometimes invoked by creationists in order to discredit the theory of evolution.[1]

However, despite the attachment of many American conservatives to creationism, there remains a perception that evolutionary psychology is somehow right-wing

Thus, if humans are fundamentally selfish, as Richard Dawkins is taken, not entirely accurately, to have argued, then this surely confirms the underlying assumptions of classical economics. 

Of course, as Dawkins also emphasizes, we have evolved through kin selection to be altruistic towards our close biological relatives. However, this arguably only reinforces conservatives’ faith in the family, and their concerns regarding the effects of family breakdown and substitute parents

Finally, research on sex differences surely suggests that at least some traditional gender roles – e.g. women’s role in caring for young children, and men’s role in fighting wars – do indeed have a biological basis, and also that patriarchy and the gender pay gap may be an inevitable result of innate psychological differences between the sexes

Political scientist Larry Arnhart thus champions what he calls a new ‘Darwinian Conservatism’, which harnesses the findings of evolutionary psychology in support of family values and the free market. 

Against this, however, moral philosopher and famed animal liberation activist Peter Singer, in ‘A Darwinian Left’, seeks to reclaim Darwin, and evolutionary psychology, for the Left. His attempt is not entirely successful. 

The Naturalistic Fallacy 

At least since David Hume, it has an article of faith among most philosophers that one cannot derive values from facts. To do otherwise is to commit what some philosophers refer to as the naturalistic fallacy

Edward O Wilson, in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was widely accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy, by attempting to derive moral values form facts. However, those evolutionary psychologists who followed in his stead have generally taken a very different line. 

Indeed, recognition that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy has proven very useful to evolutionary psychologists, since it has enabled them investigate the possible evolutionary functions of such morally questionable (or indeed downright morally reprehensible) behaviours as infidelityrape, warfare and child abuse while at the same time denying that they are somehow thereby providing a justification for the behaviours in question.[2] 

Singer, like most evolutionary psychologists, also reiterates the sacrosanct inviolability of the fact-value dichotomy

Thus, in attempting to construct his ‘Darwinian Left’, Singer does not attempt to use Darwinism in order to provide a justification or ultimate rationale for leftist egalitarianism. Rather, he simply takes it for granted that equality is a good thing and worth striving for, and indeed implicitly assumes that his readers will agree. 

His aim, then, is not to argue that socialism is demanded by a Darwinian worldview, but rather simply that it is compatible with such a worldview and not contradicted by it. 

Thus, he takes leftist ideals as his starting-point, and attempts to argue only that accepting the Darwinian worldview should not cause one to abandon these ideals as either undesirable or unachievable. 

But if we accept that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy then this only raises the question: If it is indeed true that moral values cannot be derived from scientific facts, whence can moral values be derived?  

Can they only be derived from other moral values? If so, how are our ultimate moral values, from which all other moral values are derived, themselves derived? 

Singer does not address this. However, precisely by failing to address it, he seems to implicitly assume that our ultimate moral values must simply be taken on faith. 

However, Singer also emphasizes that rejecting the naturalistic fallacy does not mean that the facts of human nature are irrelevant to politics. 

On the contrary, while Darwinism may not prescribe any particular political goals as desirable, it may nevertheless help us determine how to achieve those political goals that we have already decided upon. Thus, Singer writes: 

An understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to identify the means by which we may achieve some of our social and political goals… as well as assessing the possible costs and benefits of doing so” (p15). 

Thus, in a memorable metaphor, Singer observes: 

Wood carvers presented with a piece of timber and a request to make wooden bowls from it do not simply begin carving according to a design drawn up before they have seen the wood. Instead they will examine the material with which they are to work and modify their design in order to suit its grain…Those seeking to reshape human society must understand the tendencies inherent within human beings, and modify their abstract ideals in order to suit them” (p40). 

Abandoning Utopia? 

In addition to suggesting how our ultimate political objectives might best be achieved, an evolutionary perspective also suggests that some political goals might simply be unattainable, at least in the absence of a wholesale eugenic reengineering of human nature itself. 

In watering down the utopian aspirations of previous generations of leftists, Singer seems to implicitly concede as much. 

Contrary to the crudest misunderstanding of selfish gene theory, humans are not entirely selfish. However, we have evolved to put our own interests, and those of our kin, above those of other humans. 

For this reason, communism is unobtainable because: 

  1. People strive to promote themselves and their kin above others; 
  2. Only coercive state apparatus can prevent them so doing; 
  3. The individuals in control of this coercive apparatus themselves seek to promote the interests of themselves and their kin and corruptly use this coercive apparatus to do so. 

Thus, Singer laments: 

What egalitarian revolution has not been betrayed by its leaders?” (p39). 

Or, alternatively, as HL Mencken put it:

“[The] one undoubted effect [of political revolutions] is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another.” 

In addition, human selfishness suggests, if complete egalitarianism were ever successfully achieved and enforced, it would likely be economically inefficient – because it would remove the incentive of self-advancement that lies behind the production of goods and services, not to mention of works of art and scientific advances. 

Thus, as Adam Smith famously observed: 

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” 

And, again, the only other means of ensuring goods and services are produced besides economic self-interest is state coercion, which, given human nature, will always be exercised both corruptly and inefficiently. 

What’s Left? 

Singer’s pamphlet has been the subject of much controversy, with most of the criticism coming, not from conservatives, whom one might imagine to be Singer’s natural adversaries, but rather from other self-described leftists. 

These leftist critics have included both writers opposed to evolutionary psychology (e.g. David Stack in The First Darwinian Left), but also some other writers claiming to be broadly receptive to the new paradigm but who are clearly uncomfortable with some of its implications (e.g.  Marek Kohn in As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind). 

In apparently rejecting the utopian transformation of society envisioned by Marx and other radical socialists, Singer has been accused by other leftists for conceding rather too much to the critics of leftism. In so doing, Singer has, they claim, in effect abandoned leftism in all but name and become, in their view, an apologist for and sell-out to capitalism. 

Whether Singer can indeed be said to have abandoned the Left depends, of course, on precisely how we define ‘the Left’, a rather more problematic matter than it is usually regarded as being.[3]

For his part, Singer certainly defines the Left in unusually broad terms.

For Singer, leftism need not necessarily entail taking the means of production into common ownership, nor even the redistribution of wealth. Rather, at its core, being a leftist is simply about being: 

On the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider” (p8). 

However, this definition is obviously problematic. After all, few conservatives would admit to being on the side of the oppressor. 

On the contrary, conservatives and libertarians usually reject the dichotomous subdivision of society into oppressed’ and ‘oppressor groups. They argue that the real world is more complex than this simplistic division of the world into black and white, good and evil, suggests. 

Moreover, they argue that mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation, rather than exploitation, is the essence of capitalism. 

They also usually claim that their policies benefit society as a whole, including both the poor and rich, rather than favouring one class over another.[4]

Indeed, conservatives claim that socialist reforms often actually inadvertently hurt precisely those whom they attempt to help. Thus, for example, welfare benefits are said to encourage welfare dependency, while introducing, or raising the level of, a minimum wage is said to lead to increases in unemployment. 

Singer declares that a Darwinian left would “promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61).

Yet many conservatives would share Singer’s aspiration to create a more altruistic culture. 

Indeed, this aspiration seems more compatible with the libertarian notion of voluntary charitable donations replacing taxation than with the coercively-extracted taxes invariably favoured by the Left. 

Nepotism and Equality of Opportunity 

Yet selfish gene theory suggests humans are not entirely self-interested. Rather, kin selection makes us care also about our biological relatives.

But this is no boon for egalitarians. 

Rather, the fact that our selfishness is tempered by a healthy dose of nepotism likely makes equality of opportunity as unattainable as equality of outcome – because individuals will inevitably seek to aid the social, educational and economic advancement of their kin, and those individuals better placed to do so will enjoy greater success in so doing. 

For example, parents with greater resources will be able to send their offspring to exclusive fee-paying schools or obtain private tuition for them; parents with better connections may be able to help their offspring obtain better jobs; while parents with greater intellectual ability may be able to better help their offspring with their homework. 

However, since many conservatives and libertarians are as committed to equality of opportunity as socialists are to equality of outcome, this conclusion may be as unwelcome on the right as on the left. 

Indeed, the theory of kin selection has even been invoked to suggest that ethnocentrism is innate and ethnic conflict is inevitable in multi-ethnic societies, a conclusion unwelcome across the mainstream political spectrum in the West today, where political parties of all persuasions are seemingly equally committed to building multi-ethnic societies. 

Unfortunately, Singer does not address any of these issues. 

Animal Liberation After Darwin 

Singer is most famous for his advocacy on behalf of what he calls animal liberation

In ‘A Darwinian Left’, he argues that the Darwinian worldview reinforces the case for animal liberation by confirming the evolutionary continuity between humans other animals. 

This suggests that there are unlikely to be fundamental differences in kind as between humans and other animals (e.g. in the capacity to feel pain) sufficient to justify the differences in treatment currently accorded humans and animals. 

It sharply contrasts account of creation in the Bible and the traditional Christian notion of humans as superior to other animals and as occupying an intermediate position between beasts and angels. 

Thus, Singer concludes: 

By knocking out the idea that we are a separate creation from the animals, Darwinian thinking provided the basis for a revolution in our attitudes to non-human animals” (p17). 

This makes our consumption of animals as food, our killing of them for sport, our enslavement of them as draft animals, or even pets, and our imprisonment of them in zoos and laboratories all ethically suspect, since these are not things generally permitted in respect of humans. 

Yet Singer fails to recognise that human-animal continuity cuts two ways. 

Thus, anti-vivisectionists argue that animal testing is not only immoral, but also ineffective, because drugs and other treatments often have very different effects on humans than they do on the animals used in drug testing. 

Our evolutionary continuity with non-human species makes this argument less plausible. 

Moreover, if humans are subject to the same principles of natural selection as other species, this suggests, not the elevation of animals to the status of humans, but rather the relegation of humans to just another species of animal. 

In short, we do not occupy a position midway between beasts and angels; we are beasts through and through, and any attempt to believe otherwise is mere delusion. 

This is, of course, the theme of John Gray’s powerful polemic Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed hereherehere and here). 

Finally, acceptance of the existence of human nature surely entails recognition of carnivory as a part of that nature. 

Of course, we must remember not to commit the naturalistic or appeal to nature fallacy.  

Thus, just because meat-eating may be natural for humans, in the sense that meat was a part of our ancestors diet in the EEA, this does not necessarily mean that it is morally right or even morally justifiable. 

However, the fact that meat is indeed a natural part of the human diet does suggest that, in health terms, vegetarianism is likely to be nutritionally sub-optimal. 

Thus, the naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy is not always entirely fallacious, at least when it comes to human health. What is natural for humans is indeed what we are biologically adapted to and what our body is therefore best designed to deal with.[5]

Therefore, vegetarianism is almost certainly to some degree sub-optimal in nutritional terms. 

Moreover, given that Singer is an opponent of the view that there is a valid moral distinction between acts and omissions, then we must ask ourselves: If he believes it is wrong for us to eat animals, does he also believe we should take positive measures to prevent lions from eating gazelles? 

Economics 

Bemoaning the emphasis of neoliberals on purely economic outcomes, Singer protests:

From an evolutionary perspective, we cannot identify wealth with self-interest… Properly understood self-interest is broader than economic self-interest” (p42). 

Singer is right. The ultimate currency of natural selection is not wealth, but rather reproductive success – and, in evolutionarily novel environments, wealth may not even correlate with reproductive success (Vining 1986). 

Thus, as discussed by Laura Betzig in Despotism and Differential Reproduction, a key difference between Marxism and sociobiology is the relative emphasis on production versus reproduction

Whereas Marxists see societal conflict and exploitation as reflecting competition over control of the means of production, for Darwinians, all societal conflict ultimately concerns control over, not the means of production, but rather what we might term the means of reproduction – in other words, women, their wombs and vaginas

Thus, sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe observed: 

“The ultimate measure of human success is not production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p165). 

Production is ultimately, in Darwinian terms, merely by which to gain the necessary resources to permit successful reproduction. The latter is the ultimate purpose of life

Thus, for all his ostensible radicalism, Karl Marx, in his emphasis on economics (‘production’) at the expense of sex (‘reproduction’), was just another Victorian sexual prude

Competition or Cooperation: A False Dichotomy? 

In Chapter  Four, entitled “Competition or Cooperation?”, Singer argues that modern western societies, and many modern economists and evolutionary theorists, put too great an emphasis on competition at the expense of cooperation

Singer accepts that both competition and cooperation are natural and innate facets of human nature, and that all societies involve a balance of both. However, different societies differ in their relative emphasis on competition or cooperation, and that it is therefore possible to create a society that places a greater emphasis on the latter at the expense of the former. 

Thus, Singer declares that a Darwinian left would: 

Promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61) 

However, Singer is short on practical suggestions as to how a culture of altruism is to be fostered.[6]

Changing the values of a culture is not easy. This is especially so for a liberal democratic (as opposed to a despotic, totalitarian) government, let alone for a solitary Australian moral philosopher – and Singer’s condemnation of “the nightmares of Stalinist Russia” suggests that he would not countenance the sort of totalitarian interference with human freedom to which the Left has so often resorted in the past, and continues to resort to in the present (even in the West), with little ultimate success, in the past. 

But, more fundamentally, Singer is wrong to see competition as necessarily in conflict with cooperation

On the contrary, perhaps the most remarkable acts of cooperation, altruism and self-sacrifice are those often witnessed in wartime (e.g. kamikaze pilotssuicide bombers and soldiers who throw themselves on grenades). Yet war represents perhaps the most extreme form of competition known to man. 

In short, soldiers risk and sacrifice their lives, not only to save the lives of others, but also to take the lives of other others. 

Likewise, trade is a form of cooperation, but are as fundamental to capitalism as is competition. Indeed, I suspect most economists would argue that exchange is even more fundamental to capitalism than is competition

Thus, far from disparaging cooperation, neoliberal economists see voluntary exchange as central to prosperity. 

Ironically, then, popular science writer Matt Ridley also, like Singer, focuses on humans’ innate capacity for cooperation to justify political conclusions in his book, The Origins of Virtue

But, for Ridley, our capacity for cooperation provides a rationale, not for socialism, but rather for free markets – because humans, as natural traders, produce efficient systems of exchange which government intervention almost always only distorts. 

However, whereas economic trade is motivated by self-interested calculation, Singer seems to envisage a form of reciprocity mediated by emotions such as compassiongratitude and guilt
 
However, sociobiologist Robert Trivers argues in his paper that introduced the concept of reciprocal altruism to evolutionary biology that these emotions themselves evolved through the rational calculation of natural selection (Trivers 1971). 

Therefore, while open to manipulation, especially in evolutionarily novel environments, they are necessarily limited in scope. 

Group Differences 

Singer’s envisaged ‘Darwinian Left’ would, he declares, unlike the contemporary left, abandon: 

“[The assumption] that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning. Some will be, but this cannot be assumed in every case” (p61). 

Instead, Singer admits that at least some disparities in achievement may reflect innate differences between individuals and groups in abilities, temperament and preferences. 

This is probably Singer’s most controversial suggestion, at least for modern leftists, since it contravenes the contemporary dogma of political correctness

Singer is, however, undoubtedly right.  

Moreover, his recognition that some differences in achievement as between groups reflect, not discrimination, oppression or even the lingering effect of past discrimination or oppression, but rather innate differences between groups in psychological traits, including intelligence, is by no means incompatible with socialism, or leftism, as socialism and leftism were originally conceived. 

Thus, it is worth pointing out that, while contemporary so-called cultural Marxists may decry the notion of innate differences in ability and temperament as between different racessexesindividuals and social classes as anathema, the same was not true of Marx himself

On the contrary, in famously advocating from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, Marx implicitly recognized that people differed in ability – differences which, given the equalization of social conditions envisaged under communism, he presumably conceived of as innate in origin.[7]

As Hans Eysenck observes:

“Stalin banned mental testing in 1935 on the grounds that it was ‘bourgeois’—at the same time as Hitler banned it as ‘Jewish’. But Stalin’s anti-genetic stance, and his support for the environmentalist charlatan Lysenko, did not derive from any Marxist or Leninist doctrine… One need only recall The Communist Manifesto: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. This clearly expresses the belief that different people will have different abilities, even in the communist heaven where all cultural, educational and other inequalities have been eradicated” (Intelligence: The Battle for the Mind: p85).

Thus, Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, points to the theoretical possibility of what he calls a “Hereditarian Left”, arguing for a Rawlsian redistribution of resources to the, if you like, innately ‘cognitively disadvantaged’.[8] 

With regard to group differences, Singer avoids discussing the incendiary topic of race differences in intelligence, a question too contentious for Singer to touch. 

Instead, he illustrates the possibility that not “all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning” with the marginally less incendiary case of sex differences.  

Here, it is sex differences, not in intelligence, but rather in temperament, preferences and personality that are probably more important, and likely explain occupational segregation and the so-called gender pay gap

Thus, Singer writes: 

If achieving high status increases access to women, then we can expect men to have a stronger drive for status than women” (p18). 

This alone, he implies, may explain both the universalilty of male rule and the so-called gender pay gap

However, Singer neglects to mention another biological factor that is also probably important in explaining the gender pay gap – namely, women’s attachment to infant offspring. This factor, also innate and biological in origin, also likely impedes career advancement among women. 

Thus, it bears emphasizing that never-married women with no children actually earn more, on average, than do unmarried men without children of the same age in both Britain and America.[9]

For a more detailed treatment of the biological factors underlying the gender pay gap, see Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality by professor of law, Kingsley Browne, which I have reviewed here and here.[10] See also my review of Warren Farrell’s Why Men Earn More, which can be found here, here and here.

Dysgenic Fertility Patterns? 

It is sometimes claimed by opponents of welfare benefts that the welfare system only encourages the unemployed to have more children so as to receive more benefits and thereby promotes dysgenic fertility patterns. In response, Singer retorts:

Even if there were a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment, to say that these genes are ‘deleterious’ would involve value judgements that go way beyond what the science alone can tell us” (p15).

Singer is, of course, right that an extra-scientific value judgement is required in order to label certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as deleterious or undesirable. 

Indeed, if single mothers on welfare do indeed raise more surviving children than do those who are not reliant on state benefits, then this indicates that they have higher reproductive success, and hence, in the strict biological sense, greater fitness than their more financially independent, but less fecund, reproductive competitors. 

Therefore, far from being deleterious’ in the biological sense, genes contributing to such behaviour are actually under positive selection, at least under current environmental conditions.  

However, even if such genes are not ‘deleterious’ in the strict biological sense, this does not necessarily mean that they are desirable in the moral sense, or in the sense of contributing to successful civilizations and societal advancement. To suggest otherwise would, of course, involve a version of the very appeal to nature fallacy or naturalistic fallacy that Singer is elsewhere emphatic in rejecting. 

Thus, although regarding certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as undesirable does indeed involve an extra-scientific “value judgement”, this is not to say that the “value judgement” in question is necessarily mistaken or unwarranted. On the contrary, it means only that such a value judgement is, by its nature, a matter of morality, not of science. 

Thus, although science may be silent on the issue, virtually everyone would agree that some traits (e.g. generosity, health, happiness, conscientiousness) are more desirable than others (e.g. selfishness, laziness, depression, illness). Likewise, it is self-evident that the long-term unemployed are a net burden on society, and that a successful society cannot be formed of people unable or unwilling to work. 

As we have seen, Singer also questions whether there can be “a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment”. 

However, in the strict biological sense, unemployment probably is indeed partly heritable. So, incidentally, are road traffic accidents and our political opinions – because each reflect personality traits that are themselves heritable (e.g. risk-takers and people with poor physical coordination and slow reactions probably have more traffic accidents; and perhaps more compassionate people are more likely to favour leftist politics). 

Thus, while it may be unhelpful and misleading to talk of unemployment as itself heritable, nevertheless traits of the sort that likely contribute to unemployment (e.g. intelligenceconscientiousnessmental and physical illness) are indeed heritable

Actually, however, the question of heritability, in the strict biological sense, is irrelevant. 

Thus, even if the reason that children from deprived backgrounds have worse life outcomes is entirely mediated by environmental factors (e.g. economic or cultural deprivation, or the bad parenting practices of low-SES parents), the case for restricting the reproductive rights of those people who are statistically prone to raise dysfunctional offspring remains intact. 

After all, children usually get both their genes and their parenting from the same set of parents – and this could be changed only by a massive, costly, and decidedly illiberal, policy of forcibly removing offspring from their parents.[11]

Therefore, so long as an association between parentage and social outcomes is established, the question of whether this association is biologically or environmentally mediated is simply beside the point, and the case for restricting the reproductive rights of certain groups remains intact.  

Of course, it is doubtful that welfare-dependent women do indeed financially benefit from giving birth to additional offspring. 

It is true that they may receive more money in state benefits if they have more dependent offspring to support and provide for. However, this may well be more than offset by the additional cost of supporting and providing for the dependent offspring in question, leaving the mother with less to spend on herself. 

However, even if the additional monies paid to mothers with dependent children are not sufficient as to provide a positive financial incentive to bearing additional children, they at least reduce the financial disincentives otherwise associated with rearing additional offspring.  

Therefore, given that, from an evolutionary perspective, women probably have an innate desire to bear additional offspring, it follows that a rational fitness-maximizer would respond to the changed incentives represented by the welfare system by increasing their reproductive rate.[12]

A New Socialist Eugenics?

If we accept Singer’s contention that an understanding of human nature can help show us how achieve, but not choose, our ultimate political objectives, then eugenics could be used to help us achieve the goal of producing the better people and hence, ultimately, better societies. 

Indeed, given that Singer seemingly concedes that human nature is presently incompatible with communist utopia, perhaps then the only way to revive the socialist dream of equality is to eugenically re-engineer human nature itself so as to make it more compatible. 

Thus, it is perhaps no accident that, before World War Two, eugenics was a cause typically associated, not with conservatives, nor even, as today, with fascism, but rather with the political left

Thus, early twentieth century socialist-eugenicists like H.G. Wells, Sidney Webb, Margaret Sanger and George Bernard Shaw may then have tentatively grasped what eludes contemporary leftists, Singer very much included – namely that re-engineering society necessarily requires as a prerequisite re-engineering Man himself.[13]

_________________________

Endnotes

[1] Indeed, the view that the poor and ill ought to be left to perish so as to further the evolutionary process seems to have been a marginal one even in its ostensible late nineteenth century heyday (see Bannister, Social Darwinism Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought). The idea always seems, therefore, to have been largely, if not wholly, a straw man.

[2] In this, the evolutionary psychologists are surely right. Thus, no one accuses biomedical researchers of somehow ‘justifying disease’ when they investigate how infectious diseases, in an effort maximize their own reproductive success, spread form host to host. Likewise, nobody suggests that dying of a treatable illness is desirable, even though this may have been the ‘natural’ outcome before such ‘unnatural’ interventions as vaccination and antibiotics were introduced.

[3] The convenional notion that we can usefully conceptualize the political spectrum on a single dimensional left-right axis is obviously preposterous. For one thing, there is, at the very least, a quite separate liberal-authoritarian dimension. However, even restricting our definition of the left-right axis to purely economic matters, it remains multi-factorial. For example, Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom classifies fascism as a left-wing ideology, because it involved big government and a planned economy. However, most leftists would reject this definition, since the planned economy in question was designed, not to reduce economic inequalities, but rather, in the case of Nazi Germany at least, to fund and sustain an expanded military force, a war economy, external military conquest and grandiose vanity public works architectural projects. The term ’right-wing‘ is even more problematic, including everyone from fascists, to libertarians to religious fundamentalists. Yet a Christian fundamentalist who wants to outlaw pornography and abortion has little in common with either a libertarian who wants to decriminalize prostitution and child pornography, nor with a eugenicist who wants to make abortions, for certain classes of person, compulsory. Yet all three are classed together as ’right-wing’ even though they share no more in common with one another than any does with a raving unreconstructed Marxist.

[4] Thus, the British Conservatives Party traditionally styled themselves one-nation conservatives, who looked to the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than what they criticized as the divisive ‘sectionalism’ of the trade union and labour movements, which favoured certain economic classes, and workers in certain industries, over others, just as contemporary leftists privilege the interests of certain ethnic, religious and culturally-defined groups (e.g. blacks, Muslims, feminists) over others (i.e. white males).

[5] Of course, some ‘unnatural’ interventions have positive health benefits. Obvious examples are modern medical treatments such as penicillin, chemotherapy and vaccination. However, these are the exceptions. They have been carefully selected and developed by scientists to have this positive effect, have gone through rigorous testing to ensure that their effects are indeed beneficial, and are generally beneficial only to people with certain diagnosed conditions. In contrast, recreational drug use almost invariably has a negative effect on health.
It might also be noted that, although their use by humans may be ‘unnatural’, the role of antibiotics in fighting bacterial infection is not itself ‘unnatural’, since antibiotics such as penicillin themselves evolved as a natural means by which one microorganism, namely mould, a form of fungi, fights another form of microorganism, namely bacteria.

[6] It is certainly possible for more altruistic cultures to exist. For example, the famous (and hugely wasteful) potlatch feasts of some Native American cultures exemplify a form of competitive altruism, analogous to conspicuous consumption, and may be explicable as a form of status display in accordance with Zahavi’s handicap principle. However, recognizing that such cultures exist does not easily translate into working out how to create or foster such cultures, let alone transform existing cultures in this direction.

[7]  Indeed, by modern politically-correct standards, Marx was a rampant racist, not to mention an anti-Semite

[8] The term Rawlsian is a reference to political theorist John Rawles version of social contract theory, whereby he poses the hypothetical question as to what arrangement of political, social and economic affairs humans would favour if placed in what he called the original position, where they would be unaware of, not only their own race, sex and position in to the socio-economic hierarchy, but also, most important for our purposes, their own level of innate ability. This Rawles referred to as ’veil of ignorance’. 

[9] As Warren Farrell documents in his excellent Why Men Earn More (which I have reviewed here, here and here), in the USA, women who have never married and have no children actually earn more than men who have never married and have no children and have done since at least the 1950s (Why Men Earn More: pxxi). More precisely, according to Farrell, never-married men without children on average earn only about 85% of their childless never-married female counterparts (Ibid: pxxiii). The situation is similar in the UK. Thus, economist JR Shackleton reports:

Women in the middle age groups who remain single earn more than middle-aged single males” (Should We Mind the Gap? p30).

The reasons unmarried, childless women earn more than unmarried childless men are multifarious and include:

  1. Married women can afford to work less because they appropriate a portion of their husband’s income in addition to their own
  2. Married men and men with children are thus obliged to earn even more so as to financially support, not only themselves, but also their wife, plus any offspring;
  3. Women prefer to marry richer men and hence poorer men are more likely to remain single;
  4. Childcare duties undertaken by women interfere with their earning capacity.

[10]  Incidentally, Browne has also published a more succinct summary of the biological factors underlying the pay-gap that was first published in the same ‘Darwinism Today’ series as Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’, namely Divided Labors: An Evolutionary View of Women at Work. However, much though I admire Browne’s work, this represents a rather superficial popularization of his research on the topic, and I would recommend instead Browne’s longer Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (reviewed here) for a more comprehenseive treatment of the same, and related, topics. 

[11] A precedent for just such a programme, enacted in the name of socialism, albeit imposed consensually, was the communal rearing practices in Israeli Kibbutzim, since largely abandoned. Another suggestion along rather different lines comes from Adolf Hitler, who, believing that nature trumped nurture, is quoted in Mein Kampf as proposing: 

The State must also teach that it is the manifestation of a really noble nature and that it is a humanitarian act worthy of all admiration if an innocent sufferer from hereditary disease refrains from having a child of his own but bestows his love and affection on some unknown child whose state of health is a guarantee that it will become a robust member of a powerful community” (quoted in: Parfrey 1987: p162). 

[12] Actually, it is not entirely clear that women do have a natural desire to bear offspring. Other species probably do not have any such natural desire. Since they are almost certainly are not aware of the connection between sex and child birth, such a desire would serve no adaptive purpose and hence would never evolve. All an organism requires is a desire for sex, combined perhaps with a tendency to care for offspring after they are born. (Indeed, in principle, a female does not even require a desire for sex, only a willingness to submit to the desire of a male for sex.) As Tooby and Cosmides emphasize: 

Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers rather than as fitness-maximizers.” 

There is no requirement for a desire for offspring as such. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence of so-called broodiness, and the fact that most women do indeed desire children, despite the costs associated with raising children, suggests that, in human females, there is indeed some innate desire for offspring. Curiously, however, the topic of broodiness is not one that has attracted much attention among evolutionists.

[13] However, there is a problem with any such case for a ‘Brave New Socialist Eugenics’. Before the eugenic programme is complete, the individuals controlling eugenic programmes (be they governments or corporations) would still possess a more traditional human nature, and may therefore have less than altruistic motivations themselves. This seems to suggest then that, as philosopher John Gray concludes in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed here):  

“[If] human nature [is] scientifically remodelled… it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of the struggles in the murky world where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (Straw Dogs: p6).

References  

Parfrey (1987) Eugenics: The Orphaned Science. In Parfrey (Ed.) Apocalypse Culture (New York: Amoc Press). 

Trivers 1971 The evolution of reciprocal altruism Quarterly Review of Biology 46(1):35-57 

Vining 1986 Social versus reproductive success: The central theoretical problem of human sociobiologyBehavioral and Brain Sciences 9(1), 167-187.