Some years ago, I wrote a broad critique of The Bell Curve, that old Social Darwinist psychology tome from 1994 by the hereditarian psychologist Richard Herrnstein and conservative political theorist Charles Murray. It was in a very nice collection edited by Besteman and Gusterson (who ought to be a law firm, but are actually cultural anthropologists), called Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong.
A few years later, Paul Erickson and Liam Murphy included it in their reader on the history of anthropological theory. In fact, the third edition of that reader (2010) actually began with Marx and ended with Marks. That was pretty cool. The fourth edition (2013) also started with Marx and included Marks, but had a couple of more readings after Marks.
They kicked me out of the fifth edition (2016). No hard feelings, though, because I’m cited in their companion volume, A History ofAnthropological Theory. But I know why they did it, too. My essay was very dated. It was criticizing a twenty-year-old bit of pseudoscience, which only old people remember. Richard Herrnstein is dead. Charles Murray is just a distant irrelevancy.
Well, the joke’s on them.
Charles Murray is back again. He had surfaced briefly a couple of years ago, when Nicholas Wade’s racist anti-science bullshit called A Troublesome Inheritance was published. That’s the book that stimulated an issue of critical, negative reviews in the scholarly journal Human Biology, by the likes of Agustin Fuentes, Jennifer Raff, Charles Roseman, Laura Stein, and your humble narrator. It also stimulated a letter in the New York Times by nearly 150 geneticists repudiating Wade’s invocation of their scientific field. And they ought to know.
In fact, pretty much the only mainstream review of Nicholas Wade that was positive was the one in the Wall Street Journal, by Charles Murray. So on this side, we have the biological anthropologists and human geneticists in accord that Wade’s racist screed is a perversion of the relevant sciences, in which they are, for all intents and purposes, experts. And on the other side, the political theorist Charles Murray, who seems to wish that the "science" in Wade’s book were true, regardless of what the data show and the experts think. That’s pretty anti-science. It’s just like the creationists, anti-vaxxers, and climate-change-deniers. What do they all have in common? They like to argue the science with the scientists.
It’s like mansplaining, only less gendered. Moronsplaining.
So Charles Murray is still out there, still sponsored by the right-wing think-tank called the American Enterprise Institute, and ever ready to publicly hawk a book of pseudoscience that the scientific community repudiates. Still ready to peddle his own antiquated ideologies about rich people being genetically smarter than poor people. And since social programs designed to assist the poor are doomed to failure because the poor are innately stupid, they should be abolished.
To the extent that class and race are correlated in the US, Murray’s ideas about the poor being genetically stupid make an easy transition into the world of scientific racism. And it wasn’t accidental. The Bell Curve cited literature from The Mankind Quarterly, which no mainstream scholar cites, because it is an unscholarly racist journal, supported by the Pioneer Fund, that wacko right-wing philanthropy that has thrown money at wacko eugenicists, racists, segregationists, and hereditarians of all stripes, since its inception in 1937 under the aegis of the wacko eugenicist Harry Laughlin. The Bell Curve also cited the work of that racist wacko psychologist Philippe Rushton – who believed that the mean IQ of Africans is genetically set at 70, and that Africans had been r-selected for high reproductive rate and low intelligence – and then pre-emptively defended his wacko racist ideas in an appendix. Even the wacko evolutionary psychologists distanced themselves from Rushton, appreciating the toxicity of his ideas: “Bad science and virulent racial prejudice drip like pus from nearly every page of this despicable book,” wrote David Barash in the journal Animal Behaviour.
But Charles Murray wasn’t smart enough to see it. He couldn’t see the virulent racial prejudice in the work he was defending. Or else he was blinded by his own prejudices. It’s age-old bind: ideologue or idiot?
And now the alt-right has gained political ascendancy, and Charles Murray is on a speaking tour. And he gets shouted down and driven off of Middlebury College. But he gets invited to other colleges and his message is heard.
He is invited to Notre Dame by a political science professor named Vincent Phillip Muñoz, and is civilly and effectively rebutted by Agustín Fuentes.
But let’s back up a clause or two. Who is inviting Charles Murray to speak at their college, and why? At Middlebury, he was invited by Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics, who told her story in the New York Times, as wanting to engage with his ideas. Likewise, Muñoz argues that “Murray makes an important argument that should be heard”. Even the New York Times agrees he should say his piece.
I’m going to disagree. Charles Murray talks science that is bogus, and political philosophy that is evil, and uses one to justify the other. He doesn’t need to be heard by anybody, any more than a creationist, or a pedophile, or an anti-vaxxer deserves to be heard.
So this is what I find confusing. In the free marketplace of ideas in contemporary political science, we still entertain the scientific hypothesis that the poor deserve what little they have because they are genetically stupider than the rich? First of all, I don’t know any geneticist who agrees to the the second clause. A hundred years ago, geneticists believed that. Since the Great Depression, however (which democratized poverty), not too many geneticists have believed it. (The late Henry Harpending did. That was probably an example of Planck’s Principle.)
Rather, nearly all contemporary geneticists seem to think that the old lefty J. B. S. Haldane more or less got it right when he said, “The average degree of resemblance between father and son is too small to justify the waste of human potentialities which an hereditary aristocratic system entails.” Let me translate: You inherit a lot of stuff, and some of that stuff is genetic. But a lot of the most important stuff – like, privilege – is not. And it is a big mistake to confuse the two categories. Consequently, if you are committed to the proposition that genetic properties are more important than everything else, that is a moral proposition not supported by genetics itself, you smug bastard.
Class advantages are very real, but they aren’t genetic. Doesn’t everybody know that?
I think it’s kind of weird that political scientists would be willing to entertain ostensibly scientific ideas – in this case about human genetics – that the relevant scientists themselves do not take seriously.
But Charles Murray isn’t a geneticist. He is a genetics fanboy. Imagine that you were a professional magician, with a three-year-old child trying to convince you, and everyone else around, that everything important in life is caused by magic.
That said, however, don’t think I’m going to let geneticists off the hook so easily. Sad to say, there are, and always have been, opportunistic geneticists who recognize the self-interest in telling the public that everything important in their lives is genetic. Over a century ago, there was Reginald C. Punnett, inventor of the eponymous Square, who ended the first English textbook on Mendelian genetics with the conclusion that “progress is question of breeding rather than of pedagogics; a matter of gametes, not training…. [T]he creature is not made, but born.” The American geneticist Charles Davenport jumped on the Mendelian bandwagon, and soon explained class differences just as Charles Murray does. But rather than speak of cryptic factors, as Murray does, Davenport isolated the cause of those class differences in the gene for feeblemindedness. Rich white people from northern Europe had one allele; everybody else had another. But whether you speak of specific genes for feebleminded or cryptic genetic factors that cause the poor to be stupid, it’s still fake science.
The Bell Curve capitalized on the popularity of the Human Genome Project in putting forth its thesis about the genetic stupidity of poor people in the 1990s. Some geneticists repudiated it, but others recognized, as the geneticists of the 1920s did, that it was good for the business of genetics. When Science reviewed Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race – a classic of American racist thought, which was read in defense of Karl Brandt at the Nuremberg trials to show that the Germans had simply been doing what the Americans were advocating – it concluded with a sobering thought: “This is a book that will … help to disseminate the ever-growing conviction among scientific men of the supreme importance of heredity.” Sure, the genetic theory in question might be inane, might be evil, and it might be false, but it definitely is good for business. More recently, the Human Genome Project was backed up with all sorts of purple prose about how your DNA sequence was the most important thing about you: The Code of Codes, The Book of Man, and the like. They knew it was bullshit then, and that’s why there is such interest in epigenetics now.
These geneticists are reprehensible, because they provide the hereditarian soil for scientific racism. The geneticists may not themselves be racists, but their idiotic statements about what they think their knowledge applies to have indeed sometimes crossed over. James D. Watson, who knows more about DNA than you do, caused a stir a decade ago, when he said that different groups of people have different “powers of reason”. The rest of the genetics community disagreed, and challenged his own powers of reason.
And here is the newest exhibit. A video from the famous mouse genetics lab in Bar Harbor, Maine. It tells you about genetics and genomics, and how genetics controls things like your eye color and good taste.
Wait, what? (It’s at 0:15). Good taste is genetic?
Well she was a bit coy about it, wasn’t she? She delivered the line with a giggle, and the disclaimer, “maybe even good taste”.
Geneticists know that good taste is not genetic, because good taste is context-dependent and locally-specific. Geneticists of the 1920s knew that it was in their short term interests to have the public believe that any and all shit was innate. But the field evolved, and can’t afford to devolve.
It would be nice if we could get beyond genetics-vs-culture, so we could talk more comprehensively about “embodiment”. But the hereditarians and racists won’t allow it.
We should not be debating the innate intelligence of black people, or of the poor, on college campuses or anywhere. It is a morally corrupt pseudoscientific proposition.
It's like inviting a creationist or an inventor of a perpetual motion machine. The university should not be a censor, but it sure as hell is a gatekeeper. At this point, sometimes they go all radical epistemological relativist and and say that all ideas deserve a hearing. But all ideas don't deserve a hearing. The universe of things that do get discussed and debated on college campuses is rather small in proportion to the ideas that people have debated over the years. Should we stone witches? No. Might the speed of light be 140,000 miles per second, rather than 186,000? No. Might the universe just be made up of earth, air, water, and fire? No. Might Africans just be genetically stupid? Might people who want to debate this point have their fundamental civic morality called into question instead?
This also raises bigger problems. Geneticists that mislead the public about what human genetics explains. College faculty that can’t identify pseudoscience. There were, after all, any number of serious refutations of every aspect of The Bell Curve.
Let me give the last word, then, to Allison Stanger, who invited Charles Murray out to Middlebury College and got roughed up a bit, because she thinks that the innate intelligence of black people ought to be a debatable topic; which apparently ruined the pleasure she ordinarily derives from tormenting marginalized people. As she casually explained it in the New York Times:
I had tough questions on both the controversial “Bell Curve,” in which he partly blames genetics for test score differences among races ... But the event had to be shut down, lest the ensuing dialogue inflict pain on the marginalized.
[Note: Apparently Stanger herself did not invite Murray, but “welcomed the opportunity to moderate a talk with him on campus.” In any case, we still disagree on the central issue of whether the innate intellectual capacities of non-white people should be a subject open for debate on campuses in 2017.]