It deserves to mark a turning point in public understanding

Friday, February 21st, 2020

James Thompson reviews Charles Murray’s Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class:

Charles Murray, a sociologist by background and a datanaut by inclination, has carved out a prominent place in American intellectual debate by the simple expedient of writing clearly about difficult subjects. He is an Enlightenment Regular Guy, who does not want Americans to lose ground, or be split apart or be cast asunder by imperious elites and their lucrative patterns of frustration. He crunches data, and writes his conclusions in plain text, with helpful explanations about the harder statistical bits. No wonder some people hate him for it.

Having “The Bell Curve” on my university library shelves 26 years ago seemed somewhat daring. I was bewildered by the passions it arose. He had found a dataset and analysed it carefully, using histograms rather than correlation coefficients. I enjoyed the powerful clarity of the findings, and ruefully acknowledged that “bell curve” was a snappier phrase than “standard normal distribution”. I wish I’d had the talent to write it. Perhaps many other academics felt their noses put out of joint by a job well done.

We owe the inspiration for this book to Murray’s wife, who was so outraged by the attack he received at Middlebury College that she urged him to enter the fray on more contentious topics. Cherchez la femme. On the logical premise that “I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb” Murray has obligingly bundled up all the taboo subjects, examined them and explained that they are not so frightening after all. This time he is not crunching new stuff (beyond some interesting investigations of class differences), but mostly explaining what a whole torrent of new research may mean for all of us. In that sense he is following up on his work on Human Excellence, identifying those thoughts and findings which later ages will find of note in ours. These are exciting times, and although we cannot be sure that this is a whole new chapter in our understanding of ourselves, it certainly feels it might be.

Critics will quickly note that Murray’s aim is seditious. He wishes to destroy the proposition that in a properly run society, people of all human groupings will have similar life outcomes. Clearly, they won’t, and the fast flourishing genetic revolution is what provokes Murray to provide a progress report, one he hopes will be out of date shortly. Incidentally, writing a book about the genetics of human behaviour is a selfless act. This book took a long time to write, working through complex new research, but Murray is aware it might have a shelf life of a few months. Given that his explanations of basic issues are helpful, I think it will last far longer.

[...]

The book is a master-class in explaining, and is far closer to text-book than meta-analysis, though it performs that latter function. Sadly, Murray cannot name his many advisors who looked at drafts of his book and made helpful suggestions. Contemporary academia is poisonous on race, sex and class. Happily, there are many knowledgeable people who were able to help him give an accurate and balanced account, without needing to share in the lime light. Veritas liberabit vos.

Murray is a good top-level guide to genetic discoveries precisely because he is outside the field looking in, with the purpose of being an explainer. Good writers in science quickly make you feel you knew the subject anyway. He is to behavioural science what Feynman’s lecture notes were to physics. Which reminds me of a Feynman quote highly relevant to what Murray is doing in the this book: Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

[...]

It is very strange that an author who goes to such lengths to be kind, considered and balanced should be excoriated. Stranger still that the attacks should be so rigidly extreme when the text itself is mild, cautious and proudly admiring of the average citizen. Murray is not a polemicist: he just keeps the score, and explains his judgments. He does not eschew the correct nomenclature of digging instruments. I think he makes good calls, and if you want to see the steps in his arguments, he lays them out for you in the appendices.

The purpose and test of this book is whether it will be read. I hope so. The writing invites reading. The tone is balanced, restrained, and friendly to those for whom all this research may be news. When the topics are complicated and technical, anyone can baffle. Being legible is harder. Anyone who wants to know the score on the possible causes of sex, race and class differences will be amply rewarded in understanding if they read this book. It deserves to mark a turning point in public understanding of the biological factors in human behaviour.

Comments

  1. Kirk says:

    The issues here roll right back around to what I’ve been saying about IQ tests: They don’t measure what we think they do, and we’ve utterly warped society around the premise that they do.

    Much of what these ring-head academics “observe” in society around us has the form of self-fulfilling prophecy: Of course people that do well on IQ tests are successes–We’ve been using the damn tests to give them a leg up over everyone else since the turn of the 19th Century. In reality, whatever it is the various IQ tests are measuring isn’t so much “intelligence” as it is “pleases the person giving the test”. You want a real-world proxy, look at how these bona-fide “certified geniuses” perform out in the real world–And, that, my friends, is not a pretty picture at all.

    Look at the streets of San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit–All of them have been in the hands of the test-anointed since mid-way through the 20th Century. Do they look anything at all like they did in 1900, when this regime of test-giving and test-taking began? D’ya think that this isn’t all connected, somehow?

    All y’all ought to be developing some slight signs of cognitive dissonance, by about now. If not, you’re hopeless.

    Whatever it is that we’re measuring with the IQ test, it is very obviously not a proxy for “Let’s put these people in charge of everything, everywhere…”.

    I remain entirely skeptical of the entire premise. Smart is as smart does, in the real world–Not what it does on some test made up by some equally “smart” people, who actually can’t run shit in the real world.

    We’ve put things into the hands of the “meritocracy”, and used these tests to select them. Examine the results they have produced, and tell me that they demonstrate “merit”. I don’t think they actually do.

    You’d get better results running a city like Seattle if you fired all the politicians and oh-so-exquisitely-educated idiot elites, and put some random selection of “normies” in charge in their place. At the point we’re at now, I believe that any academic attainment whatsoever is cause for suspicion, unless it’s something that came out of a rigorous STEM lineage. The “humanities” and fuzzy subjects are a lost cause, and the products coming out of them can’t be trusted to be able to pour piss out of a boot.

  2. Graham says:

    I think I’ve got a couple of footnotes to that-

    1. It isn’t just a meritocracy. It has additional selection modes beyond the test taking. This is often the source of the problem.

    If you had an aristocracy but still subjected them to rigorous tests of ability [whether Oxford or the battlefield or both] they’d still decide things based on their values, preferences and interests and on the basis of the assumptions about the world they were taught. Really, hardly anyone ever challenges those assumptions, and not always for the better. Sometimes the assumptions are right, sometimes not.

    If you have engineers, they’ll think everything is a technical problem. Ditto managers.

    If you have lawyers, they’ll think everything is a contracts, rights or otherwise litigation issue, depending on which kind of lawyers you get.

    The present elite is not just the smartest test takers, it’s the smartest test takers who sign on to the self-policing value system of the existing power class.

    2. Any society is better off when it has competing elites by geography, profession, and worldview, who do not see themselves as one entity, perhaps not even socially, or all went to the same couple of schools. A little combat among them is even good.

    3. It may be the case that every society in its decadence tends toward a more unified elite, and that this is a marker of its decadence.

    4. It’s often the political content more than the just the mindset of being a good test taker, though they can and do reinforce one another. Ancient China, or today.

    5. It gets worse if you combine the politics with one profession in the elite. Engineers and Communism, or lawyers and whatever the US now has.

    6. Alas, checks and balances are the only way. There will never be one perfect elite or meritocracy. It will be worst of all the closer it gets to pure intellectuals- as I think Orwell said, some things are so stupid only an intellectual can believe them.

  3. Kirk says:

    “3. It may be the case that every society in its decadence tends toward a more unified elite, and that this is a marker of its decadence.”

    If I had to guess at the relationship there, I would say that the decadence flows from the “unified elite”, not the other way ’round.

    Smug, self-satisfied and ineffectual is no way to run a civilization, and that’s what we’ve got. They’ve locked the competent out, and what we have is some form of perverted kakistocracy formed by the incompetent yet able to fool the tests.

    Most of this crap is enabled by the legerdemain pulled off by the academic world, starting with the Wilsonian sort that gradually took over. They’ve never really been held to standard, out in the real world, and the real-world results haven’t flowed back into their ivory-tower refuges from reality.

    You start running into problems like this when your training games lose fidelity with reality. The root problem stems from that loss of fidelity, and we’ve had it since about the turn of the 19th into the 20th. When you can stand up in class, as a professor or instructor, and say things like “Marxism works…”, with no practical experience of such a system or any real-world evidence for same, something is very wrong with the academy.

    It’s like that professor of child psychology I was the subject of experimentation by, when my mom was in college. Dude never had kids of his own, never raised any of his own, but… He knew it all, and he taught others what he “knew” about kids. The man was an idiot, and God alone knows what harm he perpetuated across generations of not-his-kids. Most of academia is just like that–Theory, no testing in reality, and no feedback from the real world as to whether any of the theory actually works.

  4. Graham says:

    Oh, I have no problem with that. I’m just thinking that the narrow, self-perpetuating, largely common-type elite may drive society further down the paths of destruction, but some set of conditions has to prevail to create that elite.

    Too long a period of unity, resulting in every competing elite coming to have the same interests, identify with all the same values, marry one another, and then at last have the same formative experiences, and no longer being in conflict except as individuals?

    Elite class getting further and further removed from military service? Or even thinking about military matters?

    Elites of different regions and ethnicities identifying with one another over their subjects?

    Those would be my faves, but there’s got to be a lot of things working to together to arrive at these ends. For all that it happens over and over and over again everywhere.

    Asabiyya failure, perhaps.

    I wouldn’t want to lay too hard on criticizing unity, but there’s something in it, similar to what you have said about size in the past.

    Imperial China- always splitting and reuniting. Then the scholar bureaucrats spend their time squabbling over the all-powerful centre, and when the thing falls apart provinces cannot keep themselves intact against whatever the threat is.

    Rome- many regional elites eventually identifying with the empire and getting a previously unheard of share in the central power and the chance to compete for it. When that finally collapses, scarcely any formerly subject people seems able to rule or defend itself.

    I don’t know what to make of all that, but it just keeps going on. I’m not necessarily trying to stop it, but it’s worth study.

  5. Graham says:

    And yes- how often have I heard that Marxism or Communism has never been tried?

    Yeah it has- those examples are what it looks like when it gets tried.

  6. Kirk says:

    The thing that just yikes me about Socialism and Communism both is that you can run actual small-scale experiments on the micro-scale, and extrapolate from there. The pitfalls are obvious in daily life–Ever try to run something like an honor-system coffee bar, or snack supply in a small office or classroom? How about keep a bathroom clean and sanitary on an “honor system” like you’d have to have for socialism.

    Even with the best people and the best will in the world, you wind up having to run some sort of rota and be Joe Asshole to make any of those things work, ‘cos ain’t nobody wanting to do the necessary. Good f**king Christ, you want to see a nightmare sometime? Take a look at a gang latrine that some idealist has tried running on some sort of “clean as you go” idea. The results usually require steam cleaners and extensive chemical operations, if you let things go long enough.

    Humans are not naturally cooperative in that manner. We just aren’t, and trying to make believe we are is just delusional to the extreme.

    Funniest thing with regards to this? I had a young guy, a college dropout, come to our unit. He was one of those hippy-dippy types, and he’d joined the Army for college money. Had no idea what he was getting into, but it taught him a hell of a lot he never would have gotten out of college. One of the things was the essential and utter impractibility of a lot of the ideas he’d picked up, over the years. College gets you rank, when you enlist, and he had enough that he came in as a very senior junior enlisted–Not NCO, but just below that grade. Usually, these ranks are attained by people who have some small experience of things, but in his case… Not. So, he comes to me one day, and says “Hey, Sergeant K… I really, really loathe the way you guys micromanage us up in the barracks… It’s insulting, inhumane, and I want you to quit doing it…”. Well, it wasn’t quite phrased like that, but you get the gist of it.

    So, I put his ass in charge of keeping the latrines clean.

    Inside of a month, he totally changed his tune, and did a 180-degree turn on his attitude towards it all. His take after four weeks was that he wanted authority for capital punishment, and to nail several of his peers to the wall of the latrine as a salutary lesson to the rest.

    I let things go on with him as the guy on the blame line for a few more weeks, and then I asked him “So… What do you think about the role of coercion in leadership now, as opposed to relying on pure self-interest…?”. I got kind of a crazy-eyed look back, and we all decided that maybe, just maybe, the traditional methods had their place in things.

    He eventually made a fairly good junior NCO, when we promoted him, but he had a painful learning curve to experience before we put stripes on him.

    Humans ain’t ants. We’re contrary, destructive, and entirely unreliable in all too many respects, and you don’t get good results by appealing to our better natures. I’m of the opinion that we mostly don’t have those, TBH…

  7. RLVC says:

    Kirk: “Look at the streets of San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit–All of them have been in the hands of the test-anointed since mid-way through the 20th Century. Do they look anything at all like they did in 1900, when this regime of test-giving and test-taking began? D’ya think that this isn’t all connected, somehow?”

    There’s a connexion, but it isn’t what you think.

    In 1900, those cities (and all of the others) were cities of, by, and for Protestants of English (and some German) stock.

    Then, on Christmas Eve of 1913, the Federal Reserve was established; in 1914, the War began; in 1916, Louis Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court.

    And now those cities (and all of the others) are of, by, and for a very different kind of people.

    Charles Murray wrote a book that danced delicately around this issue: Coming Apart. There’s another, titled Choosing Elites, which is a bit more explicit, but good luck getting a copy. Finally, there’s Paul Fussel’s Class, in which the author caught a glimpse of something but didn’t quite understand what he was seeing.

    If you prefer video, a very long time ago I came across a very interesting comment hidden away in one of the places you would least expect. The video is an undisturbed gem; it was published in 2012, before our dear leaders understood the power of the Internet; it has just 483 views. You, dear reader, can be the 484th.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2KoGz7UbMA

    And if you think you don’t have an hour to spend on one of the most subtly remarkable videos ever to grace the digital tubes, here are some quotes to change your mind.

    8:38 Cynthia Tucker: “I would like to think I’ve done much the same thing, though I could not have put it so eloquently. I think we’ve arrived at a moment when, as much as anything, the public needs the reassurance of commentary based on facts, not stereotypes, on evidence, not emotion, on empiricism, not biases. The recent election (2012) has been another powerful affirmation of a trend long underway: the browning of America and the increasing political power and social significance of darker-skinned Americans.”

    20:34 David Brooks: “Thank you. It’s naturally an honor and a privilege and humbling to be here.”

    20:58 “Let me say first of all it’s a thrill to be back in Massachusetts. I have a rule with my punditry, I’ll be interlocutor with any liberal commentator as long as they’re Catholics from Boston.”

    24:22 “The big takeaway from the election was that is marks a social transition. There are certain elections that are about social and historical transitions…The 2012 election was a shift from one demographic picture of America to another. And the first thing to be emphasize is that this shift is not daring and radical and new. Every company — almost — and every institution — almost — has gone from the shift from a white-dominated America to a globalized, diverse America.”

    25:15 “The lagging indicator was government, and the especial lagging indicator was the Republican Party. Harvard made this shift in 1952. In 1952, this institution was a white male institution. Two-thirds of the students who applied were admitted; if your father went to Harvard and you applied, there was a 90% chance you would get in; the median SAT score for freshman in 1952 was 583, which is fine, but not where it is today.”

    25:50 “And it was the embodiment of the WASP culture…now, because I’m a conservative, I have some affection for that culture. I came from a Jewish background in New York where our phrase was, ‘Think Yiddish act British.’…the WASPs — and I grew up with them on the main line of Philadelphia — had a libido for the ugly, and so the men would wear these duck pants, the women these floral gowns so they look like hydrangea bushes walking down the street…”

    27:04 “But that was one culture, and in early 1950s, James Bryan Conant and the admissions directory Henry Chauncy decided, ‘this can’t be Harvard’s future,’…you have to change what Harvard is. And so they, in the 1950s, went through the transition that the Republican Party still hasn’t gone through. And they become more diverse increasingly as the years went by, more modern, while still remaining Harvard, in fact remaining more Harvard maybe than they were. And so they preserved the essence of this place by transitioning.”

    You have almost certainly never encountered this speech, but perhaps you think that you’ve heard that bolded bit before.

    And maybe you have.

    https://youtube.com/watch?v=8ERmOpZrKtw

  8. Graham says:

    Kirk,

    Funny you should mention latrines. I occasionally wonder what the hell is the matter with my male co-workers with regard to the men’s room in our workplace.

    We’re talking one of many men’s rooms in a large office building, which get renovated about once in 15 years and diffidently cleaned by a service provider several times a day.

    I sometimes feel like my coworkers, or a selection thereof, were not taught the proper use of the flush mechanism or of toilet paper, to wit, how not to leave shreds of it on the floor. Or paper [if one is lucky] in the bowl. And these aren’t any wussy low flow gizmos either.

    Then there’s spillage at the urinals, and poor hand washing abilities.

    It’s like living among apes.

    The funny thing is, my female colleagues have no shortage of stories about their own peers in this area.

    If it weren’t for the subpar but frequent efforts of the maintenance company, things would go downhill in a hurry.

    I never thought of myself as especially fussy in these areas, but I had a mother who emphasized cleanliness and proper habits in life. What did these people have?

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