Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class; by Charles Murray; Twelve Books; 528 pp., $35.00
When I was a graduate student in the 1990s, the following joke elicited knowing grins even from those sympathetic to the impenetrable French postmodernist theory that was then making the rounds:
Q: Have you read the new Derrida?
A: Read it? I haven’t even taught it yet.
This joke cut close to truth. Too many of those teaching—or preaching—Derrida and the rest back then were clearly making it up as they went. Of course, some critics of the French stuff suffered from the same disease. It’s always easier to have an opinion about a book you haven’t read than to do the work necessary to know what you are talking about.
Somewhat coincidentally, the book that put Charles Murray on the radar of left-wing activists in universities was published during that same period. After the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve, a flood of books and articles swiftly denounced it, purporting to show the falsity of its claims. These works generally mischaracterized Murray’s argument in egregious ways. It was patently obvious within a few sentences of many reviews that the reviewer had not even bothered to open Murray’s book.
Now, a quarter-century later, Murray has published another book that is also likely to be met with considerable groaning from critics prone to judge books by their covers, rather than their contents.
In Human Diversity, Murray summarizes the evidence from neuroscience and behavioral genetics that some significant portion of the causes of social disparities along sexual, racial, and class lines are based on genetic inheritance. He describes the pace of research in the relevant fields, predicting that we are close to the point at which it will become scientifically untenable to deny this fact.
In light of the opening Derrida joke, I am pleased, dear reader, to say that I first read Murray’s new book and only then taught it. I used the book in class because I consider it a fair-minded and accessible introduction to a complicated body of scientific material about the deep sources of our personalities and life trajectories. As the book’s subtitle indicates, it is the great progressive trinity of race, class, and gender that Murray investigates in these pages, and he provides an insightful and fair-minded journey through large bodies of research on all three.
What do we know about these differences? As populations, it is quite clear that men and women differ in their ranges of personality and behavioral profiles, though there is much overlap and similarity. Women are more likely to be accommodating, sensitive, sentimental, altruistic, and sociable, while men are more frequently reserved, utilitarian, dispassionate, and solitary. Men are more physically assertive and aggressive.
Some of this has to do with socialization and culture, but the tendencies are evident across differing societies. These differences mean that men and women typically have divergent career preferences. Ironically, these differences remain, and even become more exaggerated, in the societies that have worked the hardest to remove coercive social barriers which may have prevented women from entering certain fields. Brain structures differ between the two sexes in ways that at least partially explain personality and behavioral differences.
Race differences, too, are affected by social forces. The racial categories we use are informed by the various ways disparate societies perceive differences in populations. But there is also considerable evidence of genetic differences between ancestral populations—populations that overlap quite well with what we term “racial groups”—and these genetic differences have evident effects on phenotypic appearance and perhaps also on personality and behavioral profiles as well, though the details on this are still largely uncertain.
On social class, the contemporary view is that those of a higher class status are there by virtue of nothing more than unearned privilege, which could and should be undone by radically redistributionist policies. Without denying the ways in which economic inequality presents barriers to meritocratic rise, Murray summarizes the evidence that such hierarchies are, in part, a consequence of cognitive sorting. This is the process in which high IQ individuals rise to positions of influence, intermarry with others in their same cognitive class, and then have children likely to match those same cognitive profiles. This makes any utopian project of altogether dismantling “the class system” an even more difficult proposition than previously imagined.
Scholars who do not yet bear the same warning labels as Murray have said much the same thing about genetic contributions to human differences. Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the inventors of the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis in biology, believed that race (which he saw as the equivalent in humans to “subspecies”) is real in Homo sapiens, and that different behavioral and personality profiles among racial groups were a possible consequence.
More recently, David Reich, a well-regarded Harvard geneticist, gave the same scientific justification Murray does in a book, Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018), and in a New York Times op-ed that accompanied its publication. Reich refuses to abandon, out of political correctness, the kind of research Murray describes.
Whether the “woke” academic left and the progressive Twitterati like it or not, there are scads of genetically-informed researchers filling up the database with studies reinforcing the claims made in Murray’s book. They are going to keep working, and the evidence is going to keep piling up against the theory that there are no important innate parameters and limits for development, and therefore it is possible for any child to turn into anything with the proper social engineering. This “Blank Slate” thesis of human nature increasingly does not fit the scientific evidence.
The political stakes here are obvious. The dominant progressive perspective assumes that all differences in interests, talents, and achievements between individuals can be eliminated if we just spend enough energy and money eliminating social barriers and discrimination. This is done specifically through racist progressivist policies that assume minorities cannot compete without government mandated advantages.
Yet the scientific evidence suggests that no matter how many of these policies we pursue, we are unlikely to make any significant difference. No matter how many affirmative action programs and race-based set-asides we produce, no matter the number of Title IX intricacies, no matter how profoundly we intervene from cradle to grave in the lives of children in dysfunctional families via state-funded infant care, early education, and round-the-clock tutors and nurses, disparities and differences in social outcomes along sex, race, and class lines are likely to remain. The rule in nature is difference, and we are still part of nature.
Murray argues that this realization should not frighten us, as it does not threaten the basic moral bedrock of Western societies. Namely, that individuals must be judged on their own merits and cannot be barred from educational and career trajectories by virtue of their sex, race, or class. In America, we are committed to the idea that individuals should be allowed to rise to whatever level their abilities will carry them, without legal penalty or reward based on their membership in this or that social identity group.
Alas, many among us are unprepared for this message. My experience teaching Murray’s book was a predictable one. My students are clever young people, but for the entirety of their brief lives they have been thoroughly saturated in the dogma that sex, race, and class are wholly social constructs with no connection whatsoever to biology. And because they’ve been so effectively propagandized by the entirety of elite American culture, and especially by our educational institutions, many of them chafe at the possibility that this deeply-held article of faith might be mistaken.
In the concluding chapter of Human Diversity, Murray discusses the role that chance plays in determining the trajectories and destinations of our lives. In our secular, materialist age, humans want desperately to believe that we alone make important decisions about our lives, and we—or at least the young among us—believe we are destined to make great changes in many things. Such is the story of progress. The sky is the limit, and we can become what we will. The lesson of Murray’s latest book, as of much of his earlier work, is that we might do better to embrace a more humble perspective.
This lesson is consistent with much of what conservatives have believed and argued since Edmund Burke. We do not choose our parents, and they did not choose theirs. Our lives are affected by the patterns traced out by the accidents of their pairings and of others going further back than we can know.
Human beings are similar in many ways, but different in others, sometimes profoundly so. Both the commonalities and the differences must be accepted and understood if we want to know how to best organize ourselves into moral cultures.