A review of Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class by Charles Murray, Twelve (January 28th, 2020), 528 pages.
Charles Murray believes in the values of Enlightenment: science and knowledge, truth and progress. Like the fictional character Lodovico Settembrini—a pro-Enlightenment Italian humanist in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain—Murray believes that science provides the best method available to produce objective knowledge about ourselves and the world; that knowledge about ourselves and the world is important and good; that this knowledge will bring us closer to the truth about who we are and where we come from; and that this knowledge will foster human progress and lead to more prosperous, peaceful, fair, and egalitarian societies as well as greater health and happiness for their inhabitants.
If, say, Montesquieu had visited the United States in the mid-late 20th century (as did his French countryman Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831), he might have thought of this country as the closest thing to an embodiment of his Enlightenment ideals. If he journeyed here again in 2020, however, he might change his mind. Nowadays, a growing number of Americans (including prominent university professors, newspaper columnists, and politicians) reject the value of science, knowledge, truth, and progress, or at the very least are highly skeptical about it. Some of them believe that science is a cultural expression of Western societies, no better a tool for explaining the world than the divinations of the shamans from the Amazonian tribes. Others believe that knowledge and truth are dangerous illusions reflecting a flawed view of reality; that progress is just a concept through which Western societies have colonized and subjugated other societies; and more generally that science, knowledge, truth, and progress are just tools with which oppressors dominate, control, and exploit the oppressed.
To these people, Charles Murray is one of the worst examples of a privileged white male who, in the name of science, knowledge, truth, and progress, perpetuates the oppression of women and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. These people will not read Murray’s Human Diversity at all, or will “read” it only for the purpose of tearing it apart. Many of them would be happy to burn all the copies of the book, and will do their best to prevent Murray from speaking publicly about the book, or anything else, especially on college campuses.
In The Magic Mountain, Settembrini has an intellectual adversary, the Marxist Jesuit Leo Naphta (a character inspired by the Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács), with whom he engages in lengthy, highly erudite, and intense debates. Naphta rejects the Enlightenment ideals promoted by Settembrini—the importance of freedom, democracy, reason, knowledge, and progress—defending instead the dogmatic, authoritarian aspects of Catholicism and communism. In Mann’s view, the implementation of Catholic doctrine by the Church’s Holy Inquisition in the late Middle Ages and the implementation of Marxist ideology by the communist regime in the Soviet Union in the early 20th century shared some important similarities. Mann created the Naphta character to represent a blend of these positions.
In 21st century America, anti-Enlightenment intellectuals do not always engage with their adversaries with sharp dialectical tools the way Naphta does in The Magic Mountain, but like him, they advocate censorship, persecution, and the burning of the heretics. The polarization between pro- and anti-Enlightenment intellectuals in the US transcends traditional political boundaries. The liberal intellectual Steven Pinker has been demonized and persecuted by other liberals and progressives for writing books (such as Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018) that endorse and promote Enlightenment values. Murray views himself more as a conservative than a liberal. Yet, they are criticized by some of the same people.
Although one may find some of Naphta’s arguments in The Magic Mountain quite compelling, I will approach Murray’s Human Diversity from Settembrini’s perspective. Because the current culture wars in the US have already produced too many casualties, I will also try to reduce the animosity between the two warring parties, beginning with a comment about the title of Murray’s book.
While Human Diversity is an effective title, the book’s subtitle “The biology of gender, race, and class” is a suboptimal choice. A less provocative subtitle might have been “The science of individual and group differences in mind and behavior.” The book is about more than biology, and doesn’t necessarily—or always—favor biological explanations over environmental ones. More accurately, it is a review of scientific research concerning individual and group differences in cognitive processes and behavior, and the research being reviewed encompasses many disciplines: psychology, sociology, education, economics, genetics, neuroscience, and population biology, among others.
Human Diversity is an outstanding book. Murray has written an authoritative summary of research on human diversity. It would be a great introductory textbook for undergraduate and graduate students, but also a valuable resource for senior researchers and educators. It contains a great deal of highly technical material, but Murray makes a valuable effort to ensure this technical material is easily accessible. Murray has not written a book meant to be overtly polemical or controversial. His tone is highly professional, calm, almost subdued, and he goes to great lengths to avoid eliciting strong negative reactions. For example, he chooses to stay away from research in evolutionary psychology. He also chooses not to talk about human “races,” and speaks instead of human populations that originated on different continents. The most polemical aspects of Human Diversity are perhaps the titles of the three main sections of the book: “Gender is a social construct”; “Race is a social construct”; and “Class is a function of privilege.” The book would have been equally effective, with less polemical section titles.
The section examining the research on gender differences in personality and cognition is the most extensive. The review of the literature is organized around four propositions, which Murray believes are largely supported by the data: “Sex differences in personality are consistent worldwide and tend to widen in more gender-egalitarian cultures; On average, females worldwide have advantages in verbal ability and social cognition while males have advantages in visuo-spatial abilities and the extremes of mathematical ability; On average, women worldwide are more attracted to vocations centered on people and men to vocations centered on things; Many sex differences in the brain correspond to sex differences in personality, abilities, and social behavior.”
The second section is organized around three propositions: “Human populations are genetically distinctive in ways that correspond to self-identified race and ethnicity; Evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local; Continental population differences in variants associated with personality, abilities, and social behavior are common.”
Finally, the third section reaches the following conclusions: “The shared environment usually plays a minor role in explaining personality, abilities, and social behavior; Class structure is importantly based on differences in abilities that have a substantial genetic component; Outside interventions are inherently constrained in the effects they can have on personality, abilities, and social behavior” (but Murray predicts that this last proposition will eventually be falsified, when new and stronger science-based interventions become available).
Human Diversity includes some material already presented in Murray’s previous books, such as The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (with Richard J. Herrnstein, 1994) and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010 (2012). In Human Diversity, however, the review of the literature includes hundreds of references to studies published in the past five to 10 years. Murray accurately describes the studies and their procedures, faithfully represents their results, and is cautious in interpretation. In many cases, he acknowledges both strengths and weaknesses of the studies, entertains alternative explanations for the results, and adds caveats to the conclusions. He may be overly optimistic in his belief that genome-wide studies will, in the next 10 – 20 years, fully unravel the complexity of variation in human psychology and behavior, particularly for traits for which there are significant gene-environment interactions. Murray does not advocate or suggest that biology will take over all the social science disciplines, as others have done in the past. He accurately represents the current strengths of research in psychology, sociology, economics, and education, and foresees a bright future for these disciplines if their practitioners continue to keep an open mind and incorporate in their work the latest scientific developments in theory, methods, and empirical findings.
Murray warns upfront that readers who are convinced that gender, race, and class are all social constructs and that any claims to the contrary are pseudoscientific “won’t get past the first few pages before you can’t stand it anymore. This book isn’t for you.” He then continues, “Now that we are alone, let me tell you what Human Diversity is about and why I wrote it.”
The problem with Murray being “alone” with his favorite readers is that he risks preaching to the choir, thereby reducing the impact that Human Diversity might have on the people who would benefit the most from reading it: those who don’t share his views, and those who have not yet formed a strong opinion on the subject matter of this book. Those who believe that Murray’s agenda is to perpetuate the oppression of minorities will be surprised to learn that Murray cares deeply about interventions to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds to express their full potential in society. But Murray cares about interventions that are based on solid science. His agenda, if he has one, is to promote Enlightenment values, not the interests of some privileged ruling class.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to teach a class about the intersection between science and literature, drawing largely from European novels published around the turn of the century that engaged with questions of “human nature.” While discussing Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899), some students came very close to arguing that the novel should be banned on the basis that it conveys racist colonial attitudes which are harmful and dangerous. The lack of significant female characters in the novel was interpreted by one student as unequivocal proof of the author’s sexism. I teach my science students that the absence of evidence cannot be interpreted as evidence for something. Null results, in this case the absence of female characters in the novel, could be the product of many different causes and one should resist the temptation to arbitrarily explain these null results in terms of his favorite perspective, in this case the accusation that the author is sexist.
It seems that even the most promising young minds—eager to challenge science, knowledge, and the other values of the Enlightenment—could benefit from some scientific training themselves. They should also read The Magic Mountain and pay close attention to how deeply and eloquently Naphta articulates his positions, as well as the fact that the (Hegelian Marxist) Naphta’s glorification of suffering and death leads him to shoot himself in the head.
Dario Maestripieri is a professor at The University of Chicago and author of Science Meets Literature: What Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé Tells Us about the Human Mind and Human Behavior (London, UK: Anthem Press, 2019) and Literature’s Contributions to Scientific Knowledge: How Novels Explored New Ideas about Human Nature (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019).
Photo by Micah Baldwin on Flickr. The creator’s digital signature has been removed from the original image.