An unofficial transcription of the 2017 Constance Holden Memorial Address at the International Society for Intelligence Research, given by Toby Young
Transcribed on 6th Oct 2017 from the uploaded recording on Youtube here:
Where the speaker dictates from a slide (where there are minor differences), the slide’s text is given preference over the words spoken.
The introduction is not included.
Well thank you very much. It’s an honour to be giving the Constance Holden Memorial Address and I wanted to thank Tim and the board of ISIR for inviting me and to thank Sharif for being such a fantastic host.
Tancy Holden did more than perhaps any other science journalist to communicate the growing scientific understanding of the genetic and biological underpinnings of the human mind. Something she was honoured for by the National Mental Health Association in 2004. In their words:
She took seemingly-complex subject matter and wrote it clearly so that the public could understand it and get excited about it.
She was also an artist and this is a self-portrait she did.
I want to begin by talking about an actual example of science journalism: the recent editorial in Nature entitled “Intelligence research should not be held back by its past” (link) which I’m sure most of you have read. It lamented the fact that the study of intelligence is not included on the undergraduate psychology courses of many leading American universities — something we heard about yesterday — and attributed this to its association, in the minds of students and faculties, with elitism and racism. According to the editorial that’s due to the misuse of intelligence research in the past by eugenicists and race scientists, and the editorial expressed the hope that this toxic baggage could be discarded, and intelligence rehabilitated as an important strand of psychology.
I find that this optimism is often shared by scholars who study the genetic basis of human psychological traits. And who can blame them? It’s not much fun to be branded a “Nazi” or a “white supremacist” on Twitter.
Among behavioural geneticists, evolutionary psychologists, sociobiologists, neurobiologists, cognitive neuroscientists, biosocial criminologists (and so on) there is a fairly widely-held belief that the only reason their disciplines are looked on with suspicion by their academic colleagues is due to ignorance and prejudice: the erroneous view that there’s something inherently “conservative” about their understanding of human nature and the role that evolution has played in shaping it; or the equally-mistaken belief that various progressive political ideals — such as equal rights and the welfare state — depend upon thinking of man as a piece of clay entirely moulded by his environment. These were myths that Steven Pinker was at pains to debunk in The Blank Slate.
Clearing up these misunderstandings simply involves these scholars becoming better communicators (the thinking goes) after which they’ll be welcomed into the bosom of the Academy (or at least not provoke angry demonstrations whenever they’re invited to speak at American liberal arts colleges).
As you probably guessed, I think the Nature editorial was a tad optimistic.
I’m going to set out a more cautious position, look at some examples of scientists and science writers who’ve got into trouble for saying something controversial about research into intelligence and other psychological traits, and suggest some general rules you might want to think about observing to avoid that happening to you. But having said that, I’m not all that confident that these controversies can be avoided.
So I want to begin by distinguishing between two types of political opponents to the human sciences: the original variety dating back to the protest against Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, and E. O. Wilson in the 1960s, who are referred to as “Liberal Creationists”; and a more virulent recent strain who we’ve seen at work in the protest against Charles Murray, Jordan Peterson, and Bret Weinstein and who I’ll call “Postmodern Creationists”.
While it may be reasonable to expect a cessation of hostilities between intelligence researchers and the first set of political opponents — a rapprochement based on a clearing-away of historical baggage and misunderstandings, as the editorial in Nature suggests — I think it’s naive to expect any such detente with the adherence of the neo-Marxist Intersectionality cult. No “peace & reconciliation committee” will be able to broker a ceasefire on that front. As far as the “Social Justice Warriors” are concerned, intelligence researchers are the enemy. Indeed, anyone who believes that human differences are rooted in biology, rather than socially constructed, is the enemy, and I’m afraid they won’t rest until they’ve removed the last remaining copy of the “Minnesota Study of Identical Twins Reared Apart” from your cold, dead, hands.
So let’s begin with the Liberal Creationists, a phrase coined by William Saletan in a series of articles for Slate in 2007, in which he compared those on the progressive left who reject the findings of intelligence researchers to Christians at the beginning of the 20th century struggling to reconcile their beliefs with the theory of evolution. As Pinker argues in The Blank Slate, many of the anti-hereditarians who rejected the theories of Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, E. O. Wilson, Napoleon Chagnon, Richard Dawkins, Charles Murray, and others (and who wrote joint letters to newspapers and periodicals denouncing them) did so in the mistaken belief that their liberal values were threatened by them.
And I’ll summarize these “heretical” ideas as follows:
- that there is such a thing as human nature
- that it’s been shaped by evolution
- that it creates a proclivity for various forms of anti-social behaviour, including predation, cruelty, warfare, sexual enslavement and homicidal violence
- that there are group differences between human beings that have emerged as a result of differential evolution that has taken place since homo sapiens emerged from their ancestral homelands in Africa some 40,000 to 100,000 years ago
I don’t particularly want to get into why progressive academics reacted so defensively when human scientists started articulating these ideas (or in some cases reviving them). As the editorial in Nature says, they are tainted by association with the eugenics movement, including the compulsory sterilization in various Western countries of the mentally ill, the disabled, young women, blacks, Native Americans (and so on); as well as with social darwinism, racism, and Nazism. After half a century of these horrors left-wing intellectuals understandably didn’t want to see them repeated.
Instead I want to focus on why these anti-hereditarians were wrong to think of these ideas as inextricably bound up with these toxic political movements and fundamentally incompatible with liberal values.
At this point it’s probably helpful to distinguish between the study of those psychological traits that all human beings have in common; and those that set us apart from each other — between evolutionary psychology and differential psychology. Take the example of Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist and sociobiologist who’s devoted his life to studying the Yąnomamö — an Amazonian tribe that exists on either side of the Brazilian-Venezuelan border.
In Chagnon’s telling the Yąnomamö (whom he christened “The Fierce People”) are a far cry from the romantic cliché of rainforest Indians as innocent tree-huggers menaced by Western capitalists. As he told a Brazilian journalist:
Real Indians sweat, they smell bad, they take hallucinogenic drugs, they belch after they eat, they covet and at times steal their neighbour’s wife, they fornicate, and they make war,
In other words: they’re just like us.
In describing the Yąnomamö like this, Chagnon breached a sacred taboo in contemporary anthropology, whereby mankind in his natural state is supposed to be a “noble savage” untainted by the West’s evil ways. To acknowledge the Yąnomamö are guilty of “Original Sin” — that they suffer from all the same vices as we moderns in their rainforest idyll — is to imply that there’s something “natural” about these vices. Then that in turn is to legitimise them. At least that is the group-think amongst liberal progressives who dominate the field of anthropology.
An example of the sort of book anthropologists are supposed to write about indigenous people is Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, which portrayed adolescent Samoan males as gentle fawn-like creatures; they made love not war.
Chagnon had to be punished for this transgression and, as Alice Dreger related in her Holden Memorial Address in 2015, various anthropologists collaborated with a science writer called Patrick Tierney in a systematic effort to destroy his reputation. Tierney published a book called Darkness in El Dorado in 2000 accusing Chagnon, and his collaborator the geneticist James Neel, of: fomenting wars amongst rival tribes; aiding and abetting illegal gold miners; deliberately infecting the Yąnomamö with measles; and paying subjects to kill each other. Not surprisingly these charges were taken at face value and widely reported by science journalists and liberal publications like The New Yorker and the New York Times, who were all too ready to believe that a predatory white male had exploited these poor oppressed people.
A headline in The Guardian read: “Scientist ‘killed Amazon indians to test race theory’” (link).
Many of Chagnon’s colleagues turned on him, including the American Anthropological Association which set up an El Dorado task force to investigate his thought-crimes. He was not allowed to defend himself and the task force published a report confirming several of Tierney’s allegations. As a result Chagnon was forced into early retirement.
Luckily the doughty Alice Dreger came to his aid. In a 50,000 word article published in 2011 in a peer-reviewed journal called Human Nature, she painstakingly rebutted all the charges against Chagnon detailing the various ways in which Tierney had fabricated and misrepresented the evidence. Chagnon has now been exonerated and resumed his career.
Why did Chagnon’s left-wing colleagues react in the way they did? To describe a particular form of human behavior as natural is not to suggest that it’s morally right. To do so would be to break Hume’s law: to infer an “ought” from an “is”. In moral philosophy this is known as the naturalistic fallacy and, with a few exceptions, darwinian anthropologists, sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and so forth, are not guilty of this. On the contrary it’s far more likely to be committed by progressive social scientists (like Margaret Mead) who have difficulty disentangling the scientific aspects of their ideas from 18th century Romanticism, with its idealised conception of primitive man.
This is the paradox of modern progressive thought identified by Steven Pinker. It simultaneously maintains that man is a tabula rasa and essentially good.
Okay (say the blank-slatist Rousseauian romantics): maybe this warts-and-all conception of man propped-up-by-biology doesn’t logically entail that predation, sexual enslavement, and homicidal violence is morally right. But if man’s true nature is so base how can we hope to create a more just society?
The answer is: quite easily. The fact that we have certain proclivities doesn’t mean that we have to follow them. And the progress we’ve made since we emerged from a primeval forest wooden-club-in-hand is proof of that.
The writer Kingsley Amis, who was a notorious philanderer, said that he felt as if he’d lived the first 50 years of his life tethered to a goat. And that’s as good a description as any of the human condition. We may be inseparable from our animal nature, but that doesn’t mean we have to do its bidding at every turn. It’s unrealistic to say we have complete freedom, but nonetheless there are a huge variety of political arrangements that are compatible with the darwinian conception of human nature, including scandinavian social democracy.
Having said that, I do think our nature places some constraints on what’s politically possible. Or at least means a heavy price has to be paid, in terms of human freedom, to realise some political ideals and I’ll come to that in a moment.
All right. That’s enough about what we all have in common. What about that which divides us? Let’s start with individual differences. One of the reasons the claims of intelligence researchers so often provoke a hostile reaction is because their assertions about the heritability of Spearman’s `g` are often mistakenly understood to be a defence of the status quo.
So how does this misunderstanding occur? When a progressive liberal listens to a behaviour geneticist talk about the heritability of IQ and the positive correlation between IQ and socioeconomic status, what they think they’re hearing is a social darwinist argument in favour of the current distribution of wealth and power; “the poor deserve their low SES because of their low polygenic scores and the rich deserve theirs because of their high scores”. That is, they assume the intelligence researcher is breaking Hume’s law (because something “is” it “ought to be”). But rather than attack the inference (which would be difficult because no intelligence researcher has ever made that inference) they attack the premise, and in doing so unconsciously make the false step themselves.
This mistake is so common among critics of intelligence researchers it really ought to be included on Linda Gottfredson’s list of logical fallacies used to dismiss intelligence research. It involves ascribing to your opponent a faulty form of reasoning that they aren’t guilty of, and accusing them of reaching a conclusion that they haven’t in fact reached. It’s a kind of imaginary confirmation bias: seeing evidence where none exists that confirms your jaundiced view of your opponent; a way of rationalising your contempt for them.
But it begs the question: if intelligence researchers aren’t actually guilty of the naturalistic fallacy and don’t hold the toxic views anti-hereditarians ascribe to them, why the hostility in the first place? Perhaps the psychologists in the audience can suggest some answers for that at the end of my talk.
Nowhere is this mistake more prevalent then when it comes to the liberal-left’s reaction to any discussion of group differences. Let’s start with sex differences. When I asked Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski why there were fewer women than men in the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth and the Talent Identification Program cohorts, David calmly explained that while there was no difference in the mean IQ scores of males and females, there was more variance among the male scores. He cited various pieces of research that had established this including a paper published by Ian Deary and others, and described this finding as “robust”. He said this as if it was the most natural, uncontentious thing in the world — only an ignoramus would dispute it!
Why then was Larry Summers forced to resign as president of Harvard for saying exactly the same thing? In 2005 at a “Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce” sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Summers speculated that the reason women were underrepresented in tenured positions in STEM subjects at top universities was because there was greater variability in the cognitive abilities of men than women. One of the professors present immediately walked out in disgust and it snowballed from there: distinguished alumni withheld donations, Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences amassed a motion of no-confidence in Summers, and he was forced to apologise over and over again like a supplicant at a Chinese show trial.
In the end he had no choice but to tender his resignation. All for saying something that is, as David Lubinski said, scientifically incontestable. It also cost him the job of Treasury Secretary in the first Obama administration.
Why did Summers have to pay such a price? After all the claim that there’s more variance in the cognitive abilities of men than women means that there are more men at the left-hand tail of the IQ distribution curve as well as more male outliers in other personality tests, such as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. If anything, it’s men who should be complaining about this “dangerous so-called scientific hypothesis” and not women(!)
Okay that was 12 years ago. Would similar remarks be less controversial today, as the Nature editorial suggests? Is this one of the findings of intelligence researchers that has “gone mainstream”? The experience of Sir Timothy Hunt would suggest not.
Tim Hunt is an eminent scientist — in 2001 he won a Nobel Prize for his work on cell division — who made an unfortunate off-the-cuff toast at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul two years ago: “let me tell you about my trouble with girls”, he said, having introduced himself as a “chauvinist monster”,
Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls.
He was obviously joking. His next sentence, in which he called for more women to pursue careers in science, began with the words “Now seriously” and his impromptu remarks even got a polite laugh from the, predominantly female, audience. But after some edited highlights were put on Twitter by a female science journalist who didn’t see the funny side, he suddenly found himself at the centre of a global media storm.
He was forced to give up his position as an honorary professor at the University of London’s Faculty of Life Sciences, resigned from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee and stand down from the European Research Council. “I’ve been hung out to dry”, he told The Observer newspaper.
Would David Lubinski have to resign as professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University if someone stuck his remarks to me on Twitter? Almost certainly not. Male Nobel Prize winners in the life sciences are held to a higher standard and context is important. Larry Summers was speaking at a conference on diversifying the workforce and Tim Hunt was addressing a group of female science writers not intelligence researchers.
But there’s another more important reason why Summers and Hunt were “hung out to dry”, which is that they both used words that seemed to confirm what it is that women’s groups believe they believe, rather than what they actually believe: imaginary confirmation bias. In Summers case it was the phrase “innate differences”, and by this he simply meant that there was more variation in IQ scores between men and women — not that women were genetically “less suited” to doing science. But because people who believe in gender equality are convinced that powerful white men think women are genetically inferior (even though they don’t, obviously) if you say anything that can be construed as corroborating that suspicion, you will be crucified.
Which leads me to my first rule of the nature-nurture Fight Club:
• Don’t say or write anything with a view to making yourself better understood. Rather, avoid saying or writing anything that can be misunderstood. If in doubt, say nowt.
In Hunt’s case his mistake was to jokingly call himself “chauvinist”. He thought he was being charming and self-deprecating but it was taken by at least one women in the audience as a moment of candour. And that leads me to rule number two:
• Never say anything self-deprecating because someone, somewhere, will take it at face value and use it against you.
Indeed jokes in general should be avoided: remember none of the signals you send out when saying something you don’t really mean — such as a change in register or a mischievous, twinkly-eyed grin — are easily translatable in print. We live in a brutally literal age. There is no font called “irony”.
Tim hunt also invoked a gender stereotype about women being more emotional than men which, again, seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of equal-rights activists about the attitudes of white men towards women. They are absolutely 100% convinced (and this is one of those sacred beliefs it is taboo to question) that the real reason there are fewer tenured female STEM professors at top universities — as well as fewer female billionaires and CEOs — is because they are discriminated against by their male colleagues, whether consciously or unconsciously. By seeming to confirm that, by playing up the fictional stereotype of the Neanderthal, knuckle-dragging (Nobel-Prize-winning(!)) male scientist, Hunt sealed his fate.
Rule number three:
• Don’t let yourself be cast as a cartoon villain.
Incidentally this feminist orthodoxy was questioned by Susan Pinker (who gave the Holden Memorial Address in 2014) in her book The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women and the Real Gender Gap. That took courage, she paid a price, and it’s an honour to be following in her footsteps.
If those discussing the differences between men and women have to tread carefully, the same goes double for anyone foolish enough to raise the subject of racial differences in IQ. In this field merely being a member of a beleaguered “victim group” yourself — a female scientist — doesn’t protect you, as Linda [Gottfredson] discovered when the University of Delaware refused to let her and Jan Blits take up a grant to continue their research in 1990. It took her 2½ years to get her funding reinstated.
I discovered just how cautious scholars in this field can be when I was invited to attend a 2-day conference on intelligence at University College London by James earlier this year. Attendees were only told the venue at the last minute — an anonymous antechamber at the end of a long corridor called “Lecture Room 22” — and asked not to share this information with anyone else. One of the attendees, on discovering I was a journalist, pleaded with me not to write about the fact that he was there: he didn’t want his colleagues to find out. It was like a meeting of Charter 77 in Václav Havel’s flat in Prague in the 1970s But these precautions were not unreasonable considering the reaction that any reference to between-group differences in IQ generally provokes.
A case in point: the differing fortunes of James Watson and Francis Crick, who jointly received the Nobel Prize in 1962 (along with Morris Wilkins) for discovering the DNA molecule.
George Osborne, Britain’s ex Chancellor of the Exchequer, likes to boast that the proudest achievement of his six-year reign at Her Majesty’s Treasury, was securing the funding for the “Crick Institute”: a £660m new bio-research facility in North London that sits alongside the newly refurbished St. Pancras Station, and which opened last year. It’s the largest biomedical laboratory in Europe, a magnificent monument in glass and steel to one of the 20th century’s most accomplished scientists. Incidentally Crick also has two medals named after him, two plaques, a sculpture, a bust, and a series of graduate lectures at Cambridge.
What of James Watson, his no-less-distinguished colleague? Alas no statues have been erected to him. Watson made the mistake of sharing his views on Black/White IQ differences in an interview with The Sunday Times Magazine in 2007, while promoting his book Avoid Boring People. He told the interviewer he was,
inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours–-whereas all the testing says not really
After these remarks were published he was forced to cancel his book tour, resign as Chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and in 2014 was reduced to auctioning off his Nobel Prize medal so he could pay his meagre living expenses.
(But on the plus side he did get $4.8m for it!)
When it comes to the “live rail” of Black/White IQ differences it’s still very much taboo to express the views that Watson did. The Federation of American Scientists described his remarks as “racist, vicious and unsupported by science”. Indeed it’s inadvisable to be neutral on the question, or to allow that there’s still insufficient evidence to draw any firm conclusions which, if I understood him correctly when he spoke on Friday, is Jim Flynn’s position.
The unacceptability of the wait-and-see approach is implicitly acknowledged in the Nature editorial which stated, “the gap between the average IQ scores of black and white people in the United States has been falsely attributed to genetic differences between the races”. It compared this false attribution to “historical measurements of skull volume and brain weight”. In other words: junk science.
So intelligence researchers can come in from the cold, just so long as they denounce Arthur Jensen et al as being flat-out wrong on this point. Echoes here of the offer made to Arthur Miller by the House Committee of Unamerican Activities: you can go about your business unmolested provided you disassociate yourself from your former colleagues. Not so much Liberal Creationism as Liberal McCarthyism.
Refusing to do this in The Bell Curve is why Charles Murray came unstuck on his trip to Middlebury earlier this year. Even though the talk he was due to give was not about intelligence, he was shouted down by a student mob, and when he tried to leave he was surrounded by a group of angry protesters who physically assaulted his host Allison Stanger, sending her to the emergency room. Murray’s sin was to have included a section in The Bell Curve about the differences in mean IQ scores between racial groups, without claiming that they are wholly due to cultural differences. The book was careful not to say that they were partly due to genetic difference, but it did include a measured discussion of the evidence for and against that hypothesis. The conclusion? Insufficient evidence to come down on one side or the other.
For this and this alone, Murray was branded a “white supremacist” by the protesters, as well as a “sexist” and a “homophobe”, even though to the best of my knowledge Murray has never written anything about the differences between men and women, or homosexuality, or been anything less than 100% supportive of his female and gay colleagues.
Did Murray and Herrnstein need to venture into this minefield? The Bell Curve’s central hypothesis that a meritocratic society will eventually degenerate into a biological caste system — something my father believed as well — could perfectly well have been presented without the controversial chapter on race.
Which leads me to rule number four:
• In this field, if you court controversy, expect it to continue to dog your career for at least a quarter of a century.
Researchers of group differences have pointed out until they’re blue in the face that believing in equal rights is not contingent on believing all people are born with the same abilities. And that merely by discussing group differences in mean IQ, they’re not intending to question the moral basis for sexual or racial equality. You can believe that there are between-group IQ differences, you can even believe that these differences are 80% genetic, and still remain committed to equal rights.
As the philosopher Alan Ryan put it, a belief in the importance of inherited differences need not lead to “apocalyptic conservatism”.
But anti-hereditarians seem to have extraordinary difficulty grasping this point. It’s as if they want their opponents to be making this false inference even though, by imagining this sin, they’re unconsciously committing it themselves. If you argue that any research into group differences is “dangerous” because it threatens to undermine the basis for equal rights, you’re implicitly accepting the twisted logic of the racists’ arguments. Namely: that if people aren’t equal in their capabilities then we will be justified in treating them unequally. It is this inference that’s racist, not any claim about group differences, whether true or not, and it’s not one that intelligence researchers are guilty of, including those most often accused of it.
As Arthur Jensen wrote, to fear research of genetic racial differences (or the possible existence of a biological basis for differences and abilities) is in a sense to grant the racists assumption: that if it should be established beyond reasonable doubt that there are biological or genetically conditioned differences in mental abilities among individuals or groups, then we are “justified” in oppressing or exploiting those who are most limited in genetic endowment. This is of course a complete non sequitur.
No doubt some hereditarians are racists, but then some cultural-determinists have pretty toxic beliefs too — such as Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, and Pol Pot. And it goes without saying that any claim about between-group differences should not have any bearing on how individual members of those groups are treated. An employer who discriminated against black job applicants citing Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen’s IQ and the Wealth of Nations would be acting irrationally.
But to say such things is generally to waste your breath as Nicholas Wade discovered in the preface to A Troublesome Inheritance his 2014 book on genetics and race. he said his purpose was to show how evolutionary differences between human populations can be described without providing the slightest support for racism. Yet he unintentionally proved how difficult that is — or at least how reluctant the academic left is to accept that it can be done — by provoking yet another tediously predictable controversy with the inevitable appearance of a “we the undersigned” letter in the New York Times Book Review from 143 academics denouncing the book as junk science. Needless to say: most of them hadn’t read it.
Wade is a science journalist but that didn’t mean he got an easy ride from his colleagues. As Alice Dreger said in her Holden Memorial Address, journalists like to put anyone who writes about race into one of two categories: pro civil rights, or racist. And if you write a book making an argument against civil rights, or it sounds as if you might be from just reading the blurb, then you’re a racist.
Rule number five:
• If you use the words “genetics” and “race” in the same sentence, you’re a racist.
At least when human scientists are attacked by Liberal Creationists they can take some comfort from the fact that their opponents are for the most part being irrational. Christianity survived the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools — as Oliver Wendell Holmes argued it would in the Scopes trial — and by the same token Humanism will probably survive the inclusion of intelligence in undergraduate psychology courses. No such succour is available when you’re up against the new breed of secular fundamentalists.
Unlike the previous generation of liberal anti-Darwinists, the Postmodernist Creationists are not mistaken about the intellectual threat posed by the research findings of evolutionary psychologists and behavioral geneticists to their political orthodoxes. Why do I say this? Well for one thing, the entire theoretical edifice of this new campus religion rests on social determinism. Like Marx, post modernists believe that man’s true nature is reducible to the totality of social relations. That individuals are nothing more than a personification of different economic categories; embodiments of particular class relations and class interests that everything comes down to the struggle for power. Bourgeois society is a malignant super organism with an omnipotent ability to construct categories of identity from race to gender to sexual orientation.
I don’t want to wade too deeply into the murky waters that Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson found himself in last year when he decided to take a stand against Bill C16, a proposed amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression. But one of Peterson’s reasons for opposing it is that it was predicated on the supposition that gender is not a biological fact but entirely socially constructed.
That leaves anyone claiming that psychological differences between men and women are rooted in genetic differences in quite an uncomfortable position. As Peterson wrote in the National Post, look out evolutionary biologists, the PC police are coming for you. Since then Bill C16 has become law.
The post modernist doctrine of social constructionism isn’t common or garden hostility to hereditarianism. This is supercharged environmental determinism. Any suggestion that society is shaped by human nature (as opposed to shaping it) is to invert the “Pomo pyramid”. Any hint that the differences between classes, races, genders, the sane and the mentally ill (and so on) have a scientifically discoverable basis; that it’s in some sense pre-social — that these group differences are real as opposed to fictitious or socially constructed — is to violate a sacred Nostrum: you are heretics and you must be driven from the temple.
And there’s another even more fundamental reason why this is a fight to the death as far as they’re concerned: their utopian hard-left political project. Remember the worshipers at the altar of Intersectionality aren’t mere passive supplicants, they’re “Social Justice Warriors”. They believe in the Marxist ideal of hard end-state egalitarianism: equality of outcome, rather than opportunity. What they call “equity”. And if you think I’m overdoing the religious metaphors take a look at the video of the Middlebury protest against Charles Murray — you can see him there in the background — which is disturbingly reminiscent of the Crucible. This is what Andrew Sullivan wrote about Intersectionality in New York magazine after watching the video on YouTube:
It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.
Now the obvious objection to this fanatical egalitarianism is that it’s incompatible with liberal democracy. As we know from the bitter history of the 20th century, it can only be brought about and maintained in a totalitarian dictatorship. This is the paradox of the hard-left: they start out wanting to help the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed and end up herding people onto trains and transporting them to the gulag.
Why does this attempt to impose end-state equality always end with the curtailment of free speech, the imprisonment and torture of political dissidents, widespread starvation and in some cases state-sanctioned mass murder?
Because the hard-left’s political project is incompatible with everything the human sciences teach us about mankind.
I don’t just mean sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, with their darwinian explanations of why selfishness usually trumps altruism; of why we put the interests of our immediate family above those of our extended family and our friends; why we put their interests above those of the tribe; the interests of our tribe or group above that of other tribes or groups and so on. I also mean everything we know about the differences between us and the inextricable link between our individuating characteristics in our unique polygenic scores.
It’s an unalterable fact about human beings that some are more genetically gifted than others — better able to exploit their environment, to profit where others fail. And if it is a fact then the only way to create and preserve end-state equality is through the constant use of coercive state power. So long as men aren’t “born equal” (in the ability sense rather than the moral sense) — so long as the “lucky sperm club” retains its exclusive membership policy — the only way to maintain hard equality is through the curtailment of human freedom by an all-powerful state. A state that is constantly intervening to correct the “inequities” of nature.
To paraphrase Kant, you can only build something straight with the “Crooked Timber” of humanity if you’re constantly smashing down heads and cutting off limbs with a hammer and a sickle.
Admittedly it sounds like I’m now breaking Hume’s Law; trying to rule out a particular type of hard-left politics by appealing to a body of factual knowledge; drawing a normative conclusion from a particular conception of human nature. This is the sleight of hand that Thomas Sowell was accused of making in A Conflict of Visions, in which he distinguishes between “constrained” and “unconstrained” political arrangements and comes down in favour of the former — checks and balances, limited government, the rule of law and so on — on the grounds that it’s more congruent with the historically informed understanding of the follies of mankind.
So let me be more precise: the picture we’ve built up of ourselves from the human sciences doesn’t by itself mean that end-state equality is undesirable. But it sure as hell gives the lie to the claim that it can be achieved without a massive escalation in state power — that after a period of readjustment the state can just “wither away”. It’s precisely because the hard left wants to gloss over this cost that it has no choice but to reject the findings of sociobiologists, darwinian anthropologists, differential psychologists et al.
There’s nothing “new” about this. We all know that social determinism was one of the shibboleths of Soviet science and Russian geneticists like Dmitri Belyayev (he of the Siberian foxes) had to practice their dark arts away from the prying eyes of the Communist Party priesthood, like alchemists in medieval Europe. But it was one thing to ignore this body of knowledge in Soviet Russia in the middle of the 20th century. Imagine how much harder the neo-Marxists in the humanities departments of America’s elite universities have to try in the face of all the evidence that’s accumulated since:
Not just the pitiful failure of every single attempt to create a marxist utopia (the latest “socialist paradise” being Venezuela) but the ever-growing mass of data being assembled by behaviour geneticists such as the genome-wide Association study reported in Nature Genetics there was the pretext of the editorial I began this talk with.
But dispute it they do. Turns out Postmodernist Creationists are capable of a degree of cognitive dissonance that would put William Jennings Bryan (the chief prosecutor at the Scopes trial) to shame. And don’t for a second imagine you can reason with them. To point out the role that genes play in people’s behaviour, even if you stress the contribution of the environment as well, is to run afoul of campus blasphemy laws. The fact that the scientific evidence in support of your point of view is overwhelming just strengthens their resolve. That’s how cognitive dissonance works: the greater the distance between their beliefs and reality, the more aggressively they react to anyone pointing out the truth.
As the student protesters chanted at Middlebury, and they literally recited this from a piece of paper like a liturgical incantation:
Science has always been used to legitimise racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia all veiled as rational and fact and supported by the government and state. In this world today there is little that is true fact
The choice you face then is whether to stand your ground and fight, or retreat. Whether that means applying for a position at a Washington think tank, switching to a less contentious field of scholarship, or keeping your head down and hoping for the best, periodically abasing yourselves at the feet of the cult’s highest barrows.
(I had to get that in because Game of Thrones as we all know returns tonight)
If you do decide to stand your ground don’t expect your opponents to engage in reasoned discussion. As a student protester said to the evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein when he tried to debate with him on the Evergreen campus:
Reason and logic are the tools of white male privilege
If everything is reducible to power dynamics the only possible motive you can have for challenging postmodernist dogma is because you have a self-interested reason for preserving the status quo, i.e. maintaining injustice and oppression. Either you’re on the side of the oppressed or you’re a shill for the patriarchy and white privilege. And if that’s the case then they’re morally justified in bringing you down by any means necessary.
It goes without saying that college administrators won’t come to your aid. At Evergreen the president said he was “grateful” for the “passion and courage” shown by the student protesters who patrolled the campus with baseball bats ready to beat anyone who came to the defence of Bret Weinstein, whose sin was to refuse to leave the University on a day of absence in which all white people were expected to make themselves scarce. Shortly afterwards he was advised to leave for his own safety by the campus police.
Nor can you expect much solidarity from your professional colleagues. Don’t forget the fate of Napoleon Chagnon whose own professional body, the American Anthropological Association, turned itself into a kangaroo court and tried and convicted him in absentia. Would other professional associations behave better? As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, the social sciences have left no stone unturned in an effort to diversify themselves, apart from the one area where it matters more than any other: intellectual diversity.
Across all fields in the social sciences, Democrats outnumber Republicans — liberals, conservatives — by 8 to 1. In social psychology it’s 12 to 1. In sociology the ratio is 44 to 1.
Maybe I’m being a bit alarmist. Maybe the Intersectionality cult will fizzle out as quickly as it sprung up. With a bit of luck post-modernism will be the last gasp of one of the 20th century’s most toxic ideologies. The Nature editorial writer may have a better “zeitgeist antenna” than me.
But in case I’m not and you do get into trouble, there are worse options than standing your ground. You can probably count on some of the people in this room coming to your aid. I’ll do what I can to help and there are some other journalists out there who’ll take up your cause as well. You might even find you have friends you didn’t know about, Jordan Peterson now gets thirty thousand dollars a month in donations from well-wishers and he’s kept his job at the University of Toronto.
Think of the Truth as being like your oldest friend from school: he’s fickle, unreliable, and often gets you into trouble. Your more cautious colleagues can’t understand why you still have anything to do with him, but you long since gave up debating whether it’s been loyal to him or not — it’s who you are.
I wanted to end this talk by quoting Goethe, “be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid”, but when I checked it turned that he didn’t actually say that. It was a 19th century Canadian clergyman called Basil King and his exact words were:
Go at it boldly and you’ll find unexpected forces closing around you and coming to your aid
That’ll have to do.