More on Biological Radicalism

[My apologies for the long hiatus in my posting. Real life has intruded in a variety of ways, reducing the time I can devote to writing. And I’ve felt obliged to try to get a greater mastery of areas that may bear on future posts, including evolutionary biology, genetics, and statistics. Finally, the philosophical issues are just hard, and a lot more demanding than I had anticipated; I seem to be unhappy with everything I write down. I find myself releasing posts only when my revulsion to revising them still again exceeds my embarrassment at having my pseudonym publicly attached to them. Unfortunately, even at this the posts so far -- while I believe they make sensible arguments -- are entirely too sketchy in the theories they propound. These ideas need a book or three, and extensive grounding in the literature.]

Some further thoughts about what I defined in my previous post Biology and Justice: First Cut as biological radicalism.

There, I defined theories of justice or morality as biological radical if they “would deny or subvert broad and basic human inclinations”. Now I’ll grant that that is a pretty inadequate definition as it stands – it’s intended to be mostly heuristic. At some point, I’ll try to tighten it up as I think through all it should comprehend.

In any case, as examples of such accounts, I offered up utilitarianism and Rawls’ theory of justice. Here, I’m mainly concerned to talk about utilitarianism, chiefly because it exhibits the problem I’m getting at in a form simpler and sharper than in Rawls’ theory.

I think it’s very hard not to accept that utilitarianism, taken at face value, is biologically radical according to my definition. This seems to be granted implicitly even by its most famous contemporary proponent, Peter Singer. Let’s take a look at some of Singer’s extreme views, as well as the problems they pose even for himself.

Here is one relevant summary of Singer’s position from Wikipedia:

In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, [Singer] begins by saying that he would like to see how far a seemingly innocuous and widely endorsed principle can take us; the principle is that one is morally required to forgo a small pleasure to relieve someone else’s immense pain. He then argues that this principle entails radical conclusions — for example, that affluent people are very immoral if they do not give up some luxury goods in order to donate the money for famine relief. If his reasoning is valid, he goes on to argue, either it is not very immoral to value small luxuries over saving many lives, or such affluent people are very immoral. As Singer argues in the same essay, regardless of the soundness of his fundamental defense of utilitarianism, his argument has value in that it exposes conflicts between many people’s stated beliefs and their actions.

Yet this view presents real difficulties for how he conducts his own life, as we can see from an article on Singer:

In a recent New York Times Magazine essay, he argued that the affluent in developed countries are killing people by not giving away to the poor all of their wealth in excess of their needs. How did he come to this conclusion? “If…allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone, it would seem that we are all murderers,” he explains in Practical Ethics. He calculates that the average American household needs $30,000 per year; to avoid murder, anything over that should be given away to the poor. “So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000,” he wrote in the Times.

Rigorous adherence to a single principle has a way of hoisting one by one’s own petard. Singer’s mother suffers from severe Alzheimer’s disease, and so she no longer qualifies as a person by his own standards, yet he spends considerable sums on her care. This apparent contradiction of his principles has not gone unnoticed by the media. When I asked him about it during our interview at his Manhattan apartment in late July, he sighed and explained that he is not the only person who is involved in making decisions about his mother (he has a sister). He did say that if he were solely responsible, his mother might not be alive today.

Singer’s proclamation about income has also come back to haunt him. To all appearances, he lives on far more than $30,000 a year. Aside from the Manhattan apartment–he asked me not to give the address or describe it as a condition of granting an interview–he and his wife Renata, to whom he has been married for some three decades, have a house in Princeton. The average salary of a full professor at Princeton runs around $100,000 per year; Singer also draws income from a trust fund that his father set up and from the sales of his books. He says he gives away 20 percent of his income to famine relief organizations, but he is certainly living on a sum far beyond $30,000. When asked about this, he forthrightly admitted that he was not living up to his own standards. He insisted that he was doing far more than most and hinted that he would increase his giving when everybody else started contributing similar amounts of their incomes.

And this from an article on Singer in the New Yorker:

Still, many of Singer’s critics dismiss him as a secular puritan so inflamed by his idea of rectitude that he can’t even recognize his own contradictions. Singer feels that this is unfair, and he may have a point: although he fails to live up to the rigid rules he has put down on paper, he probably comes as close to doing so as anyone could. He gives away twenty per cent of his annual income, including all royalties from “Practical Ethics.” He lives comfortably but frugally. He doesn’t eat meat or fish, or wear leather. Yet Singer’s writing is so high-handed that any inconsistency between his life and his work is hard to dismiss. Singer has certainly done nothing to impoverish himself, for instance, and his daughters also live comfortably, aided by the income of a trust set up by his father which–he would have to agree–none of them need.

Now I think it pretty obvious from these several accounts of both Singer’s stipulations on how much we are morally obliged to give to others, and how little Singer in fact gives away of his own considerable income, that Singer falls exceedingly short of his own precepts. It’s all the more remarkable that he fails so conspicuously to live up to his ideals when the sacrifices he does indeed make are actually quite extraordinary given his circumstances – how many other Ivy League professors can be said to do anything of the like? This serves only to bring out how very much his ideals are beyond ordinary human capability. On the one hand, he’s engaged in altruistic behavior at the extreme end of human feasibility; on the other, his actions are, in fact, far closer (certainly in terms of proportion of income given away) to purely self interested behavior than they are to his stated obligations. If he has given away, say, 20%  of his income, keeping 80%, that more closely resembles 100% self interest than it does the 70% sacrifice he prescribes for the well being of others across the world. (And why stop at only 70%? What in the utilitarian principle would support that?)

A basic question here is, I think, this: what sense does it make for a moral code to require of human beings, on a broad and regular basis, behavior of which they are constitutionally incapable? Living up to utilitarian principles, or even really approaching them, appears to be wholly beyond our ability. How and why is it reasonable to hold to those principles as representing the correct moral goals when their requirements seem to be set in defiance of basic human nature?

Perhaps the most fundamental question is, does morality possess the power or authority to bind us to do things which run deeply contrary to our inclinations? If so, whence does morality come by that power or authority?

I think this is a question that systems of morality cannot escape. Now it may seem at first thought unnecessary to answer that question. If we can see, in a compelling set of intuitions, that various acts are moral, or immoral, of what matter might it be that we are, or are not, capable of doing the right thing on any kind of consistent basis? Feasibility of doing the right thing consistently would seem, at most, to be another sort of consideration altogether, one having to do with how to accommodate human weakness with respect to morality. Its legitimate application might, for example, merely involve grading expectations as to what human beings should do on a curve — in effect, forgiving them for their recalcitrant nature. Morality itself stands majestically above this, its ground altogether independent and clear.

But this view of morality as a city on a hill handing down edicts to all below seems to comport poorly with the set of moral intuitions and precepts as we know them. That set is, I would argue, both highly incomplete and often — at least apparently — inconsistent. (I realize that if a theory is inconsistent then it is trivially complete, since it can prove anything. So it will take some work to explain what I have in mind here. This, however, will have to await a further post.) The set of moral intuitions seems really to constitute only a quite sparse matrix. Given the long history of contemplation of moral codes and systems, it seems unlikely that that situation will be greatly improved by further deliberation. In the face of the apparent inadequacy of moral intuitions to cover all important issues, including some quite fundamental ones, it makes sense to invoke considerations that would seem to work as a more robust, better fleshed out, corroborating basis for our moral code. Insofar as the evolutionary view can explain our moral intuitions, it may go on to ground a superset of those intuitions. Certainly the issues not settled clearly by intuition comprehend many that go to the very core of our moral behavior, and of a system of justice. In particular, the very question of how much self sacrifice we are obliged to engage in is such an issue, involving as it does immense differences in how we should behave; it could hardly matter more to ourselves and to the larger world whether morality requires us to give away, say, 5% of our income to others, or 80%.

In later posts I intend to examine further the question of how and why morality might bind us as natural beings. But I’d like now to turn to another kind of problem posed by biological radicalism, as, again, exhibited by Singer.

Biological Radicalism and Moral Monsters

What, it may be asked, is wrong with a morality that is biologically radical, if it inclines people toward the correct behavior? If it pushes us in the right direction – say, more toward altruistic interests than toward self-interest — isn’t that a good thing, even if we will never come remotely close to being able to live up to those ideals?

In a debate between Singer and Richard Posner on animal rights, Posner makes this comment:

You say that some readers of Animal Liberation have been persuaded by the ethical arguments in the book, and not just by the facts and the pictures. But if so, it is probably so only because these readers do not realize the radicalism of the ethical vision that powers your view on animals, an ethical vision that finds greater value in a healthy pig than in a profoundly retarded child, that commands inflicting a lesser pain on a human being to avert a greater pain to a dog, and that, provided only that a chimpanzee has 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being, would require the sacrifice of the human being to save 101 chimpanzees. If Animal Liberation had emphasized these implications of your utilitarian philosophy, it would have had many fewer persuaded readers; and likewise if it had sought merely to persuade our rational faculty, and not to stir our empathetic regard for animals.

Let’s focus here not on Posner’s criticism of Singer’s views as they apply to animal rights, but rather on the more general characteristic of radicalism that Posner ascribes to Singer’s position (it’s interesting that Posner chooses the term “radicalism” here, as have I).

Utilitarianism, as it’s naturally understood, and as Singer interprets it, would require us to sacrifice our own happiness (or pleasure or preferences) if we would bring about a greater improvement in the happiness (or pleasure or preferences) of, say, a man unknown to us in Siberia. But the question is, why should we be bound by the interests of someone unknown to us in Siberia? Singer seems to believe that if we simply think long and hard enough about it, we will see that the interests of the man in Siberia are really every bit as much binding on us as our own interests:

If I have seen that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies… Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.

Now one might argue against Singer’s views here in a variety of ways. I think, though, that the most basic approach is to return to the general question we have already broached: what is the basis for a moral imperative that is binding on us? Conceiving of ourselves as entirely natural beings, on what power or authority can morality demand that we should devote as much effort to the man in Siberia as to our own kin? Is it possible that when exceedingly rigorous moral systems arrogate such power or authority, it might backfire?

There seems indeed something perverse in adopting a moral attitude in which we would regard the interests of any random human being fully as if they were our own. All of our sensibilities tell us, I believe, that only some kind of detached freak would treat the interests of his own kin, and those of a someone utterly unknown to him, as identically compelling.

It’s instructive to consider how this problem really is based on our biology. If we were a species like an intelligent species of eusocial ants, then many of these same utilitarian strictures might well seem quite completely natural to us, and the manner in which they bind our actions entirely acceptable to be incorporated into our moral code. A Peter Singer of intelligent ants advocating for the same sort of sacrifices would not be regarded as an insufferable scold, but as someone articulating the plainest common sense.

There appears to be something critical lost in approaches to morality such as Singer’s. Insofar as the code of morality induces a perspective that takes us away from our fundamental dispositions, it countenances and indeed rewards behaviors that distort one’s emotions in a way that can be highly destructive.

It’s fair to say that one of the great scourges on civilization is that civilized nations have, in the name of ideology, or its brother religion, wrought great carnage and misery on the human species. These systems of belief have often, maybe typically, been built around the notion that they are bringing about a greater good for human beings in aggregate. Certainly Communism has engaged in that sort of massive evil under the banner of Humanity. Likewise both Christianity and Islam have historically conquered, slain, and punished for the improvement of humanity by Salvation. Even the Nazis believed they were serving a good far larger than themselves as individuals, albeit their concern never rose above the interests of the Master Race.

One wants to say that these systems of belief have induced a very real kind of sociopathy in those who fell under their thrall. What they do in service of that ideology runs hard against what they would, in ordinary circumstances, regard as moral or decent behavior. They are engaging in behavior that we, and they in other contexts, would naturally understand as inhuman. This is indeed one of the objections raised to their behavior after the fact of their criminal acts: yes, you may have done this under orders, you may have thought that this would serve some larger, good purpose, but how could you do something that was so self-evidently inhuman? How could your moral conscience have been so corrupted as to find it acceptable to do what you did? We treat them as war criminals most basically because they turned their backs on what their human inclinations to the moral should have urgently demanded from them.

Utilitarianism has been spared the ignominy of Communism, I believe, only because it has not been taken as seriously as an ideology for the broad populace as Communism. On the other hand, one might well make the argument that Communism is the closest representation of utilitarianism in extant political systems, allowing that Communism brought much baggage of its own based on Marxist presuppositions. Taken at its plain meaning, utilitarianism too would have the effect of being followable only by “monsters”– people able and willing psychologically to run so hard against their own natural inclinations (or at least inclinations natural for the vast majority of people) that they must be regarded as unstable outliers from the human species. These individuals would seem capable of performing virtually any action, provided only that it have some plausible ground deriving from the belief system they accept. The more “monstrous” the ideology or religion – the more incompatible are its prescriptions from our dispositions – the more subject it is to perpetrating great enormities.

It may seem a deplorable thing that Singer is not himself able to live up to his own strictures, and from an important point of view of course it is. Yet that strain of hypocrisy may indicate more, not less, humanity in him. Sometimes hypocrisy is a sign of more basic moral and intellectual health. It is thus better that those who purport to believe abortion is murder hypocritically don’t treat the woman who chooses the abortion as a murderer than that they would do so; on some level, their more fundamental humanity wins out.

In general, a morality grounded more directly in human nature is a far safer morality. It abhors monsters. Insofar as one feels obliged to hew closely to one’s basic urgings of conscience, one will find it difficult indeed to go far wrong. This is perhaps the larger message of the proverb, Charity begins at home, and of Candide’s statement, “we must cultivate our own gardens”: we must respect our limits, lest our actions become unconstrained and reckless.  I think that one of the goals of a biologically based moral theory will be to define and elaborate a kind of biological “conscience” grounded in our basic dispositions. And, importing this approach into the realm of politics, I believe we can view our current democracies as embodying our individual “biological” consciences writ large; that is their greatest virtue, their greatest source of moral stability.

Singer’s overall position exemplifies a remarkable callousness in other ways as well, I believe. I have been struck by a deep tension, almost contradiction, among some of Singer’s beliefs. For example, he believes both that we should accord animals the same respect that we grant to human beings in certain key respects, yet also believes that it is permissible to engage in infanticide under certain conditions. These two beliefs could hardly be more in opposition, from an emotional point of view. The first seems to require us to stretch our compassion toward a larger circle of sentient beings; the second seems to be monstrous in its lack of compassion toward an even more fellow sentient being. Posner, in his criticism of Singer above, certainly was reacting in part to this kind of inhumanity he discerned in Singer’s position.

Perhaps being a moral monster requires, first and foremost, an unbalancing in one’s dispositions. The sociopath has a selfishness dominate all other dispositions; the ideologue has the “religious” instinct dominate all others. Now whether human beings possess an actual religious instinct, with any real specificity, is unclear to me. That instinct may be simply an attachment to, or obsession with, an overarching idea. Yet what seems clear is that the “religious” instinct, however understood, in hypertrophy comes at the expense of our moral core.

Biology and Justice: First Cut

Constructing an account of justice in the very teeth of a taboo is both daunting and exciting. Daunting because it is likely that much that had been said before on justice won’t really apply, and one must go back on one’s own to very basic principles indeed to do the necessary work. Daunting too because it is likely to be an endeavor that in the end will bring on ritual shaming from those who enforce that taboo.

It is exciting, of course, for those same reasons.

Yet given the likely paucity of thinkers who will have directly relevant and well elaborated theories of justice that can help guide a new approach, I think I’m going to have to go about the business of trying to devise such an approach iteratively. The development will proceed from small first forays into larger, more elaborate accounts. I expect mistakes to be made. I hope they will be noted and corrected. That I am not a moral philosopher by training will not help, because I will likely begin by falling into some confusions and misinterpretations. On the other hand, it may be a positive that I will feel less encumbered by previous thinking and less in awe of reputations when it seems important to me to contradict a widely accepted point of view. I don’t, though, begin to imagine that relative ignorance here is on balance a good thing; it’s just where I am–at least to start.

This post is intended to kick-start the process of assembling an account of justice informed by and responsive to the facts of human biology. I plan it to be the first of a series. Some of what I will say will be controversial, and will certainly seem just wrong to followers of John Rawls and to utilitarians. Yet my claims here will be at a very high level of abstraction. I doubt that they will entail much — or indeed, perhaps, anything – concrete which most liberals would find in any way discomfiting.

Likely, a good portion of what I will outline, at this level, may have been observed in one fashion or another by others. I can only say that I am here simply trying to come up with what initially seems most sensible to me as a theory of how we should think about justice and morality when taking biology into account. Perhaps later I can try to track down precedents.

The Inscribed Slate

If I had to single out the most salient defect in most contemporary accounts of justice and morality, it would be that they seem to adhere all too well to a notion of a human moral agent as representing a kind of Blank Slate. Now, of course, it is simply too strong to say that they really assume human beings are, in effect, indefinitely malleable in terms of their moral, social, cognitive, and emotional inclinations. But they do, I think, tend to assume vastly more malleability on such traits than we actually possess.

I think the broadest impact of the contrary view, which I will call The Inscribed Slate, is that principles of morality and justice must take into account, and be consistent with, our actual dispositions as a species. By consistency here, I mean, among other things, that the prescriptions of justice and morality must be feasible for most of us to live up to, or at least to approximate, in most of our actions. Alternatively, and maybe more precisely, what I think should be ruled out are prescriptions and principles that essentially require us to run deeply against our very nature on a regular basis.

One example of what I’m intending to rule out is the theory of justice embodied in Communism, as it was (apparently) originally conceived. Suppose one takes Communism to stipulate that a just economic system must implement the precept, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Is that precept feasible for most people, as they are actually constituted, to adhere to in the ordinary conduct of their lives? I think that the decisive answer to that question is, No. E.O. Wilson put the point thus:

What I like to say is that Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species. Why doesn’t it work in humans? Because we have repro­ductive independence, and we get maximum Darwinian fitness by looking after our own survival and having our own offspring. The great success of the social insects is that the success of the indivi­dual genes are invested in the success of the colony as a whole, and especially in the reproduction of the queen, and thus through her the reproduction of new colonies.

Now I don’t think that we ordinarily require the detailed evolutionary explanations offered up by Wilson as to why we as a species reject Communism – indeed, such explanations are mostly off point. It suffices to appeal to what we are, behaviorally, capable or incapable of doing. But the point is not only that we don’t as a species, in our current set of social institutions, exhibit the sorts of behaviours that an ant colony might. It’s that we aren’t capable of changing ourselves, by any imaginable social construction or system or indoctrination, into such a species. It’s quite fair to say on the one hand that human beings are likely the most malleable of species in virtue of the cognitive power of our brains, and our ability to recruit, redirect, and shape our emotions. Our theories of justice must very importantly figure that flexibility into account. But we simply are not, on the other hand, so malleable that we might ever be inclined to abide by any number of rules that are entirely natural to ants.

I think that a number of previous accounts of morality and justice run afoul of this sort of problem.

Let’s start with Utilitarianism. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people.

At first blush, Utilitarianism might seem like a reasonable and intuitive way of defining what is moral; and certainly it is impressive in its simplicity. It would also seem to embody a fine way of reducing to the very minimum the need to make the jump from questions of naturalistic fact to those of moral obligation. We need only accept that utility must be maximized, and summed across all people, as our single overarching moral obligation. That is the only leap to an “ought” statement. All other moral questions can be answered by invoking rational and scientific calculations to determine whether a given action actually produces the sought for result of increasing the summed utility.

But this simplicity is achieved by importing from the beginning a proposition that is rather breathtaking: that, when we consider what actions we should perform, it is as much binding on us to consider the happiness or pleasure of someone who might live across the world, and never be known to us, as to consider our own happiness or the happiness of those whom we love. Suppose it could be proven that a man in Siberia, of whom we know nothing, might have a great increase in happiness if we were to perform a certain action – say, sending him $500. Suppose it could also be proven that if we were to perform an incompatible action, say buying our own child a mountain bike with that same $500, our own child would likewise experience an increase in happiness, but smaller. And finally suppose that it could be shown that, on balance, all else would remain the same. Then, by utilitarian principles, we would be obliged to do the thing that made the man in Siberia happier over the thing that would make our own child happier.

Now I think it pretty obvious to most people that this conclusion simply is not right. In fact, we simply owe a greater obligation to our own family than to an unknown person in Siberia, other things being equal. At the very least, very few people indeed would live by a moral code that demanded otherwise; we are surely, every one of us, failing abjectly every day to live up to this code.

Utilitarians have tried to defend their doctrine against the sort of counterintuitive consequences I have just described. Suffice it to say for the occasion, those justifications miss the point – the point being that, in our heart of hearts if nowhere else, we simply believe that we don’t really have the same obligation to the unknown man in Siberia that we do to our own family, or, indeed, to ourselves.

The theory of justice developed by John Rawls – certainly for the last several decades the best entrenched such theory — represents, in my view, another example of an account of our obligations that would subvert basic human dispositions. Now there is much in Rawls’ overall approach that is both useful and insightful. One of Rawls’ more basic contributions was his conception of a Reflective Equilibrium (which might be regarded as a kind of meta-metaethics). The notion of Reflective Equilibrium underpins the possibility that our theory of justice can come about through the reconciliation of a number of facially independent beliefs about what is the right or just thing in various domains. Now Rawls spells out the Reflective Equilibrium as a method whereby even different sets of moral principles might reconcile, at an appropriate level of abstraction, and on certain issues, into an overarching system of justice. I think, however, much of the same mechanism might be said to apply even to distinct or divergent sets of moral principles, which can likewise reconcile, underpinning our settling upon a particular overarching moral system as well.

I think the approach of a Reflective Equilibrium is sensible, important, and deep. Our strongest beliefs about what is just or fair or moral really do scatter across a wide variety of areas and issues. It is the proper task of a theory of justice (and morality, I believe) to take those certainties we really do have wherever we can get them, and to attempt to assemble a comprehensive and consistent account out of them. It seems moreover quite plausible that a morality consistent with our biology might exhibit this scatter; evolution s not a process of deduction from first principles. Our impulses toward the good might well follow how evolution has forged our nature. Those impulses may go in separate directions, and seek distinct objects. From that perspective, Rawls’ notion of Reflective Equilibrium, or something much akin, becomes only more urgent as a mechanism to engender a biologically consistent morality. I might go further and say that what makes the approach of Reflective Equilibrium most plausible is that our moral inclinations do indeed exhibit some scatter, and that this is in fact due to their origins in human evolution.  (I think that the principle I articulated in an early post, that of Exacting Fairness, might be understood as a principle to become part of a reflective equilibrium.)

Most theories of justice and morality either see us as driven fundamentally by self interest – such as Robert Nozick’s Libertarianism – or see us as bound by a nearly pure altruistic code. Even most game theory approaches to human behavior more generally seem to assume pure self interest. It is my view, however, that, in fact, as human beings we feel impulses in both directions. Insofar as we play a game in which we would decide principles of fairness and justice, we consider both our own self interest and the interests of others. We do not need to be forced by the rules of a game, or of a social contract decision process, to consider the interests of others in what we choose; we consider those interests naturally, or, more precisely, biologically; they have in effect already been internalized by the forces of evolution. More on this in a later section.

But perhaps Rawls’ best known contribution in his theory of justice is his conception of justice as fairness, as embodied in a celebrated thought experiment. Rawls has us imagine that we are engaged in an effort to settle on the fairest structure for organizing our society and its institutions. In that thought experiment, we imagine ourselves in the so-called original position, in which we must assume that we know nothing about our own personal circumstances or talents. We are to consider ourselves from behind a veil of ignorance, and regard ourselves as being individuals who might in fact be among the least fortunate, favored with the least of resources and abilities. Rawls argues that if we adopt this perspective, and engage seriously the prospect that we might indeed be among the least advantaged, then we will choose a society so organized as to maximize the well being of those at the lowest end of the scale (the so-called maximin rule). From this basic perspective, Rawls claims that we should adopt the so-called Difference Principle, which states that we should allow differences in distribution of wealth (strictly speaking, utility) only insofar as doing so raises the wealth of those at the lowest rungs. That is, roughly, the Difference Principle says inequality in income is permissible only insofar as such inequalities can serve as motivation for individuals and ventures to achieve more, raising the overall wealth of society, and thereby allowing more wealth to be available for, or to be allocated to, the least fortunate. One might think of the Difference Principle as being akin in its underlying goals to the principle of Communism mentioned above, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” In each case, the basic object of the social system is, at least in effect, to promote the welfare of those lowest in wealth.

What the Difference Principle adds is a concession to human nature: to get those who have greater abilities to produce according to those abilities, society must grant them financial incentives. They aren’t going to do so out of the pure altruistic goodness of their hearts. Still, those incentives are going to be just enough of a carrot to get those donkeys moving so that they can pull along the least favored as fast as possible. It may be worth noting that even Communist countries such as the Soviet Union seemed ultimately to admit to this fact of human nature, and introduced financial incentives to individuals for productive achievements.

Yet, while Rawls’ Difference Principle is more accommodating to the demands of human nature, it’s hard to see it as anything more than an attempted workaround of our basic inclinations to achieve a goal whose motivation derives from other concerns and bases. Essentially, it requires a “tricking” of basic human desires and actual motivating goals. The ploy is to entice people to do things they simply would not do were they instead allowed only to pursue directly, and without side effect, the sole morally (or perhaps societally) acceptable goal of their efforts: the raising of the wealth of the least fortunate, not one of whom they may know personally. On Rawls’ view, the goals of society’s institutions and of justice in enabling productive activity, are, inherently, unrelated to the typical goals of individuals engaged in that productive activity. Now, I do believe that morality must generally make some concessions at least to human weakness. But it’s quite another thing to insist on basic moral (or societal) precepts and ends which effectively stand in contradiction to such broad and fundamental goals as occupy the dominant motivations of our most considerable activities, in terms both of hours and energy.

It’s hard not to see Rawls’ suggestion as a kind of exalted sounding deception – something resembling a “noble lie” at the very heart of the social contract. We are supposed, on grounds of fairness, to organize society and our institutions around a principle that, quite likely, the vast majority of people would not assent to if they clearly understood it: that no one, regardless of how much they actually contribute to society, in improved products or services, should be allowed to acquire more wealth than another unless doing so is fully “excused” by improving the lot of the least fortunate. Consider the internal monologue an aware, productive individual would have to entertain: “But of course I realize I don’t really have a right to this wealth that I, myself, have largely generated – it’s just that, vastly flawed human being that I am, I cannot make myself work hard without that reward.” The sentiment behind this speech sounds like one more consistent with a belief in original sin than with a belief in a fully natural human being. It exudes the distinct odor of incense and the musty afterlife. It seems to suggest an inversion of the La Rochefoucauld aphorism: from Rawls’ point of view, the Difference Principle is the tribute virtue pays to vice.

The Biologically Radical

This brings me to a definition of some importance to my view. Theories of justice or morality that would deny or subvert broad and basic human inclinations I call biologically radical.

I would describe Rawls’ Difference Principle, as well as Utilitarianism, and, on the right, Libertarianism and a pure laissez faire economic system, as biologically radical, and reject them on that basis. The idea here is that biology presents a strong constraint on what our moral principles might be. I see this mainly as a negative constraint. I do not so much see what may at first blush seem like the complementary point of view, a positive “constraint” to adhere to the biologically normal, as statistically defined, as definitive of moral principle. Among other things, morality is at least partly aspirational (perhaps we approach it asymptotically); in addition, it requires some room to operate for our intuitions and sensibilities and need to generalize basic principles. What impresses me as wrong and counterproductive is to reduce what is moral to what is a mere statistical summary or epitomization of human sentiments and opinions. I don’t see such a statistical account as by any means decisive as to whether a principle is moral. A decisive account requires appeal to moral principles and/or sentiments and/or arguments that go well beyond a statistical argument. On the other hand, a systematic and very broad acceptance of certain implicit principles does constitute pretty good evidence that those principles are authentic moral precepts. I’ll present an example of this later.

That moral principles should be rejected on the basis of biological radicalism is something that is not entirely obvious. Consider, for example, pedophiles, or sociopaths who have nearly irresistible urges to do things we regard as deeply immoral. It is very likely for these individuals that their urges are grounded in their peculiar biologies. Isn’t it the case that, for them, the imperatives not to engage in the activities they so strongly desire constitute “biological radicalism”? If we nonetheless insist that those activities are immoral, how do we square that with the idea of rejecting any kind of biological radicalism? How do we know, or why should we believe, that human beings in general don’t strongly and broadly desire things based on their biology that go against moral principles? I think that perhaps the only way to understand the possibility of such a universal resistance to moral principle is to regard such a circumstance as representing the breakdown of the possibility of morality itself. It is a contingent fact of biology and evolution that we are capable of morality; if we were a different kind of species, we might not be so capable – though it’s questionable that we might have survived as a species of intelligent animal, I think, if we weren’t so capable. It seems to me likely that we would have destroyed ourselves, much as certain strains of parasites do not survive if they too aggressively dominate their hosts; the combination of intelligence and socially destructive impulses would probably be the end of any such species.

In general, the trick will be to define a morality and conception of justice that respects both the constraints imposed by our biology, and the expansiveness, relative freedom, generality, and overall cognitive and behavioral flexibility we do in fact enjoy as human beings. Morality must be defined within a space bounded in its dimensions, but able to operate mostly freely within those bounds.

It seems quite natural to interpret both utilitarianism, and the kind of deontological ethics as proposed by Kant (and in key ways followed by Rawls), as being mostly framed in an intellectual milieu in which morality was conceived in an otherworldly context; the heavy hand of Christian ethics, with its denial of the urgencies of our physical beings, can be distinctly felt in their presuppositions. The point of view is captured well in the line from Robert Browning’s poem, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Or, from the deeply Christian Rose Sayer in The African Queen: “Nature is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

For Rawls in particular, I see this heavy hand in the very thought experiment he proposes. The intrusion of the Christian point of view into Rawls’ thinking is consistent as well, of course, with Rawls’ personal background – he wrote his thesis at Princeton on theological doctrines, and seriously considered preparing for the Episcopal priesthood. Indeed, I find this summary of Rawls’ undergraduate thesis (which I presume is accurate enough on the point):

Fundamental to the thesis is a rejection of Greek philosophical thought from Plato and Aristotle onwards. In a line of Christian thinkers going back at least to Tertullian, Rawls rejects the influence the Greeks have had on Christianity from Augustine onward. Why? Because Greek thought is what Rawls eccentrically calls “naturalistic”: it asks what the good life is for humans, what humans do desire and what they should desire. But for Rawls all desire is part of the problem. We cannot see God as truly ultimate if our relation to him is one of desire – as it is in Augustine’s longing for God, let alone in the erotic longings of medieval women mystics like Teresa of Ávila. Augustine sees the heavenly life as the best life – and that’s the problem. We shouldn’t be thinking about the best life for ourselves, or even for others.

It strikes me as pretty fair to say that much in Rawls’ apparent early rejection of Greek philosophical thought on the grounds of it being “naturalistic” remains, both subtly and deeply, in how he attacks the philosophical problem of justice later in life – after, of course, he has abandoned, at least explicitly, any religious basis for his theory of justice.

While some have criticized the Difference Principle as not being a necessary entailment of this thought experiment, that principle strikes me as a fairly natural product of the terms of the experiment – at least as natural as any other principle one might derive. Given how the experiment is framed, the Difference Principle is at least a quite plausible choice for most people entertaining the original position. But, given what I think is its biological radicalism, it shouldn’t be plausible. The difficulty with the experiment is that it requires people to think about themselves from behind a veil of ignorance in which they don’t know their talents, abilities, class, gender, or (presumably) even such personal characteristics as one’s innate predilections for perseverance, etc. I regard that step as already biologically radical, denying the most basic of human inclinations; having taken that step, it cannot end well. I simply do not believe that when most human beings contemplate their relation to society, and the social contract they might adopt with other parties, they are willing to give up consideration of their own peculiar talents and (at least partially genetic) character traits. They do not bargain away or abstract away those features. They seek instead to come to an arrangement whereby they can preserve those features, and yet interact profitably and fairly and humanely with all other parties to the social contract. Our impulse to be both fair and humane does not, I believe, have to be inferred from some thought experiment or other form of calculation. It inheres in us from our very biological nature. But what also so inheres is our disposition to pursue our own self interest, to believe that, in the main, the products of our efforts should be our own; that our talents and ambition and perseverance are all part of who we are and what we bring to any social context. This latter disposition may or may not be fairly characterized as entailing a moral principle of desert; but it is, I believe, certainly inherent to who we are as human beings. Denying its legitimacy would constitute biological radicalism. In short, I don’t believe we come to the social contract essentially naked of personal characteristics, but regard ourselves as encompassing our biologically endowed traits. We engage our social contract with both our self-interest on the one hand and a pre-existing desire for fairness and cooperation on the other already robust within us.

In defense of his concept of the veil of ignorance, Rawls might say that we have no moral right to the products of our labor when they derive from characteristics of ours which we were favored with simply by the chance of our genetics. Therefore, he would conclude, the veil of ignorance should comprehend such characteristics, and our concept of a just distribution of wealth should be built around that ignorance. But this is exactly where most people would strongly disagree, I believe. Yes, they would say, we did nothing to deserve our genetic gifts; but No, we don’t therefore lack a moral right to the products of our labor that depend on those gifts.

Looking on all this, the good news I think is that we are not merely the agents of self-interest that some theories, such as certain stripes of libertarianism, seem to assume. Rather, we harbor a complex set of inclinations: mostly self-interested (or at least interested toward our immediate families), but also, and very importantly, other-interested. The point is, we don’t have to come to accept some altruistic principles only through a careful calculation of our own interests taken together with the larger interests of society. We come by them quite naturally – they are, most likely, wired into us (or into those of us who aren’t sociopathic deviants); at bare minimum, most of us incline to altruistic interests with relatively little indoctrination. In this sense, Libertarians, or those who advocate principles based on the assumption that we are purely self-interested, are also adopting a theory that is biologically radical, every bit as much as utilitarians or Rawls.

I should note a qualification regarding how Rawls spells out his view of the social contract. Rawls himself actually thinks of his approach in his thought experiment as being more accommodating to self-interest than many previous approaches to social contract theory and the original position. Other approaches presented the defect of allowing the interests of others fully to dominate an individual’s own interests in settling on the social contract (more in line with utilitarianism). Rawls takes issue with such a consequence. According to Rawls’ view, an individual in the original position actually is supposed to calculate what is best for him or her under the conditions supposed for the thought experiment. But those conditions are, in fact, quite radical, as I’ve noted: one must suppose oneself not to know any of one’s relevant personal characteristics. From my point of view, it’s hard not to see Rawls approach here as introducing a rather artificial “fix” on the social contract theory – the veil of ignorance, and his particular elaboration of what it comprehends — in order to avoid the unwelcome consequence of something resembling unfettered utilitarianism. What Rawls’ veil of ignorance gives in terms of accommodating self-interest it mostly takes away in the very things it requires us to ignore.

The Social Contract and Evolution

One way to think of thought experiments invoking a “state of nature” or “original position” or the like is that they roughly recreate a dilemma that has already been faced in evolution itself. But we are the product of such evolution; evolution has already settled upon a particular solution to that dilemma, and we now own the dispositions the particular solution enforces. We are, effectively, now “stuck” with those dispositions; we will not be happy as a species if we cannot live consistent in the main with them. We cannot undo those dispositions, or systematically resist them, and it is of little point to revisit the circumstances under which they were evolved.

Paul Krugman, oddly given that he’s an economist, makes a relevant observation here. In hunt of other prey, he describes an analogous phenomenon, relating aspects of economics to accounts of evolution:

The fact is that maximization and equilibrium are astonishingly powerful ways to cut through what might otherwise be forbidding complexity – and evolutionary theorists have, entirely correctly, been willing to adopt the useful fiction that individuals are at their maxima and that the system is in equilibrium.

Let me give you an example. William Hamilton’s wonderfully named paper “Geometry for the Selfish Herd” imagines a group of frogs sitting at the edge of a circular pond, from which a snake may emerge – and he supposes that the snake will grab and eat the nearest frog. Where will the frogs sit? To compress his argument, Hamilton points out that if there are two groups of frogs around the pool, each group has an equal chance of being targeted, and so does each frog within each group – which means that the chance of being eaten is less if you are a frog in the larger group. Thus if you are a frog trying to maximize your choice of survival, you will want to be part of the larger group; and the equilibrium must involve clumping of all the frogs as close together as possible.

Notice what is missing from this analysis. Hamilton does not talk about the evolutionary dynamics by which frogs might acquire a sit-with-the-other-frogs instinct; he does not take us through the intermediate steps along the evolutionary path in which frogs had not yet completely “realized” that they should stay with the herd. Why not? Because to do so would involve him in enormous complications that are basically irrelevant to his point, whereas – ahem – leapfrogging straight over these difficulties to look at the equilibrium in which all frogs maximize their chances given what the other frogs do is a very parsimonious, sharp-edged way of gaining insight.

Now some people would say that this kind of creation of useful fictions is a thing of the past, because now we can study complex dynamics using computer simulations. But anyone who has tried that sort of thing – and I have, at great length – eventually comes to realize just what a wonderful tool paper-and-pencil analysis based on maximization and equilibrium really is. By all means let us use simulation to push out the boundaries of our understanding; but just running a lot of simulations and seeing what happens is a frustrating and finally unproductive exercise unless you can somehow create a “model of the model” that lets you understand what is going on.

Now I would argue that there is something quite similar going on with regard to the attempted deduction of principles of justice or morality from social contract considerations, such as represented by Rawls’ thought experiment. One might think of Rawls’ experiment as akin to an attempt to mimic the dynamics by which human beings have developed, via evolution, a disposition to help others, and be fair to others. The experiment offers in its stead an explicit calculation that helping others and being fair to others works (at least roughly) overall positively for the entire group, the individual included. (Of course, we must quite artificially abstract away most of our own characteristics in so determining, but the point here is that we must go through a calculation, an inference.) But it is far more sensible to take the outcome that we have these dispositions as a biological given, and as a given from the standpoint of constructing our accounts of morality and justice. Again, taking these dispositions as givens doesn’t imply they can’t be partially redirected or occasionally overruled by other considerations. But, as we try to achieve a reflective equilibrium comprehending all of our various beliefs and dispositions, these must play a central role, and be accorded considerable weight. They are, in general, much better understood as points from which we infer other beliefs and principles and constraints than as items themselves to be inferred.

With respect to Rawls’ thought experiment, we cannot re-engineer ourselves as such an exercise would presuppose. If the results of such an experiment were to differ from our inclinations, except in minor ways, we would not in any case be able to abide by them. The only “correct”, acceptable result will be what we might know more directly from understanding our dispositions themselves; why then imagine such an experiment will add much to the result? Indeed, conducting such an experiment would seem instead only to render possible a subtraction from the correct and acceptable position, by positing principles we can’t adhere to.

Political Systems, Self-Interest, Altruism, and Biology

I’ve argued that we as human beings harbor interests in the wellbeing of others. What is difficult is the question: at what cost are we willing to pursue those interests? Here is where I think that consideration of what we choose as citizens to do in industrialized democracies is instructive, especially for the theory of justice. Virtually all industrialized democracies today are welfare states of one description or another. Basic to the welfare state is the notion of a social safety net. Over many decades, and across many, many developed countries, the welfare state has been converged on as the solution that works for most people. I don’t see how this might be possible except that that solution should represent something toward which our biological nature inclines us. It is a pretty obvious truth that the basic values implicit in the welfare state are not biologically radical. If those values were biologically radical, we would not be able to live with them; yet we are able to live with them, and continue to choose a system embodying them. (See my post on The Human Disposition to Help for more explication of this point – I further elaborate the argument in my comments following the post.) Many arguments on social contracts, as well as our biological dispositions, try to bring us back to a “state of nature” and think about our choices in that context. Yet I believe it is far more reasonable to take the current form of advanced society as, in an important sense, our true state of nature: it is that to which we tend as human beings when our inclinations toward civilization and cooperation are played out over time, and balanced one against the other to approach an optimum.

I believe that the point in fact goes beyond the bare claim that the welfare state represents values that are not biologically radical. I think further that the values implicit in the welfare state can be taken as a fair, if still rather rough, estimate as to how we do and should weigh the benefits we feel obligated to offer to others versus the costs we are willing to incur ourselves. Without question, we really do believe in providing a safety net for those less fortunate. I don’t see how one accounts for the structure of the welfare state without giving due credit to that basic impulse in the great majority of human beings.

None of this is to suggest that the numbers for programs supporting altruistic ends can’t be prodded up over their current values — perhaps considerably past those values. Our current state need not be our final state. But we are not Communists, naturally; nor are we Libertarians, naturally. We are somewhere well in between those extremes.

But what’s important to note about the welfare state is how inconsistent it appears to be with Rawls’ Difference Principle. The presumption of a welfare state is that those who are unfortunate should be brought up to some minimum standard of financial well being, so that certain basic needs can be met. There is no presumption that their financial position should be raised as far as the productive members of society can, with sufficient incentives, enable through their efforts. In fact, politically, virtually all of the discussion of the safety net has to do with what those basic needs might reasonably be; essentially no serious debate is accorded to how far the circumstances of the poorest might possibly be lifted before damaging the system. It suffices that the least fortunate might be able to live a life of reasonable comfort, if circumscribed financially.

I should, finally, observe that Rawls uses his thought experiment to justify two principles – not just the Difference Principle, which I’ve discussed, but also what he depicts as an even more fundamental principle of equal basic liberties. Certainly I think that on the biological approach, we will also endorse such a concept of equal basic liberties. And, no doubt, that principle enjoys some precedence over any principle of a right– if it can be said to be a right— citizens may possess to a baseline of economic wellbeing. But I do think that the underlying concept of a baseline, as opposed to some kind of purely redistributive motivation, applies to both cases. In the modern welfare state, the citizen is guaranteed both a baseline of equal liberties, and some determinable baseline of economic wellbeing. That, I believe, is how the vast majority of people really think about both issues. Social contract theory, however conceived, should be consistent with this point of view. We are, I think, fundamentally concerned with what any member of our society should enjoy as a minimum set of rights or privileges, and this has two aspects: those having to do with basic liberties, and those having to do with basic economic viability.

Update 12-16: I expound a bit more on my views regarding Rawls in the comments.

The Human Disposition To Help

[I've been working on a longish post addressing the philosophical underpinnings of biorealism as applied to our concept of morality and justice. It's been slow going - still don't know when I'll have something I can read without wincing. Thought I'd crank out some other posts in the meantime to show a pulse and generate some activity.]

Here’s an interesting article from the NY Times by Nicholas Wade that gets into a subject germane to a point I will be arguing in my future philosophical post: our natural inclination as human beings to be concerned with the welfare of others.

What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.

But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.

In my view, it is such inclinations that serve as a critical ground for a liberal approach in biorealism. Our political system, to be consistent with human nature, must accommodate our wired-in drive to help others.

I think this is a lesson from biology that many on the right in the so-called Human BioDiversity movement — and certainly most of those in the open about their HBD beliefs are from the right — don’t really choose to hear and attend to. It is telling that, typically, those on the right who accept HBD suddenly find themselves invoking highly abstract and bloodless notions, such as an inviolable right to property, when it comes to how our political system should be organized. Yet what does such a formal and idealized notion have to do with human biology, and human inclinations taken as a whole?

It is telling too that those on the right who believe in HBD, who so often find a biological impulse driving virtually every cultural development, seem to envision that someday we will turn away from our current welfare state systems, which are the norm across all industrialized democracies. Isn’t the most natural explanation of mankind’s convergence on such a state that liberalism is built into us? Why deny the possibility of biology playing a crucial role here? Why imagine that we might ever spurn the welfare state?

The difficult question will be how to come to terms with, and reconcile, all of the strong biological inclinations human beings harbor. Sometimes they push one way; sometimes in what seems an opposite way.

But our disposition to care about other people is, I believe, a very potent and basic one, and must be reckoned with.

[Update 12-03-09 -- I develop some of these ideas further in the comments on this post]

Richard Dawkins is a Hypocrite, a Fool, and a Disgrace

OK, the title here is deliberately overwrought, and, very possibly, quite completely unfair.

But let me explain.

Richard Dawkins has fashioned a career as a public intellectual of the highest fame by projecting the persona of a thinker who bravely expresses hard truths which the powers-that-be simply would prefer to ignore or suppress. Among those truths is the cold reality that God does not exist, and that human beings came about through the process of evolution.

So far so good, of course. Who in their right rational mind doesn’t dislike God or Creationists?

Yet what is Dawkins’ attitude toward the possibility that evolution might have brought about important differences between geographically separated groups of human beings, perhaps including features having to do with intelligence?

For the man Dawkins personally, I’m not sure that he’s ever addressed that issue in a direct way that would pin him down. I gather he has mostly dismissed or ignored the idea of genetic differences between groups on such matters, though not for reasons that withstand any real scrutiny.

Yet what goes down in Richard Dawkins’ name on “The Official Richard Dawkins Website”, RichardDawkins.net?

The purest form of censorship of an unwelcome truth of evolution.

A day or two ago, I registered on the site so that I might comment. I mean, it’s talking about what evolution and biology imply for society, right? What more natural venue in which to talk about biorealism?

Well, I got exactly three posts in before I was banned for, and I quote, “racist bigotry”. Now I suggest that the reader go to the thread in question, read my three posts, and decide for himself or herself whether I in any way make any assertion that goes beyond the bare claim that genes likely play a major role in the differing performance of different races on tests of cognitive ability. Do I in any way try to justify discrimination against people of certain races? No. Do I even claim that, say, Affirmative Action is a bad policy? No. I make no value or policy statements at all. In fact, of course, as my previous posts on this blog make clear, I emphatically do not believe that discrimination of any kind against disadvantaged races or ethnicities is in any way warranted, and indeed believe that Affirmative Action has strong justification not only in the face of facts of racial differences, but in no small part because of them.

Note that the title to the thread is, “Race and Intelligence: Science’s Last Taboo” (from a BBC program of the same name). What kind of discourse is it in which a scientific question can be raised, and only one side to the question is allowed an opportunity to state their case without being banned? How absurd is it to do so in a context in which the discussion is also, supposedly, trying to confront and transcend a “taboo” on the subject?

Now were it my misfortune alone to have been banned for presenting the case for one side of the issue, perhaps one might explain away the censorship as some quirky mistake made by an individual moderator. Yet there is apparently a considerable history of such bans, and by a number of moderators, and reflects a deliberate policy. I can’t say for sure whether those others who were banned might have stepped at some point over some bound reasonable people might see as fair, because I haven’t read every single one of their posts. But certainly the proximate posts before the ban, and presumably motivating it, struck me as mostly strictly fact and science oriented, and not as in any way advocating discrimination. The happy thing about my own banning is how neatly it compresses the absurdity and hypocrisy of the banning into three, not terribly long, posts of mine. Anyone can easily see for themselves how fair the ban might be.

Now how much knowledge Dawkins himself may have of this censorship can of course hardly be determined by an outsider. Yet this is Dawkins’ official site. This quite despicably irrational activity is going on in his name — and it’s been going on, I gather, for some time. In the end, he owns clear responsibility for this. He certainly has a responsibility to instruct those who moderate effectively in his name to do so without imposing the crudest kind of censorship.

Perhaps we’ll find out that Dawkins had no such knowledge, and this simply slipped under his notice, and he will effect the necessary changes and apologies on his site. In that case, of course, the headline of this post is unfair, and I hereby pre-emptively retract it and apologize for it.

But if he doesn’t — and I’m enough of a pessimist about such things to think this more likely — then it is only too just.

Let the inflammatory title be my mordantly fun way of calling out Dawkins to do the right thing when it comes to what is being done in his own name.

Your move, Richard.

UPDATE, Nov 7:

Hats off to Galtonian, who has taken the fight to the Blank Slaters over at RichardDawkins.net. It’s been a sight to behold. It’s too bad they aren’t a bit brighter: they would be embarrassed, and might find more productive ways to occupy themselves.

It’s just a wonder to me that they choose to push so hard on what are at most verbal disputes. Does the problem with genetic differences in cognitive abilities across groups go away simply by refusing to call any of those groups “races”? How on earth does that alter the underlying facts of those differences, which is what is of social and political importance? I personally find it hard to take it seriously when people offer up this argument; I can’t help but feel that they’re just trying to pull my leg, and at any moment might say, “I was just messing with your head, man! But I got you going, didn’t I?”

Here is the link to Galtonian’s first post — you can proceed from there to follow the discussion.

The Vice Tightens

I’d like to talk about two points that at first blush seem quite unrelated. One centers in hard biology and neuroanatomy; the other in the softest sort of social science. Yet both converge to undermine the scientific case for a primarily environmental explanation of the race gap in IQ. Together, they show how, over time, the ground that explanation has left to stand on shrinks inexorably.

The first topic is some relatively recent and ongoing work on the relation between features of  white matter in the brain and IQ. The second is the so-called Obama Effect, which some have claimed has allowed some blacks to overcome the disadvantages they had had with respect to whites in performance on tests of cognitive ability.

I end by describing the contrived sort of counterarguments one now sees from advocates of basic genetic equality across races.

White Matter and IQ

An article in most recent Technology Review depicts some work that researchers at UCLA and elsewhere have in recent years conducted on the relation between the features of white matter in the brain and intelligence. (A previous article had discussed in some more detail the apparent heritability of some of the relevant features of the brain.)

From this latest article:

If white matter plays a key role in intelligence, is there a way to enhance it? Does it give us ways to make ourselves smarter, or to help people with neurological and psychiatric disorders that affect cognitive skills?

It’s likely that the quality of white matter is at least partly genetically determined and, therefore, difficult to change. The size of the corpus callosum, the thick tracts of white matter connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, is about 95 percent genetic. And about 85 percent of the white-matter variation in the parietal lobes, which are involved in logic and visual-spatial skills, can be attributed to genetics, according to Thompson. But only about 45 percent of the variation in the temporal lobes, which play a central role in learning and memory, appears to be inherited.

Thompson is now trying to identify specific genes that are linked to the quality of white matter. The top candidate so far is a gene for a protein called BDNF, which promotes cell growth. People with one variation have better-organized fibers, he says.

But environmental factors also play a role. Rodents raised in a stimulating environment have more white matter. And research suggests that the apparent IQ difference between people who were breast-fed and bottle-fed as babies may arise because breast milk contains omega-3s, fatty acids involved in the production of myelin; as a result, some baby formula now includes these compounds.

Now this passage bows to the notion that environment, in the form of intellectual stimulation, might play a major, perhaps dominant, role in IQ. The reader may choose, in the interests of comfort, to interpret this as providing the hypothesis of essential equality-for-all with an “out”  — and no doubt that has much to do with why this verbiage was offered up. But it’s really hard to understand the facts described here as suggesting such equality is a likely outcome.

Consider an analogy. Most people seem to take it as pretty well established that races differ genetically in the quality of their muscle fibers, and other aspects of their musculature, so that, other things being equal, members of one race — blacks with sub-Saharan African ancestors — tend to be faster sprinters than others. Granted this, is it in any way implausible races might likewise differ in the size and quality of their white matter as it pertains to IQ?

Of course it is not unlikely that exercise of the brain, in the form of stimulation, alters the size and quality of white matter. Certainly learning must affect the brain in some physical way, otherwise how might it take place? Yet return to the analogy of sprinting. Dedicated practice will improve the muscle and sprinting performance of virtually anyone willing to engage in it. Yet no program, regardless of its intensity and design, has proved adequate to turn whites or Asians into world record sprinters against the inherent advantages of blacks, nor, one would expect, would any regimen of exercise much affect a gap between the average sprinting performance of blacks on the one hand and whites and Asians on the other.

Why believe, then, that brain stimulation will prove adequate to removing average differences between the races in terms of IQ, or the hypothesized physical substrate for IQ, the nature of the white matter?

Again, one can always find a way to salvage the thesis of basic equality between the races on this score. One can dismiss the study of white matter as simply off-base and wildly speculative. One can say that all relevant white matter differences might be entirely due to proper stimulation in the environment. One can say that while such differences might be highly genetic within a race, there’s no reason to believe that they are so between races. Most of these arguments can be advanced pretty much regardless of whatever science might find, now or for some significant time into the future.

Yet their plausibility at some point surely dies even in the eyes of those who might most ardently wish to believe them. As science uncovers more and more precise physical correlates for IQ, as those are shown to be inherited, as those differences are shown to be reflected across races, and, finally, as the particular genes that effect those differences are in the future both identified and shown to be differentially distributed across races, then the vice of science gets the truth in an inescapable grip. And it is a truth in which genetics is the key to IQ.

Even at this stage, I believe, the hope for ultimate equality here is pretty much a hope for a miracle. The brain science recounted above is doing no more than converging on the only truth we might reasonable expect, given what we already should know if we have an inclination to objectivity, just as the identification of the genes involved will simply flesh out facts by now well confirmed in other ways.

The Obama Effect

In the course of President Obama’s recent election campaign, some researchers (David M. Marx, Sei Jin Kob and Ray A. Friedman) devised a study that purported to show that there was a major “Obama Effect” on the performance of blacks on IQ-like tests of cognitive ability. This study, at the time, got major play in a number of high visibility media venues.

Here’s the abstract of the original research article:

Barack Obama, the first Black-American president, has been widely heralded as a role model for Black-Americans because he inspires hope. The current study was conducted to assess whether, beyond simply inspiring hope, this “Obama Effect” has a concrete positive influence on Black-Americans’ academic performance. Over a three-month period we administered a verbal exam to four separate groups of Black- and White-American participants at four predetermined times. When Obama’s stereotype-defying accomplishments garnered national attention – just after his convention speech, and election to the presidency – they had a profound beneficial effect on Black-Americans’ exam performance, such that the negative effects of stereotype threat were dramatically reduced. This effect occurred even when concerns about racial stereotypes continued to exist. The fact that we found performance effects with a random sample of American participants, far removed from any direct contact with Obama, attests to the powerful impact of ingroup role models.

Now even a number of those who are more than sympathetic to the idea that “stereotype threat” is a real phenomenon were not happy with the methodology of the study, which was indeed quite sloppy. And in fact a least one such researcher, Joshua Aronson of NYU, conducted a study in which the Obama Effect was not replicated (though at least from its description in its own abstract, it may have had a methodological issue of its own: the study was conducted in the context of Obama’s Presidency, and, if there were an Obama Effect, it might already have been fully in force for both the experimental and control groups of black students in the study).

But in the end it’s important to see how any Obama Effect might come out in the larger statistical wash — and in such matters there’s no statistical wash better than SAT scores. They apply to broad, nationwide swathes of the relevant student population, and in numbers so large that even the smallest effects should be readily detectable.

What do SAT scores tell us?

Here’s the comparison between the 2007, 2008, and 2009 total SAT scores.

2007 2008 2009
Black 1287 1280 1276
White 1579 1583 1581
Asian 1605 1610 1623

 

Each year is for the graduating class of the specified year, and comprises scores from May of the previous year through March of the year of interest. (Thus 2009 results comprehend tests taken from May of 2008 through March of 2009). Obama’s campaign and Presidency clearly would have been most on people’s minds in the 2009 results, and rather little going back to 2008. I have also, however, included the 2007 results for comparison, if some might think that an Obama Effect might have already been working into the 2008 results. With regard to the 2009 results, it may be worth noting that at least some students took the test on Jan 24, 2009, merely days after Obama’s inauguration, when an effect against stereotype threat might have been especially powerful.

I think the truly remarkable thing about this data is the absolute dead on stability in the scores. Blacks may have lost a few points in 2009 (as well as in 2008 from 2007) — which is movement in the wrong direction, obviously — but that loss is quite trivial and perhaps explicable by a slightly larger number of black students taking the test. Yet if stereotype threat is a major factor in the always significantly depressed black scores, how can such an epochal event as the election of a black President — and one storied for his brilliance — fail to increase those scores in any measurable way? Bear in mind: these scores were for over 1.5 million students, 40% of which were minorities. At that scale, even the smallest real differences should be discernible. In contrast, the study Aronson conducted that failed to show an Obama Effect included only 119 students, who had to be distributed among experimental and control groups of both blacks and whites. In such a small study, even a real and important effect could easily be missed.

For someone who believes that stereotype threat accounts for a significant portion of gaps between groups on measures of cognitive ability, I don’t see how this SAT data might not shake their faith. The utter failure to find even the smallest effect in the SAT scores after a watershed moment such as the election of Obama could hardly be less in keeping with what they would seem to believe. If stereotype threat means anything, shouldn’t such a confidence booster and stereotype buster as the election and celebration of a black President of famous intelligence do something very real to affect a black student’s concentration and effort in a test of cognitive ability? Aren’t the very studies that seem to demonstrate such an effect so constructed that this sort of experimental manipulation is utilized, except in seemingly less consequential manner, in which the experimental subjects may be, for example, simply reminded of their race or gender? Shouldn’t so powerful a rebuttal of the stereotype under which a student labors improve his or her ability to think while taking a test, if it was that stereotype which exerted such a dramatic distracting and confusing effect to begin with? What’s left of stereotype threat if stereotype refutation is empty entirely of consequence?

While of course proponents of the theory of stereotype threat can always insist on making distinctions here to preserve their hypothesis, doesn’t continued assertion of that theory start to feel a trifle, well, desperate? (One is struck by how often such explanations as stereotype threat and “caste mentality” appear to take on the logical role of being a factor X that essentially saves the environmental thesis against any and all possible counterevidence; they appear to get asserted with greatest vehemence exactly when all other environmental accounts seem to fail, for all practical purposes rendering the environmental hypothesis unfalsifiable.)

Equality of the Gaps

The belief in inherent equality across races in IQ has been derided as “Liberal Creationism”. The jibe is certainly well deserved. But perhaps the analogy might be even more on point were it described as “Liberal Intelligent Design”. For the defense of equality posed by more sophisticated liberals tends to be far more elaborate than the mere invocation of dogma which constitutes Creationism. It is much more akin to the detailed, if utterly strained, arguments of Intelligent Design (ID) proponents.

To every scientific difficulty in their views, liberal advocates of equality have some answer: all physical correlates of IQ can be induced by environment; differences within groups tell us nothing about differences across groups; IQ tests are culturally biased; race is a construct; it’s the “caste mentality” or “stereotype threat” in blacks that depresses their IQ scores; etc.

The problem is, as science has progressed, the ability to maintain the relevance of these counterarguments becomes more of an act of deep faith in a contrary proposition than anything resembling rational inference.

ID proponents might be regarded as adopting a God-of-the-Gaps argument. ID mostly focuses on those biological or chemical facts lying behind evolution that scientists have not yet adequately explained, and trumpets that lack of resolution or understanding as “proof” that only an intelligent designer might have brought about such a phenomenon. Likewise, liberals who insist that there is no scientific evidence of genetic differences between races in IQ seek out aspects of the scientific case for such differences which are not fully understood, and insert their belief in equality in those gaps. Their view can, I think, aptly be named “Equality of the Gaps”. Under this approach, if studies show that black children adopted into families register IQs far more similar to the average of blacks in the larger population than to the IQs of white children adopted into the same families, then the explanation must lie elsewhere than genetics. It must be that black children suffer in all cases from a “caste mentality” brought about their very identification as black, or that they, as blacks, are punished by peers for “acting white” when they seek to excel at school. If white matter in the brain appears to play a crucial role in IQ, then either the relevant differences in size and quality are in all cases brought about entirely by environment, or the differences between races on this score are so engendered. And if science is not yet fully clear as to which sets of genes differentiates between races, and in what manner they do so, then race is a mere social construct, not a category grounded in biology.

Each individual response may possess some kind of plausibility (or not). In aggregate, however, it’s impossible not to notice the pattern. These moves are quite completely predictable. They appear to be driven by beliefs that have absolutely nothing to do with science or the truth, but rather spring from a fragile and ill-conceived moral system — one far too rigid to accommodate important facts of human nature.

Where does this leave the ongoing argument over IQ and race?

Over time, as science has closed in on the underlying truths, the gaps in explanation have narrowed dramatically; they continue to do so. Yet those gaps never entirely disappear. For the Equality-of-the-Gaps people, that is all they require: they live on to fight another day, and another day after that. For the rest of us, we can only wait it out until they dwindle into irrelevance.

A true paradigm shift is probably never a pretty thing seen up close.

Exacting Fairness

I call my view liberal biorealism. So where’s the liberal part?

Let’s start with the key distinction between scientific or naturalistic fact on the one hand and moral value on the other. Truths of nature march entirely to their own drummer — if they can be said to march at all. Moral systems and systems of justice must find a way to map themselves onto or within those independent and indifferent natural truths.

If, then, nature takes one turn rather than another, quirks this way rather than that, it should not upset our moral universe — if that universe was in its basics well formulated from inception.

If we are liberals, we need to determine how our liberal values translate into principles and policies that apply to the world as science reveals it. Insofar as our values are grounded in features clearly basic to human nature, and not on our projections of properties derived only from ideological presuppositions, they should be robust against any discovery of scientific fact.

Now, clearly, there are many values we could easily identify that are so robust. One instance is the wrongness of inflicting pain on innocents gratuitously; another is the obligation to save a good person from death if doing so comes at little cost to oneself or anyone else. Science is scarcely going to uncover some fact that might cast doubt on such bedrock, indisputable values. As further example, liberals generally will endorse the view that we all are under some real obligation to help, in some way, those who are particularly unfortunate in our society. This too is independent of any scientific discovery.

But what I wish to focus on here are values that both clearly reflect a liberal point of view and also address the special issues raised by the evolution and diversity of the human species.

One such general principle (or perhaps set of principles) is what I call the Principle of Exacting Fairness. Alternatively, in other contexts, it might better be called the Principle of Exacting Justice, or of Exacting Rightness.

The principle I have in mind here is a generalization of an obligation nearly all of us acknowledge: that we must sometimes, in the service of fairness to an individual, choose to do or endorse things which may exact a painful outcome, or risk of such, on others.

Different people may be persuaded by different examples of this principle.

Due process and punishment present several such cases. Reasonable doubt, for example, essentially trades off the larger safety of society against the interests of the accused, exposing society to the risk of allowing a criminal to go free. Even when the preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that the accused committed the crime, he will be acquitted and released if that evidence does not establish the case beyond reasonable doubt. Likewise, both the prohibition against double jeopardy, and the release of prisoners after the end of their term into society despite a known, and relatively very high, risk of recidivism, exemplify this principle. Moreover, in matters of non-criminal infractions in other settings, we are often inclined to grant an offender a second chance, in full awareness that a further transgression — and its negative consequences for others — is not unlikely.

A further currently prominent example is that of torture. Certainly for most liberals, the use of torture is virtually always regarded as immoral. Yet it is hard to argue that torture will, under no circumstances, “work”. One can easily enough imagine a “ticking bomb” scenario in which torture might in fact extract information from a terrorist that could prevent some planned act of murder or mayhem. Quite likely, in the fullness of human behavior and experience, such a circumstance, on some scale, has already taken place (though it is remarkable how rarely such an instance can be convincingly confirmed). Does this imply that we should accept torture into our repertoire of techniques for gathering law enforcement information? Indeed, what if torture is effective only in, say, 1% of cases? Given the possible stakes for public safety, why shouldn’t we nonetheless embrace it? Now the debate over torture is a complex one. At its core for its advocates, however, lies the premise that we should adopt virtually any practice which may promote public safety, regardless of their consequences in terms of fair and human treatment of an individual. I believe that most liberals simply reject this premise. In contrast, Conservatives (at least as found in today’s political milieu) seem heavily to favor such a view, albeit with some qualifications.

All of these examples exhibit a tradeoff between fairness (or justice or rightness or human treatment) for the individual and the safety (or comfort or positive payoff) of others. In the context of today’s politics, how one inclines to perform this tradeoff corresponds with impressive exactness to one’s political orientation. Liberals virtually always choose to trade away more of the positive payoff of larger society in favor of the rights or dignity of the individual than do conservatives. I think it pretty fair to characterize that difference in values as basic to — indeed constituitive of — being a liberal.

Racial profiling falls under the same overarching principle. Clearly, the statistics demonstrate that on many dimensions blacks commit crimes at a much higher rate than whites. In many situations, then, it makes perfect rational sense to believe that, other things being equal, and in the face of ignorance as to the real inclinations of a given individual, a black man will be distinctly more likely to present a danger than a white man. Thus, brute rational calculation would likely predict that, other things being equal, if one were to encounter a black man alone in an elevator, on an isolated street, or in a parking garage, he would be more likely to pose a risk of robbery or other harm to oneself than would a white man. Yet, though we can hardly deny the rationality of that conclusion, grounded as it is in known statistics, we ordinarily expect that, at least in some of these situations, we should nonetheless make an effort to behave as we would if the man were white. Of course, the actual circumstances will greatly affect when we so behave. If the elevator, street, or parking garage are in areas generally considered quite safe, we may feel a strong obligation to behave as we would if we were in the presence of a white man; if we know that we are in heavy crime area, we may very well abandon that attempt at fair treatment, judging that the additional statistical risk posed by a black man is too great to ignore.

When it comes to the authorities, we impose much higher demands of fair treatment. We certainly don’t think it right that police officers might question a black man in an elevator, or an isolated street, or a parking garage, when they would not do so if they had encountered a white man. The police of course know as well as we do the increased likelihood, in many circumstances, that a black man, over a white man, will commit a crime, given the same set of known and incomplete facts about both. But in the conduct of their official duties we have a very high expectation that they will treat individuals of all races as equals, and act on knowledge of someone’s race only when it is a likely feature of a real or suspected perpetrator.

Again, how the line on racial profiling is drawn depends greatly on how liberal or conservative one is. Is it permissible for security at airports to scrutinize far more closely a young male Muslim than a white grandmother? Many conservatives would insist Yes; most liberals would argue for equivalent treatment, and demand that any differential action be based purely on other features.

This sort of consideration applies likewise to employment decisions. In certain cases, there may well be a good argument to be made purely on statistical grounds that, given exactly equivalent resumes, a black candidate for a job will, on average, underperform a white candidate for that job. A pertinent analogy would be with the well established fact that, given equivalent SAT scores, black students underperform in terms of college grades compared to white students (a phenomenon termed “overprediction”). These sort of unfortunate statistical tendencies could certainly have a variety of explanations, many of them purely cultural. But the question arises: should we discriminate against black candidates, taking this assumed statistical tendency into account? I think most of us, even most conservatives, recoil at that response to such information. Most of us think it quite unfair to individuals to utilize such presumed tendencies in such a decision, even if they have a rational basis. Liberals, as a matter of course, are far more emphatic on the point.

This brings us to the question of Affirmative Action (AA). I will try to address this very complex issue at a less inadequate length in a future post. For now, let it suffice to say that liberals can rightly regard AA as being justified in part as an extension of the same sense of fairness to individuals as in the case above, where we choose to overlook statistics based on race alone in order to bring about fairer treatment of an individual. Now a sort of paradox inheres in this choice in the use of AA: when we invoke it, we have in mind quite deliberately to take into account the race of individuals in certain minorities in order to bring about this larger fairness. One can give a good rationale for such an action, I believe, but it will have to await a more detailed account of AA. For now, I will say only that its justification would itself be rooted in biological facts about human nature (facts which conservatives who may otherwise embrace HBD seem never to acknowledge): that it’s very hard indeed for most people to give up their attachment to categorizing themselves and others on the basis of racial or ethnic groups, and something should be done affirmatively to rectify the injustices consequent to those identifications.

In short, AA may be regarded as a proper response to a profound and recurring question raised by human diversity: How might and should human nature deal with the facts of human nature?

I believe that this same concept can be extended to issues such as immigration and eugenics as well — dealing with both of which may demand that society allow itself to sustain certain negative consequences in service of a larger justice.

Let this highly schematic account stand for now as my introduction to the Principle of Exacting Fairness. I have no settled views on the philosophical status of the principle. It may be a basic moral principle; if so, it may be justified by intuition, evidence, or theory. It may on the other hand be merely a heuristic organizing a number of rather disparate cases whose individual justifications follow different lines. Nor does the Principle as I’ve depicted it really resolve many cases. Even the most liberal among us recognize that it has a breaking point, a limit past which we should not tradeoff, say, further public safety for fairness to the individual. I do not yet have a good sense as to how that limit might be ideally defined.

Yet I think the principle captures something basic to the precepts a new theory of justice must incorporate if that theory is to deal adequately with the facts of human evolution and consequent differences. For at the core of those considerations is always the dilemma posed when we acknowledge, rather than evade, likely truths about an individual grounded in his or her biology (or that of groups to which he or she belongs) while seeking to be fair and just to the person.

The Likelihood of Genetic Group Differences in IQ: The Black White Gap in IQ

I apologize in advance for the daunting length of this post. My sole excuse is that I should have made it still longer to cover the topic.

In dealing with any controversy, it’s usually healthiest to begin at the sticking point. On the question of the impact of biology on political ideology, it’s plain enough what that is: group differences in IQ in general, and the black-white gap in IQ in particular.

I believe the best evidence is that the black-white IQ gap is real, that IQ measures something basic about intelligence, and that the difference between the average IQ of blacks and the average IQ of whites is based in substantial part on genetic differences between the two groups.

I’ll focus on the claim regarding the substantial genetic basis for the IQ gap. The evidence is perhaps best summarized in the following sequence of papers. The series commences with an initial paper by Arthur Jensen and Phillipe Rushton, is followed by criticisms from some of the most prominent anti-heriditarians, and ends with a final response to their critics from Jensen and Rushton:

Rushton, J. P., & Jensen, A. R. (2005). Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 235-294.

Sternberg, R. J. (2005). There are no public-policy implications: A reply to Rushton and Jensen (2005). Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 295-301.

Nisbett, R. E. (2005). Heredity, environment, and race differences in IQ: A commentary on Rushton and Jensen (2005). Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 302-310.

Gottfredson, L. S. (2005). What if the hereditarian hypothesis is true? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 311-319.

Suzuki, L., & Aronson, J. (2005). The cultural malleability of intelligence and its impact on the racial/ethnic hierarchy. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 320-327.

Rushton, J. P., & Jensen, A. R (2005). Wanted: More race realism, less moralistic fallacy. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 328-336.

Another paper that responds to the most recent criticism of the hereditarian hypothesis, in the book “Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count” by Richard Nisbett, is this paper, again by Jensen and Rushton.

Also a very good summary of the latest data regarding the black-white IQ gap can be found in Charles Murray’s article The Inequality Taboo, from 2005.

As these papers make clear, there exist any number of items of evidence that point to the conclusion that the black-white IQ gap is quite considerable, and its genetic basis substantial. It is of course that evidence considered in aggregate that most inescapably nails down those conclusions. Yet some items seem even standing by themselves quite powerful.

I would subsume that evidence under the rubric of “regression to the mean” effects. Jensen and Rushton in “Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability”, linked to above, describe the phenomenon and some of the evidence:

Regression toward the mean provides still another method of testing if the group differences are genetic. Regression toward the mean is seen, on average, when individuals with high IQ scores mate and their children show lower scores than their parents. This is because the parents pass on some, but not all, of their genes to their offspring. The converse happens for low IQ parents; they have children with somewhat higher IQs. Although parents pass on a random half of their genes to their offspring, they cannot pass on the particular combinations of genes that cause their own exceptionality. This is analogous to rolling a pair of dice and having them come up two 6s or two 1s. The odds are that on the next roll, you will get some value that is not quite as high (or as low). Physical and psychological traits involving dominant and recessive genes show some regression effect. Genetic theory predicts the magnitude of the regression effect to be smaller the closer the degree of kinship between the individuals being compared (e.g., identical twin  full-sibling or parent– child  half-sibling). Culture-only theory makes no systematic or quantitative predictions.

For any trait, scores should move toward the average for that population. So in the United States, genetic theory predicts that the children of Black parents of IQ 115 will regress toward the Black IQ average of 85, whereas children of White parents of IQ 115 will regress toward the White IQ average of 100. Similarly, children of Black parents of IQ 70 should move up toward the Black IQ average of 85, whereas children of White parents of IQ 70 should move up toward the White IQ average of 100. This hypothesis has been tested and the predictions confirmed. Regression would explain why Black children born to high IQ, wealthy Black parents have test scores 2 to 4 points lower than do White children born to low IQ, poor White parents (Jensen, 1998b, p. 358). High IQ Black parents do not pass on the full measure of their genetic advantage to their children, even though they gave them a good upbringing and good schools, often better than their own. (The same, of course, applies to high IQ White parents.) Culture-only theory cannot predict these results but must argue that cultural factors somehow imitate the effect theoretically predicted by genetic theory, which have also been demonstrated in studies of physical traits and in animals.

Jensen (1973, pp. 107–119) tested the regression predictions with data from siblings (900 White sibling pairs and 500 Black sibling pairs). These provide an even better test than parent– offspring comparisons because siblings share very similar environments. Black and White children matched for IQ had siblings who had regressed approximately halfway to their respective population means rather than to the mean of the combined population. For example, when Black children and White children were matched with IQs of 120, the siblings of Black children averaged close to 100, whereas the siblings of White children averaged close to 110. A reverse effect was found with children matched at the lower end of the IQ scale. When Black children and White children are matched for IQs of 70, the siblings of the Black children averaged about 78, whereas the siblings of the White children averaged about 85. The regression line showed no significant departure from linearity throughout the range of IQ from 50 to 150, as predicted by genetic theory but not by culture-only theory.

What is peculiarly compelling about this evidence? The simplicity and directness with which the genetic hypothesis accounts for the data, the accuracy of that prediction across the range of IQs, and the sheer implausibility of any primarily environmental account of that data.

Of course, those promoting the primarily environmental hypothesis can put together a response that formally meets the objection: some unknown factor X that depresses the IQ of all blacks effectively uniformly across the range, imposing a nearly exactly one standard deviation hit on each black subject measured. Now, I must say this purported effect impresses me as quite magical and unprecedented. What other socioeconomic or cultural environmental factor can one think of that induces such a uniform effect across such a range on a group of human beings?

Given what the factor X is supposed to effect in particular, how plausible is its existence? Wouldn’t one expect that some black families in some more environmentally propitious situations would enable their children to escape, or at least significantly to avoid, any factor X that might depress IQ scores? How is it, then, that even for black children with relatively high IQs of 120, their siblings should average only 100, rather than 110, as with the siblings of white children with IQs of 120? Consider the parents of a black child with the relatively high IQ of 120. Wouldn’t one expect that that family, which had managed to find and develop an environment congenial enough to the intellectual development of one of their children that he or she achieved an IQ of 120, might likewise have secured an environment as well suited for the intellectual development of their other children? Here we have the same parents, the same socioeconomic status, the same childrearing practices, as well as the same schools and neighborhoods. If environment means anything to IQ — which of course is the claim — shouldn’t such similarities be exactly what one would expect to engender the same kinds of outcomes in IQ? How explain then the great and otherwise unexpected disparity?

I find it very hard to ponder facts like these without inferring that genes dominate the explanation for the black-white IQ gap.

Another set of facts that I would categorize as “regression to the mean” effects is the disparity between black and white performance on the SAT even when controlling for economic status and level of education of parents. This is well captured in two graphs. (I take as a reasonable assumption that the SAT, which correlates as well with IQ tests as they correlate with each other, can here work as a good measure of IQ).
Average 1995 SAT scores vs income by ethnicity
Average 1995 SAT scores vs parental educational level by ethnicity

Both of these graphs run very hard against the hypothesis of purely, or dominantly, environmental basis of the black-white IQ gap. Yes, as parental education and income increase, SAT scores rise: that much an environmental explanation might predict. But, remarkably, the children of blacks whose income is over $70K attain an average SAT score lower than that of the children of whites whose income is well into the poverty level of $0K to $10K. Likewise, the children of blacks who had achieved a graduate level degree score lower on average on the SAT than do the children of whites who only finished HS.

How might one contemplate these items of data without feeling that they are exactly what one would not expect to see if environment played the major role in determining IQ differences between these groups? The advantages that come with a high income and with a graduate level education confer the very sort of benefits that are routinely said to explain why the average black student can’t do as well as the average white student on an IQ test or the SAT. How is it then that the effects of this relative privilege in black children cannot overwhelm, and easily, those of the clear deficts in the backgrounds of white students against whom the black childen are being compared? If income and educational level of parents entail so little, what can the environment plausibly be said to ground here?

Of course, this regression to the mean is, on the other hand, exactly what one would expect to see if the genetic basis were dominant in determining IQ or SAT scores. The hereditarian hypothesis predicts this and the earlier IQ data neat as a pin.

Now, again, one can contrive an explanation that lets the primarily environmental explanation off the hook. One can say that blacks at any income level and at any level of education suffer from a “caste mentality” or from “stereotype threat” which systematically undermines their performance. I plan to address those issues in more detail in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that the only likely motivation I can see to adopt such a view is to save the primarily environmental thesis from otherwise incompatible data. It appears to me to be a posit born of desperation: a scientific Hail Mary thrown up when the game is otherwise lost. In practice, it appears to operate as little more than a fudge factor X whose impact and exact size is determined only by what otherwise can’t be explained under a given hypothesis.

I think, though, that if one doesn’t divert one’s attention from the basic facts being communicated by these graphs and the earlier example described by Jensen and Rushton, and allows oneself to stare into this sun long enough to take its reckoning, then the natural conclusion is that it is genetic, rather than environmental, differences that are more basic to the black-white IQ gap.