The Politics of Biological Determinism

Stephen Jay Gould tackles the notion that existing social hierarchies reflect innate abilities in his essay on the heritability of intelligence.

Submitted by Choccy on December 23, 2009

Rethinking Schools (Vol.14, No. 2 - Winter 1999)

What argument against social change could be more effective than the claim that established orders exist as an accurate reflection of innate intellectual capacities?
The following has been condensed from the introduction to Stephen Jay Gould's 1996 edition of "The Mismeasure of Man." Given the growing reliance on standardized testing within education, and the origin of such tests in assumptions about the biological innateness of IQ (especially along lines of race), we believe that Gould's remarks shed some insight into the sociopolitical context of increased calls for high-stakes standardized tests. This is particularly the case when standardized test scores are seen as proxies for intelligence and are used to determine which schools are granted society's best educational resources and rewards and which students get into the best colleges and universities.

I regard the critique of biological determinism as both timeless and timely. It is timeless because the errors of biological determinism are so deep and insidious and appeal to the worst manifestations of our common nature. It is timely because the same bad arguments recur every few years with a predictable and depressing regularity.

No mystery attends the reason for these recurrences. They are not manifestations of some underlying cyclicity, obeying a natural law that might be captured in a mathematical formula as convenient as IQ; nor do these episodes represent any hot item of new data or some previously unconsidered novel twist in argument.

The reasons for recurrence are sociopolitical and are not hard to find. Resurgences of biological determinism correlate with episodes of political retrenchment, particularly with campaigns for reduced government spending on social programs, or at times of fear among ruling elites, when disadvantaged groups sow serious social unrest or even threaten to usurp power.

Twentieth-century America has experienced three major episodes of biological determinism: the first around the introduction of the IQ test in America in the years following World War I; the second beginning in 1969; and most recently in an episode that kicked off in 1994 with the publication of The Bell Curve.

These episodes of biological determinism have served useful sociopolitical purposes. What argument against social change could be more chillingly effective than the claim that established orders, with some groups on top and others at the bottom, exist as an accurate reflection of the innate and unchangeable intellectual capacities of people so ranked? Why struggle and spend to raise the unboostable IQ of races or social classes at the bottom of the economic ladder? - better simply to accept nature's unfortunate dictates and save a passel of federal funds. (We can then more easily sustain tax breaks for the wealthy!) Why bother yourself about underrepresentation of disadvantaged groups in your honored and remunerative bailiwick if such absence records the diminished ability or general immorality, biologically imposed, of most members in the rejected group, and not the legacy or current reality of social prejudice?

The new upsurge of biological determinism in this century constitutes one of the saddest ironies of U.S. history. We like to think of America as a land with generally egalitarian traditions, a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." We recognize, au contraire, that many European nations, with their long histories of monarchy, feudal order, and social stratification, have been less committed to ideals of social justice or equality of opportunity. Since the IQ test originated in France, we might naturally assume that the false hereditarian interpretations, so commonly and so harmfully imposed upon the tests, arose in Europe. Ironically, this reasonable assumption is entirely false.

Alfred Binet, the French inventor, not only avoided a hereditarian interpretation of his test, but explicitly (and fervently) warned against such a reading as a perversion of his desire to use the tests for identifying children who needed special help. (Binet argued that an innatist interpretation would only stigmatize children as unteachable, producing a result opposite to his intent - a fear entirely and tragically justified by later history.)

The hereditarian interpretation of IQ arose in America, largely through proselytization of the three psychologists - H. H. Goddard, L. M. Terman, and R. M. Yerkew - who translated and popularized the tests in this country. If we ask how such a perversion could occur in our land of liberty and justice for all, we must remember that the years just following World War I, the time of peak activity for these scientists, featured a narrow, parochial, jingoistic, isolationist, "nativist" (WASP, not Indian), rally-round-the-flag, tinhorn patriotism unmatched by any other period during our century, even in the heyday of McCarthyism during the early 1950s. This was the age of restriction upon immigration, the spread of Jewish quotas, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the height of lynchings in the Southern states. Interestingly, most of the men who built biodeterminism in the 1920s recanted their own conclusions during the liberal swing of the 1930s, when Ph.D.s walked depression breadlines and poverty could no longer be explained by innate stupidity.

The two most recent episodes also correlate with political swings. Arthur Jensen launched the first of these in 1969, with a notoriously fallacious article on the supposed innateness of group differences in IQ (with emphasis on disparity between whites and blacks in America). His chilling opening line belied all his later claims that he had only published as a disinterested scholar, and not as a man with a social agenda. He began with an explicit attack upon the federal Head Start program: "Compensatory education has been tried and it apparently has failed." Richard Herrnstein fired a second major salvo in 1971, with an article in the Atlantic Monthly that became the outline and epitome of The Bell Curve.

In analyzing why Jensen's piece became such a cause celébre, we must turn to social context. Since Jensen's article contained no novel argument, we must seek the newly fertile soil that allowed such an old and ever-present seed to germinate.

I am no social pundit, and my view on this issue may be naive. But I well remember these politically active times of my youth. I recall the growth of opposition to the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 (and the fear inspired by attendant urban riots), the stepping down of Lyndon Johnson, inside and outside strife at the Chicago Democratic Party Convention of 1968, and the resulting election of Richard Nixon as president - with the onset of a conservative reaction that always engenders renewed attention for the false and old, but now again useful, arguments of biological determinism.

The third major episode then kicked off in 1994, with the publication of The Bell Curve. The book contained nothing new, though the authors spun out the old arguments over 800 pages filled with copious charts and graphs that bamboozle people into confusing both novelty and profundity with their fear of incomprehension. When I met Charles Murray in debate at Harvard's Institute of Politics, I could only think to begin with a favorite line from Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost: "He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument."

The remarkable impact of The Bell Curve must therefore, and once again as always, be recording a swing of the political pendulum to a sad position that requires a rationale for affirming social inequalities as dictates of biology.

Should anyone be surprised that publication of The Bell Curve coincided exactly with the election of Newt Gingrich's Congress and with a new age of social meanness unprecedented in my lifetime? Slash every program of social services for people in genuine need; terminate support for the arts (but don't cut a dime, heaven forfend, from the military); balance the budget and provide tax relief for the wealthy. Perhaps I am caricaturing, but can we doubt the consonance of this new meanspiritedness with an argument that social spending can't work because, contra Darwin, the misery of the poor does result from the laws of nature and from the innate ineptitude of the disadvantaged?

Stephen Jay Gould is the author of numerous books. He teaches geology, biology, and the history of science at Harvard University.
Excerpted from "The Mismeasure of Man," by Stephen Jay Gould. Copyright © 1996, 1981 by Stephen Jay Gould. With permission of the publishers, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. F