The Sound of a Dam Breaking

I haven’t posted anything about the whole James Watson fracas, though I’ve meant to, and now William Saletan has massively beaten me to the punch, to accolades from Steve Sailer and a more equivocal response from Ross Douthat. Ross describes Saletan’s 3-part article as brave, and I think that’s exactly right – and the fact that it is brave of Saletan to touch this question is answer enough to those who ask, “why do you bother reading Steve Sailer when he’s such an obnoxious bigot” – the answer being, whether or not that is a fair characterization of Steve, I’ll keep reading him until there are lots of people out there to choose from who are unafraid to touch these touchy subjects. I do think Ross is wrong to refer to an “emerging scientific consensus” about these matters; what would be more correct is that there is a burgeoning scientific debate, a debate that our political and social taboos have tried mightily to stifle, or at least hide from public view. And, like Steve I applaud Saletan for breaking that particular taboo.

But while I applaud its breaking, I still think we should recognize why that taboo exists, and should break it not with glee but with the sober recognition that the advance of human knowledge will leave us no choice, which is very much the spirit in which Saletan engages in doing so. To that end, I think it’s worth engaging a bit more with Saletan’s and Douthat’s conclusions about the matter.

First of all: why is the taboo in place? There are some strong reasons for it; it’s not just a matter of being too sensitive to touchy people’s feelings.

The first of the strong reasons is that science by its nature objectifies and reduces – it has to in order to be science – and so any science of human nature cannot fail to trouble and anger given that what is being objectified and reduced is . . . us. Any science of human nature will reduce our sense of human freedom (and human accountability). That’s why so many of a conservative temperament reacted anxiously to the theories of Freud, Marx and Darwin – or, reaching back further, the psychology of Hobbes.

Closely related to this, science is not a democracy. Ideally, it’s a meritocracy, and where it varies from this in practice it’s because of a necessary institutional conservatism and bureaucratic heirarchy. And any science of human nature would be no different. What follows is that not all are equal in their ability to study human nature. Some humans will be in a better position to say what human nature is than others. In a democratic culture like ours, that’s going to stick in everyone’s craw.

But it gets much worse when the people who have the chops to opine on the science of human nature look noticeably different from the way the people without the chops to so opine. It is not just a matter of “hurt feelings” – it’s a matter of credibility. The kinds of things the hereditarians are saying would be hard to take from anybody, but why would, say, a black lawyer even consider that message credible given the typical complexion of the messenger (and no, razib’s complexion doesn’t count)? By the very nature that the hereditarians and sociobiologists are studying, one would expect these kinds of findings to cause great division.

All of this is true, and all of this is why it is vital that responsible political actors stop trying to suppress this kind of discussion, and start trying to figure out how to discuss it in a way that doesn’t cause great social and political anxiety. Saletan tries his own framing in his third piece, and I’d like to respond to his 10-point plan here.

1. Individual IQ can’t be predicted from race. True – and a good point! But not, ultimately, a very deep one. After all, rationally everyone plays the odds; if you don’t, you’ll just make bad decisions – more bad decisions, probably, than by playing the odds too faithfully.

2. Subgroup IQ can’t be predicted from race. True – and a better point. But, again, very limited; this amounts to advice to calculate the odds better before you make a judgement. I’m not sure this will do much to frame the question better in the big picture.

3. Whitey does not come out on top. That’s right: Jewboy does. Feel better?

4. Racism is elitism minus information. Again, a decent point, but it doesn’t do what he is hoping. This, again, amounts to a plea to people to calculate the odds better before they make judgements. OK – but many (not all) of the judgements will wind up fairly similar.

Here’s the big-picture problem with all of the foregoing: Saletan seems to think the big danger is the rise of white supremacy. I am very skeptical that this is the real danger. Maybe rhetorically fending off this menace is useful, but I suspect that it’s not as politically useful as Saletan thinks – and much less useful than actually trying to figure out how to live in a world of deep racial differences, none of which these points address.

The next few points do more of the latter.

5. Intermarriage is closing the gap. True – but assortative mating may be widening it. It would be very useful to know which effect is more dominant.

6. Environment matters. True – and a vital point. There are likely biological factors that impact IQ that are not congenital, and there are likely congenital factors that are not genetic. It behooves us to pay an awful lot of attention to these things, and we don’t. Whether we can effectively do so with our public health system structured as it is should be one question we ask. But we can’t even ask it until we can talk about IQ without lowering our voices.

7. IQ is like wealth (i.e.: it is not a measure of human worth, and providing a decent baseline is more important than mandating equality).

8. Life is more than g (in both the sense that there is more to life than being clever and that cleverness is not the only important factor in solving real-world problems and being productive).

Both points 7 and 8 are very true, and here, I think, is the heart of what has to be the responsible reaction to the data coming out of the emerging sciences of human nature. But I will note a few caveats. First, the argument about wealth recalls to my mind Mickey Kaus’s early-1990s call for a new, social egalitarianism to replace economic egalitarianism. I’m not clear that we’ve actually made many strides in that direction, and I fear that this call for social egalitarianism to replace cognitive egalitarianism will similarly bear little fruit, unless one can identify strong mechanisms and social and political bases of support for such an egalitarianism. and I haven’t seen that. As for life being more than g – this is very true, but that path could lead in more interesting directions than Saletan maybe realizes, as I’ll get to below. But, at a minimum, thinking about, on the one hand, how to make the modern world more navigable for lower-IQ citizens and, on the other hand, how to prepare lower-IQ citizens to better navigate the modern world, each strike me as extremely important avenues for thinking that we have largely avoided as a society.

9. Children are more than an investment. Yes. But the real question is: what is the purpose of education? If we conceive of the purpose of education as giving every student an equal shot at becoming a Harvard-educated lawyer, there will be a lot of unhappy children. Even if we pursue the more reasonable and noble goal of giving every student an equal opportunity to beome a Harvard-educated lawyer, we’ll probably be misdirecting a lot of resources and leaving a lot of people unhappy. But Saletan is absolutely right that thinking about education in purely economic terms would also be a very bad idea – for democracy, for individual happiness, for pretty much everything except, perhaps, the corporate bottom line. I would be thrilled if the emerging data from the sciences of human nature forced us to start asking how education relates to the responsibilities of citizenship, or a mature apprehension of the good life – and I do think the opportunity is there, for both liberals and conservatives, to take the conversation in that direction. But we have to seize it; it won’t happen on its own, not with our country’s values structured as they are currently.

10. Genes can be changed. Well, count me as one of the skeptics about the prospects for genetic engineering to solve all our problems. I base my skepticism on three broad, general principles. First, the human mind is extraordinarily complex. It will take us longer than anyone thinks for us to understand how to manipulate it safely and with confidence about the outcome. We have, in the past, thought that we could re-make, wholesale, human economies and natural ecologies; we discovered that each was a far too complicated mechanism to be seized and controlled from the center. We have learned things – we’ve tamed the business cycle somewhat, and we’ve gotten better at managing not to wreck the natural environment (global warming notwithstanding). But we are not able to control these complex systems and bend them to our will. Similarly, I don’t expect the wildest dreams of the genetic controllers to be realized. Second, I cannot think of a technological innovation that ushered in utopia. Every technological advance has had its negative side effects. Even when the net impact is clearly positive – the invention of written language, for example, pretty much destroyed the oral epic, but is still net-net a good thing – human history went on, with new social conflicts and contradictions. I don’t see why I should assume that genetic engineering will eliminate whole categories of social misery that were not wiped out by moveable type, the steam engine or the birth control pill. Finally, it is far more plausible to me that genetic engineering will lead to greater genetic differentiation than that it will lead to greater uniformity – unless, of course, there is some controlling authority that ruthlessly enforces the opposite, and the advent of such authority would, I think, be worse than the disease it was intended to cure.

As I say, some of his points are a good start – but only that. I think it is worth thinking, though, about how knowledge of deep differences is likely to impact our society, because I do not believe that all political views are equally consonant with what we may learn from the science of human nature. Charles Murray’s example notwithstanding, those with the most to lose are likely the libertarians, simply because the social basis of libertarianism will not exist if libertarianism leads to permanent racial stratification exacerbated by genetic modification. And this leads me to my final point, about Ross’s conclusions.

Ross is very interested in the question, whether it is the left or the right who will jump on the pro-genetic-engineering bandwagon, and winds up (I think) concluding that the center of both camps will be on that bandwagon with a crunchy coalition of right- and left-wing cranks complaining on the sidelines (at least, I think that’s where he ends up). I think that might be wrong. I actually think the left is in a much better position to embrace the new science than the right is, for a bunch of reasons. The left is already comfortable with the idea of multi-culturalism and race-consciousness. Moreover, it is already comfortable with a certain amount of paternalism. And it starts from a proposition that no one deserves to suffer because of factors that are beyond their control. All of these put the left in a much better position to say: if there are deep, genetic differences in abilities, then public policy has to respond to that in intelligent ways that make the lives of those on the left-half of the bell curve better off. If nothing else, the left is in a much better position to rhetorically handle the emerging science, because it already has credibility with the most important audience.

But there is one other reason why I think the left is more likely to move in the direction of embracing empiricism and abandoning an ideology-driven approach to this science, and Saletan alludes to it in passing. That reason is Iraq. The debacle of Iraq has completely changed the way many at least some on the left talk about foreign policy, has midwifed the birth of a kind of left-wing realism. It is the left (or a portion thereof) that has taken up the mantle of the Reality-Based Community. In the same way that some conservatives (Larry Kudlow, for example) have begun to embrace a kind of unified-theory-of-nonsense embracing neo-creationism, the idea of tax-cuts as revenue-raisers, and the conviction that we are winning in Iraq, I believe there is an emerging group of left-wingers who are going to take empiricism seriously across the board, and not just when it comes to scoring points against the Bush Adminstration. Here’s the key quote from Saletan:

Basically, the debate over the IQ surge is a lot like the debate over the Iraq troop surge, except that the sides are reversed. Here, it’s the liberals who are betting on the surge, while the conservatives dismiss it as illogical and doomed. On the one hand, the IQ surge is hugely exciting. If it closes the gap to zero, it moots all the putative evidence of genetic barriers to equality. On the other hand, the case for it is as fragile as the case for the Iraq surge. You hope it pans out, but you can’t see why it would, given that none of the complicating factors implied by previous data has been adequately explained or taken into account. Furthermore, to construe meaningful closure of the IQ gap in the last 20 years, you have to do a lot of cherry-picking, inference, and projection. I have a hard time explaining why I should go along with those tactics when it comes to IQ but not when it comes to Iraq.

I expect to see a lot more arguments of the form, “I have a hard time explaining why I should go along with those tactics when it comes to X but not when it comes to Iraq” from the left than from the right in years to come, and that’s a major reason why I think we’re going to see more defections to the side of some kind of hereditarianism from the left than we are from the right.