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The gene delusion

The genetic data around human difference is inconclusive – but that does not stop right-wing thinkers using it to excuse profound social inequalities

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In February this year, the Downing Street adviser Andrew Sabisky was forced to resign when his incendiary comments on race and genetics from six years earlier came to light. Sabisky had been hired by Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, as part of a drive to recruit “weirdos and misfits”. But one of the most alarming aspects of the Sabisky affair is not that he had written that “There are excellent reasons to think the very real racial differences in intelligence are significantly – even mostly – genetic in origin”; it is that such views are hardly even controversial today among many right-wing thinkers.

Sabisky was just 21 when he made those comments, though neither he nor his would-have-been bosses Cummings and Johnson has said whether they agree with them today. So while Sabisky had added that “whether the politicians will pay any attention is debatable… [although] it would be nice if they did from the standpoint of immigration control”, we can’t be sure that the British government isn’t, on the contrary, paying very close attention indeed as it tells us that “people can come to our country based on what they have to offer”.

If so, it will welcome Human Diversity, the new book by the American political scientist Charles Murray. Murray gained notoriety after he asserted in The Bell Curve, a 1994 book co-authored with Harvard psychologist Richard J Herrnstein, that there are fundamental differences in average IQ between races – with the “bell curve” distribution for black people peaking at lower values than that for whites. Among other solecisms, The Bell Curve drew on research published in the journal Mankind Quarterly, which has white-supremacist connections. One scientific journal called the book “fascist ideology”.

There is no sign in Human Diversity that the ensuing controversy and criticisms have swayed Murray an inch, although here he is so prolix, and his facts and figures are so undigested, that racists scouring his book for arguments to support their prejudices might get bored or confused before they find what they want. Even the title dog-whistles the term “human biodiversity”, widely used among the far right today as code for the alleged genetic distinctions (meaning hierarchy) of races.

But now Murray is going for broke. He wants to take on not only (as he puts it) the politically correct orthodoxy that insists race is a social construct and that any measured population differences in IQ are due to prejudice and unequal opportunity. His book also attacks the alleged “tenets of the orthodoxy” that gender, too, is a social construct and that “class is a function of privilege”. To put it bluntly, Human Diversity argues that men and women have fundamentally different brains, capabilities and inclinations, and that some poor communities will always be poor because their genes make them less able to achieve in jobs that bring wealth. It is genes, not acculturation or discrimination, that leaves women in lower-paid caring professions, and it is genes that have placed white males at the top of the pile.


Confirmation bias: Charles Murray enlists genetics to support received ideas about human nature. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine 

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Before the social justice warrior in you starts gnashing in fury, consider this. First, there is plenty in Murray’s book that is true (albeit none of the ideas I mentioned above). Second, none of those propositions is self-evidently false; they can be decided only with data and facts, not by anecdote or preference. Third, there are many who believe that they are true. Human Diversity, for all its sober and sometimes irenic prose, detailed statistical explanations and voluminous footnotes, is a manifesto for one side of a debate that, in the age of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán, has become one of the bloodiest cultural battlefields of our time. It will surely be cited as the definitive academic proof by proponents of the arguments he espouses. For that reason alone, it needs to be considered seriously.

Many of the counter-arguments have already been made. On the issue of cognitive differences between males and females, Murray dismisses the sceptical point of view presented in, say, Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain and Cordelia Fine’s award-winning Testosterone Rex, saying of the latter that one unnamed neuroscientist told him it was “evidently nonsense”. He does not mention Angela Saini’s Inferior on the same topic, nor her more recent Superior on the abuses of “race science”; Adam Rutherford’s How To Argue With a Racist is too recent to have been included in the discussion. You do not need to agree with everything those books say to appreciate that the issues are by no means as settled as Murray implies.

On class and genetics, meanwhile, rather little has been written for a general reader. But it could be the next minefield, and was actually a major focus of The Bell Curve – as well as for the eugenicists (who included many, often left-leaning scientists) of the early 20th century, who worried that “feeble-minded” members of the lower classes were breeding more rapidly than the elites.

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Eugenics is the spectre haunting this debate. It arose from the application of Darwinian ideas to human society in times when the science was too immature for the flawed reasoning to be apparent. Darwin discovered that biological traits – including human behaviours and abilities – were subject to the influence of invisible factors (genes) that we inherit. This led some – notably, Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton – to conclude that people could in principle be bred for intelligence or good looks just as racehorses were bred for speed or cows for milk-producing capacity. (The idea remains in vogue among the aristocracy today – recently a clip surfaced of Dominic Cummings’ baronet father-in-law Humphrey Wakefield asserting that genetic greatness runs in elite families, if they keep the bloodline “pure” – an idea straight out of Galton’s 1869 work Hereditary Genius.)

But in modern societies where traits such as athleticism and intelligence were not subject to natural selection – where “poor genetic stock” could flourish and breed – scientists such as the eminent biologist Julian Huxley (grandson of Darwin’s advocate Thomas Huxley), as well as the likes of HG Wells, Marie Stopes and George Bernard Shaw, believed that social and legal controls and incentives were needed to prevent bad genes from overwhelming the “good”.

The horrific direction eugenics took under the Nazis has made it almost synonymous with inhuman social engineering and prejudice today. Yet there is still a great deal of confusion about it. Richard Dawkins took to Twitter in the wake of the Sabisky affair to say: “It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice [for humans]. Of course it would.” That prompted a dispute among experts about whether he was correct in the light of what we now know of human genetics. One key fact that confounds Dawkins’ argument is that the genetic element of “desirable” but complex traits such as intelligence tends to be spread so widely and thinly across the genome, and so entwined with other attributes, that it would be all but impossible to select for them.

Remarkably, eugenics is not mentioned once in Murray’s book. For someone setting himself up as a brave soul prepared to say the unsayable, this seems deplorably craven. Murray might argue that the book is not taking any position on eugenics, indeed not addressing the topic at all. But he knows perfectly well that any discussion of, say, the volatile intersection of genes, IQ and class must inevitably happen within the legacy of 20th-century debates on this issue. The word is ubiquitous in the far-right and supremacist channels to which Murray knows he will be speaking. It has been raised both by Sabisky (who has past links to alt-right forums) and Toby Young, who in 2017 attended a secret conference series on intelligence hosted – without the university’s knowledge – at University College London, and which attracted white supremacists and eugenics advocates.

Those who believe in innate differences in ability and behaviour between “human populations” (for which, read “races”) style themselves today as “race realists”, much as climate-change deniers call themselves climate realists. It’s a rhetorical stratagem implying that they are on the side of science, evidence and reason rather than ideology. In that narrative, academia is now in thrall to a woke liberal orthodoxy that censors and punishes any suggestion that gender and race are biological. Race realists and eugenicists defend their right to spread their views under a banner of free speech.

Take Young’s new Free Speech Union, which seems primarily a vehicle for opposing “self-righteous social media bullies” like the “offence archaeologists” who in 2018 scuppered his own government appointment by unearthing his sexist tweets from a few years back; it has already proved to be a magnet for the hard right. Or take the case of Nathan Cofnas, a philosophy doctoral student at Oxford who published a sober-sounding article condemning the suppression of free enquiry into topics such as “group differences in intelligence”, yet turns out to be a race realist and enemy of “political correctness”. And so they go on, these white men to whom freedom of speech apparently means the freedom to go on asking the same question – might the privileges that they happen to enjoy themselves be a part of the natural order? – and never to take no for an answer.

Murray, too, wears this mantle of victimhood and oppression. Yet somehow – his funding by the right-wing think tank the American Enterprise Institute has something to do with it – he is able to defy stifling orthodoxy by producing hefty books hyped by mainstream publishers (this one, like The Bell Curve, was not released to reviewers before publication and so was presented as an “event”) and writing editorials in the Wall Street Journal.

There’s no denying that a doctrinaire, puritanical left exists which polices language and behaviour around race and gender, cancelling and no-platforming people for the slightest violations. But the picture Murray paints is not one most academics, even in the politically polarised US, will recognise.

Caught in the middle of this culture war are the scientists themselves: not just geneticists but cognitive, behavioural, neuro- and social scientists. They, after all, are the ones gathering the data that might resolve the disputes. So what do the data say?

Unfortunately, the answer is often unclear. Even the scientific debates about, say, gender differences in cognitive functioning or links between genes and IQ are rife with arguments and accusations of cherry-picking. On behavioural differences between the sexes linked to the influence of prenatal hormones, for example, Murray leans hard on the work of Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. But while Baron-Cohen is well respected, some of his published claims have not been replicated (that is, confirmed by subsequent studies). This doesn’t mean they are wrong, but that Murray’s confidence is unwarranted.

Of this at least we can be sure: there are real differences, on average, between male and female brains, both in terms of anatomy and function. Few scientists would dispute this; the question is what it means.

The honest answer is that, for the most part, we don’t know. Certainly, the neuroanatomical differences that Murray cites, such as the degree of connectivity between the left and right hemispheres, aren’t known to correlate with anything behavioural. (The temptation to read this as neuroanatomical justification for crude stereotyping – men specialise, women generalise – should be resisted.) And it has been long clear that the differences in average brain size for men and women have no consequences for IQ. But there do seem to be consequences for rates of neuropsychiatric disorders, and probably for inclination towards aggression and violence.

Such questions are complicated, however, by feedback between brain structure, cognitive function and experience: musicians’ brains, for example, are physically changed by their training. This can make it almost impossible sometimes to separate the effects of culture from those of biology. You can try testing male and female babies, before cultural effects might have strongly influenced brain wiring, but then it is hard to know if you’re really looking at the same traits that appear in later life.

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Murray doesn’t deny some of this, but that doesn’t stop him heading relentlessly towards his chosen destination. On the basis that many tests show men perform better at spatial tasks and women at social ones, he asserts that it is probably natural that there is a predominance of men in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects – as was controversially suggested by the then president of Harvard, the economist Larry Summers, in 2005. Not only does he cite studies supporting the idea while ignoring ones that do not; he also makes the ludicrous claims that “hardly anyone without high math ability is attracted to STEM” and that the deterrents for women in STEM subjects ceased after the 1960s thanks to feminism.

It is possible that a “natural” gender balance in STEM (if such a notion has any meaning) is not 50:50. But to suggest that we probably have it right today – despite masses of evidence that female scientists still face discrimination, sexism, harassment, and gender-specific obstacles in career structure, tenure, peer review and daily practice, quite aside from the issues within education and society more generally – is deluded at best.

Murray plays the same tricks in his discussion of race: to blind the ingenuous reader with numbers, jargon and references while omitting vital contextual facts. His prime evidence for the biological reality of conventional definitions of race comes from the Human Genome Diversity Project, which looked at the distributions of genetic variants – called SNPs (“snips”) – in the genomes of almost 1,000 people from 51 populations worldwide.

Murray’s case looks superficially compelling: the data, published in 2008, show that SNPs can be clustered into groups corresponding to traditional racial groupings: Europeans, central and south Asians, east Asians, Africans and so forth. Using these data, 99.7 per cent of individuals tested could be correctly placed into the racial categories they identify with, on the basis of their genomes alone.

Impressive? Well, the idea that a person can be identified as “black” or “east Asian” from their biology alone needn’t surprise us: we only need to look at them. The fact that SNPs cluster this way is unremarkable too. There are gradations of SNP profiles at all levels: in places where populations have remained relatively isolated culturally or geographically, you could equally distinguish populations of cities or traditional tribal groupings this way. There is nothing fundamental about such a definition of race – it’s just one data point on a continuum of degrees of relatedness among populations at all scales.

Besides, no one has ever suggested that “race” means “cluster of SNP variants”. The notion has always carried the implicit assumption that visible biological differences, such as skin colour or eye shape, reflect invisible differences in traits and behaviour. Not only are SNP clusters silent about the behavioural traits of the respective groups but one wouldn’t even in principle expect such correlations between gene variants and such traits to exist.

This is why Murray’s book seems to me positively dishonest: because the author knows what people understand by “race”, and aims to provide support for that picture by redefining race as something else altogether. You don’t need to take my word for this. Richard Myers, president and science director of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Alabama and a team member of the Human Genome Diversity Project, has confirmed to me that Murray has misinterpreted their findings. For all Murray’s blithe assurances that his conclusions are “so cautious that they shouldn’t be controversial”, they are in fact disputed by the very scientists whose work he uses.

There is more misleading and context-free presentation of the science in his discussion of “class”, by which he means socio-economic status (SES). Again, the basic idea is sound, if uncomfortable: studies have shown that there is some correlation of low SES with genetics. Some of this association overlaps with IQ, which is what one might expect: relatively low IQ could well be an impediment to getting a high-paid job. But it seems other (heritable) traits – perseverance, say – may also affect SES.

Yet Murray is content to leave it at that, and not to examine in any detail how much purely cultural factors disadvantage those of low SES and assist those at the other end of the scale. We simply don’t know whether we can ascribe any specific pattern of inequality today to a predominantly genetic influence. Nor does he acknowledge studies showing that the genes/SES relationship can be two-way: environmental effects such as poor nutrition and stress can modify gene action during development and growth. Like many gene-obsessed right-wingers, Murray is keener to argue for causes of inequality we can do little about than to examine others (such as alleviating poverty and income disparity) that we can.

He makes no comment on the strong links – especially in the US – between SES and race. He surely knows that many of his sympathetic readers will happily conclude that black Americans are poorer than whites on average because they are genetically inferior. But he seems content to let them reach that conclusion for themselves, rather than tarnish his decorous pose by raising so incendiary an issue.

Yet he could have debunked the idea easily enough. For one thing, the racial income gap between black and white Americans has stayed proportionately much the same since the 1940s – when even Murray would probably not deny that the main obstacles to black Americans were socially constructed. What’s more, a gap remains even between black and white people with the same SES. And it comes almost entirely from the difference for men; black women earn essentially the same as white women from equivalently wealthy families, seemingly excluding the possibility that the gap for men has anything to do with innate racial differences. The difference seems partly explained by the fact that black men are so much more likely to be in prison. There is not a word about any of this in the book.

Murray is not very interested in this sort of historical and social context. As far as he is concerned, civil rights and feminism have now neutralised hundreds of years of history in Western societies (there is little about other cultures in his book) so that the playing field today is pretty much level and what disparities remain must be innate. He never doubts for a moment that our measures of attainment and routes to achieving it are the right ones, so that those who don’t “succeed” simply don’t have what it takes. Before George Floyd’s murder by US police officers on 25 May, this selective vision was insulting enough. But now it is no longer possible to deny that much of American culture, and of course also global culture, has been built on it.


Selective vision: George Floyd’s death debunks the idea that Western societies are level playing fields. Credit: Joe Raedel/Getty 

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One could expend a lot of energy trying to figure out what Murray’s agenda is here. Is he actively trying to smuggle in racism and sexism under the guise of scholarship? I don’t think we can assume that; he states several times that differences should be celebrated and not used as measures of worth. But make no mistake that Human Diversity is a polemic with a purpose. Murray is smart and well informed enough to know what he is leaving out of the picture, and also to know how avidly his book will be seized on by those who don’t care about such details. Some of those people are in governments, well-funded think tanks and other places of influence. Sabisky was just a symptom of the appeal of many of these ideas to Cummings, who has made no secret of it.

Ultimately books like this one, posing as brave resistance to a tyrannical orthodoxy, serve instead to strengthen some of the most entrenched and damaging hierarchies in our societies. This becomes clear in Murray’s concluding chapter, the message of which can be summed up as: interventions don’t work. You can’t escape your genetic destiny, whether you’re a low-paid female nurse, a drug addict or a poor black family. Sorry, you drew the short straw in the DNA casino. But don’t worry, there will be a suitably “valued place” reserved for you in the bell curve. (And if you think this sounds unfair, Murray points out that “growing up in an upper-middle-class or wealthy home has a variety of potential downsides” too.)

In other words, ultra-conservatives like Murray have decided that genetics can be enlisted to show they were right about human nature all along. Scientists working in these difficult and contentious areas, if they do not want to end up becoming useful fools, are going to have to work harder than ever to present their findings as clearly, objectively and fairly as they are able, to engage in debates and challenge abuses. The scenes from US cities are a stark reminder that, if they do not, things can go very wrong indeed. 

Philip Ball’s books include “How to Grow a Human” (University of Chicago Press)

Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class
Charles Murray
Twelve, 528pp, £30

NB: This article was amended on 19 June to remove the description of Nathan Cofnas as someone "with links to the alt-right".

This article appears in the 12 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt