Thursday, July 18, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (5): Charles Murray on Human Nature and Human Diversity

The last lecturer of the day (June 24) was Charles Murray, speaking on "The Rediscovery of Human Nature and Human Diversity".

Murray is an American public policy analyst, who is currently the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.  He has written many books on the U.S. welfare state and other public policy issues.  His most recent book is Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012), in which he presents evidence for a deep cultural division in white America between a new upper class and a new lower class, a division that apparently has little to do with income inequality and more to do with cultural values.  His best known--and most controversial--book is The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), co-authored with Richard Herrnstein.  In this book, they argued that intelligence is a better predictor of social success in many arenas of life than is one's parents socio-economic status or education.

In much of Murray's writing, one sees a concern about explaining the causes and effects of class structure in American society and a worry that class divisions threaten the American ideal of equality of opportunity in the pursuit of happiness.  One could see that expressed in his lecture at the MPS conference.

Public policy analysts almost universally believe that evolutionary psychology has no application to public policy, Murray observed, because they falsely assume that evolution has not produced an inborn human nature or human diversity.  Against this, Murray stated as the thesis of his lecture that evolutionary psychology will bring a rediscovery of human nature and human diversity as products of human evolution, and that this will produce better public policy.

Murray suggested that the rediscovery of human nature began in 1975 with the publication of two books by two Wilsons at Harvard University--Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology and James Q. Wilson's Thinking About Crime.  Both argued that a proper understanding of human social problems requires a proper understanding of human nature.  So, for example, if we are trying to understand why intact two-parent families have on average lower rates of child abuse (physical and sexual) than do families of unmarried mothers living with boyfriends, we need to understand the evolutionary reason for this--that men have an evolved natural propensity to care more for their own offspring than they do for the offspring of other men.  This has implications for how we should design public policies related to crime and the protection of children.

Murray suggested that the rediscovery of human diversity has come from the growing evidence for biological diversity expressed as differences by sex and by race.  Men and women really are different on average because of differences in their evolved natural propensities.  And races really are different on average in their genetic profiles.  The genetic basis for racial differences is indicated by studies of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that show patterns of human genetic variation across racial groups.  But although these SNPs naturally sort people into racial groups, Murray observed, we don't know if these genetic differences are important or not.

Despite the difficulty in interpreting these differences, Murray argued, the reality of this human diversity denies one of the most common assumptions of contemporary social thought--the equality premise, which is that people are equal, or nearly so, in their latent abilities and characteristics.

And yet, even as he argued for the importance of recognizing human diversity, Murray insisted that this should not matter for how we treat one another.  "In a rational world, sex and race differences in personality and cognitive profiles truly would not be a big deal," because such differences are only statistical differences in means that should not determine how we judge individuals.  Murray explained: "Genetic sex and race differences become a big deal only when policy tries to pretend they don't exist."

Murray endorsed a quotation from Steven Pinker explaining the true meaning of human equality: "Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average propensities of their group" (18).

While thus rejecting the idea of equality understood as the sameness of all individuals or as requiring equality of outcomes in life, Murray affirmed equality of opportunity--that all individuals should have an equal opportunity to pursue their happiness, with the expectation that such free and equal pursuit of happiness will produce different outcomes for different individuals that will manifest their natural human diversity.

Of all the speakers at the MPS conference, Murray was the one who argued a position most like mine.  The morning after his lecture, I argued that a Darwinian evolutionary account of human nature supported the classical liberalism of Adam Smith.  Almost every point of my argument agreed with what Murray has argued, not only in his MPS lecture but also in two books of political theory--In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government (1988 and 2013) and What It Means to Be a Libertarian (1997).  Indeed, after my lecture, Murray indicated that there was a lot of agreement between us.

I was interested in the reaction of the audience to Murray's lecture, particularly the reaction to his provocative claims about racial diversity.  Although he presented this as supported by evolutionary psychology, some of the most prominent proponents of evolutionary psychology--such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby--have assumed that while sex differences have deep evolutionary roots, racial differences do not.  This has allowed them to avoid the controversies surrounding the biology of race.  Moreover, Tooby and Cosmides have largely shunned the studies of human biological diversity coming from behavioral genetics.  By contrast, Murray has affirmed human racial diversity in ways that have entangled him in those controversies--as in the debate over The Bell Curve.

As I expected, in the discussion after the lecture, Tooby and Robert Boyd indicated their disagreement with Murray.  They both suggested that while sex differences clearly do have an evolutionary genetic basis, racial differences do not.  Boyd argued that the pattern of genetic differences in human populations shown in the HapMap Project was simply a product of demographic history and geography that did not have deep evolutionary roots. 

Although Murray did not directly answer Tooby and Boyd, I think his answer was implicit in his lecture and paper:  Yes, he might have said, you're right that these racial differences are products of recent demographic history and geography; but that's just the point--they are products of recent biological evolution since the emergence of modern human beings about 50,000 years ago and accelerating since the shift from foraging to farming about 10,000 years ago. 

Evolutionary psychologists like Tooby and Cosmides reject this, because they assume that human genetic evolution stopped about 10,000 years ago, and since then all the evolutionary change has been cultural but not biological, which creates the "mismatch" between human biology and human culture.  (In some of my other posts on Tooby and Cosmides' presentations at the MPS conference, I have indicated my disagreement with their "mismatch" theory.)

I do wish that Murray had clarified one point that might have confused some of his listeners.  Doesn't it sound contradictory to argue, on the one hand, that rediscovering genetic sex and race differences will improve public policy analysis, while also arguing, on the other hand, that such differences are "not a big deal"?

Murray's answer might be found in the last chapter of The Bell Curve, which is entitled "A Place for Everyone."  He opens the chapter with a question: "How should policy deal with the twin realities that people differ in intelligence for reasons that are not their fault, and that intelligence has a powerful bearing on how well people do in life?"  He answers this with a classical liberal argument for equal liberty.  He rejects the answer that government should create the equality of condition, because this would require an egalitarian tyranny contrary to human nature.  "People who are free to behave differently from one another in the important affairs of daily life inevitably generate the social and economic inequalities that egalitarianism seeks to suppress" (532).  But a free people are equal in their equal rights for pursuing happiness in ways that do not coercively interfere with the rights of others pursuing their happiness.  In a society of equal liberty, those individuals who are naturally more intelligent or talented than others will reap the benefits of those superior traits, but those superior individuals will have no right to exploit those of lesser abilities.  In such a society, equal liberty provides the conditions for everyone to find valued places for themselves.

I say something similar to this in my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right.  The equality of all human beings as possessing a common human nature is fully consistent with the inequality of human beings in their diverse natural endowments.  In spite of the biological variation caused by the genetic uniqueness of each individual, there is a genetic unity to the nature of the human species.  Although human beings are naturally unequal in many respects, they are equal in those minimal emotional and intellectual capacities that sustain a moral sense and thus identify them as members of the human species.  This understanding of human equality requires not equality as identity but equality as reciprocity: although unequal in many respects, all normal human beings will resist exploitation and demand social cooperation based on reciprocal exchange.

If the natural differences between the races were such that the people of one race lacked those minimal emotional and rational abilities that support the moral sense among the people of the other races, then those of the inferior race would be as adapted for slavery as domesticated animals are adapted for domestic service, and those of the enslaved race could properly be treated as perpetual children who would benefit from the direction of human masters.  The people belonging to such an inferior race would accept enslavement with little resistance.

Joaquin Fuster indicated in his lecture that the uniquely human prefrontal cortex that is responsible for our moral freedom of choice does not fully mature until the third decade of life.  This justifies our putting children under the custody of parental guardians.  But we assume that most normal human beings will develop enough cognitive maturity as adults to claim their freedom to live as morally responsible individuals.  If there were a race of humans that did not naturally show this level of cognitive development, they could properly be treated as natural slaves.

Human slavery is wrong because in fact there is no inferior human race like this.  There are natural differences between human races just as there are natural differences between individuals of the same race.  But these natural differences, both racial and individual, do not justify slavery, because they fall within the normal range of variation in the emotional and rational capacities that defines the human species.  Slavery is wrong because it means treating some human beings as if they were not human.

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