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When We Debate “Biological Differences”

The framing of these arguments, I believe, is largely misguided. Right and Left are, after all, moral and political positions and not scientific ones.”

In the last two years or so, there have been several high-profile incidents and discussions that have attracted unusual amounts of attention to the issue of biological differences between humans. Two prominent examples of this are the so-called “Google Memo,” the discussions around the gender pay-gap, and the now infamous debate of racial differences in IQ, which resurfaced since Sam Harris rehabilitated Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve. All of these cases have one common thread: the Right will argue that differences between human groups (i.e. men and women, or Caucasians and African-Americans) are explained by biology, while the Left will argue that they are largely the result of socialization and historical circumstances. The framing of these arguments, I believe, is largely misguided. Right and Left are, after all, moral and political positions and not scientific ones. My intention here is not to make some kind of “both sides are equally wrong” argument. Rather, I want to argue that the Left is on the correct side of this issue—just not for the reasons that are traditionally put forward.

I am not a scientist, and what little scientific knowledge I have is decidedly not in biology, so my intent is not to try to convince anyone of either side of these discussions. Instead, I want to put the scientific facts aside and look at the issue from the point of view of metaethics or moral epistemology. What this means is that, rather than making an ethical case, I want to look at what is the proper construction of a moral argument around these topics—and how should we interpret the varying positions around them. As a disclaimer (or as a way to make my own bias explicit), I should say that, in line with most other leftists, I do not believe that most differences in outcomes between the various human groups can be explained by biology. But the point is that whatever is the case is irrelevant, which is why this is about metaethics.

There are two arguments that are related to the one I want to make, but ultimately different, so I want to briefly address them. The first is the is-ought problem, sometimes also referred to as Hume’s law. Simply put, this states that a set of premises about facts—the “is” part—can’t lead to a normative conclusion, or an “ought” statement. This is relevant, but it is not the whole picture; so it will be addressed further. The second one is the argument sometimes made by proponents of biological differences that we should not be alarmed by this because, after all, we shouldn’t be racists or sexists simply because humans are factually equal—but because we have basic human decency. Now, on some level this is true: we should not be sexists or racists under any circumstances. The problem with this line of reasoning is that the appeal to basic human decency limits the discussion to individual attitudes. This obscures the more insidious and reprehensible nature of invoking nature or biology when making ethical claims.

In his book Rescuing Justice and Equality, the late socialist philosopher G. A. Cohen dedicates each chapter to something that justice and equality has to be rescued from. One of the chapters is entitled “The Facts.” Here, Cohen presents an argument that in some ways is a more generalized version of Hume’s law. His basic claim is that all moral claims ultimately have to be grounded in something that makes no appeal to material facts. That is, material facts can serve as grounding for moral principles; but when this is the case, it means there’s another higher moral principle independent of facts, even if it’s implicit or unacknowledged. He gives the following example: consider the moral principle that we should keep our promises. One possible justification for this is that only if we keep our promises can we support other people’s projects. This, says Cohen, is a valid material justification. But if we accept it, then we implicitly accept the principle that we ought to support other people’s projects, which makes no references to facts. If this example is a bit unclear consider another one (not from Cohen): If we say that we should reduce our car usage because cars are harmful to the environment—which is a material fact—then we are also implicitly introducing the moral principle that we ought to protect the environment. One possible counter to this would be that this second moral statement is actually also dependent on that fact that if we do not protect the environment, we are all going to die. Cohen’s reply in this case is that this only means we just need to iterate further until we arrive at a principle not grounded on fact. Here, would be that we ought to protect human life.

What does this all mean when applied to the topic I initially laid out? I believe the issue of gender roles illustrates this neatly. (Perhaps because it is seen as less controversial than others, so people are more willing to explicitly lay out their claims.) The thing about traditional gender roles is that they are neatly defined categories. They are not a kind gradient or spectrum. The woman is the housewife, childrearer, nurturer, etc., while the man is the breadwinner, provider, protector, and so on. It goes beyond the mere assertion that, for example, women are naturally more inclined to fields that deal with people and men to those that deal with things. Regardless of whether the former is true or false, the point is that it is one thing to argue that, and it is another entirely to argue for a kind of traditionalism in which men fully occupy certain roles and women others. Clearly, there has never been a time in which men did all the non-domestic work, and women did exclusively domestic work; so that is not what traditional gender roles imply. To illustrate this, one can think of the standard conservative approach as simply being content with men occupying STEM fields and women going into social sciences and humanities. The traditionalist approach would not push women out of the workforce but, rather, have them occupy positions such as nursing, childcare, and others that fit the “feminine” role.

In a 2018 article in Quillette entitled “Reversing the Descent of Man,”Geoff Dench advocates something entirely along those lines. The article identifies several problems afflicting men in contemporary society and links them to the decline of gender roles. In the author’s view, the government should shift funding from care services that are part of the welfare state towards modernization programs that explicitly prioritize male employment. The idea is that families (i.e. women) could take care of the personal services, while men’s renewed traditional role would now be able to support this through their work. Now, this is a normative claim: men and women ought to stick to their gender roles. In turn, it is theoretically supported by a material claim, which is that there are biological differences between men and women. As we saw earlier, however, if a material premise is used to ground a normative one, it necessarily implies another purely normative premise, whether it is laid out explicitly or not. The obvious one would be that people ought to perform the social functions that align with their biological predispositions.

But this is where it gets complicated. The material and normative premises—if properly understood—do not lead to the presumed conclusion. The problem is that gender roles, as stated previously, are clearly defined categories. On the other hand, even the strictest proponents of biologically-determined differences between men and women don’t think that they work this way. Rather, the argument is that the distinctions are simply statistical differences in averages. The left-wing position would be that those differences are due to socialization and upbringing, while the more conservative position would be that they are the result of biology. And, as a special edition of Nature dedicated to the topic explained, even the proponents of biologically-determined differences agree that there is more similarity than there is difference(1). As I said in the introduction, however, the argument I am trying to make is not in favor of the left-wing position from the point of view of the scientific debate but from a metaethical perspective. So, if the normative premise is that individuals ought to stick to the roles that their biology predisposes them to, and the material premise is that biological differences are fuzzy, the conclusion cannot be that social organization ought to be clearly bounded. To use an example, we can look at Jordan Peterson’s position on this issue. In the now famous interview with Cathy Newman, he makes the argument that the gender pay gap is not explained by discrimination but by men being on average less agreeable than women. This, in turn, leads them to be more aggressive negotiators which leads them to higher positions. But again, he does not say that it is clear-cut, and he even says to Young that she does not strike him as a very agreeable individual, which is probably why she got to where she is. In a different speech, he also says that countries with higher levels of gender equality tend to have women going into more stereotypically feminine professions.

Anyone who has read what I have written previously will know I have fundamental disagreements with Peterson. My intention with using this example is not to endorse his view but to illustrate what the proper conclusion from the two premises would look like logically. That is, he is not saying that the state should explicitly prioritize employment for men according to traditional gender roles, just that more men will prefer certain kinds of jobs and women others. Given that even the most essentialist interpretation of the science does not support the idea of clearly bounded differences, but merely statistical averages, the normative premise is the one that needs to change if the intention is to advocate for clearly bounded gender roles. This, then, is what shows the fundamental issue with this kind of reasoning: the normative premise must already be fundamentally anti-egalitarian. It has to be based on a conception of the differences between men and women that go beyond whatever empirically-observed differences there are and instead rely on some kind of metaphysical position that denies the moral equality of all humans.

This is even more evident if one looks at the conclusions from The Bell Curve. Every time it is cited as an example of manipulating data for racist purposes, commentators on the Right (and I have no good reason to assume they are not on the Right) are quick to explain how that is nothing more than unfair and slanderous mischaracterization. In another article in Quillette, Bo and Ben Winegard write that the public discourse contains two different versions of the book: the real one and the one that has arisen from mischaracterization. They argue that, “[t]his fictitious Bell Curve still inspires enmity; and its surviving co-author is still caricatured as a racist, a classist, an elitist, and a white nationalist.” As I have stated a couple of times, I have no intention of dealing with the empirical aspect of the debate. Instead, I want to look at what the authors themselves perceive to be the ethical implications of the empirical side of their book.

One of the last chapters of the book, entitled “Living Together,” lays out their vision for a society whose members are not equal. The more philosophical part of the chapter puts the authors in some interesting company. The central thesis is that only if we understand that we are not equal, we can begin to build a society in which people find a position where they are valued. Now, while it might raise some concerns, this assertion on its own is not the real problem. Rather, it is the ideological and philosophical bases on which it is built. The chapter opens with a discussion of some of the ancient traditions from the East and the West, noting how they share similar principles which define people by their place in society. They mention, for example how for Confucius “society was like his conception of a family—extensions of a ruling father and obedient sons, devoted husbands and faithful wives, benign masters and loyal servants.” They continue by stating that all religious traditions have places for everyone either on earth and in heaven and provide further examples of ancient societies built around non-egalitarian principles, like Greece and Rome, but more interestingly, the ancient Indian subcontinent, “where one’s work defined one’s caste, which in turn circumscribed every other aspect of life.” They continue by describing some of the American Founding Fathers’ views on natural aristocracy and how that is the path that the United States should have been following all along. Towards the end of the section, they argue that while there is some value to the egalitarian ideal, it began to be perverted after the French Revolution(2).

The philosophical path that they follow here puts them in the company of a rather particular set of thinkers. There were many prominent critics of the French Revolution during its time, but the one whose critique they mirror most closely is that of Joseph de Maistre, the Savoyard nobleman who critiqued the French Revolution precisely for its abstract egalitarianism. In his “Considerations on France” he writes: 

The constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, has been drawn up for Man. Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him(3)

When he says “Man,” he is making a reference to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which uses the word as a sort of generic stand-in for every man (and at that point, it was only men). For Maistre this is a problem because it implies a kind of equality that he believes to be a philosophical aberration.

More interestingly, perhaps, there are some striking parallels with Italian mystic and radical traditionalist Julius Evola. His major work, Revolt Against the Modern World is divided into two large sections, the first one dedicated to what he calls “the World of Tradition,” and the second describing to the emergence of the modern world. The first part is constructed around the idea that traditionalist societies, in which he includes essentially every society around the world until around the time of the Middle Ages. His thesis (very broadly) is that such societies were in tune with a higher spiritual/supernatural realm. Our material world, he says, is a kind of “middle plane,” whose proper order ought to be dictated by the dispositions of that higher realm. For him, one of the defining features of those dispositions is the organization of society along rigid hierarchical structures, which, like Murray and Herrnstein, he identifies in various ancient societies such as China, the Mesoamerican city-states, but most importantly, ancient India, whose caste structure he sees as ideal. Additionally, he also sees men and women as being expressions of fundamentally different spiritual principles, men being the manifestation of order, heroism, virtue, etc., while women represent the more earthly values of love and motherhood(4). Evola—in case it is not yet clear—is one most radically anti-egalitarian thinkers of the 20th century, and perhaps all time. Notably, while on trial in 1951 under the charge of attempting to revive the Italian Fascist Party, part of his defense included the assertion that he was not a fascist but a “superfascist.”

What Evola and Maistre have in common is this a priori anti-egalitarianism that is needed to reach the kind of conclusions that Dench, and Murray and Herrenstein reach, for the reasons I already explained. I am, in no way, claiming that any of the three draw their influences from either Evola or Maistre. If I had to guess, I would probably say they did not even read Evola, given that he is in no way a mainstream thinker. But it is certainly telling that there are so many parallels with philosophers as reactionary as these two. While telling, however, I think it is unsurprising. As I explained earlier, even the most radical interpretation of biological determinism is not enough to ground a separation as rigid as these Dench, and Murray and Herrnstein (and countless other traditionalists and “race realists”) seem to suggest. This, then, necessitates an additional normative premise that already presupposes that kind of social structure that they end up supporting.

I addressed this with regards to gender but not fully with regards to The Bell Curve. The defense I cited earlier claims that the accusations of white nationalism, classism, elitism, and racisms are nothing but slanders and mischaracterizations. White nationalism, if we’re being specific with terms, is a particular ideology that is not a blanket synonym for racism. In that sense, it is difficult to accuse Murray of holding an ideology that he has never explicitly endorsed. But what about the other three? The Bell Curve makes many empirical claims. These include a stratification of society along the lines of cognitive ability and statistically significant differences in IQ test performance among different ethnicities. This is capped with a normative conclusion that at least flirts with an explicitly anti-egalitarian caste social structure. There may be a way of saying this is somehow not racist, but if there is, it would be akin to giving someone a puzzle with four pieces that fit together in only one possible way and asking them to put it together however they want: the suggestion is barely concealed. This brings us back to Hume and Cohen. Even their own interpretation of their data coupled with a simple normative premise about “accepting nature” is not enough for the kind of explicitly stratified society that they seem to suggest near the end, which means their support for that kind of social structure is its own independent normative premise. Finally, given all this, it must be acknowledged that trying to make the case that The Bell Curve is not classist or elitist cannot be anything else besides willful blindness; anything that resembles a caste society is, by definition, elitist and classist. Incidentally, this is why the argument that we should simply not be racists or sexist because of basic human decency is ultimately lacking. It limits racism and sexism to individual attitudes, when what is being advocated operates on the scale of the social structure.

Anyone should be allowed to hold the ideology that they consider the fittest. But we should at least recognize when these ideologies are contrary to the basic principles of a contemporary democratic society. If people disagree that democracy is the best system, then they should be free to make that case. But they should make that case explicitly, rather than being disingenuous about it.

(1) Lydia Denworth, “Is there a female brain?,” Scientific American, vol. 317, no. 3 (Sept., 2017) 38-44.

(2) Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve (New York: Free Press, 1994) 532-4.

(3) Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 53.

(4) Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1969) 157-60.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Jordan Peterson’s interviewer on Channel 4. Dr. Peterson was interviewed by Cathy Newman—not Cathy Young. 

3 thoughts on “When We Debate “Biological Differences”

  1. First, a quibble. Mr. Nestor de Buen insists that “… the Right will argue that differences between human groups … are explained by biology, while the Left will argue that they are largely the result of socialization and historic circumstances” but is simply not true. I can cite an almost endless list of examples of those on the Right adopting the “50/50” model (i.e. group are driven by a mix of genes and environment) while the Left routinely settles on the “100/0” model (i.e. all of any group differences are wholly attributable to environmental factors). Thus , it is proponents from the Left who are absolutist on the question of race or gender differences.

    Moreover, are you aware that a 2016 study (Nature Neuroscience) found that compared to pre-pregnancy that some areas of the female brain shrank postpartum? The lead author of this second paper (neuroscientist Elseline Hoekzema) has stated that “The hormone fluxes of pregnancy are simply so massive that they must change the (female) brain.” Prof. Hoekzema’s study also concluded that brains of fathers were not affected by their partner’s pregnancy.

    The female hormonal effects are, simply put, remarkable and you may not wish them away and you may not responsibly attribute them to “… a social environment where power, resources, roles and opportunities are unequally distributed along gender lines.” I do not know what this is but it is NOT science

    I have scanned your published research and I am unable to confirm that you have read “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do” (1998) in which Judith Rich Harris points out that shared environment plays almost no role in the socialization of kids. Have you read this important book? Moreover have read Robert Plomin’s new book “Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are” (Nov. 2018) which to my knowledge the most recent scholarly work on the psychology of human genetics. In “Blueprint” Plomin, one of the very top experts in the field of behavioral genetics asserts that “A century of genetic research shows that DNA differences inherited from our parents are the consistent life-long sources of our psychological individuality — the “Blueprint” that makes us who we are.” Prof. Plomin also reports that “… genetics explain more of our psychological differences — not just mental health and school achievement but all psychological traits, from personality to intellectual abilities. Nature, not nurture is what makes us who we are.” If you are to busy right now to read “Blueprint” I would like to direct your attention (to the Dec. 14, 2018 issue of Scientific American) for a very brief essay by Prof. Plomin titled “In the Nature-Nurture War, Nature Wins.” Of course, according to Plomin “Environmental influences are important … too, but they are largely unsystematic, unstable and idiosyncratic — in a word, RANDOM.” (Emphasis mine) Plomin continues “These findings call for a radical rethink about parenting, education and the events that shape our lives. It also provides a novel perspective on equal opportunity, social mobility and the structure of society.” One has to wonder whether you are ready to reconsider your claims which are not supported by any of the hard scientific research?

    Mr. de Buen askes us to set aside the finings of the hard sciences and instead adopt an if-ought position but this demands that we dismiss reality in favor of a utopian ideal that exists no where. I think that this might be a fool’s errand.

    1. All of this focuses exactly on the topics I explicitly said throughout the article that I was going to ignore, namely, the empirical part of the debate. I’m not even sure what you are arguing is even really in opposition to my main argument. All I’m arguing against here is the more radically reactionary positions in favor of rigid social structures and hierarchies. The case I’m making is precisely about why empirical realities should have no bearing in the normative judgements we make about the structure of society. I’m of course not saying that I have the final word on this issue, but this isn’t a valid argument against my position, since you have not argued about why these empirical issues should, in fact, be relevant in the realm of ethics. I’m not sure any of what I’m defending is “a utopian ideal that exists no where”, since I’m not arguing that we should change society in some way, all I’m doing is saying that we should defend the progress that has been made since the enlightenment against the renewed efforts to move society back to a more explicitly anti-egailtarian structure.

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