Sam Harris is no stranger to controversy. Known as one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, critics have accused the neuroscientist and author of being racist and Islamophobic for his comments, including suggesting we should profile Muslims at airports. He also raised eyebrows in a 2015 when he laughed along with gay conservative Douglas Murray’s transphobic comments during an episode of Harris’ podcast “Waking Up.” Most recently, Harris interviewed Charles Murray, co-author of the infamous 1994 book The Bell Curve, which suggests Black people are genetically predisposed to low IQs. According to Harris, the controversy surrounding the book is due to political correctness:
People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes, and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence — even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this. And they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups.
Unfortunately, Harris must have missed the memo that the truth is more complicated than that.
For starters, critics are quick to point out Murray and co-author Richard Herrstein’s scholarship is shoddy at best and outright political propaganda at worst. In a 1995 Scientific American article, psychologist Leon Kamin noticed that one of their sources was a 1991 paper by Richard Lynn comparing the average IQs of people of different ethnicities which, according to Kamin, “reported only average Matrices scores, not IQs; the other studies used tests clearly dependent on cultural content.” He also claimed that Murray and Herrnstein ignored social and economic factors that lead to individual success and instead just focus on IQ. Then there’s the fact that Murray and Herrnstein devote two chapters of The Bell Curve criticizing affirmative action, which led Kamin to believe the book was politically motivated (Wikipedia) refers to Murray as a “libertarian conservative”).
Scientific American revisited The Bell Curve last month in the wake of Murray’s recent return to the spotlight. Although data shows an average lower IQ in Black people than white people, data analyst Eric Siegel says that Murray and Herrnstein never explained why they researched IQ differences among different ethnicities. “By never spelling out a reason for reporting on these differences in the first place,” he writes, “the authors transmit an unspoken yet unequivocal conclusion: Race is a helpful indicator as to whether a person is likely to hold certain capabilities. Even if we assume the presented data trends are sound, the book leaves the reader on his or her own to deduce how to best put these insights to use. The net effect is to tacitly condone the prejudgment of individuals based on race.” Seigel also echoes Kamin’s belief that Murray and Herrnstein had a political agenda since the last chapter of the book suggests political policies that might help society progress in light of their findings, including “simpler tax codes, decreasing government benefits that could incentivize childbearing among the low-income, and increasing competency-based immigration screening.”
As far as whether or not intelligence is hereditary … well, it’s complicated. According to Robert Plomin, a deputy director of the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Center at King’s College London, there are genetic differences that affect differences in intelligence test results, but “we all share 99.5 percent of our three billion DNA base pairs, so only 15 million DNA differences separate us genetically.” Also, according to Plomin, genes only tell half of the story while environmental factors tell the other half. In other words, the claim that IQ differences between different ethnicities is mainly because of genetics with no outside factors is bunk.
The Bell Curve is just one example of science’s darkest chapters: scientific racism It’s been around since the beginning of time, but became especially prominent with the advent of Social Darwinism (not to be confused with Darwin’s original theory of evolution), which basically said White Europeans were more “evolved” than other races and therefore superior. It’s no wonder Hitler was a big fan of Social Darwinism.
Now I’m not suggesting Harris is an outright bigot. I never met him, so I can’t say who he is as a person. However, this does bring up a common problem even among skeptics: picking and choosing facts that support a narrative. Harris often criticizes the so-called Regressive Left for silencing people that disagree with them and with the recent incident involving Murray and Middlebury College, it’s easy to assume Murray’s telling the truth and whiny snowflakes just don’t want to listen. I’m not interested in debating whether or not Murray has a right to speak at college campuses, but I am interested in whether or not his claims are true. So far the science says it’s way more complicated that Murray and Harris think.
Trav Mamone is a queer trans blogger who write about the intersections of social justice and secular humanism at Bi Any Means. They also host the Bi Any Means Podcast and co-host the Biskeptical Podcast.