In Which I Hope I’m Wrong (or, Notes from a Small Cranium)

Prepare to aggregate the phenomena.

Normally I would be cautious about doing this, but something about the recent presidential campaign and the widespread support for Romney’s barely disguised loyalties to class and race (see below), urges me on.  Historian of science Darin Hayton blogs today about coverage in the Independent of a stunningly retrograde piece of biological determinism: In the current Trends in Genetics, Stanford geneticist Gerald Crabtree claims  that due to genetic complexity humans are “intellectually fragile” and thus, Dr. Crabtree says, unsurprisingly growing dumber over time as a species.

Don’t ask. Fortunately Hayton captures the sloppiness of Crabtree’s  genetic-materialist argument for us, redolent as it is with “the tried and true cranial-volume correlation.” Hayton’s post also prompts me to ask:  Is it coincidence that the Stanford researcher feels he can broadcast his essentialist concerns just as Princeton faculty member Christy Wampole indulges in some of her own retro, essentialist sharing? Her critique of irony-laden hipster sensibilities, which appeared in last week’s New York Times,  posits a remarkably old fashioned notion: That of pure human experience  being sullied by modern culture. At her essay’s prescriptive center is the idea that certain, admirable human types (children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, all who “suffer”) live more real lives than do those who regularly traffic in irony.

Earlier today, I posted a piece about her claims on the blog of the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science and I won’t rehash my discomfort with them here; suffice it to say that thoughts of Francis Galton have come up more times in one day than one would like.

Composite Portrait in the Style of Francis Galton (From Truman State University, at www.dnalc.org)

Nor do I want  to identify a cultural trend if all this is really only matter of a few outliers at work. But reading about Crabtree, I can’t help but  wonder if there isn’t a new endorsement out there, and a potentially influential one at that (…The words of Stanford and Princeton faculty? Ideas disseminated in an Elsevier journal? The New York Times? By a presidential candidate?) for the idea of human types, and for the historically related notion that biology determines culture.

Obviously those eugenic ideas never go away entirely in the U.S.; conservative social trends and  biological explanations of human conduct are perpetually co-produced, as Troy Duster has shown so clearly. But these ideas do seem to have had some new life breathed into them in the last few months, at least for some arbiters of cultural and biological knowledge in our midst.

If my own cranial volume turns out to be sufficient to the cause, and I’ve got this right,  prepare to worry.

Erring on the Side of…Exclusion

Thank you, John Tierney!  Through your efforts, essentialist thinking about gender and intelligence may keep its hold on Americans for a while longer.  

Tierney suggests in today’s NY Times “Findings” column that we look with skepticism on a new Congressional proposal  to require workshops on gender equity for all those receiving federal science research funding.  The results of standardized tests, Tierney reports, have shown that sex differences are real, gosh darn it;  researchers have proven that gender gaps among the best-performing math and science test-takers  persist from year to year, from generation to generation…why do we insist on resisting the obvious scientific conclusion? Think of the time, trouble,  and money we could save, in classrooms, labs, and HR departments,  if we just accepted the biological fact of women’s innate science and math inability!

The column’s title alone, “Daring to Discuss the Potential of Women in Science”  (my itals.), ensures that this sort of reductive understanding of learning and thinking (something in the brain, that mysterious quaking organ,  makes math easy or hard for people!) will continue to be cast as a brave, selfless, anti-PC act of resistance against…against….Against what? The dangers of inclusive educational programming? Of erring on the side of equity?  Of maximizing occupational opportunities for every American?

No wonder the column’s accompanying illustration is a kooky, retro collage of a pretty blond 1950s “sweater girl,” with gears on her mind and a scientific formula spilling from her lips….Gals in the lab?!  Zany! Let the high-jinks begin!

I know, I know: sarcasm is petty and unattractive.  So before I lose any remaining credibility, let me defer to Troy Duster’s brilliant historical discussion of biological understandings of intellectual capacity. For almost 20 years, editions of his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, have laid out the very worrisome political and cultural implications of our pursuit of biological bases for intellectual and behavioral differences. 

Duster makes it clear that the questions we ask about what counts as aptitude, and the ways in which we measure intelligence,  themselves hide the discriminatory social forces at work in our schools and workplaces.  Where we look for inherited, biomedical, or other biological determinations of human aptitude to explain differences among groups,  we will limit our scrutiny of social, economic  and political causes behind discrepant educational or occupational attainments.  In this way the perceived value of biological research on intelligence is self-reinforcing.

Sure, experimental research on the physiological or genetic endowments associated with cognitive traits seems more objective than study of vague, illusory “social forces” or “values” or “bias.”  But ideology underlies that preference.   As Pierre Bourdieu writes in his forward to the book’s 2003 edition,

Conservatism has always  been linked to forms of thought that tend to reduce the social to the natural–the historical to the biological.

Tierney and the researchers he cites are no doubt concerned about the nature of women’s experiences in science, as they claim; after all, they are probing the matter, not ignoring it. But they don’t really seem interested in the depth and breadth of inquiry that scholars like Duster suggest…that is, in asking questions about their own questions. Those would be the truly daring discussions.