Genetic Determinism and The Bell Curve

Bill Koehnlein nyms1 at
Mon Apr 10 14:21:47 MDT 1995

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Genetic Determinism and _The Bell Curve_
by Eli C. Messinger, M.D.

The following paper was presented by Eli C. Messinger,
M.D. at the conference "Out from under the Bell Curve:
Confronting Right-wing Ideology and Social Policy," held
in New York City on April 1, 1995.

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Genetic Determinism and _The Bell Curve_
by Eli C. Messinger, M.D.

1. Genetic determinism is a belief or ideology that
"claims that all human characteristics, including
behavior, are determined by the function of genes"
(Tobach and Rosoff, 1994).

a) This belief is at the heart of Herrnstein and Murray's
_The Bell Curve_ in their argument that group differences
in cognitive capacity are innate and immutable. They
claim to side-step the controversy over genetic
determinism by saying they are "agnostic" as to precisely
how much of cognitive capacity is due to genetic _versus_
environmental factors; they only approximate an algebraic
breakdown between them. "Cognitive ability is
substantially heritable, apparently no less than 40
percent and no more than 80 percent" (page 23). However,
this formulation of an algebraic division between the two
itself represents a reductionistic outlook: forces which
are inextricably and mutually determining at the at the
biological as well as social levels are treated in the
reductionistic paradigm as simply additive, and therefore
divisible. Moreover, after making this qualification,
Murray and Herrnstein proceed as if the differences are
genetically determined, i.e., innate to the individual
and virtually unchangeable.

b) The genetic determinist program is also expressed in
the ideology of sociobiology. It has permeated all the
life sciences, medicine and psychiatry, and other
disciplines dealing with the human condition. Professor
Stuart Newman, of the Council for Responsible Genetics,
only half-facetiously refers to this ideological
phenomenon as the "gene-ing of America." Hardly a week
goes by without _The New York Times_ reporting that
another medical condition, psychiatric problem, or
behavioral pattern, e.g., the physiological expression of
emotions in men and women, is due to a newly-discovered
gene or is otherwise hard-wired, i.e., not open to
environmental influence. Along with this, and not
coincidentally, genes are being patented, genetic
engineering has gone commercial, biotechnology is one of
the few growth industries in the United States, and there
is a push for testing for genetic defects, e.g., the gene
responsible for cancer of the colon--for profit, of
course. In this brave new world, can germline engineering
be far behind?

2. Genetic determinism is a reflection of a historically
longer-lived ideological trend in the history of the
biological sciences--biological reductionism. Genetic
determinism can be considered as a logical outgrowth of
biological reductionism, or as its epitome. As this
teach-in is concerned with the ideological underpinnings
of the right-wing's political program, I propose that we
examine the premises and limitations of biological
reductionism, and its political implications.

a) We do not have the time to go into the socio-
historical roots of biological reductionism except to
note that, like all major scientific outlooks, it was
conditioned by its socio-ideological milieu--the struggle
against medieval hierarchism and authoritarianism, and
against religious obscurantism, and was part of the new
and historically progressive capitalist urge for mastery
over natural processes.

b) I am not deriding all of the reductionist program nor
saying that reductionist strategies cannot play a useful
role in research and theorizing. Indeed, the reductionist
program has been enormously successful. It has also been
very successful in shaping everyday ideas about how
living things work. It is a dominant ideology.

c) However, reductionism yields a limited, blinkered and
flat view of the world. It is inadequate to comprehend
complex developmental phenomena, i.e., processes which
themselves change over time, and these include most
fundamental biological phenomena, including evolution and
embryological development. It is also inadequate to
comprehend human development, which is complex in that it
clearly involves cultural and historical aspects, and
because it includes qualitative changes, e.g., phases of
childhood development. Steve Rose states that
"...reductionism is at best a partial, at worst a
misleading and fallacious, way of viewing the world.
Reductionism, which began as liberatory, has become
oppressive, like capitalism itself and today it limits
our understanding of the universe" (in Burke and
Silvertown, _More than the Parts_). I would argue that,
like capitalism itself, it is inadequate to the
scientific challenges of this day.

3. Reductionism is the claim that phenomena are best
explained by analysis into their component, basic parts.
It claims that the best explanation, the most scientific,
comes after the phenomenon is dissected into its
smallest, constituent elements. In Western science since
Galileo and Newton, these basic elements are considered
material corpuscles or bodies: living creatures are
really no more than agglomerates of cells; cells are
really no more than bags containing various chemicals;
these chemicals, in turn, are really molecules with a
certain atomic structure, etc. Science in this tradition
is the search for the irreducible, basic unit.

a) The preferred method of the reductionist project is
analysis into component unit parts. Reductionism ignores
or under-rates interactional processes apart from
billiard ball-like encounters between two or more
distinct bodies. So, it ignores dynamic, interactional
processes which entail reciprocal or mutual
determinations. It prefers linear explanations of
phenomena like "the central dogma" of modern biology that
DNA determines RNA which determines protein, a process
represented by a series of arrows. Reductionism stands
opposed to field and systems theories which are concerned
with the properties of the whole and which consider the
whole more than the sum of its parts. It tends to side-
step scientific problems involving functional
interrelationships, for example, phenomena best explained
as the result of a confluence of forces, or as the result
of contingency rather than an iron-clad causality. Most
phenomena in clinical psychology and psychiatry are of
this variety. The psychoanalytic concept of the multi-
determination of neurotic symptoms or the historical
materialist concept of over-determination of historical
events are outside its ken.

In _The Bell Curve_, the fundamental unit is "The I.Q."
which is the quantum that determines all sorts of
behaviors and social phenomena. Thus, the possibility of
getting a bachelor's degree (page 152), or the
probability of being unemployed for a month or more (page
164), becomes a function of The I.Q. The favored method
of Murray and Herrnstein is the multiple regression
analysis, which they use as a statistical method for
isolating out the in-put which IQ, and IQ alone, is
purported to make to these complex social phenomena. The
regression analysis is based on the premise that the in-
puts into these complex phenomena can be neatly separated
off one-from-another, and their contribution given a
precise mathematical value. For instance, "The
mathematical procedures will yield coefficients for each
of them (variables), indicating again how much of a
change in income can be anticipated for a given change in
any particular variable, and with all the others held
constant" (page 567). In actuality, and as we all know as
observers of life, the possibility of getting a
bachelor's degree is shaped by a multiplicity of
generally mutually-reinforcing influences including the
quality, motivation, and expectation of the teachers; the
budget provided by the school board; the child's talents,
motivation, preferred style of learning and ability to
conform to school rules; his nutritional state and bodily
health; the language spoken at home and family
expectations for high performance; the size of the
tuition in relation to family income, etc. You can see
that there are a confluence of influences, some mutually
reinforcing and others discordant, and that they come
from several different levels: biological, psychological,
family, and social. In the real world, "all the others"
are not "held constant."

b) The search for the irreducible basic unit in
psychometry produced the concept of g or general
intelligence. The IQ test I am most familiar with from
clinical work is the WISC, which has verbal and
performance (non-verbal) divisions and five subtests
within each. However, since Spearman in the early decades
of this century, psychometricians have postulated that
there is a core capacity, g, which the IQ only
imperfectly tests, although it tests it better than all
other tests. "There is such a thing as a general factor
of cognitive ability on which human beings differ. All
standardized tests of academic aptitude or achievement
measure this general factor to some degree, but IQ tests
expressly designed for that purpose measure it most
accurately" (page 22). Those of you trained in philosophy
will recognize this as an idealist notion, not in the
sense of idealism _versus_ selfishness, but idealism as
Plato expounded it: seeing the real world--in this case,
behavior--as but a pale reflection of an ideal image
existing elsewhere. Stephen Jay Gould in his _Mismeasure
of Man_ exposed g as but a mathematical construct,
arbitrarily constructed, and having no substance or
explanatory power in and of itself. But Herrnstein and
Murray, and Jensen before them, continue to maintain that
g is real and not a myth because such thinking is
integral to the whole reductionist and idealist
scientific strategy. Gould wrote: "The conceptual errors
of reification have plagued g from the start, and
Thurstone's critique remains as valid today as it was in
the 1930s. Spearman's g is not an ineluctable entity; it
represents one mathematical solution among many
equivalent alternatives. The chimerical nature of g is
the rotten core of Jensen's edifice, and of the entire
hereditarian school."

c) The reductionist project, by-and-large, sees these
unit parts as having invariant relations to one another.
It sees things more than processes. "This thing we know
as IQ is important but not a synonym for human
excellence" (page 21). Reductionism has a hard time with
changes over time, especially changes in relations. In
this respect it is a conservative outlook, useful for
social groups intent on preserving the prevailing social
order; it does not give credence to the possibility of
fundamental change. Thus, Newton's mechanics describes a
universe which works according to invariant rules.
Richard Levins has pointed out the difficulties which a
Newtonian mechanical materialism encounters when dealing
with biological evolution which is a historical process,
i.e., evolution involves the death of some species and
the emergence of novel forms, speciation, in the course
of time. A mechanical materialist approach flattened
evolution's contingent, not entirely predictable,
dynamical (involving organism-environment reciprocal
relations) processes to the program of population
genetics--the measurement of gene frequencies in
populations at various points in time.

Similarly, Murray and Herrnstein cannot deal with the
fact that IQs have been rising world-wide over the
decades of this century. This improvement reflects socio-
historical changes (perhaps the spread of elementary
education or improved nutrition); the short span of time
rules out changes in the human genome as the responsible
factor. Nor do Herrnstein and Murray talk about the fact
that inventions of instruments, such as the calculator
and now the computer, permit human beings to transcend
previous limits to "intelligence."

Psychometricians also have difficulty dealing with
developmental processes. They postulate an unchanging
innate intellectual capacity, and claim that beyond about
four years of age it can be accurately measured. "IQ
scores are stable, although not perfectly so, over much
of a person's life" (page 23). But the remarkable thing
about kids is the astonishing rate at which they grow
intellectually, and the entirely new kinds of mental
processes which they display as they grow older. The
cognitive psychologist Piaget has a far better grasp of
the developmental processes underlying intelligence.

d) Steve Rose (_More than the Parts: Biology and
Politics_) points out that reductionism asserts "that the
individual is ontologically prior to the society of which
that individual is a member, and the atom is
ontologically prior to the organism...In the biological
sense, it insists on the priority of the molecule over
the organism." The political implication is that the
individual comes first while society is secondary, merely
an epi-phenomenon. This fits well with a Thatcher-Reagan-
Gingrich mentality of seeking to advance your own
fortune, and it fits well with a capitalist ethos of
selfishness and greed. This outlook also supports the
current trend to reduce public services and encourage

e) In keeping with the reductionist assertion of the
ontological priority of the individual, Murray and
Herrnstein do not deal with social forces. They are
obviously concerned with social phenomena such as social
stratification and with social problems such as
criminality, but they treat them only as they do or do
not reflect the measured IQ. Their sociology is naive,
primitive, schematic and common-sensical. They paint an
entirely atomized, monochromatic and static picture of
human beings who lack any meaningful social relations.
They do not deal with the diversity among peoples,
conflicts between classes, family cohesion, or real
social history. Not a single case study of a family or
individual is offered in this thick volume. This lack of
awareness of social forces and of the internal dynamics
within families and individuals, this aloofness from the
texture of real life in this society, I believe, makes
the book so dreadfully boring to read.

4. Numbers and measurement are the be-all and end-all in
the reductionist project. _The Bell Curve_ is a book
filled with numbers, and it is a book about numbers. The
bulk of the book consists of measurements of IQ and SAT
scores which are correlated with a large number of
measured variables of social success or failure (as they
define success). I think there are several reasons for
this fetishization of numbers:

a) Nowadays science is equated with the handing of and
display of numbers. It adds to the book's scientific
pretensions to have so much data, drawn out to the last
decimal point, and neatly arranged in tables and graphs.

b) The book conveys a false sense of objectivity and
precision through its number displays. One forgets the
everyday, qualitative, imprecise processes that enter
into the generation of these mountains of numbers: one
person wearing a coat and tie and holding a stopwatch
instructs another person, who is typically much younger,
to solve a problem in a given period of time; under
certain conditions of lighting, humidity, comfort,
hunger, and tiredness; with a certain social and
emotional tone between them, based on interpersonal
chemistry, gender, social class, age spread, physical
attractiveness, and, of course, in American society,
race, etc.

c) Numbers substitute for thought. The display of so many
tables and graphs exerts a numbing effect.

d) The reader begins to think that the IQ itself exerts
an influence in life or determines such-and-such result.
Just as Marx pointed out that the fetishization of the
commodity in capitalist society makes it seem as if _it_
(the commodity) were alive--in actuality the maker of the
commodity and the potential buyer are engaged in a social
activity involving the commodity--the IQ is treated by
Murray and Herrnstein as if it were the active agent. The
person is reduced to merely a carrier of his or her
innate cognitive capacity. Rather than the person
exerting his or her intelligence, the IQ works to place
the individual in a certain social position. In a similar
fashion, the "selfish gene" (Dawkins) idea is that the
organism is merely a carrier of a certain set of genes;
its mission is merely to transmit them to the next
generation. Reductionism tends to reify qualities,
processes, and relations as things.

e) When phenomena are approached clinically--in their
individuality and specificity--it is necessary to deal
with complex relations of forces and influences. This
reality-oriented, stuff-of-life can be stripped away, in
the discipline of psychometry. This stripping away yields
an alluring but false altogether qualitative picture of
the social world.

f) The most important reason for the linear approach to
the measurement of human intelligence is that it permits
the ranking of individuals and groups. As Stephen Jay
Gould wrote: "This book, then, is about the abstraction
of intelligence as a single entity, its location within
the brain, its quantification as one number of each
individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people
in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that
oppressed and disadvantaged groups--races, classes, or
sexes--are innately inferior and deserve their status"
(_The Mismeasure of Man_). This is the political message
delivered by genetic determinism and why it is welcomed
(if not invited and paid for) by the powers-tat-be: the
social order is justified because it reflects inborn
worth. Any other social arrangement would be unnatural
and therefore impossible or not maintainable. Genetic
determinism inevitably goes along with a conservative
outlook. The common-sense reaction to any challenge to
the capitalist system, for instance, is that greed is a
built-in part of human nature. Therefore any alternative
to the capitalist social order is unnatural.

There are two obvious flaws in Herrnstein and Murray's
handling of their numerous numbers. First, their
regression coefficient analyses yield only correlations,
but they lapse into speaking as if they have discovered
causative relations. Second, as Gould points out in his
review in _The New Yorker_ magazine, the correlation
coefficients they obtain are pitifully low.

5. The categories selected for examination, especially in
the reductionism of the sociobiological variety, reflect
prevailing social norms and thus, indirectly, reinforce
them. Murray and Herrnstein, for example, examine the
problem of children born out of wedlock without
questioning the role of men in causing such pregnancies
or seriously examining the premise that it is always best
for children to be raised by two, married heterosexuals.
Likewise, they accept the prevailing social assumption
that criminality consists of acts such as mugging, and
breaking and entering, that lands people in prison, but
they ignore the criminality associated with white-collar
crime; crimes against humanity such as the use of atomic
bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or Kissinger's
secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War; or the
ordinary crimes of capitalism such as depriving a
community of work by moving a factory to another region
or nation where costs are lower; or the now commonplace
crime of turning a deaf ear to the needs of the sick and
infirm, the young and the elderly.


References are given in "Readings which Challenge the
Genetic Determinism of _The Bell Curve_," prepared by


Eli C. Messinger, M.D., is a New York-based psychiatrist
in both public and private practice. He is an Associate
Professor at New York Medical College and is on the Board
of Directors of The Brecht Forum.


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