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Did Darwin believe that psychological sex differences could be erased?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about an editorial in the journal Science that claimed Darwin’s The Descent of Man “offers a racist and sexist view of humanity”. The editorial was meant to mark the book’s 150th anniversary, which suggests that commemorations aren’t what they used to be. (It’s usually considered rude to describe your subject as a man “with injurious and unfounded prejudices”.)
Now a group of scholars – including some big names from the field of evolutionary biology – have written a letter to Science criticising the editorial. Although I obviously agree with their overall position (the anti-Darwin editorial is catty and irreverent), I wasn’t particularly impressed with their letter. They had an opportunity to make a principled case against retrospective denunciations of historical figures, but they instead bent over backwards to placate the woke.
To begin with, the authors claim that Fuentes’ editorial will “damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.” The argument here is presumably that women and non-white people might be less inclined to pursue a career in evolutionary biology after reading Fuentes’ account of The Descent of Man. This is possible, I suppose, but the authors don’t provide any supporting evidence. And what if the opposite happens?
After reading Fuentes take Darwin to task for “his racist and sexist beliefs”, perhaps women and non-white people would be more inclined to pursue a career in evolutionary biology. They might reason, “Good to see evolutionary scientists denouncing racism and sexism wherever they see it. Seems like a field for me!” The editorial’s impact on “diversity” is therefore an empirical question. And if the evidence ends up showing that Fuentesian denunciations actually promote “diversity”, the authors will have to consider this as a point in the editorial’s favour. From my point of view, the editorial’s impact on “diversity” is irrelevant to evaluating its quality.
Moreover, emphasising “diversity” as something to strive for seems rather objectionable. Of course, anyone who’s good enough – regardless of her demographic characteristics – should be welcomed into the field. (There ought to be no barriers to entry, in other words.) But should we care about the field’s overall racial and gender composition? As I noted in a recent article, if you’re in favour of more “diversity” in academia, you’re welcome to resign and give up your position to someone from an underrepresented group. (Though I note the authors skilfully avoided this trap by referring to the “new generation of evolutionary scientists”.)
The authors go on to say that Darwin “demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz”. While Darwin certainly deserves credit for being scientifically correct about race, and for being morally opposed to slavery, I’m not sure his ideas have much common with those of Boas. While Boas is an important figure in the history of anthropology, he was a radical environmentalist who claimed that “unless the contrary can be proved, we must assume that all complex activities are socially determined, not hereditary”. Which is of course not what Darwin believed.
More importantly, if you’re going to judge Darwin based on whom he “inspired”, you presumably also have to mention the pro-eugenics perspectives of Francis Galton, as well as the movement known as Social Darwinism. And once you take these strands into account, Darwin’s overall legacy doesn’t look that favourable from a modern progressive standpoint.
The authors then note, “On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences … His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution.” Here, it seems like they’re committing the fallacy of assuming that the science of sex differences can be more or less “sexist”. However, a more charitable reading is that they’re simply addressing the claim that Darwin’s theories were imbued with the attitudes of his time. Having said that, the authors missed a chance to state forcefully that scientific propositions themselves cannot be “sexist” (though they may be false). Otherwise, we’d have to regard the proposition that men are stronger than women as “sexist”.
So what did Darwin say about sex differences? In a section of Chapter 14 titled ‘Difference in the Mental Powers of the two Sexes’, Darwin notes, “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain”. He reasons that “if men are capable of decided eminence over women in many subjects, the average standard of mental power in man must be above that of woman.” And he concludes that, as a result of both sexual and natural selection, “man has ultimately become superior to woman”.
Interestingly, Darwin’s reasoning here is faulty. Even if one were to assume that “eminence” is a valid indicator of ability, the greater representation of men among eminent persons doesn’t necessarily imply “the average standard of mental power” is greater in men, since it could be that the variance is greater. In fact, modern psychometric data lends more support to the ‘greater male variability hypothesis’ than to the claim that men have substantially higher average IQs. As Russ Warne notes in his excellent book In The Know, “most psychologists believe that there are no differences in average intelligence across males and females” but “most psychologists agree that males have greater variability”. What’s ironic is that the ‘greater male variability hypothesis’ goes back to Darwin himself; he applied it to animal morphology, but apparently not to human psychology.
However, it should be noted that psychometrics had only just been invented when Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, and it’s not exactly clear what he meant by “intellectual powers”. If he was referring to traits other than general intelligence on which there are average sex differences favouring males (systemising ability, for example) then his conclusion would be in some sense correct.
Returning to the letter, the authors try to paint Darwin as an environmentalist, claiming he “suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences”. (Hereditarianism bad.) In support of this claim, they refer to a particular page in The Descent of Man. Here is the full quote:
In order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance, and to have her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point; and then she would probably transmit these qualities chiefly to her adult daughters. The whole body of women, however, could not be thus raised, unless during many generations the women who excelled in the above robust virtues were married, and produced offspring in larger numbers than other women.
Darwin appears to be saying that there’s scope for reducing sex differences by encouraging women to exercise their “reason and imagination” during the course of development. However, he then makes clear that sex differences cannot be eliminated without changing “during many generations” the relationship between fertility and specific psychological traits – i.e., by selecting for those traits in the female population. In other words, he seems to believe that the sex difference in “mental powers” is partly innate. (Note also that in this paragraph he does not use the phrase “intellectual powers”, so he may not even be talking about sex differences in ability.)
This interpretation – that Darwin was a hereditarian with respect to sex differences – is supported by a letter he wrote in 1882 – eleven years after The Descent of Man’s publication. He states that women “though generally superior to men to moral qualities are inferior intellectually”. And he adds, “there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance … in their becoming the intellectual equals of man”.
Overall, I’d describe the letter as a missed opportunity. It lands on the right side of the argument, but concedes far too much ground to the woke. What the authors should have done is simply put forward their criticisms of Fuentes’ editorial (that Darwin should be judged by the standards of his time; that he was not attempting to justify genocide but only to explain it) without adopting the framework of a twenty-first century progressive. Instead, they hold their position hostage to fortune by speculating about the editorial’s impact on “diversity”, and try to portray Darwin as a proto-“anti-racist” who believed that psychological sex differences could be erased.
Image: Charles Darwin, 1881
Inspired by the 1619 Project, a reader has written to me with a proposal for celebrating Britain’s anti-racist history. (His remarks have been lightly edited.)
Many institutions have commenced what they would no doubt term a “process of reflection” regarding the statues and other artefacts they hold, and the names of buildings, fellowships and scholarships they possess or award.
For example, I read recently that the Royal Academy of Music was planning on “decolonising” its collection of historical musical instruments because, among other things, Handel was invested in the slave trade. I find this to be extraordinarily ignorant of the RAM, as they must know that 18th Century Britain was a bastion of anti-racist progressivism.
I base this on the seminal work of Nicole Hannah-Jones et al. of the New York Times’ Pulitzer prize winning 1619 Project. The project concludes that the American War of Independence was fought by the rebellious colonists against the British in order to preserve the institution of slavery. The so-called “patriots” were therefore essentially like Ian Smith’s Rhodesians, seeking independence from Britain in order to escape Britain's progressive and anti-racist tendencies.
According to Hannah-Jones, 18th Century England was a beacon of progressive thought on racial matters (and perhaps also on issues of LGBTQ+ rights: I base this on the ‘queer’ stylings of their men’s fashion). Lord North was surely in some ways his century’s Marcus Garvey.
In light of these facts, British institutions should be celebrating 18th Century Britain with some sort of great jamboree. The Americans might want to utilise the empty statue plinths vacated by racists like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, with statues of progressive anti-racist icons such as George III, General Cornwallis, and Benedict Arnold.
I’ve written four more short posts since last time. The first notes that England’s age-standardised mortality rate fell to the lowest level on record, again, in May. The second summarises a study finding that temperature, humidity and UV radiation all influence transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The third asks whether we should have relied more on historical comparisons, and less on epidemiological models. The fourth asks why the government hasn’t published a cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns.
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