This week in anthropological rebuttals to Charles Murray

Just when you think that The Bell Curve has been thoroughly debunked, it rears its ugly head…again. It’s like a weed that just won’t go away–and that should give us something to think about. Charles Murray, one of the authors of that book, is apparently on a US tour promoting his ideas about intelligence and race to a new generation. Oh great. But, all things considered, we shouldn’t be surprised that these ideas have once again resurfaced in the public sphere (they never really went anywhere, after all). Now is probably a good time to ask why these ideas persist, and why they get so much applause and support from certain segments of American society. Hmmm.

I’ve been hoping for an anthropological response to Murray’s latest quest to share his “knowledge” with the world, and this week there were two. First we had Agustin Fuentes share his response to Murray’s talk at Notre Dame. Fuentes comes in at about 53:00 (see YouTube video below), but it might be a good idea to watch the whole thing if you haven’t encountered the work of Mr. Murray. Just in case you don’t know the lay of the psuedoscientific landscape. I also suggest reading the late Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” if you haven’t already. That will definitely get you up to speed. Here’s the short version of what Fuentes had to say:

And then Jon Marks wrote this great response on his blog. In it he covers a bit of the history behind Murray and his ideas, and examines the question of whether or not he should be invited to college campuses. Here’s part of Marks’ answer:

We should not be debating the innate intelligence of black people, or of the poor, on college campuses or anywhere.  It is a morally corrupt pseudoscientific proposition. 

It’s like inviting a creationist or an inventor of a perpetual motion machine. The university should not be a censor, but it sure as hell is a gatekeeper.  At this point, sometimes they go all radical epistemological relativist and and say that all ideas deserve a hearing.  But all ideas don’t deserve a hearing.  The universe of things that do get discussed and debated on college campuses is rather small in proportion to the ideas that people have debated over the years.  Should we stone witches? No. Might the speed of light be 140,000 miles per second, rather than 186,000? No.  Might the universe just be made up of earth, air, water, and fire? No.  Might Africans just be genetically stupid? Might people who want to debate this point have their fundamental civic morality called into question instead?

Well said, Mr. Marks. There you have it. Check out both, then post your comments below or on twitter: @anthropologia and/or @savageminds.

Ryan Anderson is an environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

2 thoughts on “This week in anthropological rebuttals to Charles Murray

  1. Wow. That whole piece did not once address any of Murray’s actual claims. You’re just arguing against what you’ve heard about Murray second hand. He himself says any cognitive difference between races, men, women or any other variable is no reason or excuse to treat that person differently. He does this research to inform public policy. Heaven knows how he has the stomach for it when no one bothers to actually read his work.

  2. Alex, actually my post is mostly about pointing readers to two different recent responses to Murray’s work, rather than trying to dispute particular claims per se. There are of course many more rebuttals out there, including Gould’s book, which is mentioned above. Did you watch the video and response from Fuentes? Did you read the post by Jon Marks?

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