A damn good critique of Charles Murray’s awful oeuvre


When many of us criticize Charles Murray, we tend to focus on his unwarranted extrapolations from correlations; it’s easy to get caught up in the details and point out esoteric statistical flaws that take an advanced degree to be able to understand, and are even more challenging to explain. It’s also easy for the other side to trot out “experts” who are good at burying you in yet more statistical bafflegab to muddy the waters. Nathan J. Robinson makes a 180° turnabout to explain why Charles Murray is odious, and maybe goes a little too far to pardon the bad science, but does refocus our attention on the real problem, that his argument is fundamentally a racist argument, built on racist assumptions, and it can’t be reformed by more clever statistics.

Robinson drills right down to the core of Murray’s book, and highlights what we should find far more offensive than an abuse of abstract statistical calculations. He distills The Bell Curve down to these three premises.

  1. Black people tend to be dumber than white people, which is probably partly why white people tend to have more money than black people. This is likely to be partly because of genetics, a question that would be valid and useful to investigate.
  2. Black cultural achievements are almost negligible. Western peoples have a superior tendency toward creating “objectively” more “excellent” art and music. Differences in cultural excellence across groups might also have biological roots.
  3. We should return to the conception of equality held by the Founding Fathers, who thought black people were subhumans. A situation in which white people are politically and economically dominant over black people is natural and acceptable.

He backs up these summaries with quotes from Murray and Herrnstein, too, and criticizes critics.

Murray’s opponents occasionally trip up, by arguing against the reality of the difference in test scores rather than against Murray’s formulation of the concept of intelligence. The dubious aspect of The Bell Curve‘s intelligence framework is not that it argues there are ethnic differences in IQ scores, which plenty of sociologists acknowledge. It is that Murray and Herrnstein use IQ, an arbitrary test of a particular set of abilities (arbitrary in the sense that there is no reason why a person’s IQ should matter any more than their eye color, not in the sense that it is uncorrelated with economic outcomes) as a measure of whether someone is smart or dumb in the ordinary language sense. It isn’t, though: the number of high-IQ idiots in our society is staggering. Now, Murray and Herrnstein say that “intelligence” is “just a noun, not an accolade,” generally using the phrase “cognitive ability” in the book as a synonym for “intelligent” or “smart.” But because they say explicitly (1) that “IQ,” “intelligent,” and “smart” mean the same thing, (2) that “smart” can be contrasted with “dumb,” and (3) the ethnic difference in IQ scores means an ethnic difference in intelligence/smartness, it is hard to see how the book can be seen as arguing anything other than that black people tend to be dumber than white people, and Murray and Herrnstein should not have been surprised that their “black people are dumb” book landed them in hot water. (“We didn’t sat ‘dumb’! We just said dumber! And only on average! And through most of the book we said ‘lacking cognitive ability’ rather than ‘dumb’!”)

I have to admit, I’m guilty. When one of these wankers pops up to triumphantly announce that these test scores show that black people are inferior, I tend to reflexively focus on the interpretation of test scores and the overloaded concept of IQ and the unwarranted expansion of a number to dismiss people, when maybe, if I were more the target of such claims, I would be more likely to take offense at the part where he’s saying these human beings are ‘lacking in cognitive ability’, or whatever other euphemism they’re using today.

The problem isn’t that Murray got the math wrong (although bad assumptions make for bad math). The problem is that he abuses math to justify prior racist beliefs, exaggerating minor variations in measurements of arbitrary population groups to warrant bigotry against certain subsets. That ought to be the heart of our objection, that he attaches strong value judgments to numbers he has fished out of a great pool of complexity.

In part, too, the objection ought to be because somehow, his numbers tend to conveniently support existing racist biases in our society. But he consistently twists the interpretations to prop up ideas that would have been welcomed in the antebellum South.

We should be clear on why the Murray-Herrnstein argument was both morally offensive and poor social science. If they had stuck to what is ostensibly the core claim of the book, that IQ (whatever it is) is strongly correlated with one’s economic status, there would have been nothing objectionable about their work. In fact, it would even have been (as Murray himself has pointed out) totally consistent with a left-wing worldview. “IQ predicts economic outcomes” just means “some particular set of mental abilities happen to be well-adapted for doing the things that make you successful in contemporary U.S. capitalist society.” Testing for IQ is no different from testing whether someone can play the guitar or do 1000 jumping jacks or lick their elbow. And “the people who can do those certain valued things are forming a narrow elite at the expense of the underclass” is a conclusion left-wing people would be happy to entertain. After all, it’s no different than saying “people who have the good fortune to be skilled at finance are making a lot of money and thereby exacerbating inequality.” Noam Chomsky goes further and suggests that if we actually managed to determine the traits that predicted success under capitalism, more relevant than “intelligence” would probably be “some combination of greed, cynicism, obsequiousness and subordination, lack of curiosity and independence of mind, self-serving disregard for others, and who knows what else.”

I also learned something new. I read The Bell Curve years ago when it first came out, and it did effectively turn me away from ever wanting to hear another word from Charles Murray. But he has written other books! He also wrote Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, which Robinson turns to to further reveal Murray’s implicit bigotry.

Human Accomplishment is one of the most absurd works of “social science” ever produced. If you want evidence proving Murray a “pseudoscientist,” it is Human Accomplishment rather than The Bell Curve that you should turn to. In it, he attempts to prove using statistics which cultures are objectively the most “excellent” and “accomplished,” demonstrating mathematically the inherent superiority of Western thought throughout the arts and sciences.

Oh god. I can tell what’s coming. Pages and pages of cherry-picking, oodles of selection bias that Murray will use to complain of cultural trends when all his elaborate statistics do is take the measure of the slant of his own brain. Pseudoscientists do this all the time; another example would be Ray Kurzweil, who has done a survey of history in which he selects which bits he wants to plot to support his claim of accelerating technological progress leading to his much-desired Singularity. Murray does the same thing to “prove” his prior assumption that black people “lack cognitive ability”.

How does he do this? By counting “significant” people. (First rule of pseudoscientists: turn your biases into numbers. That way, if anyone disagrees, you can accuse them of being anti-math.)

Murray purports to show that Europeans have produced the most “significant” people in literature, philosophy, art, music, and the sciences, and then posits some theories as to what makes cultures able to produce better versus worse things. The problem that immediately arises, of course, is that there is no actual objective way of determining a person’s “significance.” In order to provide such an “objective” measure, Murray uses (I am not kidding you) the frequency of people’s appearances in encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries. In this way, he says, he has shown their “eminence,” therefore objectively shown their accomplishments in their respective fields. And by then showing which cultures they came from, he can rank each culture by its cultural and scientific worth.

Then it just gets hilariously bad. Murray decides to enumerate accomplishment in music, of all things, by first dismissing everything produced since 1950 (the last half century has failed to produce “an abundance of timeless work”, don’t you know), and then, in his list of great musical accomplishment, does not include any black composers, except Duke Ellington. Robinson provides a brutal takedown.

Before 1950, black people had invented gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, samba, meringue, ragtime, zydeco, mento, calypso, and bomba. During the early 20th century, in the United States alone, the following composers and players were active: Ma Rainey, W.C. Handy, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, J. Rosamond Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, John Lee Hooker, Coleman Hawkins, Leadbelly, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Son House, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Muddy Waters, Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughan, Memphis Slim, Skip James, Louis Jordan, Ruth Brown, Big Jay McNeely, Paul Gayten, and Professor Longhair. (This list is partial.) When we talk about black American music of the early 20th century, we are talking about one of the most astonishing periods of cultural accomplishment in the history of civilization. We are talking about an unparalleled record of invention, the creation of some of the most transcendently moving and original artistic material that has yet emerged from the human mind. The significance of this achievement cannot be overstated. What’s more, it occurred without state sponsorship or the patronage of elites. In fact, it arose organically under conditions of brutal Jim Crow segregation and discrimination, in which black people had access to almost no mainstream institutions or material resources.

Jesus. This ought to be the approach we always take to Charles Murray: not that his calculations and statistics are a bit iffy, but that he can take a look at the music of the 20th century and somehow argue that contributions by the black community were inferior and not even worth mentioning. His biases are screamingly loud.

Unfortunately, while I suffered through The Bell Curve, this is so outrageously stupid that I’m not at all tempted to read Human Accomplishment, and I’m a guy who reads creationist literature to expose its flaws. Murray is more repulsive than even Kent Hovind (Hovind should not take that as an accolade, since that’s an awfully low bar.)

Comments

  1. rietpluim says

    Murray probably thinks Eric Clapton is more “excellent” than Chuck Berry.
    Who was an inspiration to who again?

  2. rietpluim says

    Perhaps Robert Johnson is an even better example.
    After all, he wrote one of Clapton’s major hits.

    (Not to play down Clapton’s contribution to music, which is great enough.)

  3. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Heh, I’m listening to Muddy Waters right now. Of course, if you’re talking about Chicago blues (or Led Zeppelin, for that matter), you have to give much of the credit to Willie Dixon, another African American who wrote most of those songs.

    Also, since Murray’s argument is racial (and racist), I’d include Cuban and Brazilian music in the mix.

  4. rietpluim says

    Great! Muddy Waters was my introduction to the blues, the most important source of all pop and rock music today. Who said white culture is more excellent?

  5. Siobhan says

    Murray decides to enumerate accomplishment in music, of all things, by first dismissing everything produced since 1950 (the last half century has failed to produce “an abundance of timeless work”, don’t you know

    How much time, exactly, must pass before something still listened to qualifies as “timeless”? And after we’ve defined that, wouldn’t that mean that at least some of the works past 1950 just haven’t yet had enough time pass to determine “timelessness”? It would seem to me premature. We won’t know until 2117 if anything produced this year is still listened to in 2117.

    Perhaps this is just acutely demonstrative of Murray’s derivative thinking.

  6. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Of course if you listen to a lot of old blues, jazz, country, and bluegrass you realize that the distinction between “white” and “black” music isn’t so clear-cut anyway (just look at all the recordings of St. James Infirmary, for example).

  7. says

    Ha! I’m glad I’m not the only one who got caught up in the whole music bit! I can’t think of a single modern music genre that can’t trace its roots back to Black music, even the whitest music like country and heavy metal.

  8. rietpluim says

    Can art be more timeless than other art? Chinese opera is five to six times older than Western opera.

  9. Matt Cramp says

    I recently heard about a study where they took a randomly selected cohort of kids and dubbed them ‘academic bloomers’, and made sure all the teachers knew that these kids had been identified by scientists as ‘academic bloomers’. After a year, the average IQ of the kids identified as ‘academic bloomers’, based on nothing, jumped about 10 points.

    The idea that IQ is mostly genetic – that it can’t be influenced by culture – I think is a comfort to some people. I think if people acknowledged how elastic intelligence is, how we know so little about it, and how little it matters (I think the current president proves that intelligence is not a factor in financial success so much as being an asshole) it would be clearer that there’s a weird kind of privilege baked into how we treat intelligence. We treat genetic superiority via intelligence as different to genetic superiority via skin colour but I’m not convinced, as a beneficiary of both such privileges, that they’re that different.

  10. says

    Here are some statistics I’d just loooooove to hear Charles Murray ‘splain to us:

    (Source: Women of color face staggering harassment in space science, The Washington Post, July 11, 2017.)

    The survey results, published Monday in the Journal of Geophyscial Research: Planets, illuminate the environment endured by many people in astronomy and planetary science, particularly women and especially women of color. Almost 90 percent of the more than 400 participants in the survey said that they had witnessed sexist, racist or otherwise disparaging remarks in their workplaces. Nearly 40 percent said they had been verbally harassed and almost 1 in 10 had been physically harassed. Most nonwhite respondents said that they had seen their peers make racist comments, and 22 percent said they had heard such remarks from their supervisors.

    The reported rates of sexual harassment were invariably higher for women than for men, and highest of all for minority women. More than 1 in 10 white women and nearly 1 in 5 women of color said they had skipped a class, field work opportunity or professional event because they felt unsafe. In addition to the 40 percent of women of color who felt unsafe in their workplaces, 27 percent of white women said they felt unsafe at their jobs.

    Obviously people of color, especially women of color, aren’t “significant” because they are simply lacking in cognitive ability. Despite being, you know, ACTUAL FUCKING ROCKET SCIENTISTS.

  11. Matt G says

    No B.B. King in that list? Bob Marley (whose mother was black)? I know he calls it a “partial list”, but gee whiz. I guess that music isn’t “significant” because Murray doesn’t listen to it. Seems like some circular reasoning there: I don’t consider it significant, so I don’t listen to it -> I don’t listen to it, so not significant. What a fraud.

  12. doubtthat says

    It is a constant source of amazement that anyone tries to legitimize Murray. As Atrios has said – it’s honestly because a huge number of people think he’s right. Disgusting.

    And the music thing…I could go on, but I will just say that one of the most incredible artistic achievements in human history was a heavily oppressed population developing a totally new art form that was not only fun and popular – this is true of various folk styles the world over – but as structurally and intellectually advanced as anything developed by the European masters, and in many ways was more harmonically and rhythmically complicated. Parker, Coltrane, Armstrong, Ellington…it’s the equivalent of Bach creating what he did growing up as a serf (imperfect analogy) instead of hailing from a notable family of professional musicians.
    Insulting in so many ways it’s hard to pick a place to start.

  13. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    On re-reading I just noticed this:

    In order to provide such an “objective” measure, Murray uses (I am not kidding you) the frequency of people’s appearances in encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries.

    Question for Murray: who wrote those encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries?

  14. Callinectes says

    That Noam Chompsky line about the traits that predict success under capitalism makes me wonder if we can’t imagine and devise an economic system that intrinsically rewards positive personality traits instead.

  15. says

    Callinectes 14, the problem with your suggestion is that Chomsky’s list of characteristics, “greed, cynicism, obsequiousness and subordination, lack of curiosity and independence of mind, self-serving disregard for others” etc., are viewed as positive personality traits by vast swaths of the US electorate. See, e.g., the elections of George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump.

  16. redwood says

    I remember when The Bell Curve came out and my brother recommended it to me as really “telling it like it is.” It was the first time I realized how racist he was and I added it to the times he said how “urban” and dangerous parts of Kansas City were, so he would never go there. Oh, yeah, racist. He voted for Turnip because he wanted to keep a left-wing justice off the Supreme Court. The thing is, he’s not really a bad person, just afraid of everything.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Murray uses (I am not kidding you) the frequency of people’s appearances in encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries.

    Has Murray taken this irrefutable data into the happy fields of gender studies?

  18. Siobhan says

    @What a Maroon, living up to the ‘nym

    Question for Murray: who wrote those encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries?

    They grew on the Tree of Objective Knowledge, obviously.

  19. Siobhan says

    @Pierce R. Butler

    Has Murray taken this irrefutable data into the happy fields of gender studies?

    pls no

  20. cartomancer says

    Clearly the Murray Method can be applied far more radically. Observe:

    The most important work of cultural production in the entire world is Homer’s Iliad. We know this because eminent Classicists have told us that it is for generations. Therefore the most culturally superior people in the world are illiterate Greek oral poets, living in subsistence farming societies and working as a communal creative enterprise.

    As such the entire machinery of the modern world should be dismantled. Everything post-700BC must be extirpated in order to promote the highest degree of cultural and creative accomplishment in mankind. Wouldn’t hurt if everyone learned to speak archaic Greek and play the lyre either, and live in dark-age farming villages. And since there is a beloved myth about Homer being blind we should probably put out everyone’s eyes too.

    I, for one, look forward to our glorious future in dactylic hexameter.

  21. blf says

    In order to provide such an “objective” measure [of a person’s “significance”], Murray uses (I am not kidding you) the frequency of people’s appearances in encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries.

    Numerology for the win! Albeit Murray would have gotten more useful magical numbers if he’d thrown the page numbers and year of publication (as measured by the Mayan Long Count calendar, obviously) into the pot and shaken briskly.

    I wonder how often Murray himself shows up in such sources? I admit to rather hoping by his own “objective” (snickers!) metric he is “insignificant”.

  22. cartomancer says

    Also, we might note that by his own measure of “significant”, Charles Murray is as nothing compared with Noam Chomsky. The logical corollary being that we should ignore him and his inferior stock and listen instead to what Noam has to say.

  23. amoosa says

    If Robinson’s “distillation” of Murray and his claim that IQ is an arbitrary concept are based on a fair reading of “The Bell Curve,” I worry about his comprehension skills. None of the actual factual claims in the book have been refuted. But most shamelessly dishonest is Robinson’s conclusion that Murray believes that the subjugation of black people by white people is natural and acceptable.

    For anyone who believes that “there is no reason why a person’s IQ should matter any more than their eye color,” consider the dilemma offered by the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson: you are going to have a child with an IQ of either 65 or 145; which would you choose? As Peterson notes, a child with an IQ of 65 might never reach complete linguistic development, so choose carefully.

  24. zoniedude says

    What you are missing is the common conservative trick of taking a known statistical phenomenon and then attributing it to some conservative ideology. It is well established that African-Americans were redlined into ghettos where lead-based paint contaminated the housing. The high levels of lead poisoning among African-Americans were known, as was the fact that lead poisoning destroys brain synapses resulting in lower IQ scores. So instead of demanding that efforts be taken to eliminate lead-based paint the conservatives distracted the message by claiming African-Americans had lower IQ not from known poisoning but from genetics.

    Even today few people want to credit this explanation because few people want to commit the funds necessary to eliminate lead-based paint. The location of much violence in cities occurs in the areas of high lead poisoning while violence is a known symptom of lead poisoning that has be demonstrated in animal models as well as human statistics.

  25. cartomancer says

    One might also compare the nonsense from the one racist book with the nonsense from the other.

    Okay, so if we take the racist pseudoscience from The Bell Curve seriously then different ethnic groups have different IQs and different levels of intellectual capacity. Furthermore, repression, discrimination and lack of opportunity doesn’t have any significant effect on this situation. “Dumber” ethnic groups will always produce less of the good things, because they are just genetically worse. It doesn’t matter whether people are encouraged, supported, educated and valued – cultural and economic factors cannot be blamed for any of this.

    But if we take the racist cultural chauvinism from Human Accomplishment seriously then we have a problem. Take a look at the stupid graph that purports to show “the distribution of significant figures across time and place”. Between 800BC and about 200AD (yay! the Classical world! I know all about this bit and how important it is for self-serving European models of their own cultural supremacy) they’re almost solely European (ochre), with one or two tiny lumps of non-European (grey). Then, for pretty much the entirety of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (about 200AD to 1400AD) all the significant people are non-European. All of them. There is a brief century or so between about 1400 and 1500 where European and non-European people are of the same significance, followed by 500 years of almost total dominance by Europeans and a very rapid rise from about 1800 among “the rest of the west”, which I’m assuming is Americans and Canadians. Until, surprise surprise, those Americans and Canadians make up pretty much half of all the important people they are.

    So why did the naturally superior European genetic disposition to high IQ and cultural excellence disappear for a millennium or so? How could medieval Europe have been so bereft of significant figures when it was still packed full of pale-skinned genetic geniuses with good DNA? Did European DNA somehow stop working some time in the third century? Did the perfidious Chinese and untrustworthy Arabs somehow develop big-brained mutant strains that allowed them to flourish while Europe languished, but which virtually disappeared after a thousand years? Remember that it can’t be about opportunities or economic pressures or social structures, or any of that other trendy PC guff that people say is holding Blacks in America back. Genetic differences are paramount, so we learn in Bell Curve.

    (I leave aside entirely the fact that European society has done its utmost to belittle and dismiss its medieval heritage since the Renaissance, and mainstream American society, with no medieval heritage of its own, has taken this even further. There is a reason that encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries tend to ignore medieval Europeans – it’s a long-standing piece of cultural framing that makes modern thinkers and modern cultures look good by comparison).

  26. rietpluim says

    So why did the naturally superior European genetic disposition to high IQ and cultural excellence disappear for a millennium or so?

    Immigrants. Lacking any other explanation, one can always blame immigrants.

  27. jrkrideau says

    @ 27 Tabby Lavalamp
    Jordan Peterson
    Who is he? I had never heard of him til he was mentioned here.

    A quick look at his website does suggest a slight bit of nuttiness. He seems to be recommending books by Freud and Jung!

    And no CV so it’s difficult to evaluate his publishing history—I’m assuming he has one.

  28. Siobhan says

    consider the dilemma offered by the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson

    I have a swamp I’d like to sell you.

  29. says

    Nice that it took 24 comments before the racist apologist weighed in.

    Imagine. You’re down at the slave market, and you have to choose between purchasing someone with an IQ of 65, or an IQ of 145. Someone who is unable to read, or someone who is literate. Someone with a genetic abnormality, and someone who is healthy. Someone who is dark-skinned, or light-skinned. Martin Shkreli, or Jordan Peterson.

    Gosh, hypotheticals are fun when you get to discard all the complications of reality!

  30. cartomancer says

    One might also wonder why there is a massive increase in the number of significant figures around 1500AD, such that in a century there were three times as many of them as there had been before. The world’s population didn’t triple between 1500 and 1600. Then the “significant people” number triples again between about 1700 and 1950 (which was when world population actually started to shift upward from the 1-2Bn level it had been at for millennia). It can’t be cultural or economic factors, so are we to infer that mutations which caused massively greater intelligence emerged in human (well, European) populations at this time? Perhaps all those European and American academics were more inclined to shut themselves away in their studies and work on their art and science, to get away from all the awful Jazz that was happening outside?

  31. Rich Woods says

    @cartomancer #21:

    Everything post-700BC must be extirpated in order to promote the highest degree of cultural and creative accomplishment in mankind

    So who do you favour as the modern Sea Peoples? It’ll all be downhill after them.

  32. says

    Matt G@11 Robinson’s list is of African-American musicians who were active before 1950, although several of them arguably did the majority of their most important work after 1950. Miles Davis is the obvious example.

  33. mnb0 says

    “Murray purports to show that Europeans have produced the most “significant” people in literature.”
    By definition most people are not significant; I’m certainly not when it comes to science, art and music. Murray deliberately uses the Mount Everest fallacy: what makes one mountain top outstanding is declared standard for all mountains.
    Funny that he brings up music. Rhythm in European music is very simple compared rhythm in African music. According to Murray’s “method” I can conclude that Europeans have simple minds compared to black minds. My evidence:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0bbUmNoR3I

    This rhythm section beats everything in European classical music and pop music.

  34. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @rietpluim, #1:

    Murray probably thinks Eric Clapton is more “excellent” than Chuck Berry.
    Who was an inspiration to who again?

    You’re forgetting – that new sound Chuck was looking for? Invented by Marty McFly, a white guy. I have it from the personal testimony of Marvin Berry.

  35. wsierichs says

    I had this debate some years online with another freethinker who thought a book of statistics (I don’t think it was Murray’s; I can’t remember the author now) showed Asians had highest IQs, whites next, blacks and Hispanics at the bottom.
    My response to this was not based on statistics, which I have not studied, but history.
    If whites (Europeans) are superior to blacks and other non-whites, when did this superiority appear?
    My question is based on the following historical facts: The human species originated in Africa, then spread out via the Middle East, breaking (for the sake of simplicity) into two streams – one going west into Europe, one going east into Asia. Presumably they all shared the same IQs at the time of the split (I know the concept of IQ is faulty; I’m using it for convenience.).
    From roughly 3,500 BCE to 500 BCE, what most people would consider the highest civilizations (I know that’s a subjective judgment, but follow this argument for a minute.) were among dark-skinned peoples in northeast Africa, the Mideast, particularly Mesopotamia, India and China. Europeans outside of Greece mostly lived in primitive dwellings with little or no complex architecture (think of Egypt’s pyramids, the Sphinx, Hatshepsut’s temple – a masterpiece of the 15th century BCE), little or no metallurgy, no writing (or nothing that’s survived), no art comparable to what you find in Egypt, etc.
    Greece and Crete were competitive, but the people of Crete at least were not white. And they went through a period of several centuries of a dark age. Not until Classical Greece and then the Roman Republic/Empire do you find white people with an equal or better (again, subjective but necessary to my argument) civilization than in Egypt and the Mideast. And the Greeks and Romans both owed big debts to the Egyptians and Middle Easterners.
    So by the logic of Murray and other racists, the Europeans were inferior in IQ to dark-skinned peoples in Africa and Asia, and then suddenly white IQs exploded to a higher level. Even then, it was not until the 16th century CE that you can begin to make an argument that the Europeans were pulling ahead of other civilizations in various ways. So any superior IQ must have involved a sudden massive mutation perhaps 500 years ago. If Murray et al can show proof of this fast-spreading high-IQ mutation, then I’ll start to take them seriously.
    BTW, in the 17th century, the distinction Europeans were making between themselves and dark-skinned non-Europeans had nothing to do with race. That concept is basically an 18th-century development (with some ancestry back to the Greeks and Romans, but they had nothing like modern racism). Here’s a clue as to how Europeans distinguished themselves. The first “race” law that I can find in legal records is from Virginia in 1661, which prohibits sex between “Christians” and “Negroes.” Maryland’s law two years later does not use the word Christian, but complains that too many free-born Englishwomen were marrying Negroes. By law, every free-born English man and woman had to be a Christian. There was no such thing as a non-Christian English man/woman. Oh, and if racism was significant in the 17th century, why were white women marrying black men? I’ve even found references to “Christian” hair (straight) and “Negro” hair (curly).
    Finally, as for slavery: when 17th century lawsuits challenged the enslavement of “Negroes,” English judges ruled 3 times that because dark-skinned peoples were pagans, Christians could lawfully enslave them. (This is derived from a Bible verse that said the Israelites could permanently enslave non-Israelites.)
    So what’s the common factor among all the “inferior” races around the world? They were all pagans when Europeans, who possessed the true, only and superior religion, began spreading out and conquering the Americas, Australia etc.
    Christianity is the real basis of the idea of higher/superior IQs among “races.”

  36. wsierichs says

    I just saw Cartomancer’s comment, after I posted mine. I’m glad to see that great minds think alive. :)

  37. consciousness razor says

    doubtthat:

    Parker, Coltrane, Armstrong, Ellington…it’s the equivalent of Bach creating what he did growing up as a serf (imperfect analogy) instead of hailing from a notable family of professional musicians.

    Well, I’d say their work* was way more original than Bach’s. Love me some J.S., but what he did was mainly to epitomize or summarize what had become established by many other composers before him. You might say he turned it all up to 11 or that he helped to focus in on some of the most effective compositional practices or approaches…. He (rather tirelessly and meticulously) made lots of good music over his lifetime, for a variety of ensembles and occasions, so his whole musical catalogue certainly was (and still is) a great point of departure for everybody who came after him. That’s mostly why he gets such a disproportionate amount of attention in the Western/European tradition. And he definitely is in many encyclopedias and other reference works, if that’s supposed to count for anything….** But it’s pretty hard to think of anything he did that was genuinely new.

    *It’s kind of hard to even talk about “their work,” since it’s all so different. Indeed, I’m not sure if Armstrong ever played/sang with Parker or Coltrane — the other combinations, definitely, and if you’re not familiar with some of those, you should change that right now. Anyway, they each took things in so many different directions that it’s not even appropriate to talk about what “they” did as a group. But Bach along with a thousand other cookie-cutter Baroque composers? Yeah, you could pretty safely lump them all together and talk about “their” collective contribution to music. (Toss in C.P.E. Bach too if you like, but his music’s kind of forgettable.) That’s maybe not such a fair comparison to make — these are different times/places, progress was slower, partly because of so much catering to the Church and the aristocracy, etc. — but whatever, that’s what we ended up with. And make no mistake, all sorts of African American and Latino (and “non-European”) music will be incredibly important for centuries to come. Their work has completely changed the landscape, and that will not ever change. Meanwhile, there are maybe a couple dozen “Europeans” (do Russians count?) who’ve done anything terribly world-shattering in the last 100 years or so. Won’t make racists happy, but that’s how it is.
    **On the other hand, my copy of the All Music Guide to Jazz has about 1200 pages worth of entries for recording artists, which is fairly specific to jazz of course, not so much gospel, R&B, soul, funk, rock, etc…. At any rate, I’m going to guess that none of those kinds of books were even consulted.

  38. chrislawson says

    Even if Charles Murray were to consult the All Music Guide to Jazz, he’d devise some metric to prove that Dave Brubeck and Bix Bierdebecke were the most influential jazz artists of all time.

  39. consciousness razor says

    Even if Charles Murray were to consult the All Music Guide to Jazz, he’d devise some metric to prove that Dave Brubeck and Bix Bierdebecke were the most influential jazz artists of all time.

    They do both have an unusually large number of B’s in their names, and counting them makes as much sense as anything else he might consider doing. He may not make it all the way through 170 pages, but he could get Randy and Michael Brecker, Nick Brignola, John Abercrombie is a twofer as well … probably enough cherry-picking opportunities in the A’s and B’s to make it worth his racist-ass time.

    Of course, all of them, if they were still alive (only John and Randy are), would tell him to go fuck himself.

  40. colinday says

    With all due respect to Chomsky, he omitted inherited wealth as a factor in success under capitalism.

  41. Derek Vandivere says

    #45 / Razor: I don’t think Armstrong ever played with Bird or Trane; he wasn’t very fond of bop and the flatted fifth, at lest when they first became popular.

    What I really love about jazz is how synthetic it is: a combination of European harmonies brought in from the Creole population and African rhythms from the black population in New Orleans, enhanced with a few blue notes. I’m at a two week band camp in Italy run by Berklee, and my theory teacher yesterday told a story about someone being asked for a definition of jazz: he came up with ‘melodic drumming,’ which I think is great.

    I’m increasingly amazed at how damn complex the music is, especially when you’re following changes. There’s an awful lot of music theory you need to have baked into your lips and fingers (well, if you play brass) in order to play something that sounds right (e.g., okay, the next two bars have chords that start on the re and the sol of the scale, which means it’s probably going to resolve to the tonic in the next bar, so pick notes to enhance the tension then resolve it in the third bar, unless the writer was messing with your assumptions).

  42. doubtthat says

    @45 consciousness razor

    I confess your point escapes me. Why would Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane have to make a record together in order to contribute mightily to jazz music – or just music?

    I listed those folks because they’re among the most significant innovators. And, of course, they obviously were contemporaries whose careers crossed over. To my knowledge, everyone I listed did, in fact, play together, with the exception of Louis and some of the others. He made a bunch of recordings with Ellington. Ellington made a great album with Coltrane. Everyone played with Bird…

    I’m not sure what that has to do with the point at issue. All of these men grew up facing insane humanitarian abuse. Not only did they make GREAT music, but they made intellectually sophisticated music. I don’t say that to argue it’s better, just to point out that it dramatically contradicts Murray’s horseshit.

  43. Jado says

    /snark

    You all are forgetting a couple of things – NO ONE has done a comprehensive study of the cranial measurements of these musicians, or even done a phrenological mapping of the bumps on their heads. The WHITE musicians will be shown to have significantly better cranial measurements and phrenological maps. SIGNIFICANTLY better. And that’s science. You can’t argue with science.

    QED

    /endsnark

  44. consciousness razor says

    I’m increasingly amazed at how damn complex the music is, especially when you’re following changes. There’s an awful lot of music theory you need to have baked into your lips and fingers (well, if you play brass) in order to play something that sounds right

    Well, that’s true. It helps a lot to understand the structures and functions and such when you’re improvising, which is just a word for “composing very, very quickly.” You need to work on your ear too, to have a good sense of various things a note could be doing in different situations. But it is interesting how even small rhythmic changes can make a big difference, so even that is sort of hard to nail down sometimes.

    The thing is, you often won’t get a helpful answer from tonal theories (especially when you’ve got non-triadic harmonies to begin with): that note simply doesn’t belong, so the scriptures say. If you play a note like that anyway, by accident or maybe because you’re feeling a little rambunctious or because that’s exactly what the piece needs right then, there are always ways to make it work. Normally, although not always, in order to ensure the line you end up with isn’t too angular and the notes will feel like they belong together, you’d want to move from the “bad note” to one that’s fairly close to it (a semitone or two, up or down — what had made it “bad” is more or less that it was grinding up against those). That gives you fewer possibilities to worry about. Often, resolving down will seem to relax the tension, while going up maintains/increases the tension if the moment calls for that. Or, you can of course not move away from the “bad note” — it may (eventually) be a good note after all, so don’t be afraid to let some mildly unsettling moments like that happen from time to time. A bit of theory (understanding chords, scales, progressions, etc.), along with lots of ear training and practice, will guide you through choices like that.

    Some good advice is also to not merely “play the changes.” I mean, you’re coming up with material of your own when you improvise, so remember what you’ve already played and what you might want to play later, with the goal being that you want to explore those ideas until they’ve run their course — that is, until your solo is over, some reasonable part of it is over, the whole tune is over, people start throwing beer bottles at you, or whatever it may be. If some theory (even what I just wrote above) calls for some formulaic maneuver or another, you still want to ask yourself (quickly, since there’s no time) whether or not doing that would help you develop your ideas. If not, then it may be a good idea (at least not a terrible one), but you should look for a better idea. It’s much more satisfying to do that than to follow a bunch of abstract and arbitrary rules anyway, and over time you can start to have a unique sound of your own.

  45. says

    Way back at #2:
    “Robert Johnson”
    Special case: he did sell his soul to the devil, presumably in the C16 in Scotland (where he was a composer), so he could re-emerge a hundred years later in England as an even more famous musician, before (after something of a hiatus) re-appearing in the C20 as the guy we are all so familiar with.

  46. consciousness razor says

    Why would Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane have to make a record together in order to contribute mightily to jazz music – or just music?

    Sorry, you misunderstood. They don’t. I was only remarking that each made very different types of music. Coltrane and Ellington (for example) were wildly different too for the most part, but at least I could note that they did collaborate with each other, so in such cases, talk of “their music” would make sense. It still wouldn’t be all of Coltrane’s music and all of Ellington’s that I’d be trying to talk about, all in one go, as if that were one coherent thing with properties or influences or consequences or something that I could say about it. But there were some occasions when they actually made music together, so that is simply and literally and without any theoretical baggage “their music.”

    I was saying that isn’t the case (as far as I know) with Armstrong and Coltrane*, so they don’t even have some small amount of work in common for me to talk about. Then we’re just left with vague statements like “both of them played jazz,” which doesn’t tell us much about anything that either of them did. That’s a very big and very diverse area of music, and many innovations in jazz developed fairly independently and proceeded to go off in various directions on their own. So it doesn’t help very much to think of it as one thing, one event, one group of people doing something, etc. It was a very big mess of people doing very many different things, which makes discussing it a little more complicated.

    *That seems like it would’ve been a weird pairing, I have to say. But I’d listen to it, and it probably would’ve been pretty awesome, if it had happened.

  47. doubtthat says

    First of all, they all did play together plenty of times in New York during the late 30’s/early 40’s. With the exception of Coltrane, who came through a slightly different route, they were all mixing around in the same scene. Miles Davis’ autobiography describes that time and era.

    I promise you that Coltrane and Armstrong shared a bandstand at some point, whether in a club with one of them sitting in with the other or at a festival. Again, with respect to the point I made, I continue to miss why the point is relevant, but all of the people I listed were, broadly speaking, contemporaries, knew each other, respected each other, and played together in a variety of settings.

    It still wouldn’t be all of Coltrane’s music and all of Ellington’s that I’d be trying to talk about, all in one go, as if that were one coherent thing with properties or influences or consequences or something that I could say about it.

    ?

    Here’s what they share in common: they are all black men in a country that treated black men atrociously. Amazingly, they all battled through disgusting oppression to participate in the creation and development of a totally unique branch of music that was as sophisticated as the classical masters a racist like Murray holds up as ideal.

    “Their” music is the music that they played. If you’re talking about Piazzola, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bon Jovi, what they do is make music. The pronoun in the sentence, “Their music was very popular,” is meaningful.

    The grouping was completely valid based on the point being made.

  48. consciousness razor says

    I promise you that Coltrane and Armstrong shared a bandstand at some point, whether in a club with one of them sitting in with the other or at a festival.

    Well, I wouldn’t be totally astounded by that. I’ll just take your word for it here (although documents/recordings would be nice), since it’s not really all that relevant.

    Again, with respect to the point I made, I continue to miss why the point is relevant, but all of the people I listed were, broadly speaking, contemporaries, knew each other, respected each other, and played together in a variety of settings.

    Okay. You think of a way that you would describe the kind and degree of originality/creativity that is present in the works of any set of accomplished jazz musicians that you like (your list of four names works just fine). They knew and respected each other, sometimes played together, etc., but that’s not the issue here. They made some artworks, those things have properties; and in that respect, we’re going to compare them to others’ works. Let’s just see what comes out of an analysis like that.

    There is of course the fact that “black men in a country that treated black men atrociously” were doing some incredible things in music, as well as other artforms, despite how atrociously they were treated. I’m not disagreeing with you about that or about how sharply that contrasts with Bach’s relatively cushy circumstances. (He was briefly jailed once, for not sucking up to the establishment hard enough, but even that is fairly inconsequential in comparison.) I’m adding a friendly amendment, that on top of that, at least according to criteria like the extent of their originality or how much their work diverged from everything that came before (and diverged even from each other’s work, as it was all so different, like I’ve tried to say), they were artistically the more successful musicians.

    You might really like Bach, along with a thousand cookie-cutter Baroque musician’s work, as I do. But in terms of advancing the entire artform, in terms of making so many different and utterly new works, which inspire even more works and push audiences and challenge theories and so forth, what Bach and co. did simply does not compare to what jazz musicians did. Not really in the same ballpark. Even when they did play together and respect each other and so forth (like Ellington and Coltrane), there was lots of metaphorical space for each of them to be extremely creative in their own unique ways. That’s just not how the sausages got made, in the Baroque (or even Classical or Romantic) periods.

    You might also like ancient Greek or Roman or Egyptian architecture. But for quite a few centuries, in their respective times/places, those buildings were pretty much all the same the shit, cranked out one after another. It was good shit, so why fix it if it’s not broken? Well, they didn’t. But as we know now, there were lots of better architectural methods out there for them to devise, to solve some problems that they couldn’t have even imagined, and the fact is that those people did not do things like that. Instead, things (artistically) remained more or less stagnant for a very long time. As I’m sure you know, other people did some of that, much later in history, and some are still making progress of that sort. That’s the kind of distinction I’m making here, and I think it’s at least a fairly reasonable set of criteria for evaluating artistic success/accomplishment/influence/etc.

  49. cartomancer says

    Rich Woods, #36

    The only peoples I’d trust to wipe out all of civilization from the last 2700 years are too respectful of other people’s right to existence to do it.

  50. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 28: … why did the naturally superior European genetic disposition to high IQ and cultural excellence disappear for a millennium or so? … Did the perfidious Chinese and untrustworthy Arabs somehow develop big-brained mutant strains that allowed them to flourish while Europe languished, but which virtually disappeared after a thousand years?

    Apparently your historical studies have neglected the role of the big sex tourism fads of the late Roman and late Medieval Periods, when, respectively, all of the Smott Guys went east, and later west, to get their rocks off.

    Look for major breakthroughs in the coming generation from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

  51. Derek Vandivere says

    #52 – well, of course you have to understand the changes whether you’re playing inside or outside them. And if you recognize that you’ve got, say, a 2 – 5 – 1 progression that essentially creates and resolves tension, you’ll generally want to play to that.

    Had just enough beers in me to go play on the street with some fellow students at the jazz course / festival here in Perugia last night. Holy crap was that fun! It wasn’t great, but it was good enough that the bar owners insisted I take a free beer.

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