Charles Murray is still an ignoramus

I’ve been telling you, Charles Murray is an ignorant hack. I can’t stand listening to this know-nothing pontificating on genetics when he’s so full of shit on the topic, which doesn’t stop him from being arrogantly confident about it.

Anyway, here’s a good critique of The Bell Curve — it’s hard to believe we still have to argue about it.

Understandably, these arguments provoked the ire of progressively minded scientists and commentators. However, the sweeping and reflexive manner in which opponents of the hereditarian arguments advanced their objections to The Bell Curve often led these critics to adopt counterproductive conclusions. Unhelpfully, they conflated two distinct issues. The first is the question of what it means to claim that something is genetic, and the second is the inevitability of certain life outcomes based on the biology of a particular organism.

Properly speaking, genetics concerns some characteristic of an organism varying across individuals in a group in a given context. It is, by definition, not an explanation of the behavior or development of a given individual in a given instance. Conflating the issue of the causes of differences with that of the inevitability of the development of a particular organism is an important part of the hereditarian rhetorical strategy deployed by the likes of Herrnstein and Murray. To the extent that their arguments have managed to gain some traction in the world, it has been because they have managed to convince their critics to commit the error for them.

Whoa there — the heart of my criticisms of Murray has always been that genetics is not as determinative as the naive people who learned about Punnett squares in fourth grade think. But do go on, this is an important definitional issue and bears repeating.

But the confusion in Murray and Herrnstein’s thinking doesn’t just stop at their pessimism about the kind of practical responses to differences purportedly caused by genetics — it goes all the way down to their understanding of what genetics is. Let’s start by clarifying what we mean by “genetic” and outline why that which is genetic is not necessarily inevitable. For one, genetics deals with groups of organisms rather than the life outcomes of individual organisms. All organisms have genes, but it takes groups of organisms to have genetics because genetics is ultimately about how variation is structured within a group.

Take a single tomato plant in isolation. It has a genome that is between one-fourth and one-third the size of that of a human’s in terms of the raw amount of DNA. Inside its genome are a few tens of thousands of genes, which, in this case, are stretches of the genome that form a chemical template for the cellular production of the proteins and other biochemicals that are vital for the structure and function of organisms. However, since we are dealing with a single plant at a single point in time, there is no comparative context that would allow us to identify the differences among organisms that characterize the rich diversity of life.

Exactly! This is also why it’s important that students actually do real crosses with real organisms. The abstractions of theory might tell you that oh, one quarter of the progeny will have a particular phenotype, but when you sit down and have to closely examine a thousand flies, you get to see all the variation you did not predict and you learn that it’s never as simple as the models tell you it is. The variation is also interesting.

But yes, genetics is fundamentally probabilistic. You can’t use it to predict individual destiny. It’s also the case that genetics has significant interplay with the environment.

But even having many organisms to compare is not sufficient for a biological system to display genetics in the proper sense of the term. Genetics in the sense that matters is ultimately about variation that arises from genetic differences. To see this, think again about tomatoes. They can be cloned with ease by taking cuttings from a single plant and growing them in their own allotments of soil. Genetically, the different newly individualized plants will be identical to one another, with the exception of a very few mutations — spontaneous changes to DNA that can occur during cellular replication.

If we were to compare a large number of these cloned tomato plants, we would find many differences among them. The shape and sizes of leaves would differ, as would the coloration of the fruits and the pattern of branching along the stalks. Since, on account of being clones, the plants are all genetically identical, these differences could not be attributable to genetics. While each of the plants has genes and we have a group of plants to form the basis for comparison needed to establish that there is variation, there are no genetic differences among the plants that could account for any of that variation. That is, while our tomato plants have genes, they display no genetic differences among one another despite having physiological differences.

Yes, that’s always been obvious if you actually look at populations. I had tanks of zebrafish that were about as genetically uniform as you can get, highly inbred for over a century — yet I could recognize individuals in a tank and see differences in behavior. I’ve only been inbreeding spiders for a half dozen generations, but I don’t see variation diminishing, at least not yet.

How do people take Murray seriously when his fundamental understanding of biology is so wrong?


  1. birgerjohansson says

    Charles Murray et al start off with a conclusion, and then look for whatever factoid that might support it.
    Unlike Lysenko, Murray did not cause 40 million people to starve to death but that is one of the few positive comments I can make about him.

  2. brucej says

    “How do people take Murray seriously when his fundamental understanding of biology is so wrong?”

    Because he reinforces their preconcieved biases, of course. That’s all “scientific” racism ever is.

  3. kome says

    I think we often forget the details of The Bell Curve because the overall message is so batcrap absurd and at odds with the entire field of genetics. But the stupid details of the book are worth talking about to reinforce how absolutely impossible it is to arrive at the conclusions the authors did with the evidence they presented. Because what they took as a measure of intelligence was peoples’ scores on various sub-components of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery; not even all of them because it turns out not every sub-component of the ASVAB correlated well with what Hernnstein and Murray wanted it to correlate with. The data itself was collected as part of longitudinal research originally conducted by the Department of Labor tracking peoples’ life experiences, particularly economic experiences. This is what genetic determinists cling to. That an aptitude test given to people who want to enlist in the military is somehow in fact a good measure of intelligence. It’s the kind of shit pseudo-scientific work that ultimately gave the foundation for the swath of GWAS studies reporting heritability estimates for educational attainment that you get from dingbat eugenicists like Robert Plomin.

  4. billseymour says


    Charles Murray et al start off with a conclusion, and then look for whatever factoid that might support it.

    Kind of like religious apologetics.

    And I note that lawyers’ jobs, at least when they have their advocate hats on, and that seems to include the current batch of SCOTUS justices, are all about crafting arguments given conclusions.  (And it’s not just the “conservative” justices…remember that Ginsberg and Scalia were great friends.  I think I remember Ginsberg once saying that she liked Scalia’s opinions, not because she agreed with them, but because they were well written.  I didn’t get the impression that she was being facetious.)

  5. billseymour says


    … an aptitude test given to people who want to enlist in the military …

    OK, you got me started.

    When I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1966*, I was given the Air Force Qualifying Test (AFQT).  The test had four sections with the highest possible score on each being 95.  I got four 95s, so they put me in “Petroleum, Oils and Lubricants” (“POL”…I spent four years refueling aircraft).  The requirement for POL was at least a 40 on the “general” section, so I was qualified. 8-)  I was in a tech school class at Lackland AFB with ten or fifteen other guys not one of whom had scored less than 90 on any part of the AFQT.  The instructor for that class didn’t have an easy job. 8-)

    Sorry for the off-topic rant.

    *Yes, I’m a Viet Nam-era veteran; but I was never in ’Nam and make no claim to being a hero.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Billseymour @ 5
    I was five years old in 1966, my only connection with USA was reading Donald Duck magazine, with artwork by Carl Barks. It was not bigoted, as it had people consisting of ducks, mice, dogs and many other species.

    At 80, Charles Murray is a few years older than you, but not wiser. I bet you could take him down in any game requiring flexible thinking.

    As for Bill Murray I have seen no signs of racism, even if he seems biased against ghosts.

  7. StevoR says

    Its hard to believe we’re in 2023.. Ever harder when you watch the news..

    Abortion. Climae Science. Nazis fer fks sake! Trump .. for pities sake.

    Not even Mars and Lunar colonies nor flying cars nor robots, well, not the good ones from the Asimov tales anyhow..

  8. unclefrogy says

    “How do people take Murray seriously when his fundamental understanding of biology is so wrong?”

    the thing he is is definite it is the same with the religious and the far right. There is a total lack of any ambiguity, uncertainty, or obscurity. Often there is an aura of resistance to some others who are wrong. It certainly is not dependent on any objective facts or external contradictory evidence

  9. macanna says

    The quote in the OP sounds similar to part of Youtuber Shaun’s thorough critique of The Bell Curve – was it taken from that video? I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to know abut The Bell Curve’s flaws. The video is very clever, and even funny. Shaun’s dry humor makes the frustrating bits more palatable.

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