Charles Murray On Human Diversity

The indefatigable writer and political scientist talks IQ with me, and much more.

  
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Charles has a new — and probably explosive — book coming out soon, Facing Reality. This conversation is not about that. Instead, I wanted to discuss his last book which received almost no attention, Human Diversity.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For three clips of my conversation with Charles — on the different career choices that high-IQ women often make; on the “unearned gift” of those with high IQs; and how IQ is irrelevant to the human worth, dignity, and essential equality of all people — head over to our YouTube page.

Meanwhile, a reader looks back to last week’s episode:

I have long been an avid follower, and I enjoyed your conversation with Niall Ferguson. I write because Niall made a claim during the conversation that I consider dangerously misleading. 

Indeed there was a serious flu epidemic in 1957-58, and indeed we produced a vaccine very quickly. However, while it is perhaps arguable that one reason for this apparent “remarkable success” compared to Trump’s “Operation WarpSpeed” was lack of bureaucracy, the main factors were not related to that.

First, the 1957 vaccine was produced according to well-known and well-understood principles. Flu is a recurrent disease with quite predictable antigenic shifts; once a technique has been developed (which it had ten years earlier), it’s simply a matter of applying exactly the same approach to the new strain. In contrast, today’s mRNA vaccines were entirely novel, produced against a new virus.

Second, the 1957 vaccine was only marginally effective, in contrast to the ~95% efficacy of the current mRNA vaccines.

Third, the US epidemic in 1957 ended basically independently of the vaccine.

Fourth, while a large number of doses were manufactured in 1957, it was nowhere near sufficient to vaccinate the whole population.

I realize that this issue is somewhat away from Ferguson’s main point, but I write because I feel there is a trend, especially from a branch of the US Republican party, to discredit a remarkable scientific achievement, and to attribute such success as there may have been exclusively to industry. While complex and inefficient government administration can be a serious problem, I think that citing that as an important factor in delaying production of the mRNA vaccines is factually questionable.

Niall responds:

There are no footnotes on podcasts! But here are the relevant pages of my book. You can decide for yourself if I have got it wrong. You can also decide if you find the text “glib.” Finally, as you know, the fundamental mRNA breakthroughs that made possible the Moderna and Biontech vaccines were not made last year. I believe mRNA was discovered in 1961.

Another reader adds:

You briefly mentioned nuclear annihilation on the podcast. An older topic, but there is a hysterical 60-year-old song about it with lyrics like, “There will be no more misery when the world is our rotisserie...” The song is called “We Will All Go Together When We Go” by Tom Lehrer:

Tom Lehrer was a genius. Another reader plugs a brilliant book — and conveys a growing sentiment among Dish dissenters:

Your conversation with Niall Ferguson would have been much more substantive and enlightening if you both had read Michael Lewis’s new book on the pandemic, Premonition. It explains a great deal about the reasons for US failures in the crisis, especially at the CDC. A gripping must-read. I couldn’t put it down.

The discussion also helped me to understand your instinctive contrarianism. I’ve been an avid Dishhead for about 20 years, and I usually appreciate the insights you gain from your prickly vantage point. However, lately I fear that you have become a one-trick pony regarding “woke authoritarianism” and it’s blinkering you to the many positives of Biden’s administration. As far as I can tell, wokeness is confined to fewer than 10 percent of Americans (mostly university educated whites) and will soon be forced into some synthesis with the views of mainstream society.

Wokeness may already be at, or past, its peak. The failure to sell “Latinx” usage is one example, along with the real political cost of “defund the police” and the widespread ridicule of San Francisco’s school renaming. (“They” lost me a long time ago; I simply cannot use a plural pronoun with a singular verb; if necessary, get around it with “the individual” or “the person.”) So, while I agree with you in general, I find your obsessive preoccupation with the topic hyperbolic and tedious. My cousin in Texas, also a long-time Dish fan, recently said the same thing. Anti-woke can be a tiresome as woke.

I hear you. I hope my column today helps explain my boring obsession with this. There’s a very important principle involved. Another reader:

Your dissenter here might be right that it’s a minority of the left nationwide that means genuine police abolition. But in Seattle, it’s a very large minority, and it’s the leftist extremists causing more trouble than the right. People went by my Seattle window this autumn shouting “no cops! no prison! total abolition!” (When they saw me filming from my window, they shined a laser in my eyes.) Over the summer a BLM protest went by the same spot and explained through a megaphone to the Starbucks that people were burning Starbucks down because although they’d given $1M to black causes, that wasn’t enough. In November another mob broke the windows in that same Starbucks. Shops are now writing things like “black lives matter, small business owned” in their windows to protect their property from extremists on the left, not the right:

Frustrating, to say the least. I really appreciate your work. It’s a bright spot every week.

This next reader generates more Dish debate:

One of Dana Beyer’s dissents on the podcast was weird to me, and she’s doubling down on it with this paragraph from her email in your latest post (emphasis added):

After you described how trans women know who they are, in line with the scientific evidence, she derided it as a “feeling” and stated categorically that there is no difference between male and female brains. That’s a second-wave feminist trope — globally speaking with regards to the brain, as best we know today, there are many more similarities than differences. But the brain is sexually dimorphic, and the nuclei that drive sexual (what we call gender) identity are grossly different between males and females. There’s no spectrum. And trans women are women by virtue of having that specific female brain sex.

She made a similar argument on the podcast, if I recall correctly. She seems to be saying that the ultimate truth on this issue is a biological one, and that if you lifted up the skirts of the brain, maybe with a fancy MRI technology, you’d be able to actually verify “yep, this brain’s a woman’s brain.” This seems like an utterly bizarre position.

First, my understanding of the literature is that yes, in general, male/female brains are sexually dimorphic. But the differences are relatively minor and, like almost everything else in human biology, are not completely exclusive — there is some overlap in the distribution of the different characteristics. Is Beyer asserting that in fact this isn’t the case, and brains can be perfectly bucketed into male/female based solely on biological factors? The set of things for which we can do that based solely on morphology (as opposed to genetics) is small. Just like how you couldn't identify all women by height, I don’t believe that morphological brain differences perfectly correlate with sex/gender.

Second, it seems like from her assertion it would necessarily follow that we could have some sort of MRI test to determine if someone was a “real trans”. That strikes me as an ugly idea, and if that’s her position I think it would be worth more discussion. If she’s saying something different, it is going over my head.

Third, she may be trying to throw some wiggle in there with saying “the nuclei”, as in “genetically I’m a trans person”. I’m not sure. Another possibility is that she’s referring to the brain structures called “nuclei”. However, morphological differences between male and female brains also occur in axon tracts, which are not nuclei. To the best of my knowledge it’s unclear how much these structures change in response to behavior. E.g. it’s possible that if someone transitions and starts doing more stereotypically “female” things, their brain morphology could respond. This too seems like it doesn't jive with Beyer’s “morphology is fixed and proves trans-ness” assertion.

Given how thoughtful and pleasant she was on the podcast, this seems like a really weird thing to be so wrong about. If I’m misunderstanding her position I’d love to know. 

Brain morphological differences between the sexes are an interesting topic in general. Computer science (my current field) is completely captured by gender ideology, and one of the early books on the topic was by a woman talking about how there is no physical difference between male and female brains. I agree with Beyer that the author was wrong about this. But I think Beyer is committing the same intellectual error in thinking that brain morphology is somehow the nail in the coffin for her argument. It’s weirdly phrenological.

Dana responds:

The data on trans brain sex comes from postmortem neuropathology studies. These have been limited, as you might expect, for good reasons. I believe, as a scientist, that having MRIs of sufficient resolution would be very helpful, if only to collect much more data. I will note that there are those who aren’t interested in such studies, because they believe, rightly so, that civil rights shouldn’t be based on biology. As a scientist I’d like to know. And practically speaking it does matter to many people — “born that way” has had a profound impact on gay acceptance and LGBT self-understanding over the years. 

Getting to the specific points. 

The early research in the late '90s-'10s was focused on brain nuclei, primarily the BSTc. These are real brain structures, not some metaphorical use of the word “nuclei.” The differences were significant and striking. In this instance, the sexual dimorphism is real, and there is no spectrum in anatomical terms. 

Since then, there have been functional studies which have followed the same pattern, and more recently white matter studies with diffusion tensor MRI. One particular study from 2017 focusing on FA (fractional anisotropy) shows trans-specific difference in one fascicle, the IFOF (inferior fronto-temporal fasciculis). Other fascicles showed no difference. Clearly we still know very little about the brain, even three decades into the cognitive science revolution. I look forward to more data, regardless of the outcome. 

As for genetics, there are examples of a genetic basis in a limited number of cases (based on androgen receptor variation). And if Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome presented with a penis rather than a blind pouch vagina, that would be read as trans, rather than intersex. As I’ve said, trans (classic transsexual) is a form of intersex, in my mind and that of many others. I personally am a product of exposure to an intrauterine endocrine disruptor, DES. No genetic variation of which I am aware. 

Saying there is no difference between male and female brains, as some do, is absurd, and untrue. One can accept that there are limited yet profound differences and still remain a feminist in good standing. A core function such as one’s understanding of one’s own sex would seem to be a logical candidate for such a difference. Reproduction depends on it. 

As for his final point, there is growing evidence of brain plasticity. Personally, at nearly 70, I’m very pleased to learn that. How that plays out with respect to sexual and gender identity is anyone’s guess. I’m looking forward to the research. 

“Blind pouch vagina” would be a good name for a punk band. One more reader:

I enjoy listening to the Dishcast, but think it would be much more interesting if more of your interviews were with people with whom you disagree, so that listeners would get the benefit of a serious debate. I was just listening to your conversation with Eric Kaufmann and it was quite boring (I turned it off after about 30 minutes), because you two agreed on virtually everything and simply repeated your standard arguments about systemic racism. Needless to say, it’s extremely easy to score points against an adversary who’s not present and can’t try to explain the basis of their positions. It would have been much more interesting if you’d had someone on the show who is a proponent of the systemic racism view, like Isabel Wilkerson, who would have challenged your views; then listeners would have had the benefit both of hearing the other side of the debate, as well as your responses. 

Your interview with Julie Bindel was better, but the one I liked the best was your conversation with Mara Keisling, since the two of you disagreed on quite a bit but were nevertheless able to have a civil, interesting discussion. My only criticism of that interview was that you interrupted so frequently that it was sometimes hard for Keisling to complete her thoughts. For those of us who read the Weekly Dish, we get enough of your thoughts already; the point of the Dishcast should be to have a conversation/debate with someone with differing views.

I think you’re very smart and interesting, and I think you sell yourself short when you interview people with whom you basically agree, because that doesn’t cause you to stretch your thinking and leaves listeners wondering, “yes, but what would be the other side’s response?”

We are trying and will try harder to get more debate going on the pod, especially with defenders of CRT, who are inherently averse to debate. But Jonathan Rauch and I get into some good disagreement in the episode we’re airing next week, and soon after that we will have Bryan Caplan making the case for open borders, so expect a ton of disagreement there. The in-tray is always open to more suggestions: dish@andrewsullivan.com.