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Unnatural Taboos

A while ago, in the comments following this, I wrote:

It occurs to me that the implications of social construction can appeal to rather unsavoury motives. If a person’s tastes and disposition are primarily socially constructed, that person can also, presumably, be remade to suit society and its representatives. Such high-minded Agents of Society might even become “engineers of the human soul,” to borrow Stalin’s phrase. The idea of innate disposition and talent is in some circles quite contentious, not least with regard to intelligence and its unequal distribution. This seems to cause unease in ways that, say, the unequal distribution of musical or athletic talent does not. It also undermines many conceptions of egalitarianism, which is probably why it causes such a fuss.

And it does cause a fuss. It’s possible, for instance, to find people who are (or will be) employed precisely because of their well above average intelligence performing extraordinary contortions to deny the existence of the intelligence they possess. Some, like Joseph Kugelmass, an English graduate student at the University of California, say things like this:

The abstract personal definition of “intelligence,” reified in our minds thanks to IQ tests and their derivatives, is a source of social ills and should be abandoned. It impedes and confuses pedagogy, underwrites racism and sexism, inhibits culture, and trivializes political debate… To claim that intelligence exists as a phenomenon, but not as an inherent personal quality, is the same as arguing that race or gender exist as social phenomena but not as simple, natural facts. […] Intelligence, like all essentialism, is a technology of power. It reinforces privilege and hierarchizes speech. It cuts art and language off from its inspirations, aping capital by circulating language through a series of useless oppositions… and non-signifying refinements of craft.

Setting aside the tendentious postmodern framing, dutifully regurgitated, note how the objection to intelligence as a personal attribute is asserted rather than argued and is essentially political in origin.

With the above in mind, here’s a short TED lecture from 2003, in which Steven Pinker addresses the political appeal of the “blank slate” theory, its prevalence, and its shortcomings. Topics touched on include ideological taboos, experience versus theory, and the self-inflicted disrepute of literary criticism.

Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, is well worth reading.

Related: On Stalin’s dislike of genetics and the idea of human nature.


carbon based lifeform

Kugelmass: "The abstract personal definition of 'intelligence'… impedes and confuses pedagogy…"

No, it impedes egalitarian dogma. So it must be abolished.


Gender isn't a "natural fact"? If only I'd known.


Speaking about intelligence and pedagogy. Here's another link that might interest you.



Thanks. It’s remarkable how pervasive these beliefs are, not least among those whose very existence undermines the claim. It’s also remarkable just how readily “morality” (or at least ideological preference) is conflated with how things actually are:

“There is no genetic or moral reason why the whole of society should not succeed to the degree that the children of the professional classes do today, virtually all getting five or more good GCSEs and staying on in education beyond 16.”

This is a triumph of ideological supposition over logic and reality. Has Andrew Adonis actually met a selection of children from across the entire IQ range? If he did, would he close one eye and pretend that the kid at the bottom (who may not even be able to read GCSE questions, let alone comprehend them) is inherently as capable as the kid at the top, or would be if not for the evils of capitalism and “social privilege”?


Again, note the mismatch with the fairly uncontroversial fact that some people are innately more adept at music or athletic activity than the rest of us. And while extensive training may be required to hone those innate dispositions to elite levels, no amount of training alone will result in perfect pitch or turn the average Joe into an Olympic-level gymnast.


Adonis is famous for (amongst other things) writing A Class Act with Steven Pollard (of the Spectator)

In it they show that class mobility has declined in the UK since the 1960s. It's an interesting question as to why. For example I think it's clearly obvious that black boys could do a lot better than they do currently. You can note that without disagreeing that an egalitarian outcome is a chimera.

The obvious problem is that the current education system actually does a great deal of harm to those it seeks to help the most. Does the egalitarian ethos actually play a positive role or is it part of the problem?



“Does the egalitarian ethos actually play a positive role or is it part of the problem?”

I seriously doubt anyone here is against people being encouraged to make the most of whatever talents they have. As Murray says in his article, the problem is that the current educational “philosophy” is so blinkered and dogmatic it wastes time and resources that could be spent elsewhere doing much more good. And as the prevailing dogma is so unmoored from evidence and reality, deception becomes necessary to propagate the myth – as indicated by the mismatch between government figures for improvement and those from more credible independent studies.

Stephen Fox

Kugelmass neatly demonstrates the rhetoric of dogma:
'To claim that intelligence exists as a phenomenon, but not as an inherent personal quality' - he excludes in a preamble that we might even claim intelligence might be innate, let alone that we might be right. Then he excludes it even as a phenomenon.
' the same as arguing that race or gender exist as social phenomena but not as simple, natural facts' - he jumps to two other muddy issues which are also highly disputed, but which he appeals to as test cases. Clearly, none of the three are 'simple', and I don't know what he means by 'natural' in this context.
By the time he has got this far, 'fact' has died a death, and politics is there, as you say, to win the day.


I run a business. To be quite honest; tenacity, consistency and interpersonal skills are far more important than intelligence.

I think academics wildly over-estimate the importance of intelligence/IQ tests. Although the EQ tests seem to be even more nonsense!


"Intelligence, like all essentialism, is a technology of power."

The denial of intelligence, like all lies, is a technology of power.

See? Easy as piss.


I had cause to tell someone not too long ago at that as far as I'm concerned, the postmodernists who think that gender is a social construct and the Christians who think you can cure gayness by praying to Jesus are on the same team. Both attitudes are massive denials of biology in defense of theories that cannot be proven true, but require belief by those in the fold.

For the record, postmodernists really hate being compared to fundamentalist Christians.


From the Kugelmass article, “There Is No Such Thing As Intelligence”:

“The abstract personal definition of ‘intelligence,’ reified in our minds thanks to IQ tests and their derivatives, is a source of social ills and should be abandoned… The adjectival form, ‘intelligent’ (or ‘brilliant’ or ‘smart’ or etc.), has its uses. Intelligence, as we use the word, refers to the ability to do a good job at complex tasks that require a high degree of abstraction.”

So things that people *do* (when suitably trained) can be intelligent, but people themselves not so much. But what if a person does things that are intelligent much more often than others, and does so autonomously? Isn’t it fair to say that person has some qualities that aren’t possessed (or possessed to the same degree) by people who don’t often do intelligent things, at least not without prompting? And what word may we use to describe people who are smart enough not to regurgitate bald assertion and loaded claptrap disguised as scholarly insight?

What’s interesting to me is what’s so often implicit in arguments of this kind, though rarely stated openly. The clever individual is led to believe that his cleverness – one of the things that make him “him” – is not his own property or a property of him, but is in effect a gift from society, which is, implicitly, the source of all importance. He should, therefore be thankful to society for all that it has done. And all that it may do, if he behaves himself.

Those of us who aren’t entirely stupid *despite* our education may take a different view.


Simon Blackburn posts a pretty good critique of Pinker here:

A few highlights:

"If we imagine a score from 0 (genes have nothing to do with human nature) to 10 (culture has nothing to do with human nature), I should guess that Pinker scores about 9. He holds, for example, that the way children turn out is almost wholly unaffected by how their parents bring them up... What is not usually stressed, & not stressed here, is that any measure of heritability is highly contextual. In a world of clones, the heritability of properties is zero; in a world of absolute sameness of environment, it goes to 100%. That is, if iron is put in a uniform environment, differences of rust are 100% due to difference of composition, but if identical samples of iron are put in a variety of environments, differences of rust are 100% due to environment...
"Anyhow, [Pinker]  thinks that violence in America is not to be approached in terms of media violence, childhood abuse, guns, discrimination, poverty, divorce, alcohol, drugs, or indeed anything except Hobbes’s view of the inevitable nature of human aggression. Indeed, he writes as if any explanation of human phenomena that invokes culture is positing a “superorganism” or a free-floating “cloud” lying above & beyond the individual.

"Pinker believes that anybody who scores around 5 on my scale is in the grip of his demon myths, & really scores 0. So he routinely sets tests for the other side & parades their inability to meet them, without revisiting the question of whether his side can meet them. Thus he makes much of the fact that if exposure to the media were implicated in violence, we might expect Canada’s homicide rate to be about the same as that of the US, while in fact it runs at about one quarter. But Pinker is silent about the fact that if nothing but a shared Hobbesian human nature were the explanation, we would also expect an identical homicide rate..."


AC1: You're absolutely right. I say this as a "failed" genius. I was a bright child, very much so, and success in many things came easily. I became lazy, and developed an inherent dislike of new things for fear of not being good at them. So I have seen myself gradually lose the edge I started with. Those with less potential and ability have surpassed me due to their willingness to risk failure. Determination and discipline seems to me to be far more desirable than pure intelligence.

As for society and pedagogy, I would favor a return to the days of segregation by ability. It still happens, of course, but modern super-educators refuse to see it. The "No Child Left Behind" act in my country forces children to take arbitrary tests in order to advance in school. Frankly, it's stupid. Teachers will drill the correct answers to this test into students' minds, which they will promptly forget once summer rolls around.

Essential skills such as being able to read and write coherently, drive a car, and balance a checkbook are forgotten, replaced by the ability to fill in a bubble in a multiple-choice test.

I wish my high school had taught driving courses. I wish I took Home Economics. It wasn't an option at my school. Driving instruction was left to parents (and I suspect the insurance costs might be a reason for such classes not being offered). Home Ec was a relic of the past. Simple economics weren't taught. I *did* learn to read and write, but mostly through my own efforts.

The last stop in mandatory education should prepare children to be adults. Listening to my parents, I realize it used to do just that. They could smoke in certain areas of the school. They took driving courses. They learned how to cook, clean, and mend. They were treated almost as adults. Now does childhood ever truly end?


"For the record, postmodernists really hate being compared to fundamentalist Christians"

I bet fundamentalist Christians aren't too pleased either.



Since Blackburn is repeatedly paraphrasing Pinker, often quite luridly, rather than quoting him, I’m not overly impressed. Pinker’s arguments are a little more measured and thoughtful than Blackburn would have us believe. It’s easy to thrash a cartoon argument.


"Gender isn't a "natural fact"? If only I'd known."

My breasts are a social construct.



I see Socialism as a form of Economic Intelligent Design (and not in a good way either).


Mr. Kugelmass will doubtless continue to enjoy his blank-slate ideas on intelligence and race. It will require ever-greater determination to shield his eyes from the accumulating evidence, but that's never proven to be much of a hindrance to a True Believer of any stripe.

Last month, hosted a discussion on how research into the genetic basis of human biodiversity might fare under the next administration. No consensus--but a good back and forth. Recap at ParaPundit:

Near the end, "Godless Capitalist" summarized his views:

--- begin excerpt ---

[Let] us consider how an Obama admin might go about hamstringing this research.

1) First, apply hate speech laws and laws against inciting racial hatred to a few key players. Make sure to dig up or even invent some personal dirt to keep the coverage of prosecution of these "racist pseudoscientist" even less sympathetic -- or simply do it Guantanamo style[a] with full confidence that the ACLU will pass (as they did with Heller). See also the "human rights commissions" for an even more obvious example of how the left could use a nonjudicial approach .

2) Second, massive funding for dedicated opponents. Flood the zone with straight up Boasian fabrications, Gouldian bullshit and Lewontonian half truths.

3) Third, restrict access and *gathering* of large data sets to "approved responsible investigators" to prevent "genetic discrimination". All you need to do is make regulatory overhead (e.g. IRB fees) high enough to price statistically significant studies out of the Pioneer Fund range. Patent fees are an example -- explicit discouragement by means of financial overhead.

4) Fourth, consult with top journals to inhibit publication of facts which could give aid and comfort to racists, much as the synthetic polio paper was almost scuttled for being an aid to terrorists.

--- end excerpt ---

Hope and change.


"[Stalin's] five-year plan for agriculture was a lethal mixture of science and ideology… but it fit perfectly with the Bolshevik view that people could be re-educated to think and act differently from their bourgeois predecessors, that one generation's suffering and torment could produce a new kind of being, Homo Sovieticus."

Hope and change.


Fascinating, there's a Woody Allen story called 'The Kugelmass Episode' - it's about a professor at City College (Kugelmass) who wants to have an affair. He finds a magician who's able to cast him into his favourite novels* and winds up having it off with Madame Bovary.

In his long essay, The Abolition of Man, C S Lewis conducts a thought experiment based on a similar hypothesis to Stalins - ie, that we can be engineers of our own soul - in order to point out a fundamental flaw contained within the idea. The essay is long but well worth reading. (Can't include HTML in these comments, but if you google that title, you'll find a copy online.)

*Kindly suspend your disbeliefs at the door!


I would think that the ultimate extension of this principle would be that people who are articulate (intelligensia/chattering classes) should no longer express themselves, either orally or in writing, because they are using their "intelligence" in a way that is disadvantageous to us illiterates (engineers and other workers).


"I would think that the ultimate extension of this principle would be that people who are articulate (intelligensia/chattering classes) should no longer express themselves, either orally or in writing, because they are using their "intelligence" in a way that is disadvantageous to us illiterates (engineers and other workers)."

How are we to think only Good Thoughts without their direction? No, they'll have to stay in charge until we become as enlightened as they.


Why doesn't the blog software allow formatting (italic, bold, block quote, etc)? When I try to add formatting elements and hit Preview it strips them from the surrounding text.

The Thin Man

aynrandgirl - adding emphases and formatting might privilege your argument - html coding is something not every commenter could understand and we wouldn't want you implying that anybody might be less intelligent than you. And stop using big words or Kugelmass will get you! :)


This deliberate downplaying of intelligence is,of course, directly due to fears about those who might underperform in terms of intellectual activity. We don't have the same concerns about innate ability in music or athletics because the correct population groups do very well in these areas.
We all know that if a mathematics gene were found to occur
predominately in those of, say,West African origin,we would
see the news trumpeted on the front page of every newspaper.


David, thanks for directing me back here. I missed this when you first published it. Excellent lecture by Pinker. Regarding your latest post:


which ultimately was referencing:

Don't know if you looked up or know of Ms. Nina Power, but her personal web site (available via Wiki, I won't do it the honor of referencing it directly) shows her to be a flat-out communist. Perhaps TPM could, ahem, balance her thinking with the supposedly opposite extreme? As Buddy Holly would say, that'll be the day...



Yes, Ms – sorry, Dr – Power is suitably cartoonish. I see she has the requisite far left views – the student riots were apparently ““justified” and “uplifting.” She disdains basic economics, even supply and demand, fixates on “race, class and gender” and grumbles about “white men discussing formal logic.” Dr Power also indulges in the customary hyperbole, denouncing what she regards as the ”ideological devastation of the education system.” Those who disagree with her are of course wicked and “ideologically perverse.” It’s almost funny. Dr Power evidently regards herself as daring and radical while conforming to every creaky stereotype. Has she been educated, or just processed?

Clearly, the cost of her education was money well spent.

Update: I posted this over at Peter Risdon’s place:

It’s hard not to laugh while reading her Guardian articles on the student protests. Like so many spokespeople for the protestors, she inadvertently undermines her own position, i.e., that she and people like her should be publicly subsidised to study whatever they wish at whatever cost regardless of economics and employment opportunities. But if she is a product of modern humanities teaching and is entrusted with cultivating philosophical enquiry in others, then the system she defends appears to be malfunctioning. That her views and conceits are, as she says, not uncommon among her peers suggests the dysfunction is widespread and quite serious.

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