(Not) Born This Way

There's nothing natural or innate about inequality — but a long history of pseudo-science will tell you there is.

Agarose gel with UV illumination, to analyze DNA. School of Natural Resources, Ann Arbor / Flickr

The struggle between those who possess social power and those who do not, between freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed is a war fought with many and varied weapons. Of highest importance are ideas, weapons in an ideological warfare by which every class struggling to maintain its grip on the world tries to justify its position morally and rationally, while those fighting to overturn the social order produce their own self-justificatory ideology as a counter-weapon.

If the revolution succeeds, that revolutionary ideology becomes transformed into a weapon of consolidation and conservation whereby yet further revolutionary challenges to the new dominant class can be resisted. Nothing better illustrates the historical progression of such ideological weapons than the revolution that created the twentieth century market-industrial society.

The society of Europe before the seventeenth century (with the exception of certain mercantile Italian republics) was characterized by a static, aristocratic scheme of relations in which both peasants and landowners were bound to each other and to the land and in which changes in the social positions of individuals were exceedingly rare. Persons were said to owe their position in the world to the grace of God or to the grace of earthly lords. Even kings ruled Deo gratia, and changes in position could only occur by exceptional conferrals or withdrawals of divine or royal grace. But this rigid hierarchy directly obstructed the expansion of both mercantile and manufacturing interests who required access to political and economic power based on their entrepreneurial activities rather than on noble birth.

Moreover, the inalienability of land and the traditional guarantee of access to common land inhibited the rapid expansion of primary production and also maintained a scarcity of labor for manufactories. In Britain, the Acts of Enclosure of the eighteenth century broke this rigid system by allowing landlords to enclose land for wool production and simultaneously displacing tenants, who then became the landless industrial workforce of the cities.

At the same time in France, the old “nobility of the sword” was being challenged by the administrative and legal hierarchy who became the”nobility of the robe” and by the rich commoners of banking and finance. The bourgeois revolution was brewing, a revolution that was to break assunder the static feudal-aristocratic bonds and create instead an entrepreneurial society in which labor and money could more freely adapt to the demands of a rising commercial and industrial middle class.

But the bourgeois revolution required an ideology justifying the assault on the old order and providing the moral and intellectual underpinnings of the new. This was the ideology of freedom, of individuality, of works as opposed to grace, and of equality and the inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Paine, Jefferson, Diderot, and the Encyclopedists were the ideologues of the revolution, and one theme comes through in their writings: the old order was characterized by artificial hierarchies and artificial barriers to human desire and ambitions and those artificial barriers must be destroyed so that each person can take his or her natural place in society, according to his or her desire and ability.

This is the origin of the idea of the “equal opportunity society” in which we now supposedly live.
Yet the bourgeois revolution that destroyed those artificial barriers seems not to have dispensed with inequality of station. There are still rich and poor, powerful and weak, both within and between nations.

How is this to be explained? We might suppose that the inequalities are structural, that the society created by the revolution has inequality built into it and even depends upon that inequality for its operation. But that supposition, if taken seriously, would engender yet another revolution. The alternative is to claim that inequalities reside in properties of individuals rather than in the structure of social relations. This is the claim that our society has produced about as much equality as is humanly possible and that the remaining differences in status and wealth and power are the inevitable manifestations of natural inequalities in individual abilities.

It is this latter claim that has been incorporated from an early stage into the ideology of the bourgeois revolution and that remains the dominant ideology of market industrial societies today. Such a view does not threaten the status quo but, on the contrary, supports it by telling those who are without power that their position is the inevitable outcome of their own innate deficiencies and that, therefore, nothing can be done about it.

A remarkably explicit recent statement of this assertion is that of Richard Herrnstein, a psychologist who is one of the leading ideologues of “natural inequality”: “The privileged classes of the past were probably not much superior biologically to the downtrodden, which is why revolution had a fair chance of success. By removing artificial barriers between classes, society has encouraged the creation of biological barriers. When people can take their natural level in society, the upper classes will, by definition, have greater capacity than the lower.”

Here the entire scheme is laid out. The bourgeois revolution succeeded because it was only breaking down artificial barriers, but the remaining inequalities cannot be removed by a further revolution because what is left is the residue of biological differences that are ineradicable.

We are not told precisely what principle of biology guarantees that biologically “inferior” groups cannot seize power from biologically “superior” groups, but the conceptual and factual errors of such a statement are irrelevant to its function. It is meant to convince us that, although we may not live in the best of all conceivable worlds, we live in the best of all possible worlds.

An important corollary, developed in nineteenth-century sociology, was that the natural sorting process that takes place in a free society is greatly aided by education since education is the means of bringing into actuality the latent differences among individuals.

Lester F. Ward, the giant of nineteenth-century American sociology, wrote: “Universal education is the power which is destined to overthrow every species of hierarchy.

It is destined to remove all artificial inequality and leave the natural inequalities to find their true level. The true value of a newborn infant lies . . . in its naked capacity for acquiring the ability to do.” (It is the same L. F. Ward who in his Pure Sociology claimed that it was more permissible for a man of a superior race to rape a woman of an inferior race than vice versa because it would be a leveling up rather than a leveling down!).

Ward’s thesis on education and achievement is echoed sixty-six years later by A. R. Jensen: “We have to face it: the assortment of persons into occupational roles simply is not ‘fair’ in any absolute sense. The best we can hope for is that true merit, given equality of opportunity, acts as a basis for the natural assorting process.”

The ideology of the modern competitive market society is then not one of equality of station but one of a natural sorting process aided by universal education in which “intrinsic merit” will be the criterion and source of success. The social program of the state, then, should not be toward an “unnatural” equalization of condition, which in any case would be impossible because of its “artificiality,” but rather the state should provide the lubricant to ease and promote the movement of individuals into the positions to which their instrinsic natures have predisposed them.

The concept that social arrangements are a manifestation of the inner or intrinsic natures of human beings and are therefore unchangeable has come to be called biological determinism. As we shall see, the degree of rigidity of the determinism varies in different versions of the system, from the notion that biological factors virtually determine completely the “nature” of each individual to the more subtle idea that human biological nature establishes only “tendencies,” natural states toward which human beings will gravitate in the normal course of events.

Biological determinism has two complementary facets, both of which are necessary to complete this scheme. First, it is asserted that the differences in manifest abilities and power between individuals, classes, sexes, races, and nations result in large part from differences in intrinsic biological properties of individuals. Some of us can paint pictures and others can only paint houses, while some of us can be doctors but others can only be barbers.

But these facts alone, if they were true, would not in themselves necessarily result in a society of unequal power. After all, there is no reason that differences inability, whether intrinsic or not, need imply differences in status, wealth, and power. We might build a society in which picture painters and house painters, barbers and surgeons would be given equal material and psychic rewards.

This is the argument of Dobzhansky in Genetic Diversity and Human Equality. If taken seriously, this argument would deprive our unequal society of legitimacy offered to it by the argument of biological diversity.

To complete its function as a legitimation argument for the present state of the world, biological determinism requires a second facet, the belief in human nature. In addition to the biological differences between individuals and groups, it is supposed that there are biological “tendencies” shared by all human beings and their societies and that these tendencies result in hierarchically organized societies in which individuals “compete for the limited resources allocated to their role sector. The best and most entrepreneurial of the role-actors usually gain a disproportionate share of the rewards, while the least successful are displaced to other, less desirable positions.”

The assertion that “human nature” guarantees that the biological differences among individuals and groups will be translated into differences in status, wealth, and power is the other face of biological determinism as a total ideology and represents the consolidation phase of the bourgeois revolution. To justify their original ascent to power, the new middle class had to demand a society in which “intrinsic merit” could be rewarded. To maintain their position of power, they claim that intrinsic merit, once free to assert itself, must be rewarded. It is all natural and inevitable, so why fight it?

One element is left to complete the ideology and bring it to perfection as a weapon in social warfare. It is easily observed that even in a democratic society rewards are not re-assorted each generation. The children of oil magnates tend to become bankers, while the children of oil workers tend to be in debt to banks. Can it be that parents are passing their social power to their children and thus circumventing the perfect assortative process based on intrinsic merit? Hardly. It must be that the biological abilities that are rewarded are passed on biologically from parent to child.

Thus, we have the equation of biological differences with hereditary differences that assures a legitimate passage of social position from generation to generation. The equation of biological with hereditary is clearly not essential logically, since inborn differences might easily arise from accidents of development. Folklore reflects an appreciation of this possibility in the notion that the physical and psychic dispositions of children may be influenced by experiences of their mothers during pregnancy. It is not clear when the equation of biological with hereditary became common, but it certainly predates modern genetics.

Nineteenth-century literature is permeated with the notion that human behavior is inherited. The classic expression is in Zola’s Rougon-Maquart novels, which chronicle the two halves of the same family, descendants of one woman by two men. The descendants of the husband Rougon, a solid, hard-working peasant, are intelligent, hard-working, and ambitious, while those who sprang from the dissolute, drunken, criminal lover Maquart are equally degenerate and alcoholic. Among the Maquarts are Gervaise, the hard-working, successful laundress who nevertheless finally succumbs to her inherited laziness and drunkenness, and her daughter Nana, sexually degenerate from early childhood.

The Rougon-Maquarts are the type for the American myth of the Kallikaks, which has graced textbooks of psychology for years (for example, Garrett’s General Psychology). Martin Kallikak, a colonial soldier, had two wives, one half-witted and dissolute and the other respectable and middle class, and the respective branches of the family followed the type to remote generations. Thus, Kallikak ‘s descendants through his middle-class wife are all good, solid citizens, while those through his other wife are shameful degenerates.

English literature, too, has demonstrated the rule of nature over nurture. Oliver Twist, raised from birth in that most degrading social institution — the parish workhouse — and educated in crime by Fagin, nevertheless develops gentleness, honesty, and the Christian virtues and all the while speaks perfect, grammatical English. All is explained when it turns out that he is the child of a respectable upper-middle-class woman.

The most remarkable case is George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, who is raised from birth by an English nobleman and develops into the typical leisure-class, gambling dandy of the nineteenth century but who in early adulthood feels mysterious longings and attractions for things Hebrew, including a passion for a Jewish woman. The reader will not be surprised to learn that he is really the son of a Jewish actress.

In the twentieth century, modern genetic ideas have replaced the vague notions of “blood,” but nothing else has changed. Oliver Twist and Daniel Deronda are the prototypes of the modern adoption study, but Dickens and Eliot were better experimenters than their modern counterparts who have failed to transgress class lines in their baby exchanges. Only in the imagination of a Victorian novelist or a Gilbert and Sullivan plot can children be distributed at random across social boundaries from an early age.

The rediscovery of Mendel in 1900 very quickly provided a scientific apparatus that could be marshaled to produce “scientific” explanations and an apparatus of objectivity to support the claims of hereditarians for the supremacy of innate factors. Thus, E. L. Thorndike, characterized by A. R. Jensen as “probably America’s greatest psychologist and a pioneer in twin studies of the heritability of intelligence,” wrote in a scientific paper on twins that “in the actual race of life, which is not to get ahead, but toget ahead of somebody, the chief determining factor is heredity.”

This assertion that the “chief determining factor is heredity” was made in 1905, only five years after the re-discovery of Mendel’s paper, but thirteen years before Fisher’s paper establishing the statistical theory on which genetic studies of quantitative characters are based, ten years before Fisher’s derivation of the sampling distribution of the correlation coefficient, and five years before Morgan’s chromosome theory of inheritance.

E. L. Thorndike appears to have been not only America’s greatest psychologist but its greatest geneticist, statistician, and crystal-ball gazer as well. And he was not an exception. America’s most prestigious academics and scholars in psychology, sociology, and biology have over and over again asserted as facts what they cannot have known to be true. They have used their immense authority to misinterpret, misinform, and sometimes deliberately misrepresent biological concepts and observations in the service of an ideology to which they adhere.