Who Succeeds, and Why?

This is the third of a three-part review of Charles Murray’s latest book, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race and Class.

Self-identified progressives–who make up the great bulk of North America’s coastal and urban government, business, media, and academic elites–are great champions of equality, even at the expense of freedom, justice, and prosperity. But their idea of equality is not the foundational Western idea of equality. Equality in law and equality of opportunity are insufficient for progressives who demand equality of results and outcomes. In other words, everything—status, esteem, property, and wealth—must be the same for each individual, and, especially, the same for each collective gender, racial, sexuality, handicap, and ethnic groups and categories.

The progressive justification for this extreme definition of equality is that any and every inequality is the result of illegitimate advantage, especially privileged access to status and wealth by some people, and discrimination against others to deny them status and wealth. In the progressive view, there is no legitimate basis for inequality. They reject, for example, claims that differential performance, capability, and potential, which are sometimes summed up with the term “merit,” are legitimate bases for inequalities. Merit is a “white male supremacist” talking point, according to progressives.

Progressives do not seem to have noticed that individual people are different from one another and that groups and categories of people are different from each other. Some individuals act according to the ends that they wish to achieve, while others act impulsively on the emotions of the moment. Some individuals are physically strong, well-coordinated, and prone to physical action, while others are not particularly strong, coordinated, or active. Some individuals are highly intelligent, able to puzzle through complex problems, while others struggle to keep up. Some individuals are honest, reliable, and trustworthy, while others are not. Some individuals are physically beautiful, with faces and forms that seem perfect, easily drawing admiration, while the rest of us are not. Some individuals take into account the opinions and needs of others, while other individuals follow their inner compass regardless.

Similarly, members of different categories of people, such as males and females, on average, have different orientations, different preferences, and different responses. Members of different ethnic groups have, on average, substantially different cultures and, consequently, different attitudes toward marriage, family, education, and occupation. Given these differences among individuals and groups, how likely is it that there would be equality of results and outcome? It seems entirely futile to expect the same results from such diverse inputs. The only way that equality of outcomes can result is from coercive government imposition on individuals and groups. This authoritarianism is, of course, what we have seen in socialist societies in the 20th and 21st centuries.

[Part I–The Real Differences Between Men and Women]

The argument that inequality is the result of privilege and discrimination, rather than individual and group differences, is difficult to sustain when we consider particular cases of inequality. For example, although African Americans make up only 14% of the American population, they make up 70% or more of the highly-paid athletes of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. Is this because these professional leagues have discriminated against whites and East Asians? Men comprise 90% of the workers in the dirtiest and most dangerous occupations and suffer 90% of the industrial fatalities. Is this because women are discriminated against in those industries, or because women choose other, cleaner, and safer occupations? Jews and East Asians, two categories of people who have suffered prejudice and discrimination in most of the history of North America, are highly overrepresented, in relation to their small percentages of the population, in prestigious professions and academia, as well as in receiving Nobel Prizes. Is their “overrepresentation” a result of discrimination in their favor, or is it a result of the community cultures and attitudes of members of those categories? These cases refute the idea that inequality is always the result of privilege and discrimination.

Charles Murray, in Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class, takes a position between the traditional American view, that success results mainly from ability and effort, and the Marxist-inspired progressive view, that success is always a result of gender, race, and wealth privilege. He says that “class is a function of the genetic lottery plus character, determination, hard work, and idiosyncratic circumstances.” Murray grants that “racism and sexism still play a role in determining who rises to the top, but that role is not decisive.” Racism and sexism are not decisive, in his view, because “ethnic differences in two major components of class—educational attainment and income—nearly disappear (or in some cases favor ethnic minorities) for people with similar IQ levels.”

Females are at an advantage in educational attainment, having more years of education and a higher percentage of college degrees than males. Blacks and Latinos have weaker educational attainment than whites, but “these discrepancies are more than eliminated adjusting for IQ.” At comparable IQ levels, blacks have more years of education and college degrees than whites. The only outlier is Asians, who have an advantage over whites with IQ controlled. Women have a disadvantage in earned income, “but it is almost entirely explained by marriage or children in the household.” While on average, Asians have a higher income than whites, blacks and Latinos have a substantially lower income than whites. But, once again, “adjusting for IQ wipes out the ethnic income differential among whites, blacks, and Latinos. Among all people with similar IQs, only Asian Americans have an advantage in income.

Those committed to the privilege narrative would respond that IQ is no more than a cognitive reflection of family privilege. How would a high IQ come about, they would argue, if not by high status, a wealthy family providing an enriching home environment of conversations, books, plays, films, concerts, and even special tutors to raise their children’s IQ. This argument about the “enriching home environment” is one often heard from psychoanalysts, sociologists, and anthropologists, as well as progressives of all brands. It does seem to have the ring of truth.

Somewhat against expectation, the enriching home environment theory has been proven false by multitudes of rigorous psychological studies, especially studies of twins. Murray sums up the conclusion of these studies: “Proposition #8: The shared [home] environment usually plays a minor role in explaining personality, abilities, and social behavior.” He explains further: “It’s not just that the role of the shared environment is less than that of genes; that role is usually small, especially concerning the child’s eventual cognitive repertoires [including IQ] as an adult.” [bracket added] A child’s environment is influential in cognitive development, but it is not the home environment, but rather the wider environment, called by psychologists “the nonshared environment.”

[Part II – Culture, Not Biology, Tears Us Apart on Race]

In 1982 psychologists Sandra Scarr and Susan Grajek set out their findings: “Upper-middle-class brothers who attend the same school and whose parents take them to the same plays, sporting events, music lessons, and therapist, and use similar child-rearing practices on them are little more similar in personality measure than they are to working-class or farm boys whose lives are totally different.” An earlier 1976 report on a study of 850 twins stated that “in the personality domain we seem to see environmental effects that operate almost randomly.” An international meta-analysis of twin studies involving all twin studies from 1958 to 2012, 2,748 publications, and 14,558,903 twin pairs, that explored 17,804 traits, reported that there is an “absence of environmental effects shared by twin pairs and the presence of genetic effects that are entirely due to additive genetic variation.” Murray concludes that “the childhood family environment explains little about the cognitive repertoires of the adult is one of the important achievements of the social sciences in the last four decades.”

Examples of the data from the meta-analysis mentioned above that support this generalization include “temperament,” 5% attributed to shared environment, 44% to nonshared environment, 44% to genes. “Energy and drive” 0% to shared environment, 43% to nonshared environment, 57% to genes. “Attention” 2% to shared environment, 55% to unshared environment, 44% to genes. “Higher-level cognitive functions” 18% to shared environment, 27% to nonshared environment, 55% to genes. “Work and employment” 0% to shared environment, 63% to nonshared environment, 37% to genes. “Global psychosocial functions” 11% to shared environment, 41% to nonshared environment, 48% to genes. “Educational attainment” 25% to shared environment, 26% nonshared environment, 50% to genes.

Regarding mental disorders, Murray concludes that “the parents’ genes are important while their parenting, by and large, is not.” So too with IQ. A review of 11 longitudinal twin and adoption studies found the influence of the shared home environment was high in the first years of life, dropped to half by year seven, and disappeared by age 14. Murray concludes that all studies have shown that “by the time people reach adolescence…the shared environment has a negligible relationship to IQ.” This means that, no matter how “privileged” a family may be, there is no effect on IQ. Similarly, the impact of shared environment on personality is “effectively none. … A family’s SES (income, parental education and occupation) is unimportant in explaining the cognitive abilities and personality traits that parents try hardest to promote.”

Class structure is heavily influenced by the genetic inheritance of individuals. Murray: “Proposition #9: Class structure is importantly based on differences in abilities that have a substantial genetic component.” At the same time, there is a major qualification: “The bulk of the variance in success in life is unexplained by either nature or nurture.” Neither genes nor social background, race, or gender determines the fate of individuals, because these factors can account for only a minority of influence—less than 50% and in adults closer to 25% of the variance—on individual outcomes such as income, according to the psychological literature. That said, “the most important single heritable trait that explains socioeconomic success [class status] is the general mental ability known [to psychologists] as g, which in turn is best measured by a good IQ test.” Typically, it is “far more important than any other single heritable trait.”

Many criticisms have been raised against IQ tests, but most of them are invalid, according to Murray. These much-studied IQ tests are not biased against minorities; IQ results for individuals are stable over lifetimes; IQ tests have the highest standards of reliability and validity than any other psychological measure. The intelligence that an IQ test measures, according to sociologist Linda Gottfredson, “is a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience.” It helps people “navigate the caprices and complications of everyday life,” as Murray puts it.

IQ results are strongly correlated with both educational and occupational success. IQ and high school achievement were correlated at +.58, with a college GPA at +.53, law school admissions tests with scores on bar exams at +.46, with the medical school admission test with licensing exams at +.64. IQ predicts job performance across the entire range of jobs. “Taking all jobs together, the predictive validity of IQ scores for overall job performance is about +.50 (higher for high-complexity jobs).” Of course, IQ is not everything; “industriousness, resilience, charisma, cooperativeness, and many other traits are objective valuable for productivity in most kinds of jobs.” A meta-study reviewing non-IQ factors in success found that the most important one was conscientiousness, effect sizes of +1.14 and +0.96, far larger than for agreeableness (+0.19), emotional stability (+0.36), and extraversion (+0.23). Conscientiousness predicts academic performance, job performance, salary, promotion, and occupational prestige.

Studies of student success that consider the parents’ socioeconomic status (SES) are confounded by the contribution of heritable IQ to SES. Some studies have tried to sort this relationship out. One study controlled for the college admission test score and found the correlation between SES and college grades dropped from +.22 to -.01. Controlling for SES had almost no effect on the relationship between admission test scores and grades. Thus, “parental SES explained nothing about the student’s college grades after adjusting for test scores.” Murray’s conclusion from the multitude of studies reviewed is that “class structure is … importantly based on differences in abilities that have a substantial genetic component.” This is a demonstrated fact, although the reality, which heavily structures modern societies, may not appear fair for those unlucky in the genetic lottery.

Many programs have been developed to improve the academic performance and even the IQ of underperforming sectors, particularly among some minorities. Examples are Head Start, the Self Esteem movement, and the Growth Mindset movement. After implementation in schools, sometimes over many years, multiple psychology studies were developed to assess their effects. Improvement, where there was improvement, was minor and disappeared over time. Murray generalizes — “Proposition #10: Outside interventions are inherently constrained in the effects they can have on personality.” The reason for this is that “ordinary levels of outside intervention are too small relative to the competing influences” of the non-shared environment (family, school, neighborhood), and the genetic bases cannot be touched by such intervention. What can be done is “to help people who already want to do something and are artificially prevented from doing it,” for example, by poor, disorderly schools. The bottom line is that “it is not within our power to do much to change personalities are abilities or social behaviors by design on a large scale.”

Progressive radical egalitarians have found a way around these facts. Their strategy is to ignore individual differences in capability and achievement, and to focus on demographic representation: the equal presence of members of each category based on a percentage of the general population, with particular attention to those dubbed “marginalized minorities.” Often under the official label of “affirmative action” and the widespread slogan “diversity and inclusion,” members of “underrepresented” categories, commonly females, African Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims, are given places without regard to their academic underperformance.

The consequence of these policies is the intentional exclusion of members of non-preferred categories—such as whites, males, Jews, and, remarkably, East Asians—who, based on academic criteria, actually earned a place or position. The preferred label for such policies is “social justice.” One might say that it is simply reverse racism and reverse sexism in action, but progressives claim that reverse racism and sexism do not exist. Yet, it is now the official policy of our governments, educational systems, and, increasingly, businesses. Some justice!


  • Philip Carl Salzman

    Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Past President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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One thought on “Who Succeeds, and Why?”

  1. While certainly some progressives want complete equality on all aspects of societal achievement, most Americans do not. There is, however, an emerging liberal consensus that such things as food, shelter, clothing and now medical care should be provided for all members of a society. This has been achieved to a great extent in Western Europe and it appears that Americans are moving towards this ideal as well. America is the only western country where the conservative party does not acknowledge the validity of the safety net.

    And herein lies the problem. As these societal safety net provisions become more and more precarious, where progressives actually have power (college campuses) become more radical in their programs for societal change. The middle class used to be approximately 60+% of this country–now most measures have it well below 50%. And middle class costs (education, housing, health care) have gone through the roof, often beyond the ability of a middle class family to even begin to provide for these in any reasonable manner. This, above all, is the main reason for a more socialist bent in American politics. If one doesn’t provide for the basic necessities of life (and this will vary according to a society’s economic status and expectations) other alternatives will be tried. The less provision, the more radical the alternative (USSR, Nazi Germany).

    Elites in this society (both right and left) have insulated themselves from the vast majority of this country. And note a mericratic society is essentially a one generation phenomenon–all of those private tutors and schools and summer camps are buying something. So there will need to be some leveling mechanism in place to ensure social mobility.

    Finally, can anyone with a straight face not acknowledge that African-Americans in this society would be much better off than they are now without chattel slavery and its more modern equivalents (Jim Crow and mass incarceration)? I don’t have any easy solutions for this (though government funded child care meeting certain educational standards, particularly for those from 1 year to 5 years, is probably the place to start). Improve the status of the African-Americans and a lot of the problems referred to in this article (particularly the intellectual dishonesty in educational settings for describing differences in individual achievement) will dissipate.

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