Real skeptics disown Sam Harris

Sam Harris has become a touchstone figure of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web”, known for his political commentary on controversial subjects such as Muslim immigration and political correctness. But before that, Sam Harris was one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, one of the premier popular atheist writers and intellectuals, known for books such as The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. There is a trajectory that Harris has maintained throughout his career, however, and that is the rejection of the belief that there are any “moderate Muslims.” Perhaps it was this conclusion that led him down the path of increasingly towing the right-wing line and flirting with social Darwinism. Or perhaps it was his staunch belief in evolution that led him to the unscientific conclusion that a biological entity known as race exists. This article is not a history of Sam Harris’ slide into the alt-right, nor is it an intellectual history of social Darwinism. It is merely an indictment: Sam Harris, self-proclaimed lover of reason and Logic, has latched himself onto debunked pseudoscience and avowed racists.

In this article on RationalWiki, the junk science racist book The Bell Curve by Charles Murray is broken apart for what it really is (see the caption for the image of the book- “Eugenics for the masses!”). This firmly demonstrates that the real Skeptic community is not on the side of Sam Harris, who apparently isn’t as deeply ingrained into that ideology as I once thought. How does Sam Harris fit into this? Well he gave a pandering interview to Charles Murray on his podcast “Waking Up.” I’m trying to get through it, but I’m cringing through every second of this non-sourced, non-fact checked drivel.

First of all, to be substantive, Sam Harris claims (as does Charles Murray) that 50–80% of intelligence is inherited. These arguments are partly based on studies done of monzygotic (identical) twins. However, as Jay Joseph indicates in his meta-analysis of twin studies, the advocates of nature over nurture in terms of intelligence have ignored some systemic biases in their data. I will add one more source of bias to the ones Joseph lists, namely WEIRD bias, or having samples that are exclusively from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic countries. Therefore, even if you control for sociodemographic factors within a certain country, unless you are doing a multi-country analysis from several different regions of the world, you cannot really generalize these psychological studies, even if they have good methodologies otherwise, to the entirety of humanity.

Leaving twin studies aside, the most conservative estimates of the “percentage of intelligence” determined by genetics are 40%. Unfortunately, if you simply trust Wikipedia on this, you will get the same 50–80% figure parroted by Harris. So let’s chock this one up to: the jury is still out. And if this was the only reason why The Bell Curve and Sam Harris’ interview of Murray was troublesome or problematic, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. Oh no. Of course, Murray racializes the debate.

Murray claims that some “populations” are inherently more intelligent than others. Therefore, no matter how much money we may pump into failing schools that are majority African American, what we see in terms of the current economic disparity by race in the United States is simply biology taking its course. Therefore, the current welfare policies that exist in the United States to lift racial minorities out of poverty are doomed to failure. This is nothing more than a modern version of social Darwinism, the belief propagated by authors like Herbert Spencer that Darwinian evolutionary principles can be applied to society as well. Therefore, in society, the strongest most fit individuals survive while the weak perish. This philosophy was later transmogrified into the Eugenics movement, whose proponents believed that “biological health” of society would benefit by the euthanization (or extermination) of invalids, idiots, and “inferior races.”

Murray’s “Bell Curve” of race correlating with intelligence: its junk data

Now in anthropology, we take the topic of race and intelligence seriously, given the fact that our discipline has had a sordid past tainted by eugenicists, evolutionists, and people that tried to claim that some populations were inherently superior to others. Although the discipline arose largely as a reformist science, several individuals tried to take anthropologist down that eugenicist road in the 20th century. Nevertheless, anthropologist Jonathan Marks does a systematic critique of the Bell Curve in this article. His essential argument boils down to this: “The most direct antecedent of the Bell Curve is a loose confederacy of ideas collectively known as social Darwinism, popular in America in the latter portion of the 19th century.” Not only that: there is a direct line of intellectual connection between Charles Murray and early social Darwinists, through a shady funding organization known as the Pioneer Fund, founded by Harry Laughlin, a bona fide eugenicist who received his degree from Heidelberg University in 1937. You heard me right, a Nazi university. So, not only does Murray cite eugenicists, he cites Nazi sympathizers! It gets worse, because the Pioneer Fund provided money for the Bell Curve to be sent by mail to every name on the mailing list of the American Anthropological Assocation, the American Sociological Association, and the American Psychological Association: every sociologist, anthropologist, and psychologist in the country! Of course most probably threw it away as hogwash propaganda, but still!

What is the anthropological evidence that a racial division of intelligence does not exist? Simply put, modern physical anthropologists have not found any significant deviation in human populations in terms of cranium size or other biological indicators of intelligence. Furthermore, the category known as “race” is not an immutable biological category. This is self-evident in the fact that people of different ethnic backgrounds can intermarry and produce offspring. There are no reproductively isolated sub-species of humanity. One can cite the American Anthropological Association’s statement on race as evidence of the current academic consensus on race. In terms of average intelligence of various human populations, it is intuitively obvious that indicators of intelligence such as IQ measure skills, such as mathematical ability, that are trained and valued to a higher extent in certain societies (that are usually more industrialized) than others. Finally, one can cite the father of American anthropology Franz Boas’ pioneering work on the effect of nutritional deprivation on skull size as evidence of how intelligence is highly environmentally variable. Boas found that there was a considerable degree of individual variation in skull size for immigrants to America, but it did not correlate at all with other biological characteristics.

One could cite a whole host of other factors that lay waste to Murray’s claim that race correlates with intelligence (obviously, with non-White races being on the left side of the bell curve). There is the now famous Flynn effect, the significant rise over time of the average IQ of various populations (probably correlated with increased literacy, education, and development). But the central core of Murray’s argument is the implicit claim that race exists as a biologically immutable fact. That belief is not supported by prior research or even by common sense logic. How is it possible that intelligence is a function of race, but 94% of genetic variation exists within ethnic populations? Does intelligence really correlate with skin color? Is ethnicity really anything more pigmentation and a few other phenotypic traits? One’s ethnic background may make one more predisposed to heart disease, or even make one immune to malaria. But there is no correlation between the color of your skin and intelligence.

So let’s get this out of the way now: everyone claiming that simply calling Murray a racist is a lazy intellectual argument are missing the definition of racist. The definition of racism is, from the Oxford English dictionary:

“The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

Murray is by definition a racist for claiming that some “populations” (that’s BS code) are intellectually superior to others. So at this point some would claim “well then I guess being racist isn’t a bad thing by that definition”. Well, fortunately Murray fits into the other category of racist as well:

“Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”

Murray is obviously antagonistic towards minorities based on his stated policy prescriptions of curbing immigration and eliminating welfare. (Let’s not even touch the fact that he’s a Koch brothers-funded American Enterprise Institute connected conservative with an obvious agenda- that’s too ad hominem for some people). But I wouldn’t say its ad hominem to point out that Charles Murray is funded and aided by an organization founded by a literal Nazi. So please, let’s call a spade a spade:

Charles Murray, you’re a racist. Sam Harris, you’re at best a racist by proxy, at worst a cynical converted white nationalist working to bring about the next Third Reich. You are now two steps away from being associated with the Nazi Party. The choice is yours, Sam Harris: dissociate yourself with Charles Murray, disown him entirely, or lose whatever shred of credibility you have left. The choice is yours.

Anthropology MA, current PhD student. Research interests include ecological and philosophical anthropology, indigenous rights, Tibet, Bhutan, local deities

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