The case of Laura Spence highlighted the issue of equality of opportunity. But what if talent itself is substantially inherited, not the result of effort?by Ronald Dore / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
In recent contributions to Prospect Charles Murray and Marek Kohn offer us an exhilarating future in which genetic manipulation could make us all bright and beautiful. Kohn wonders (anxiously) what this will do for equality if only those who are already genetically blessed can afford the enhancements. Murray wonders what it will do for egalitarians. Or rather-for he is more given to knowing than to wondering-he relishes the prospect of their tying themselves in eugenicist knots.
The trouble with Murray is that even when he is seriously tackling a serious subject he is too easily sidetracked into his favourite sport of teasing the left. As soon as science gives us “the ability to manipulate human tendencies” through genetic engineering, he says, you lefties are the ones who will want to use it. You will be back where the Fabians were in 1900, before Hitler gave eugenics a bad name. As far as I understand him, Kohn reluctantly agrees. “We seem to be approaching the point where altering the genes of the poor looks like a more realistic project than transforming the environments in which they live.”
You can see why Murray likes a punch-up if you flick through The Bell Curve Wars (Steven Fraser, ed. 1995) or The Bell Curve Debate (R Jacoby and N Glauberman, eds. 1995), two collections of critical reviews of Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve. The scores of contributors to this passionate and almost wholly American debate (Keith Joseph and Cyril Burt are the only British figures quoted with any frequency) divide fairly clearly between the knee-jerk left and the open-to-evidence left. The former use every weapon at their disposal to defend what, in his Prospect piece, Murray called the “egalitarian premise”-that inequalities are (almost wholly) the product of the social system rather than of inherent differences in ability. According to one critic, The Bell Curve merely synthesises the work of “disreputable race theorists and eccentric eugenicists.” Another declares it “the most recent in a long line of efforts to prove the congenital inferiority of poor people in general… and black people in particular.”
More sober critics question the book’s underlying social philosophy but accept its main conclusions. These are, first, that IQ scores of the American white population, as they have been standardised in the US, correlate strongly with a whole range of social characteristics-occupational status, income, the likelihood of being involved…