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Why Race Matters: Race Differences And What They Mean, by Michael Levin

The Mises Review

Tags Philosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

12/01/1998David Gordon

The Philosopher and the IQ Debate

Mises Review 4, No. 4 (Winter 1998)

Michael Levin
Praeger, 1997, xi + 415 pgs.


Michael Levin has gotten himself into enormous trouble with his fellow philosophers by adhering to a standard maxim in the philosophy of science. Levin's trouble starts when he rejects a common explanation for a widely recognized, and deplored, social phenomenon: the social and economic inequality of the races in American society. Levin's rejection of the conventional account would be sufficient in itself to embroil him in controversy. But, as a good philosopher of science, he has taken a further step; and it is this that has led his liberal colleagues to throw up their hands in horror.

In empirical science, to find problems for a theory usually does not suffice to overthrow it. You must come up with an alternative account that better explains the data. Thus, astronomers long knew the severe difficulties of the Ptolemaic account. But they did not reject it until the competing Copernican theory arrived on the scene. (Matters differ in philosophy, where to show that a theory cannot withstand counterexamples often is enough to eliminate it.)

Unkind readers may dismiss the foregoing as typical philosopher's hairsplitting, but its practical importance cannot be gainsaid. Our author begins from some widely acknowledged demographic facts about American blacks. As conventional leftist opinion has it, precisely these facts mandate extensive affirmative action programs. The sorry social facts in question arise from discrimination and oppression, both past and present.

Professor Levin dissents. Discrimination against blacks, says Levin, does not explain their problems. What does? It is here that our author goes beyond other authors such as Thomas Sowell, who also rejects the discrimination view. Levin claims that genetic factors lie at the heart of disparities in income and performance.

As befits an outstanding analytic philosopher, Levin responds with care and imagination to objections to his contentions. One instance from his long discussion must here stand good for the rest. Stephen J. Gould, a Harvard paleontologist of Marxist leanings, has in The Mismeasure of Man argued that a general intelligence factor, called "g" by its proponents, is a scientific myth. The g-factor, Gould maintains, should not be reified; it is a mere artifact of statistics. It has been extracted through a disputable method called "factor analysis."

Levin readily acknowledges that the derivation of g depends on a particular method of analysis. But this by itself shows little: "all Gould actually shows, claims to have shown, or can show is that--what no one would deny--the reality of g is not logically guaranteed by its factorial extraction" (p. 53). A scientific theory need not exclude its rivals as logically impossible. We may rightfully accept it should it allow us to tie together a wide and varied set of facts.

Given the radical nature of Professor Levin's conclusions, the question of course arises: Is he correct? I shall say only this. Anyone who proposes to challenge Levin had better be well versed in statistics, intelligence testing, and evolutionary biology, all of which our author appears to have mastered. I venture to suggest that the so-called Flynn effect poses the sharpest challenge to our author's case. The mean IQ of Western populations has risen over the past sixty years, but surely people are not more intelligent than their parents and grandparents. Does this not suggest that IQ tests do not adequately measure intelligence? I shall leave it to readers to judge the adequacy of our author's ingenious answer (pp. 128 ff).

Does not the very attempt to suggest that racial differences may be politically relevant strike at the essence of libertarianism? Should not each individual be judged on his own merits? Levin himself is a thoroughgoing libertarian; and as he sees matters, his conclusions about race support rather than contravene his politics. Americans today find themselves confronted with all manner of affirmative action programs. Blacks, it is alleged, must receive special benefits in education, employment, and housing to compensate them for the malign effects of past oppression.

These programs interfere in drastic fashion with the free market; but, faced with the claim of justice, what is a classical liberal to do? He cannot combat these programs unless he challenges their root assumption--the view that blacks' social problems stem from the unjust treatment accorded them. Unless the premise is overthrown, a classical liberal must allow, on grounds of justice, interferences with the social order he favors. (One might, I suppose, claim that the affirmative action proposals, even lacking a rationale in justice, are consistent with classical liberalism; but most advocates of these programs have, no doubt wisely, declined to tread this path.)

One might here object that even the need to combat affirmative action does not justify Levin's resort to race. Is it not possible to counter the claims of its supporters in some less controversial way? In a passage crucial to the book's case, Levin denies this: "[W]hy raise the contentious genetic issue at all? It must be raised because it is widely, and reasonably, assumed that among environmental factors, only oppression can produce an attainment gap as large as the one between the races.... Once environmentalism is accepted, the compensation argument returns at one remove: superior ability may give whites an advantage but, the cause of the superiority was a wrong, a wrong that must be annulled" (pp. 271-72).

Whether Levin's contention is correct will, one imagines, be subject to strong challenge by supporters, in the style of Thomas Sowell, of the cultural account of the black-white gap. In any event, our author is not yet done with the compensation principle. He shows that even if one accepts the principle that blacks merit recompense, it is a task of surpassing difficulty to arrive at an acceptable compensation principle.

But, once more, to Levin these problems are of secondary significance. Unless one asks whether the race gap stems from white misdeeds, one has not penetrated to the essence. "Taking the origin of the race gap as the heart of the matter explains why criticisms of preference that do not reach that issue, however forceful they may be on their own terms, are dismissed as picky, legalistic, and irrelevant" (p. 251).

Although Levin's case is carefully argued, I suspect that most of his colleagues will ignore this book. But even for those in the grip of egalitarian prejudices, to do so is a serious mistake. Levin has poured into his book a large number of stimulating ideas on many vexed philosophical questions.

Most notably, he offers the best noncognitivist account of moral values that I have read. In his view, values are not objective properties, that we intuit, as states of affairs; they are the results of biological adaptation. People do indeed believe their values to be objectively correct; but their belief is a conceptual blind spot. We must, if Levin is right, entertain at the time of action a false belief in value-objectivity at the time of action. Ingenious, no doubt; but is it not an advantage of the intuitionist theories Levin rejects that in them people are not saddled with inescapable false beliefs? But of course intuitionist theories have their own problems, a fact Levin is not slow to point out.

And can an appeal to the evolutionary advantages of cooperation give us the Kantian principle of morality Levin endorses? Why would evolution favor cooperative behavior with all human beings rather than only with members of one's own group? I must admit, though, that Darwin himself is here on Levin's side. In The Descent of Man, he claims that the extension of cooperation beyond the bounds of one's own tribe is the result of a simple inference.

Also not to be missed are Levin's note about Quine on the indeterminacy of translation (p. 80) and his refutation of John Rawls's argument that choosers in the original position would not try to maximize average expected utility (p. 289). One finishes Why Race Matters admiring both the author's courage and his immense technical virtuosity.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Cite This Article

Gordon, David. "The Philosopher and the IQ Debate." Review of Why Race Matters: Race Differences And What They Mean, by Michael Levin. The Mises Review 4, No. 4 (Winter 1998).