The alarming return of the IQ debate

This week, UnHerd released the video of my recent conversation with Jordan Peterson. Having spent some time recently on stage with him and Sam Harris talking about God, I wanted to use this opportunity to focus on politics. Specifically: where politics goes wrong. It’s an issue Jordan has been trying to get people to address for some time and he threw out the question during his recent Munk debate in Canada, but it was resolutely unaddressed by any of his fellow speakers.

Given that it is such an important question, simply leaving the subject on the floor doesn’t seem a responsible thing to do. So I picked it up with him in London.

Clearly, at their edges all political systems – like all religions – have the capacity to go awry. In the 20th century the political Right and Left went awry for different but often complementary reasons. As Jordan says at one point in our discussion, we are currently in the state of having perhaps almost learned half of the lessons of the 20th century.

There are people who will embrace negative findings about certain groups in order to justify and embed existing prejudices, or even to create new ones

The half we have not even slightly learned – as shown by the extraordinary percentages of people in the West (particularly Millennials) who are utterly ignorant of its consequences – is where the Left went wrong. Today’s ignorance of the crimes of communism is staggering, a point which I covered to an extent in the documentary I made for UnHerd last year. And unless the subject of what led to those crimes is addressed, there remains a significant (and far from hysterical) possibility that at some stage precisely those same experiments will be tried again. Leading to similar, if not identical, outcomes.

But the issue of political extremes isn’t straightforward. And nothing demonstrates that more clearly than the fact that our understanding of where the Right went wrong in the 20th century is also limited. Obviously this could be a subject of an entire book and a lifetime’s contemplation. But some boundaries have been located.  And some lines have been drawn beyond which the Right deems it necessary to expel an element of itself.

Watch the conversation

Douglas Murray in conversation with Jordan Peterson

By Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson

What does raise the alarm on the Right is when there is an over-emphasis on in/out group dynamics. Specifically, in/out group dynamics when it comes to issues of race. We know what a steep and dark slope lies here, and it is precisely why people tread with such care, even when they are hoping only to stare over the precipice and look at what is down there.

This is why I wanted to bring our conversation onto the issue of IQ. As I said in the video, it has become plain to me recently that the question of IQ – and racial IQ differentials in particular – has a possibility of coming back with a vengeance at some point in the future. It might already be doing so. It is an issue which, in almost any country I visit, there is a growing interest. Of course, some people find subjects attractive not in spite of their danger, but because of their danger. And that may well be (like leftists flirting with communist memes) one of the things that is going on here.

But it is finding a way back. It is almost a quarter of a century since Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. The ferocity of the response to that book and the fact that Charles Murray is to this day (Herrnstein having had the foresight to die just as the book came out) hounded almost wherever he goes, may have succeeded in teaching a generation of people that if you dabble in the science of IQ differentials, you will not be argued with, or debated with. You will simply be shouted down.

The literature on IQ differentials is – as Jordan says in our conversation – dark and utterly terrible

And yet the facts and discoveries bubble away. The literature on this is – as Jordan says in our conversation – dark and utterly terrible. There are groups whose IQ appear to be on average higher than average (Ashkenazi Jews is one example). But this means that there are also groups which rank lower on average. Here we enter the nightmare which a growing number of people appear to be happy to wade through.

It seems to me that there are a number of attitudes you can take about this. You can try to cut down the research and shut down the discussion – though that is becoming increasingly difficult. Of course, apart from the threat to free speech and free inquiry, this also shuts off the idea that there might be anything to learn from this research – or any way to improve the IQ of various groups. It could ignore the debate of the role diet plays over time, for instance. Or any number of other factors. Ignoring the subject entirely has the risk, in other words, of cementing as unchangeable something that may yet prove otherwise.

But the cordon around the subject exists for an obvious reason. And this is what I described to Jordan as the “manner” in which some people approach this type of research. For there are those who approach terrible facts about the world in a spirit of concern and even piety, and there are those who can approach them with glee. Specifically there are those who will embrace negative findings about certain groups in order to justify and embed existing prejudices, or even to create new ones.

A very low IQ person may be one of the greatest friends imaginable, and a very high IQ person may well be the world’s biggest shit

My own fear concerning this whole discussion, is not just the question I have had since the Bell Curve – which boils down to “What are you going to do about it?”. I have two other concerns.

One is that any ‘science’ of the kind which IQ differentials approximates is liable to present itself as the supreme matter of importance in the lives of people. And it may well be important. But, it’s not the whole picture. A very low IQ person may be one of the greatest friends imaginable, and a very high IQ person may well be the world’s biggest shit. Many of us are able to provide examples which fit such archetypes.

There is also another major concern. Which is the fact that potentially immutable and unchangeable characteristics do not exist in a vacuum. They exist at a time when other things are moving. And of particular concern here, is the fear that the sanctity of the individual is presently suffering some form of metaphysical dislocation. Many people believe man is sacred in God’s eyes. But our societies are trying to work out under what circumstances, at what age and for how long they are sacred in the eyes of man.

Listen to the Communism audiodocumentary

Why don't we remember the victims of communism?

By Douglas Murray

Anyone who has studied the debates on abortion and euthanasia will have some inkling of the concern that both religious and non-religious people might have in this regard. So for me the concern is the potential an over-emphasis on IQ differentials has to bring us, in this century, to a position that would have embarrassed the last century.

The IQ debate is fraught with controversy, even though it exists in an area where there is the widest possible agreement that the 20th century went horribly wrong. It gives you an idea of how hard it is going to be to address similarly difficult questions on the Left. It won’t be easy, but we need to think and talk about these issues not only so that we learn as many lessons as possible from the 20th century, but also to ensure that we do not repeat its mistakes.