In response to:
Unnatural Science from the February 3, 1977 issue
To the Editors:
P.B. Medawar’s analysis of the IQ controversy is admirably clear, enlightening, and convincing. These are qualities we have come to expect from his explanations of complex scientific issues. However, the connection of the IQ discussion to educational, and, ultimately, political and ideological issues is not so well done.
There is a gratuitous attack on unnamed “doctrinaire Marxists.” No quotes or sources are given for the beliefs attributed to this anonymous group, but we are told that they don’t believe in telling the truth, they are “self-appointed spokesmen for ‘the people,’ ” and they consider the providing of evidence of inborn human inequality as criminal. I’d like to hear this in their own words.
Perhaps there are people who fit the description. But it doesn’t apply to the Marxists I know, even the ones I’ve argued with. And it certainly doesn’t apply to the radical scientists of “Science for the People,” which includes geneticist Richard Lewontin, who is singled out for special praise by Medawar. (This group was involved in criticizing the XYY chromosome research that Medawar explicitly defends.) Disagreement with the position of the group and its “Marxists” is reasonable, but not insult.
A crucial point that Medawar gets very wrong involves the relation of school reform to the ascribed belief that all humans are biologically equal. In this country journals like Business Week ascribe this belief to liberals and radicals who want integration of the schools and “affirmative action” programs. (See the three part editorial “Egalitarianism: Threat to a Free Market,” beginning December 1, 1975.) Medawar accuses the supporters of comprehensive schools in Great Britain of “making the usual confusion between the fact of biological inequality and the political right to equal treatment.”
But it is Medawar who is making the usual confusion. He seems to think that “comprehensive schools” are a backlash against the doctrine of biological determinism of intellectual capacity built partly on the bad theory and fraudulent data of Cyril Burt. But the claim of most supporters of comprehensive schools—which are the norm here and a goal of Labour educational policy—isn’t that “all children are fundamentally of equal ability.” Medawar has failed to distinguish socialist equality from liberal equality of opportunity. The purpose of comprehensive schools is to make the race for unequal rewards as fair as possible. Certainly in the dominant liberal ideology in this country—and I would say the same has come to apply to Medawar’s England—the hope is that “common schools” in the ideal can eliminate unjust advantages of class or family or race, so that all children can have a fair shot at winning the prizes in the competitions of social and occupational life. Of course people’s abilities are unequal—that is what makes for the unequal “merit” that justifies the enormous inequalities of reward. Schools are part of the race. This is the doctrine behind comprehensive schools.
I don’t like this doctrine, and I don’t share the ideal for schools or for society. Like other “egalitarians,” I would like to live in a much more cooperative community, with much more equality of condition than we have here or in Britain. But the basis of this belief is moral, and certainly doesn’t entail the extremely silly notion that all human beings are of the same height or the same wit or the same goodness or the same anything. Whether the differences in IQ score or academic achievement or even real intelligence are explainable genetically or environmentally or both or neither is really beside the point.
The “unnatural science” of the IQ psychologists is well worth exposing. But the ideology behind this dispute is also worth clearing up, especially if someone as sharp as Medawar can get confused.
March 31, 1977