The intellectual capacity of women

[Posted 1:40 PM by Roger Kimball]

Poor Larry Summers. The president of Harvard University has good instincts. But he wants people to like him. So he starts off by saying things that are true but unpopular. Then people get angry with him and he apologizes and takes it all back. A case in point: A few years ago, Summers caused a ruckus when he suggested that Cornel West, who was then the Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., University Professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, buckle down to some serious scholarship (West’s most recent production was a rap CD called "Sketches of my Culture") and that he lead the way in fighting the scandal of grade inflation at Harvard where one of every two grades is an A or A-.

Summers was quite right. Cornel West is one of the most ridiculous figures in contemporary academia. He calls himself a philosopher but really is just a political sermonizer. He acts like an old-time Baptist minister. But his revival meetings feature not hellfire and brimstone but sermons about racism and the horrible failings of American society. What Summers did not understand was that college presidents are not allowed to criticize black professors. No sooner had Summers opened his mouth than West went into a snit, followed by the entire politically correct community at Harvard and beyond. Charles J. Ogletree, another professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, thundered that "It’s absolutely critical that the president make an unequivocal public statement in support of affirmative action." And The New York Times, natch, lumbered into support West and criticize Summers.

You might ask, why is it "critical" that the president of Harvard support "affirmative action"? After all, "affirmative action" is just a fancy phrase for discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or some other PC category. Isn’t Harvard an institution of higher education where what matters is accomplishment, not skin color, sex, or ethnic background?

Summers evidently thought so, but he was quickly disabused of the notion. When West and his buddies in the Afro-American Studies department whined and threatened to leave Harvard, Summers collapsed. The whole thing, he said, was "a huge misunderstanding." He told everybody how "proud" he was of "the Afro-American Studies program at Harvard, collectively and individually. We would very much like to see them stay at Harvard and will compete vigorously to make this an attractive environment." In other words, "Name your price, boys. I give up."

Writing about the West v. Summers affair in National Review, I suggested that readers send Larry Summers a copy of Ralph Bucksbaum’s zoological classic, Animals Without Backbones. I am happy to report that several did.

I didn’t do any good, though. Larry Summers still suffers from spinelessness. Witness his current travails. Last time it was the blacks. This time it is other big "affirmative action" interest: the girls. Speaking at a conference last week, Summers suggested that one of the reasons there are not more women scientists at elite universities is because of "innate differences" between the sexes.

My what a storm that comment sparked! "I felt I was going to be sick," sniffed Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who then walked out on Summers. Oh, the poor dear. "My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow," Hopkins said. "I was extremely upset."

Of course, Summers was right. There are innate differences between men and women. Everyone knows this, even the feminists who most loudly deny it. But the wailing and gnashing of teeth that greeted Summers’s comments pushed him into full retreat. Yesterday, he published an open letter to the Harvard Community in order to abase himself: "I deeply regret the impact of my comments," he said, "and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully." Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Naturally, he also claimed that he had been misunderstood: "Despite reports to the contrary, I did not say, and I do not believe, that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science."

Now, I know some pretty smart ladies. I’m sure you do as well. Maybe, dear reader, you are a very intelligent woman yourself. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether the innate difference between the sexes might express itself in differences in intellectual aptitude as well as in other ways (musculature, for example). The best answer to this question that I know is from the late Australian philosopher David Stove. In 1990, Stove created a small firestorm by publishing an essay called "The Intellectual Capacity of Women." I can well understand the controversy that Stove’s essay sparked, because I experienced a repeat performance when I was shopping around Against the Idols of the Age, my anthology of Stove’s writings which included that essay. I forget how many publishers turned it down, many quite rudely, but eventually Transaction published the book and you can read the whole essay in that volume (available from Amazon here; Partisan Review reviewed the book here). I am thinking of sending Professor Hopkins a copy. Here’s how the essay begins:

I believe that the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole inferior to that of men. By "on the whole," I do not mean just "on the average"; though I do mean that much. My belief is that, if you take any degree of intellectual capacity which is above the average for the human race as a whole, then a possessor of that degree of intellectual capacity is a good deal more likely to be a man than a woman.

This proposition is consistent, of course, with there being women, and indeed with there being any number of women, at any level of intellectual capacity however high. But it does mean, for example, that if there is a large number of women at a given above average level of intellectual capacity, then there is an even larger number of men at that level.

In the past almost everyone, whether man or woman, learned or unlearned, believed the intellectual capacity of women to be inferior to that of men. Even now this is, I think, the belief of most people in most parts of the world. In this article my main object is simply to remind the reader of what the evidence is, and always was, for this old belief, and of how strong that evidence is. An opposite belief has become widely current in the last few years, in societies like our own: the belief that the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole equal to that of men. If I could, I would discuss here the reasons for the sudden adoption by many people of this opinion. But I cannot, because I have not been able to find any reasons for it, as distinct from causes of it. The equality-theory (as I will call it) is not embraced on the grounds of any startling facts which have only lately come to light. It is not embraced on the grounds of some old familiar facts which have been misunderstood until lately. It is not embraced, as far as I can see, on any grounds at all, but from mere prejudice and passion. If you ask people, "What evidence is there for the equality-theory?," you do not get an answer (though you are likely to get other things). Rather, the question is felt to be somehow improper, morally or intellectually, and is thought not to deserve any answer.

I do not know why it should be thought so. The question is a perfectly proper one morally and intellectually, and should not be hard to answer. That men and women have the same intellectual capacity is not, after all, a self-evident proposition, like (say) 7 + 5 = 12"; nor is it something just obvious, like (say) the sun’s rising in the east. So if it is rational to believe it, there must be evidence for it: facts which lead to it by good reasoning. But where is that evidence to be found?

By contrast, there is no difficulty at all in saying what the evidence is, and always was, for the other theory, the theory of the inferior intellectual capacity of women. This evidence is not at all esoteric, but on the contrary is of the most familiar and homely kind. The main reason why I believe, and the main reason why nearly everyone always has believed, that the intellectual capacity of women is inferior to that of men, is just this: that the intellectual performance of women is inferior to that of men.

The reasoning involved, then, is reasoning from inferior performance to inferior capacity. It is reasoning of the same general kind, therefore, as that which convinces us, even if we understand nothing of the internal make-up of cars, that Fords are on the whole inferior to Mercedes; or as that which convinces dog-fanciers that Irish setters are not as smart as labradors; or as that which convinces everyone that the intellectual capacity of seven-year-old children is on the whole inferior to that of nine-year-olds. They do not do as well, and we infer from this that they cannot do as well.

This is a very homely kind of reasoning, to be sure. But that is not to say that there is anything wrong with it, and in fact no one distrusts reasoning of this kind. On the contrary, we could scarcely take a single step, in science or in common life, if we did not rely on this kind of reasoning.

Of course no thoughtful person mistakes such reasoning for proof. Inference from inferior performance to inferior capacity is fallible: that should go without saying. Everyone knows that a car, or an organism, may on a given occasion fail to perform as well as it can perform: there was some interfering factor at work. And this can happen not just on one occasion, or to just one organism. A whole class of organisms might perform below capacity, in a given respect, for any length of time, or forever. It is even logically possible that every organism of a certain kind should have a certain capacity and yet that interfering factors prevent every one of them from ever exercising that capacity even once. So far, then, is inferior performance from being an infallible indication of inferior capacity. And so far, too, should we be, from mistaking the inferior intellectual performance of women for a proof of their inferior intellectual capacity.

This, then, is one commonplace truth which needs to be borne in mind when we think about the intellectual capacity of women: that capacity does not require performance. But there are other such commonplace truths, and some of these point in the opposite direction.

One is that, although performance is no infallible guide to capacity, it is, in the end, the only guide we have or can have. I do not mean that there can be no evidence of A’s capacity to F, unless A actually has F-ed at least once. That would be a stupid thing to say. When I meet a brown snake in the bush, I have good evidence of its capacity to inflict a dangerous bite on me, even if this particular snake has never bitten anyone. Again, a chemist often has good evidence concerning the capacities of a compound which, until he makes it in the laboratory, has never even existed, and which therefore cannot possibly have yet exercised any of its capacities. All I mean is, that the evidence for an unexercised capacity, which is a kind of unrealized possibility, cannot consist in its turn just of other unexercised capacities, or unrealized possibilities. Such evidence must include some actualized possibilities, some exercises of capacities. If the chemist, for example, is entitled to say in advance that new compound X will have the capacity to F, that is because he knows of capacities which have actually been exercised by existing elements or compounds. While, then, capacity does not require performance, still evidence of a capacity does require performances, of some kind, by something or other, somewhere along the line.

What explains the inferior intellectual performance of women as compared with men? Sexism? Partriarchy? Not likely. As Stove observes,
The variety of physical and social circumstances in which women have found themselves is, surely, just about as great as the variety which is possible for any class of persons. Women have been pirates and poets, princes and paupers, priests and prostitutes: you name it, some women have been it, if it is logically and biologically possible for a woman to be it. Almost every conceivable factor, therefore, which might have been thought to constitute an impediment to the intellectual performance of some women, has been removed in the case of some other women. Yet their intellectual performance, or at least the comparison of it with the intellectual performance of men, has not varied. This is true of the variety in women’s circumstances which occurs spontaneously between or within societies; but the same is true of that variety in women’s circumstances which has been introduced by human contrivance. Wherever some defect has been found or imagined in existing arrangements for the education of females, energetic and ingenious people have always been busy setting up a form of education free from that real or supposed defect. Novel schemes of education, intended among other things to remove obstacles to the exercise of the intellectual capacity of women, are at least as old as Plato, and hundreds of them have been put into more or less widespread practice. Yet despite all this variety in the supposed causes of female intellectual performance, the effects have been singularly invariant. I do not mean that these schemes of education have never had any effect at all on female intellectual performance. I do not know, but it is in any case indifferent to my thesis, whether they have or not. My thesis only requires, what is the case, that educational innovations have never shown any significant tendency to bridge the gap between male and female intellectual performance.
If the fragile Professor Hopkins reads this, she will doubtless be prostrate for a week. After, of course, she makes a little spectacle of herself by registering her pain, disgust, nausea, indignation, etc. But her tantrum, like that of the other feminists who joined in her outrage, is less disturbing than Larry Summers’s craven retraction. He is the leader of an institution supposedly dedicated to intellectual inquiry, that is to say, to the truth. Once again, however, he has shown himself to be the puppet of expediency and the intimidating forces of political correctness.

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