Human ability and prejudice

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 30, 2011

John Dewey, often regarded as America’s greatest philosopher after Jefferson, ended his essay "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy” with perhaps the most eloquent passage in all of his works. Dewey (1859-1952) wrote, "Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, predispositions, deeply engrained attitudes of aversion and preference. Moreover, the conviction persists—though history shows it to be a hallucination—that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume—an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest.”

You can notice this change when considering our cultural views concerning the human brain. It was once assumed that men were smarter than women, that white people were smarter than blacks. In a society of one group dominating another, those assumptions are critical. In an environment where the man must control the women, it is convenient to assume that the woman is inferior. In a case where one race rules another, it is expedient to claim superiority.

In the days when these types of mentalities were the status quo, the question of whether women or blacks were capable of high achievement was a vexing question to the theorist. A person could argue either way without much stopping him from drawing any conclusion because on the one hand there was the fact of custom and on the other there were the untried possibilities that are always lurking beyond the present state of affairs. No one could prove anything because there were no empirical foundations on which to argue. Thus there was often a bitter debate, but no possibility of resolution.

Many of the assumptions have dissipated by our age. Women were needed in the workforce as the factory age came onto our world. The supposed deficiency of women in the workforce was suddenly forgotten, though the assumption moved subtly to say that women may be able to work, but they still can’t work as well as men. Even today there is a strong tendency for women to feel inferior to men in schooling and at work although by now the facts have shown that the general woman is as good as the general man on most tasks that do not favor larger and heavier body frames.

It seems that the racial assumptions have not altogether faded from our world either. In 1994 a Harvard professor and an author from the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. wrote a book called The Bell Curve. The book basically made the claim that there is a racial factor in intelligence—that some races are intrinsically inferior intellectually than others. They argued that Caucasians and Asians were at the high end of the racial intelligence curve, and other races, notably blacks, were at the bottom. They gave a fair mountain of numbers and statistics. The sad thing is that this nationally best-selling book co-written by a Harvard professor, did not even distinguish between causation and a correlation. The authors didn’t even consider the possibility that blacks often come from poor families that probably have less educational backgrounds than their more wealthy neighbors; they didn’t bother to ask what would happen should those black kids be raised in a more educationally conducive environment. To date, the best critical account of The Bell Curve is probably Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which interested readers should read.

Just as pre-Darwinian concepts still pervaded philosophy when Dewey wrote his essay, pre-equalitarian ideas continue to grip the minds of our society. But the basis for those concepts is eroding, and hopefully the trend will continue. We should be conscious of our simpleminded assumptions about the abilities of the sexes and races because those assumptions can thwart progress. How do we rid ourselves totally of the conceptual bind? Dewey said it this way: "We do not solve them; we get over them.”


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