[Paleopsych] Roger Kimball: The intellectual capacity of women

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Thu Jan 27 15:31:38 UTC 2005

Roger Kimball: The intellectual capacity of women

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

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

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

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

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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