Information-driven societies arrange their world into categories. Tests measure the subject’s suitability for various tasks. Today children around the world are weighed and ranked through standardized intelligence exams. The results have been correlated by the Administrators of Data and sifted throughout innumerable algorithms. And yet the computers keep spitting back blasphemy. When the numbers are separated by race, some groups score higher than others.
A 2005 article by Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen noted a persistent gap of 15-18 IQ points between Black and White Americans (1 to 1.1 standard deviations) both in intelligence tests and aptitude tests like the GRE and SAT. While articles like this put Rushton and Jensen on the SPLC’s naughty list, that gap refuses to go away. Heretics who affirm this blasphemy are quickly chastised. James Watson, who helped map DNA’s double helix, was no-platformed for his views on race and IQ (not to mention his long history of “racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and even fat-shaming remarks.”) Political scientist Charles Murray has been vilified by the SPLC and attacked by mobs for his comments on the Bell Curve. And yet these differences, and the socioeconomic disparities they predict, remain no matter how strenuously we ignore them.
Those seeking to refute the blasphemy offer many explanations involving various factors. Those who celebrate the blasphemy see it as proof of Black inferiority. My forte is history and philosophy, not statistics or genetics. I am not qualified to comment on the uses and abuses of this information, nor to speculate on its underlying causes. But critics and proponents are united in thinking there is something shameful about lower intelligence. Some seek to hide weakness while others seek to mock it, but both would eradicate it for a world where all the children are above average.
A kingdom of knights would starve before its first quest. Knights need farmers to till the land; carpenters and masons to build their keeps; grooms to tend their horses and muck out their stables. These jobs were less glamorous than knighthood and their rewards more modest. But the common folk were the foundation upon which the realm’s power rested. They were the king’s greatest treasure and his greatest responsibility. In the 12th century John of Salisbury wrote that it was a knight’s duty:
To defend the Church, assail infidelity, venerate the priesthood, protect the poor from injuries, pacify the province, pour out their blood for their brothers (as the formula of the oath instructs them), and, if need be, to lay down their lives.
In 1252 Henry III’s Law of Assizes required every Englishman between the age of 15 and 60 to keep a bow and arrows: in 1363 Edward III made archery practice mandatory on Sundays. The French, who scorned missile combat for heavy cavalry, learned an English peasant’s longbow could send arrows through plate armor. At the 1415 Battle of Agincourt some 6,000 French nobles fell: the English lost 112 soldiers. Lords who feared arming churls were defeated by those who saw them as allies. Peasants won great swaths of France for England. A decade later a peasant girl named Jeanne d’Arc would help France win their land back.
Then as now the wealthy and powerful often looked down on and exploited the poor and weak. One was born to one’s station and there were few opportunities for advancement. But a farmer tilling the land his great-grandparents tilled had little interest in advancement, or reason to feel oppressed by the idea his great-grandsons might work the same soil. Even a beggar knew that with devotion he could enter Heaven alongside St. Lazarus, while the nobles who refused him a penny might someday beg in Hell for water. His poverty was sanctified by the mendicant friars and monks who sought alms alongside him.
The rules under which the peasant lived might sometimes be onerous but they were always clear. He knew moderation, forbearance, industry, chastity and modesty were virtues: he knew gluttony, wrath, sloth, lechery and pride were vices. So long as he strove toward virtues and kept his vices under control (or at least discreet), the peasant could enjoy any number of leisures once chores were done. Dances on the commons; entertainers passing through the village; pilgrims bringing third-hand tales of Outremer and Byzantium; taverns and brothels — he had all the modern joys save coffee, cane sugar and Pornhub.
The peasant attended Masses in a language he did not understand: for him “Hoc Est Corpus” was so much hocus-pocus. But he knew St. Joseph was a carpenter and the Apostles carpenters and fishermen. He knew that his soul and the king’s soul would be judged by the same God. And while he was innocent of theology, philosophy and literacy, the peasant could get a better understanding of Eternity from visiting a cathedral than any scholar ever received from reading Ss. Anselm or Aquinas. He knelt before a lord who knelt before a king who knelt before the King of Kings. For all his ignorance, the medieval peasant knew his world and his place therein.
The cunning have always cheated the naive. A tale which was old when Cornwall was young tells of an innocent country lad who, much to his mother’s chagrin, trades the family cow for “magic beans.” But those who abuse the slow-witted sometimes found themselves outwitted. The merchant duped an ignorant fellow out of a cow. Jack climbed a beanstalk, defeated a giant and lived happily ever after. The Grail Legend tells of a blighted land and wounded king that can only be healed by a Pure Fool. And the Russian Orthodox Church has canonized dozens of iurodivye (“Holy Fools“) whose seeming folly pointed toward profound wisdom. Innocence is easily taken. Our ancestors saw as blessed those who could not lose it.
This is not to say that things were all Morris dances and Canterbury tales. Disease, famine and war were ever-looming threats. Violent gangs roamed the forests beyond the fiefdom and revelries sometimes ended in bloody brawls. In 1340 Oxford (considered a hotbed of crime and vice by contemporaries) the homicide rate was 110 per 100,000 — over 300% higher than 2016 Newark, New Jersey‘s 33 per 100,000. But all that chaos made the medieval peasant grateful for order. Though his lord, his priest and his king might all be bad, he could look to the Church and be reminded there was a greater Good. Today that reminder has been forgotten. And a world which once had a place for the simple folk has come increasingly to see them as worthless.
Alfred Binet warned that his Binet-Simon scale (which became in America the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test) was an imperfect measure with limited applications. Binet’s test became a worldwide sensation: his warnings were ignored. Intelligence tests became an important part of military and civilian hiring. College aptitude tests promised a future where higher education focused on innate talent rather than social prominence. Where stupidity was once a matter of opinion it could now be quantified. At best those weighed and found wanting were burdens to be tolerated. More often they were a problem to be solved.
In 1927 the Supreme Court heard the case of Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck, a pregnant 18 year-old from a poor Virginia family, had been committed to an institution. There specialists found that she had the mind of a nine year-old. Her mother, 52, had a history of prostitution and immorality and a diagnosed mental age of eight: Carrie’s infant daughter Vivian, born out of wedlock, showed signs of feeble-mindedness. Accordingly they moved that Buck be sterilized in accordance with the day’s prevailing scientific principles. The Court decided 8-1 that the operation should be performed. As Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it:
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind …. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Many journalists agreed with Holmes. The Daily Progress in Charlottesville praised the Holmes opinion for its “progressive tendencies” while Time dismissed opponents of eugenics as “sentimentalists.” Between 1907 and 1927, in the early days of the American eugenics movement, over 8,500 Americans were sterilized. In the ten years after Buck v Bell nearly 28,000 Americans were rendered infertile. Hitler modeled his 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Defective Offspring on sterilization laws drawn up by American eugenists in Buck‘s wake. The defendants at Nuremberg cited Buck v. Bell in their pleadings. From 1909-79 institutions in California sterilized 20,000 inmates: during that period 68,000 of America’s genetically questionable were mutilated by a neuter and release program.
In Britain, 90% of babies diagnosed with Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) are aborted before birth. In Denmark, the number is 98%. Those with Down Syndrome suffer from a number of ailments, including learning disabilities. Most with Down Syndrome have an IQ between 30 and 69 and few will be able to function in modern society without supervision. But given that support Trisomy 21 is no barrier to living a happy and productive life. Those terminating these pregnancies do so not because they fear the burden of thyroid issues or cataracts. They do so because their baby will be mentally retarded. The pre-Christian West exposed unfit babies to the elements. The post-Christian West saves parents the troubles of bearing a child and finding a field.
In their glory days West Virginia’s coal mines employed over 100,000 people. Today there are fewer than 20,000 miners. Unemployment and drug abuse are endemic throughout the Appalachians. The fall of big coal took down small businesses long before COVID-19 was a gleam in somebody’s lab. But Joe Biden has a solution to their problems: they should learn to code. At a December 30, 2019 rally Biden noted “Anybody who can go down 3000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well.” But as Terry Steele, a fourth-generation coal miner, put it:
Coding and programming is something I don’t have a clue about. And I don’t really know whether I could learn it or not. A lot of miners probably could. But the thing about this is, even if you could learn it, where in these areas are these jobs available at? Especially here in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where these miners have lived their whole lives and want to live the rest of their lives. And where are these jobs that pay money like these miners were making in the mines and that also have health care? And especially if you worked for a union mine, a pension.
In the cold equations of economy we see neither tradition nor justice, only utility and obsolescence. Those with sufficient aptitude may find a place in the new order. The rest are dismissed as outmoded tools unfit for modern technology and postmodern morality. The peasant might rail against his lord’s failings and injustices; he might revolt; he might mutter in taverns with his drunk and disgruntled fellows. But he knew he had been wronged, and he knew who had wrong him. Today we are ruled by charts and numbers and have no one but ourselves to blame for our data.
I cannot tell you if intelligence tests will reveal similar racial discrepancies a century from now; if the reasons for these discrepancies will have been exposed; if we will cure the ills which divide us. I can tell you that we will have simple people among us. No matter how high we raise the median, there will always be those below it. Talents are divided unequally: not everybody can be strongest, prettiest or smartest. We have spent decades pretending otherwise. And while we make plans for a more equal world, the simple among us are ground under by our complex machinations. We affirm their equality as we sacrifice them to progress and profit. But what if instead we affirmed their humanity?
Medieval European leaders had few expectations for the common people. But those leaders knew what was expected of them. The common folk were their charges and they were to see that their lives were as peaceful and prosperous as possible. Those leaders who failed their duty were remembered as bad: those who did their duty were good. And if we are to be remembered fondly, perhaps we might tend to the needs of the simple rather than insisting they are only temporarily inconvenienced geniuses.
Architects are important. But their plans only become buildings with the help of thousands piling stone, cutting wood, and building foundations. Engineers design roads and canals: laborers level the ground and dig the ditches. Since the Industrial Revolution, these workers became increasingly less important as machines have proved more efficient than men. And the machines which once did our manual labor each day become more capable of handling our intellectual work. The poor fellow working with his hands has been an anachronism for centuries. Our clever classes are now finding themselves equally outmoded. They can expect no more compassion from our new lords than Scots Highland crofters received from theirs.
In a just society, the simple people would be regarded as the base upon which our kingdom rests. Their work would be recognized for its value and an honest laborer would be viewed as the moral superior of a dishonest king. Those simple folk capable of rising to greater things would be given every opportunity to reach their full potential. Those who were not would be given every chance to live their lives happily and to contribute to the greater society. They would be kept busy at meaningful tasks and respected for their work. We would all remember that in extremis we can get along without lawyers and academics better than we can without ditch-diggers and strong-backed defenders.
A just society would see to it that an honest day’s work receives an honest day’s pay. They would strive to see that the simple people are adequately housed and properly fed. As we protect our citizens from strong-arm robberies, a just leader would punish those who exploit the less educated. Stealing money through lies and usury would be no more acceptable than stealing it at gunpoint. The simple would be lauded the way we used to honor the Common Man and the Blue-Collar Worker. Morality, honesty and hard work would be valued over test scores. And we would remember that all our wisdom is foolishness before God, and that often the foolish find the Truth where the wise have overlooked it.