It’s been stated many times before that there might or might not be a gender (or racial) difference when it comes to some kinds of intelligence or aptitude, and this difference might be partially accounted for by biology. I’m not looking to weigh in on this debate. It’s an empirical issue, and as far as I can tell, it’s still unresolved. As such, I’m agnostic.
What I want to do consider is how we should respond if it turns out there is some empirical evidence suggesting there are biological differences across gender or ethnic groups in at least one kind of intelligence or aptitude. Since this isn’t an issue that we can logically dissolve from the armchair, or wish away given the outcome we want to be true, we need to brace ourselves for whatever outcome is supported by the evidence. And I don’t feel that the debate has been at a mature enough level to seriously consider the implications of this kind of result.
Consider the finding regarding the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews having a higher-than-average intelligence. It was controversial, but there wasn’t nearly the magnitude of uproar at this notion as there was to Larry Summers’ infamous 2005 speech. But what if the finding was the other way around, that Ashkenazi jews had lower than average intelligence, and this was put down to biology? Can you imagine?
But such a result – concerning race or gender – could be just around the corner. It’s not up to us to choose, it’s up to the evidence.
What if evidence emerges that supports a biological difference? Let’s say that it’s found that Summers’ hypothesis* is true. Or even that it’s found that there is a gender difference when it comes to interest in pursuing particular careers, rather than an aptitude difference. These factors might not account for the entire observed gender difference in the workforce – clearly socialisation and entrenched cultural biases are potent forces – but it might account for a significant proportion of the difference. What then?
A couple of initial thoughts: one response could be to cite the naturalistic fallacy (or at least one reading of it) to assert that ‘just because something is natural (or biological), that doesn’t mean that it’s good‘. It might be true that there’s a biological difference in capacity x, but that doesn’t mean that we should be happy with this, nor try to do something to change it if it’s within our power to do so.
The second thing is to remember that there are accepted biologically-based differences in other capacities, such as physical strength – and as a result, more men’s sport is televised than women’s sport. But this doesn’t mean that we, as a society, ought to value men more than women. This is because we’re wise enough (or ought to be) to detach performance in sport from an individual’s value as a human being.
The third thing I’d suggest is that no matter how biology shapes capacities or aptitudes, we can choose to work to ensure that any biological differences don’t negatively impact an individuals’ wellbeing. We can make a value decision that no matter how capacities or aptitudes vary, each individual deserves to be valued, and deserves a chance to pursue their own wellbeing without discrimination.
I’m sure there are many more implications and responses should it turn out to be the case that there are real gender or racial differences – and these should be getting more attention. We can’t just wait to see if evidence emerges, and allow the more conservative elements leap on those results before the more progressive voices have a chance to respond in more rational or temperate ways.
So we need to ask, before the evidence emerges, ‘what if there are gender or racial differences?’, and get the dialogue going sooner rather than too late.
*Summers’ hypothesis is that average intelligence is the same between men and women, but that the standard deviation for men is greater, and that since only the top 0.01% in a particular area (such as mathematical ability) tend to seek work in a related area – such as a physics or maths professor – we’d expect a greater proportion of men than women in those extreme roles.