We have become victims of our very success in producing a comfortable life so that nothing new seems worth much further effort. The United States and the West might even be as decadent as was ancient Rome, which managed decline for centuries. Why not the United States too?
Everyone on the right seems to have a fixation on human nature these days. At the very top of the social conservative hierarchy at The New York Times, Ross Douthat proclaims the United States absolutely decadent, while near the libertarian pinnacle at the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray finds us fundamentally ignorant about our very humanity.
Mr. Douthat’s title describes his case concisely, The Decadent Society, and in four crisp chapters proves to almost anyone’s satisfaction that the United States is: 1) economically stagnant compared to its earlier inventiveness from 1830’s outdoor plumbing and candlelight to 1970s modern living and future expectations for perfect health and easy work; 2) so reproductively sterile it is sexless, unable to replace itself or remain married or keep males with their own children, and too elderly to do much of anything; 3) incapable of managing its over-bureaucratized government or creating or running any new large social institutions; and 4) unable to think creatively about art or drama, cautious and frightened with constant repetition, simply copying earlier themes and stories.
We have become victims of our very success in producing a comfortable life that nothing new seems worth much further effort. If you are unconvinced, read his evidence. His facts take the author in numerous directions, offering many wise observations on the way, but his major insight is that civilizations decline, but do not necessarily fall, very quickly. His data suggest the United States and the West might even be as decadent as was ancient Rome, which managed decline for centuries. Why not the United States too? Like that colossus we equally dominate every power that might threaten our imperial rule. His proof is Americans really do not dispute the decline or the political inability to change things but all still very comfortably assume it will last forever.
The fundamental reality is that, like Rome, the rest of the world is worse, much worse. What about the governmental graveyard, out-of-control debt and unfunded entitlements? A virus comes along and the already crushing debt is more than doubled to almost unanimous approval, demanding government care for all whatever the cost. Mr. Douthat indeed practically predicted that the population were by now so supine they would allow politicians they did not trust to confine them to their homes. While the author suggested several possible long-term outcomes for the United States, he set the most likely future as a “kindly despotism” powered by a “pink police state” using social media to sustain a “health and safety” culture where old freedom rights are transformed into the liberties of pleasure, consumption, and safety, fearfully demanding protection from every physical and psychological harm imaginable.
China has proven that social media can be used to manage such a culture even in a once-democratic Hong Kong, and less coercive “contact isolation” versions of it worked even in South Korea and Israel and is recommended for the United States [*] This apparently more efficient handling of pandemics requires constant testing, with positive results for individuals and all their recent contacts confined in government facilities until symptom-free. Mr. Douthat believes it would take an absolute calamity, a trying renaissance, or an unlikely miraculous intervention to end American acceptance of this kindly health and safety decadence; but perhaps the current decadence is not so bad since Hitler, Stalin, and Mao prove there are worse alternatives.
Mr. Murray’s Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race and Class starts far removed from cosmic matters like civilizational decline, beginning with what is the closest to our most intimate selves: our bodies, our minds, our very anthropology. This biology is based on cells, which have nuclei that have chromosomes, which have DNA and RNA that are composed of basic sugars in pairs of alleles. Mr. Murray insists that knowledge of these is essential to understanding how humans actually function, but to understand them requires knowledge of standard deviations and Cohen difference statistics; of cluster and other statistical analysis; of gene structure and function; and of the relative statistical correlation contributions of shared and unshared environments and genomes. He does a nice job of teaching the basics of these, at least for a reviewer who taught social statistics at a rather large state university.
As his subtitle suggests, Mr. Murray uses these methodologies to explain three areas of human social life. Starting with sex gets one’s attention and he immediately challenges today’s socially correct view that all gender differences are taught in family and social environments rather than being biological or hereditary. By producing overwhelming scientific evidence, he contradicts by proving it is more nature than nurture.
Biology demonstrates there are 46 human chromosomes in 23 pairs, one of which is for sex with easily identifiable XX for females and XY for males. Contrary to the presumption, psychological studies of these chromosomes demonstrate many important sex differences in personality, neurocognitive functioning, and educational and vocational choices. Neurological scans and analysis find differences in brain structural and functional composition and activity, the strong influence of sex hormones, and different sex disease and health effects. Women demonstrate higher sensory perception, fine motor skills, verbal acuity, and a person orientation, while males are more visuospatial, with highest level math skills, and a things orientation. These result in different choice of occupations and many other social roles and behaviors.
There is no chromosome for differences or similarities for the controversial subjects of ethnicity and race. Here Mr. Murray must investigate genes, the knowledge about which he shows has exploded in recent years, starting in 2003 with the completion of the genome diversity project sequencing 3 billion DNA gene pairs of its four base chemicals and a 2005 testing to assess the African origin and dispersion of the human race theory based upon a 1,005 person sample from 52 countries. This and confirmations by later studies not only found a human African origin but more importantly identified expanding mixes of recognizable nationality gene mix characteristics as the peoples disbursed that is still recognizable in the world’s geographical populations today.
Gender and race can be identified biologically, but Mr. Murray argues that they no longer determine class as measured by educational and income success, as these are most strongly associated with intellectual IQ today. Again, there is no heredity gene so Mr. Murray tests indirectly by evaluating the thousands of studies comparing identical (same genes) and fraternal (share half) twins as natural tests. These studies by environmental psychologists show that the common family environment explains little about complex human personality and cognitive traits (except parental wealth which can buy access to them), that somewhat more is explained by family genes, although most is explained by neither, human nature being too complex for a single cause.
The best part of Mr. Murray’s analysis is he makes all of the necessary qualifications on both the data and how they must be analyzed. Environment is least explanatory but concedes the possibility of a “breakthrough.” Whereas the old Mendel theory of one gene linked to one trait promised direct causal confirmation, we now know that many (and maybe all) genes have some effect on one trait and all such links are merely probabilistic. Brain scan traces do not actually measure brain neurons directly, but effects, such as blood flows, and not even single ones. The studies are based on small samples. Cluster analysis is easily manipulated. “Measurement error” in heritability studies is open-ended and can be “seriously misleading” when overlooked, which it usually is.
So, Mr. Murray’s conclusions are subtle. There are differences in the sexes, ethnicities, and intellect that separate them into identifiable biological groupings with central cores but with a range producing both high math women and sensitive men exceptions. While the effects of genetic heritability are substantial and greater than nurture, genes are not determinative. IQ for example explains about a quarter of the statistical variance in successful job performance, which is high for a social correlation, but limited. IQ is important because it is set by age six, and there is not much short of suppressing genes that can be done to change these influences. But biological intelligence is not by any means alone determinative of economic, social, or political success.
As political scientists both authors target the America transition from WASP leadership based on semi-aristocratic status and noblesse oblige, which morality eventually opened Ivy League education to selection by IQ merit. But the probably unintended result was to strengthen the elite with new blood but to deprive the middle and lower classes of leadership, making the meritocracy invulnerable from ever ending Douthat-decadence. Mr. Murray’s concern was that making intelligence the determinant for leadership had the effect of making the chosen ones believe they were morally superior to those with IQs under 130, depriving them of human value itself. But IQ comes more from nature and earlier than education and thus provides no justification for leadership much less to a belief in moral superiority.
Both authors interestingly end far from their main themes. While predicting continuing decadence as his thesis, Mr. Douthat does allow for possible change through catastrophe, renaissance, or even providence. But the self-acknowledged Christian makes the latter seem no more likely than the others. Yet, at the very end he jolts the reader with “it shouldn’t surprise anyone if decadence ends with people looking heavenward toward God, toward the stars, or both.”
Even recognizing that a biological scientist might sound “starry-eyed,” Mr. Murray turns censorious. Making today’s highest value intellect, with its hope of perfecting a very resistant human nature, forces elites to reject the idea of human equality. The “only way” America was able to justify its equality, the agnostic Mr. Murray argues, was “through the moral vocabulary of Christianity,” that we are “all deeply flawed, sinners,” “equal in God’s eyes.” While modern society “cannot be Christian or even ecumenically religious” given the pervasiveness of secularism, leaders must at least develop “a secular understanding of the truth behind the old formulation.”
Starry-eyed, perhaps, but beginning with either everlasting decadence or with human genomes, and both authors ending up with God and morality does earn that happy appellation.
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[*] Lyman Stone, “The key tool to a safe opening is not social distancing,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2020.
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