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Herrnstein’s Syllogism

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2650 words

1. If differences in mental abilities are inherited, and
2. if success requires those abilities, and
3. if earnings and prestige depend on success,
4. then social standing will be based to some extent on inherited differences among people. (Herrnstein, 1971)

Richard Herrnstein’s article I.Q. in The Atlantic (Herrnstein, 1971) caused much controversy (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994: 10). Herrnstein’s syllogism argued that as environments become more similar and if differences in mental abilities are inherited and that success in life requires such abilities and if earning and prestige depends on success which is required by inheritable mental abilities then social standing will be based, “to some extent on inherited differences among people.” Herrnstein does not say this outright in the syllogism, but he is quite obviously talking about genetic inheritance. One can, however, look at the syllogism with an environmental lens, as I will show. Lastly, Herrnstein’s syllogism crumbles since social class is predictive of success in life when both IQ and social class are equated. So since family background and schooling explains the IQ-income relationship (a measure of success) then Herrnstein’s argument falls.

Note that Herrnstein came to measurement due to being a student of William Sheldon’s somatotyping. “Somatotyping lured the impressionable and young Herrnstein into a world promising precision and human predictability based on the measurement of body parts” (Hilliard, 2012: 22).

  1. If differences in mental abilities are inherited

Premise 1 is simple: “If differences in mental ability are inherited …” Herrnstein is obviously talking about genetic transmission, but we can look at this through a cultural/environmental lens. For example, Berg and Belmont (1990) showed that Jewish children of different socio-cultural backgrounds had different patterns of mental abilities, which were clustered in certain socio-cultural groups (all Jewish), showing that mental abilities are, in large part, culturally derived. Another objection could be that since there are no laws linking psychological/mental states with physical states (the mental is irreducible to the physical—meaning that mental states cannot be transmitted through (physical) genes) then such genetic transmission of psychological/mental traits is impossible. In any case, one can look at cultural transmission of mental abilities and disregard genetic transmission of psychological traits and the argument fails.

We can accept all of the premises of Herrnstein’s syllogism and argue an environmental case, in fact (bracketed words are my additions):

1. If differences in mental abilities are [environmentally] inherited, and
2. if success requires those [environmentally inherited] abilities, and
3. if earnings and prestige depend on [environmentally inherited] success,
4. then social standing will be based to some extent on [enviromnentally] inherited differences among people.

The syllogism hardly changes, but my additions change what Herrnstein was arguing for—environmental, not genetic differences cause success and along with it social standing among groups of people.

The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994) can, in fact, be seen as an at-length attempt to prove the validity of the syllogism in an empiric matter. Herrnstein and Murray (1994: 105, 108-110) have a full discussion of the syllogism. “As stated, the syllogism is not fearsome” (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994: 105). They go on to state that if intelligence (IQ scores, AFQT scores) is only a bit influenced by genes and if success is only a bit influenced by intelligence then only a small amount of success is inherited (genetically). Note that their measure of “IQ” is the AFQT—which is a measure of acculturated learning, measuring school achievement (Roberts et al, 2000; Cascio and Lewis, 2005).

How much is IQ a matter of genes?“, Herrnstein and Murray ask. They then discuss the heritability of IQ, relying, of course, on twin studies. They claim that the heritability of IQ is .6 based on the results of many twin studies. But the fatal flaw with twin studies is that the EEA is false and, therefore, genetic conclusions should be dismissed outright (Burt and Simons, 2014, 2015; Joseph, 2015; Joseph et al, 2015; Fosse, Joseph, and Richardson, 2015; Moore and Shenk, 2016). Herrnstein (1971) also discusses twin studies in the context of heritability, attempting to buttress his argument. But if the main vehicle used to show that “intelligence” (whatever that is) is heritable is twin studies, why, then, should we accept the conclusions of twin research if the assumptions that make the foundation of the field are false?

Block (1995) quotes Murray’s misunderstanding about heritability in an interview Murray had while making tours for The Bell Curve:

When I – when we – say 60 percent heritability, it’s not 60 percent of the variation. It is 60 percent of the IQ in any given person.” Later, he repeated that for the average person, “60 percent of the intelligence comes from heredity” and added that this was true of the “human species,” missing the point that heritability makes no sense for an individual and that heritability statistics are population-relative.

So Murray used the flawed concept of heritability in the wrong way—hilarious.

So the main point of Herrnstein’s argument is that environments become more uniform for everyone, then the power of heredity will shine through since the environment is uniform—the same—for everyone. But even if we could make the environment “the same”. What does this even mean? How is my environment the same, even if the surroundings are the same, say, if I would react or see something differently than you do on the same thing? The subjectivity of the mental disproves the claim that environments can be “more uniform.” Herrnstein claimed that if no variance in environment exists, then the only thing that can influence success is heredity. This is not wrong, but how would it be possible to equalize environments? Are we supposed to start from square one? Give up the wealth and status of the rich and powerful and “equalize environments” and, according to Herrnstein and the ‘meritocracy’, those who had earnings and prestige, which depended on success which depended on inherited mental abilities would still float to the top.

But what happens when both social class and IQ are equated? What predicts life success? Stephen Ceci reanalyzed the data from Terman’s Termites (the term coined for those in the study) and found something quite different from what Terman had assumed. There were three groups in Terman’s study—group A, B, and C. Groups A and C comprised the top and bottom 20 percent of the full sample in terms of life success. So at the start of the study, all of the children “were about equal in IQ, elementary school grades, and home evaluations” (Ceci, 1996: 82). Depending on the test used, the IQs of the children ranged between 142 to 155, which then decreased by ten points during the second wave due to regression and measurement error. So although group A and C had equivalent IQs, they had starkly different life outcomes. (Group B comprised 60 percent of the sample and enjoyed mediocre life success.)

Ninety-nine percent of the men in the group that had the best professional and personal accomplishments, i.e., group A were individuals who came from professional or business-managerial families that were well educated and wealthy. In contrast, only 17% if the children from group C came from professional and business families, and even these tended to be poorer and less well educated than their group A peers. The men in the two groups present a contrast on all social indicators that were assesssed: group A individuals preferred to play tennis, while group C men preferred to watch football and baseball; as children, the group A men were more likely to collect stamps, shells, and coinds than were the group C men. Not only were the fathers of the group A men better educated than those of group C, but so were their grandfathers. In short, even though the men in group C had equivalent IQs to group A, they did not have equivalent social status. Thus, when IQ is equated and social class is not, it is the latter that seems to be deterministic of professional success. Therefore, Terman’s findings, far from demonstrating that high IQ is associated with real-world success, show that the relationship is more complex and that the social status of these so-called geniuses’ families had a “long reach,” influencing their presonal and professional achievments throughout their adult lives. Thus, the title of Terman’s volumes Genetic studies of Genius, appears to have begged the question of the causation of genius. (Ceci, 1996: 82-83)

Ceci used the Project Talent dataset to analyze the impact of IQ on occupational success. This study, unlike Terman’s, looked at a nationally representative sample of 400,000 high-school students “with both intellectual aptitude and parental social class spanning the entire range of the population” (Ceci, 1996: 85). The students were interviewed in 1960, then about 4,000 were again interviewed in 1974. “For all practical purposes, this subgroup of 4,000 adults represents a stratified national sample of persons in their early 30s” (Ceci, 1996: 86). So Ceci and his co-author, Henderson, ran several regression analyses that involved years of schooling, family and social background and a composite score of intellectual ability based on reasoning, math, and vocabulary. They excluded those who were not working at the time due to being imprisoned, being housewives or still being in school. This then left them with a sample of 2,081 for the analysis.

They looked at IQ as a predictor of variance in adult income in one analysis, which then showed an impact for IQ. “However, when we entered parental social status and years of schooling completed as additional covariates (where parental social status was a standardized score, mean of 100, SD = 10, based on a large number of items having to do with parental income, housing costs, etc.—ranging from low of 58 to high of 135), the effects of IQ as a predictor were totally eliminated” (Ceci, 1996: 86). Social class and education were very strongly related to predictors of adult income. So “this illustrates that the relationship between IQ and adult income is illusory because the more completely specified statistical model demonstrates its lack of predictive power and the real predictive power of social and educational variables” (Ceci, 1996: 86).

The considered high, average, and low IQ groups, about equal size, while examining the regressions of earnings on social class and education within the groups.

Regressions were essentially homogeneous and, contrary to the claims by those working from a meritocratic perspective, the slope for the low IQ group was steepest (see Figure 4.1). There was no limitation imposed by low IQ on the beneficial effects of good social background on earnings and, if anything, there was a trend toward individuals with low IQ actually earning more than those with average IQ (p = .09). So it turns out that although both schooling and parental social class are powerful determinants of future success (which was also true in Terman’s data), IQ adds little to their influence in explaining adult earnings. (Ceci, 1996: 86)

The same was also true for the Project Talent participants who continued school. For each increment of school completed, there was also an effect on their earnings.

Individuals who were in the top quartile of “years of schooling completed” were about 10 times as likely to be receiving incomes in the top quartile of the sample as were those who were in the bottom quartile of “years of schooling completed.” But this relationship does not appear to be due to IQ mediating school attainment or income attainment, because the identical result is found even when IQ is statistically controlled. Interestingly, the groups with the lowest and highest IQs both earned slightly more than average-IQ students when the means were adjusted for social class and education (unadjusted meansat the modal value of social class and education = $9,094, $9,242, and $9,997 for low, average, and hhigh IQ groups, whereas the unadjusted means at this same modal value = $9,972, $9,9292, and $9,9278 for the low, average, and high IQs.) (Perhaps the low IQ students were tracked into plumbing, cement finishing and other well-paying jobs and the high-IQ students were tracked intothe professions, while average IQ students became lower paid teachers. social workers, ministers, etc.) Thus, it appears that the IQ-income relationship is really the result of schooling and family background, and not IQ. (Incidentally, this range in IQs from 70 to 130 and in SES from 58 to 135 covers over 95 percent of the entire population.) (Ceci, 1996: 87-88)

Ceci’s analysis is just like Bowles and Nelson’s (1974) analysis in which they found that earnings at adulthood were more influenced by social status and schooling, not IQ. Bowles and Nelson (1974: 48) write:

Evidently, the genetic inheritance of IQ is not the mechanism which reproduces the structure of social status and economic privilege from generation to generation. Though our estimates provide no alternative explanation, they do suggest that an explanation of intergeneration immobility may well be found in aspects of family life related to socio-economic status and in the effects of socio-economic background operating both directly on economic success, and indirectly via the medium of inequalities in educational attainments.

(Note how this also refutes claims from PumpkinPerson that IQ explains income—clearly, as was shown, family background and schooling explain the IQ-income relationship, not IQ. So the “incredible correlation between IQ and income” is not due to IQ, it is due to environmental factors such as schooling and family background.)

Herrnstein’s syllogism—along with The Bell Curve (an attempt to prove the syllogism)—is therefore refuted. Since social class/family background and schooling explains the IQ-income relationship and not IQ, then Herrnstein’s syllogism crumbles. It was a main premise of The Bell Curve that society is becoming increasingly genetically stratified, with a “cognitive elite”. But Conley and Domingue (2015: 520) found “little evidence for the proposition that we are becoming increasingly genetically stratified.”

IQ testing legitimizes social hierarchies (Chomsky, 1972; Roberts, 2015) and, in Herrnstein’s case, attempted to show that social hierarchies are an inevitability due to the genetic transmission of mental abilities that influence success and income. Such research cannot be socially neutral (Roberts, 2015) and so, this is yet another reason to ban IQ tests, as I have argued. IQ tests are a measure of social class (Ceci, 1996; Richardson, 2002, 2017), and such tests were created to justify existing social hierarchies (Mensh and Mensh, 1991).

Thus, the very purpose of IQ tests was to confirm the current social order as naturally proper. Intelligence tests were not misused to support hereditary theories of social hierarchies; they were perfected in order to support them. The IQ supplied an essential difference among human beings that deliberately reflected racial and class stratifications in order to justify them as natural.9 Research on the genetics of intelligence was far from socially neutral when the very purpose of theorizing the heritability of intelligence was to confirm an unequal social order. (Roberts, 2015: S51)

Herrnstein’s syllogism seems valid, but in actuality, it is not. Herrnstein was implying that genes were the casue of mental abilities and then, eventually, success and prestige. But one can look at Herrnstein’s syllogism from an environmentalist point of view (do note that the hereditarian/environmentalist debate is futile and continues the claim that IQ tests test ‘intelligence’, whatever that is). When matched for IQ—in regard to Terman’s Termites—family background and schooling explained the IQ-income relationship. Further analyses showed that this, again, was the case. Ceci (1996) showed again, replicating Terman’s and Bowles’ and Nelson’s (1974) analyses that social class and schooling, not IQ, explains income’s relationship with IQ.

The conclusion of Herrnstein’s argument can, as I’ve already shown, be an environmental one—through cultural, not genetic, transmission. Such arguments that IQ is ‘genetic’ and, thusly, certain individuals/groups will tend to stay in their social class, as Pinker (2002: 106) states: “Smarter people will tend to float into the higher strata, and their children will tend to stay there.” This, as has been shown, is due to social class, not ‘smarts’ (scores on an IQ test). In any case, this is yet another reason why IQ tests and the research behind them should be banned: IQ tests attempt to justify the current social order as ‘inevitable’ due to genes that influence mental abilities. This claim, though, is false and, therefore—along with the fact that America is not becoming more genetically stratified (Conley and Domigue, 2015)—Herrnstein’s syllogism crumbles. The argument attempts to justify the claim that class has a ‘genetic’ component (as Murray, 2020, attempts to show) but subsequent analyses and arguments have shown that Herrnstein’s argument does not hold.



  1. Unorthodox Theory says:

    Nobody cares


  2. mikemikev says:

    If differences in mental abilities are inherited.

    But what if they aren’t inherited? Checkmate.


  3. dealwithit says:

    Note that Herrnstein came to measurement due to being a student of William Sheldon’s somatotyping.












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