In the Mismeasure of Man (1981), paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould critiques, “the statistical methods and cultural motivations underlying biological determinism, the belief that the social and economic differences between human groups—primarily races, classes, and sexes—arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology”. His critical arguments are based on his findings of so many errors both large and small in the design of IQ tests, the administration of those tests, for example, on immigrants coming into Ellis Island, and on the results in that example that indicated 75% of those tested would be classified as morons. Although the tests got it wrong, our society’s insistence on classifying immigrants and many others as moronic has set the tone for enequal access to a quality education and it continues to leave a stain on the reality we call opportunity to succeed here in America.
Biological Determinism Oversimplifies Our Complex Life
Biological determinism is the belief that a person’s biology, including their genes, hormones, and other physical characteristics, completely determines their behavior, personality, and other aspects of their life. There are several problems with this view:
- It ignores the influence of the environment: Biological determinism assumes that biological factors are the only important determinants of behavior, ignoring the impact of social and environmental factors. For example, studies have shown that poverty, education, and culture can have a significant impact on a person’s behavior and life outcomes.
- It promotes stereotypes: Biological determinism can lead to harmful stereotypes and discrimination against certain groups of people. For example, if someone believes that women are biologically predisposed to be more emotional and nurturing than men, they may use this belief to justify gender discrimination in the workplace or in other areas of life.
- It ignores individual differences: Biological determinism assumes that everyone within a particular group is the same and behaves in the same way, based on their biology. However, people within a group can have a wide range of individual differences, and biological factors can interact with environmental factors in complex ways to shape behavior and personality.
- It can be used to justify inequality: Biological determinism can be used to justify existing social hierarchies, arguing that certain groups are biologically superior to others. This can lead to the reinforcement of social and economic inequality, as well as to the oppression and marginalization of certain groups.
Overall, biological determinism oversimplifies the complex interplay between biology, environment, and individual differences, and can have negative social consequences.
Single Measure of Intelligence
The century-old need to quantify intelligence as just one number is a defining feature of America. From the time of World War 1 to the current SAT, Americans have accepted a single number that can reveal whether test-takers are of officer quality or enlisted man quality, as in the example of the Army Alpha test in World War I or a 650 in English on the SAT. The United States School system and the parents of its students rely on this one number to help them sort and rank students. The example of the SAT’s importance in college admissions and the poor performance on that test by so many students has had a chilling effect on the dreams of our children.
The legacy of inequality in education can be traced to crushing those dreams over the last 100 years, as biological determinism has fundamentally rationed the opportunity to succeed for so many of our students. Sadly, a parallel story in learning how to read is stubbornly stuck for at least 40 years in the shocking fact that only about 32% of our students attain reading proficiency in fourth grade.
In 2022, “the percentage of fourth-grade public school students performing at or above the NAEP Proficient level in reading was 32 percent nationally. Across the states/jurisdictions, the percentages of public school fourth-graders performing at or above NAEP Proficient in reading ranged from 21 percent to 50 percent” (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2022). Nationwide, on average, “79% of U.S. adults are literate in 2022, and, 21% of adults in the US are illiterate in 2022. 54% of adults have a literacy below sixth-grade level” (Pro Literacy).
Low Literacy and Inequality
Low literacy rates and inequality are closely linked. Here are some ways in which they are connected:
- Inequality can contribute to low literacy rates: In societies where there is a large gap between the rich and the poor, access to education may be limited for those who are not financially well off. This can lead to low literacy rates, as many people may not have the opportunity to learn to read and write.
- Low literacy rates can perpetuate inequality: People with low literacy skills may have limited job opportunities, lower earning potential, and limited access to information, which can perpetuate the cycle of poverty and inequality.
- Inequality can affect the quality of education: Inequality can also affect the quality of education that people receive. Schools in poorer areas may have fewer resources and less qualified teachers, which can lead to a lower quality of education and lower literacy rates.
- Low literacy rates can lead to social exclusion: People with low literacy skills may have difficulty understanding important information, communicating with others, and participating in society. This can lead to social exclusion and further perpetuate inequality.
Biological, Caste, Inequality
In summary, biological determinism set the tone for a single number ranking of students leading to an informal caste based on 1-100. 100 years later, the caste system continues with low literacy rates and inequality that are intertwined issues that have a significant impact on individuals and society as a whole. Improving literacy rates and reducing inequality require a multifaceted approach that addresses access to education, quality of education, and social and economic factors that contribute to inequality.