UL invites Charles Murray to deliver speech at the College

Students gathered in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall to listen to Charles Murray speak. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.
Students gathered in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall to listen to Charles Murray speak. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.

Uncomfortable Learning (UL), an unofficial student organization at the College that aims to provide a forum for “engaging with all ideas and points of views,” hosted social scientist and conservative intellectual Charles Murray on Wednesday. This was UL’s first event since President Adam Falk cancelled a scheduled appearance by writer John Derbyshire. Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the author of works such as The Bell Curve and Coming Apart, has garnered criticism throughout his career for providing racist ideology and intellectual basis in a manner that links him to Derbyshire’s arguments about racial difference.

In response to Murray’s scheduled appearance at the College, the Williams College Debating Union (WCDU) invited Joseph L. Graves Jr., an evolutionary and nanobiologist and historian of science based at the Joint School for Nanoscience and Nanoengineering. Graves’ speech, entitled “Race, Genomics and Intelligence: Slight Return,” occurred in the same venue as Murray’s talk, immediately before the AEI fellow was to speak.

“The WCDU invited Dr. Graves in order to stay true to its philosophy,” said WCDU co-president Morris Kolman ’18. “We believe in rigorous debate and critical examination of ideas, and we believed that bringing in a respected and well-published biologist and historian of science to speak on the scientific and cultural context of the genetic link between intelligence and race or sex would empower the student body to critically engage with Murray on a more rigorous level than if they didn’t have Dr. Graves’ in-depth lecture at their disposal.”

Murray’s talk, “The Coming Revolution in the Social Sciences,” began with an ode to UL amidst the cacophony of national reporting on the group and its relationship with the College. “I heard about [UL] through the news media,” Murray reported. He explained his willingness to fund his trip to the College on his own dime before receiving word that UL’s anonymous funders would cover his expenses. “College is supposed to be about learning… and [UL President Zach Wood ’18] is trying to advance the learning process at Williams College,” Murray said in response to the controversy UL attracted for inviting Derbyshire to speak at the College in February and canceling Suzanne Venker’s visit in October.

The speech itself emphasized how “within the decade, social scientists who are ignorant of genetics won’t be able to contribute much to the technical literature on human behavior,” claiming to offer a “progress report” on what retired Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson termed the coming “unification of all knowledge,” the potential synthesis of humanities and the sciences. Murray asserts that social scientists like him will “become obsolete” in the future given their lack of training in genetics: “We know that every single one of those outcomes [published in social science writings] is caused by genes… nothing has zero heritability.”

Murray, who professes himself an “interested amateur” in genetics, then delved into what he called his more “contentious thesis,” the idea that an incorporation of genetic knowledge into the social sciences would lead to “a rediscovery of human nature” and, accordingly, of “human diversity” that would prove “the equality premise is wrong.” Acknowledging that his audience would likely meet his claims with sincere skepticism, Murray advised those in attendance to “buckle up” and offered an amendment to his talk, stating, “genes are not destiny.” Though people may be equal under the law, Murray states, they are not equal “in their latent abilities and characteristics,” warning how “in academia, the equality premise had come to dominate the social sciences on campuses throughout the nation by the end of the 1970s, and nowhere more completely than at elite universities.”

Murray went on to explain his belief in a genetic basis off of one’s level of intellect. “I just don’t believe that there is any college professor who seriously believes that all of the kids in his classes, if they had had identical upbringings and environments, would have identical academic ability,” Murray stated. “I don’t think anybody believes that.” Citing evolutionary biology and genetics, Murray sought to advance the idea that “different environments” over many years produced “different evolutionary pressures” where “fitness will vary according to the characteristics” of those respective environments. He suggested that genetic differences amongst individuals of different races and genders are merely a reflection of natural selection. Murray, however, acknowledged the limitations of his argument and was inclined against offering any commentary on the implications of his claims until “we know the whole story,” stating that “we are still at the bottom of the learning curve…”

Murray concluded his speech with three declarations: “The coming revolution in social sciences is irreversible… academics hate to be seen as stupid by their peers… [and] if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The speaker then took questions and responded to statements of disagreement from the audience offered by Graves as well as students and faculty of the College, facing intense pushback for both his central claims as well as a remark on the “sexiness” of female brains.

Murray delivered a similar speech at St. Louis University in December.

The Record reached out to Wood seeking details on how the group arranged for Murray’s visit and commentary on UL’s perception of the speech and subsequent dialogue. However, Wood did not reply with a comment.

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