Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization

Noam Chomsky

In Walter Feinberg (ed), Equality and Social Policy, Illinois, 1978

investigation in principle, a system that provides a unique form of intelligence that manifests itself in human language, in our unique capacity to develop a concept of number and abstract space,28 to construct scientific theories in certain domains, to create certain systems of art, myth, and ritual, to interpret human actions, to develop and comprehend certain systems of social institutions, and so on.

On an “empty organism” hypothesis, human beings are assuredly equal in intellectual endowments. More accurately, they are equal in their incapacity to develop complex cognitive structures of the characteristically human sort. If we assume, however, that this biologically given organism has its special capacities like any other, and that among them are the capacities to develop human cognitive structures with their specific properties, then the possibility arises that there are differences among individuals in their higher mental functions. Indeed, it would be surprising if there were not, if cognitive faculties such as the language faculty are really “mental organs.” People obviously differ in their physical characteristics and capacities; why should there not be genetically determined differences in the character of their mental organs and the physical structures on which they are based?

Inquiry into specific cognitive capacities such as the language faculty leads to specific and I think significant hypotheses concerning the genetically programmed schematism for language, but gives us no significant evidence concerning variability. Perhaps this is a result of the inadequacy of our analytic tools. Or it may be that the basic capacities are truly invariant, apart from gross pathology. We find that over a very broad range, at least, there are no differences in the ability to acquire and make effective use of a human language; at some level of detail, it may be differences in what is acquired, as there are evidently differences in facility of use. I see no reason for dogmatism on this score. So little is known concerning other cognitive capacities that we can hardly even speculate. Experience seems to support the belief that people do vary in their intellectual capacities and their specialization. It would hardly come as a surprise if this were so, assuming that we are dealing with biological structures, however intricate and remarkable, of known sorts.

Many people, particularly those who regard themselves as within the left-liberal political spectrum, find such conclusions repugnant. It may be that the empty organism hypothesis is so attractive to the left in part because it precludes these possibilities; there is no variability on a null endowment. But I find it difficult to understand why conclusions of this sort should be at all disturbing. I am personally quite convinced that no matter what training or education I might have received, I could never have run a four-minute mile, discovered Godel’s theorems, composed a Beethoven quartet, or risen to any of innumerable other heights of human achievement. I feel in no way demeaned by these inadequacies. It is quite enough that I am capable, as I think any person of normal endowments probably is, of appreciating and in part understanding what others have accomplished, while making my own personal contributions in whatever measure and manner I am able to do. Human talents vary considerably, within a fixed framework that is characteristic of the species and that permits ample scope for creative work, including the creative work of appreciating the achievements of others. This should be a matter for delight rather than a condition to be abhorred. Those who assume otherwise must be adopting the tacit premise that a person’s rights or social reward are somehow contingent on his abilities. As for his rights, there is an element of plausibility in this assumption in the single respect already noted: in a decent society opportunities should confirm as far as possible to personal needs, and such needs may be specialized and related to particular talents and capacities. My pleasure in life is enhanced by the fact that others can do many things that I cannot, and I see no reason to deny these people the opportunity to cultivate their talents, consistent with general social needs. Difficult questions of practice are sure to arise in any functioning social group, but I see no problem of principle.

As for social rewards, it is alleged that in our society remuneration correlates in part with IQ. But insofar as that is true, it is simply a social malady to be overcome much as slavery had to be eliminated at an earlier stage of human history. It is sometimes argued that constructive and creative work will cease unless it leads to material reward, so that all of society gains when the talented receive special rewards. For the mass of the population, then, the message is: “You’re better off if you’re poor.” One can see why this doctrine would appeal to the privileged, but it is difficult to believe that it could be put forth by anyone who has had experience with creative work or workers in the arts, the sciences, crafts, or whatever. The standard arguments for “meritocracy” have no basis in fact or logic, to my knowledge; they rest on a priori beliefs, which, furthermore, do not seem particularly plausible. I have discussed the matter elsewhere and will not pursue it here.29

Suppose that inquiry into human nature reveals that human cognitive capacities are highly structured by our genetic program and that there are variations among individuals within a shared framework. This seems to me an entirely reasonable expectation, and a situation much to be desired. It has no implications with regard to equality of rights or condition, so far as I can see, beyond those already sketched.

Consider finally the question of race and intellectual endowments. Notice again that in a decent society there would be no social consequences to any discovery that might be made about this question. An individual is what he is; it is only on racist assumptions that he is to be regarded as an instance of his race category, so that social consequences ensue from the discovery that the mean for a certain racial category with respect to some capacity is such-and-such. Eliminating racist assumptions, the facts have no social consequences whatever they may be, and are therefore not worth knowing, from this point of view at least. If there is any purpose to an investigation of the relation between race and some capacity, it must derive from the scientific significance of the question. It is difficult to be precise about questions of scientific merit. Roughly, an inquiry has scientific merit if its results might bear on some general principles of science. One doesn’t conduct inquiries into the density of blades of grass on various lawns or innumerable other trivial and pointless questions. Likewise, inquiry into such questions as race and IQ appears to be of virtually no scientific interest. Conceivably, there might be interest in correlations between partially heritable traits, but if someone were interested in this question he would surely not select such characteristics as race and IQ, each an obscure amalgam of complex properties. Rather, he would ask whether there is a correlation between measurable and significant traits, say, eye color and length of the big toe. It is difficult to see how the study of race and IQ can be justified on any scientific grounds.

If the inquiry has no scientific significance and no social significance, apart from the racist assumption that an individual must be regarded not as what he is but rather as standing at the mean of his race category, it follows that it has no merit at all. The question then arises, Why is it pursued with such zeal? Why is it taken seriously? Attention naturally turns to the racist assumptions that do confer some importance on the inquiry if they are accepted.

In a racist society, inquiry into race and IQ can be expected to reinforce prejudice, pretty much independent of the outcome of the inquiry. Given such concepts as “race” and “IQ,” it is to be expected that the results of any inquiry will be obscure and conflicting, the arguments complex and difficult for the layman to follow. For the racist, the judgment “not proven” will be read “probably so.” There will be ample scope for the racist to wallow in his prejudices. The very fact that the inquiry is undertaken suggests that its outcome is of some importance, and since it is important only on racist assumptions, these assumptions are insinuated even when they are not expressed. For such reasons as these, a scientific investigation of genetic characteristics of Jews would have been appalling in Nazi Germany. There can be no doubt that the investigation of race and IQ has been extremely harmful to the victims of American racism. I have heard black educators describe in vivid terms the suffering and injury imposed on children who are made to understand that “science” has demonstrated this or that about their race, or even finds it necessary to raise the question.

We cannot ignore the fact that we live in a profoundly racist society, though we like to forget that this is so. When the New York Times editors and U.N. Ambassador Moynihan castigate Idi Amin of Uganda as a “racist murderer,” perhaps correctly, there is a surge of pride throughout the country and they are lauded for their courage and honesty. No one would be so vulgar as to observe that the editors and the Ambassador, in the not very distant past, have supported racist murder on a scale that exceeds Amin’s wildest fantasies. The general failure to be appalled by their hypocritical pronouncements reflects, in the first place, the powerful ideological controls that prevent us from coming to terms with our acts and their significance and, in the second place, the nation’s profound commitment to racist principle. The victims of our Asian wars were never regarded as fully human, a fact that can be demonstrated all too easily, to our everlasting shame. As for domestic racism, I need hardly comment.

The scientist, like anyone else, is responsible for the foreseeable consequences of his acts. The point is obvious and generally well understood: consider the conditions on the use of human subjects in experiments. In the present case, an inquiry into race and IQ, regardless of its outcome, will have a severe social cost in a racist society, for the reasons just noted. The scientist who undertakes this inquiry must therefore show that its significance is so great as to outweigh these costs. If, for example, one maintains that this injury is justified by the possibility that this will lead to some refinement of social science methodology, as argued by Boston University President John Silber (Encounter, August, 1974), he provides an insight into his moral calculus: the possible contribution to research methodology outweighs the social cost of the study of race and IQ in a racist society. Such advocates often seem to believe that they are defending academic freedom, but this is just a muddle. The issue of freedom of research arises here in its conventional form: does the research in question carry costs, and, if so, are they outweighed by its significance? The scientist has no unique right to ignore the likely consequences of what he does.

Once the issue of race and IQ is raised, people who perceive and are concerned by its severe social cost are, in a sense, trapped. They may quite properly dismiss the work on the grounds just sketched. But they do so in a racist society in which, furthermore, people are trained to consign to questions of human and social importance to “technical experts,” who often prove to be experts in obfuscation and defense of privilege — “experts in legitimation,” in Gramsci’s phrase. The consequences are obvious. Or, they may enter the arena of argument and counterargument, thus implicitly reinforcing the belief that it makes a difference how the research comes out and tacitly supporting the racist assumptions on which this belief ultimately rests. Inevitably, then, by refuting alleged correlations between race and IQ (or race and X, for any X one selects), one is reinforcing racist assumptions. The dilemma is not restricted to this issue. I have discussed it elsewhere in connection with debate over murder and aggression.30 In a highly ideological society, matters can hardly be otherwise, a misfortune that we may deplore but cannot easily escape.

We exist and work in given historical conditions. We may try to change them, but cannot ignore them, in the work we undertake, the strategies for social change that we advocate, or the direct action in which we engage or from which we abstain. In discussion of freedom and equality, it is very difficult to disentangle questions of fact from judgments of value. We should try to do so, pursuing factual inquiry where it may lead without dogmatic preconception, but not ignoring the consequences of what we do. We must never forget that what we do is tainted and distorted, inevitably by the awe of expertise that is induced by social institutions as one device for imposing passivity and obedience. What we do as scientists, as scholars, as advocates, has consequences. We cannot escape this condition in a society based on concentration of power and privilege. This is a heavy responsibility that a scientist or scholar would not have to bear in a decent society, one in which individuals would not relegate to authorities decisions over their lives or their beliefs. We may and should recommend the simple virtues: honesty and truthfulness, responsibility and concern. But to live by these principles is often no simple matter.



1. Robert Goodman, After the Planners (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971).

2. K. William Kapp, The Social Costs of Private Enterprise (1950; paperback ed., New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 231.

3. Cf. Seymour Melman, “Industrial Efficiency under Managerial versus Cooperative Decision-making,” Review of Radical Political Economics, Spring, 1970; reprinted in B. Horvat, M. Marcovic, and R. Supek, eds., Self-Governing Socialism, vol. II (White Plains, N.Y.: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1975). See also Melman, Decision-Making and Productivity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958); and Paul Blumberg, Industrial Democracy: The Sociology of Participation (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).

4. Stephen A. Marglin, “What Do Bosses Do?,” Review of Radical Political Economics, Summer, 1974; Herbert Gintis, “Alienation in Capitalist Society,” in R.C. Edwards, M. Reich, and T.E. Weisskopf, eds., The Capitalist System (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972).

5. J. E. Meade, Efficiency, Equality and the Ownership of Property (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965).

6. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House 1959).

7. Giambattista Vico, The New Science, trans. T. G. Bergin and M. H. Fisch (Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Books, 1961).

8. David Ellerman, “Capitalism and Workers’ Self-Management,” in G. Hunnius, G. D. Garson and J. Case. eds., Workers’ Control (New York: Random House, 1973), pp. 10-11.

9. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, cited by Marglin, “What Do Bosses Do?”

10. Edward S. Greenberg, “In Defense of Avarice,” Social Policy, Jan./Feb., 1976, p. 63.

11. “The Fearful Drift of Foreign Policy,” Commentary, Business Week, Apr. 7, 1975.

12. In fact, in this case, sheer robbery backed by police power is a more likely explanation.

13. On the interpretation of the “lessons of Vietnam” by academic scholars and liberal commentators as the war ended, see my “Remaking of History,” Ramparts, Sept., 1975, [reprinted in Towards a New Cold War (Pantheon, 1982)] and “The United States and Vietnam,” Vietnam Quarterly, no. 1, Winter, 1976.

14. For a discussion of this topic, see my introduction to N. Blackstock, Cointelpro (New York: Vintage, 1976).

15. See, for example, Herbert J. Gans, “About the Equalitarians,” Columbia Forum, Spring, 1975.

16. Rudolf Rocker, “Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism,” in P. Eltzbacher, ed., Anarchism (London: Freedom Press, 1960), pp. 234-5.

17. I have discussed some of the roots of these doctrines elsewhere: e.g., For Reasons of State (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973).

18. Rocker, “Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism,” p. 228. Rocker is characterizing the “ideology of anarchism.” Whether Marx would have welcomed such a conception is a matter of conjecture. As a theoretician of capitalism, he did not have very much to say about the nature of a socialist society. Anarchists, who tended to the view that the workers’ organizations must create “not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself” within capitalist society (Bakunin), correspondingly provided a more extensive theory of post-revolutionary society. For a left-Marxist view of these questions, see Karl Korsch, “On Socialization,” in Horvat et al., Self-Governing Socialism, vol. 1.

19. Evidently there is a value judgment here, for which I do not apologize.

20. Quotes are from Salvador E. Luria, Life: The Unfinished Experiment (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1973).

21. For references and discussions, see note 17, and Frank E. Manual, “In Memorium: Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875-1975,” Daedalus, Winter, 1976.

22. Fredy Perlman, Essay on Commodity Fetishism, reprinted from Telos, no. 6 (Somerville, Mass.: New England Free Press, 1968).

23. Istvan Meszaros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (London: Merlin Press, 1970).

24. Cited in Meszaros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation.

25. See my Reflections on Language (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975) for reference and discussion.

26. Walter Sullivan, “Scientists Debate Question of Race and Intelligence,” New York Times, Feb. 23, 1976, p. 23. His account may well be accurate; I have often heard and read similar comments from left-wing scientists.

27. Cf., for example, the remarks on language in Luria, Life: The Unfinished Experiment; Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971); Francois Jacob, The Logic of Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973); For some recent discussion of this issue, see my Reflections on Language.

28. It is extremely misleading to argue, as some do, that certain birds have an elementary “concept of number” as revealed by their ability to employ ordinal and visually presented systems up to some finite limit (about 7). The concepts one, two, …, seven are not to be confused with the concept natural number, as formally captured, e.g., by the Dedekind-Peano axioms, and intuitively understood, without difficulty, by normal humans, as an infinite system.

29. See For Reasons of State, chap. 7.

30.American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969), introduction.