and Folk Ideas about Heredity
By Jonathan Marks
Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina - Charlotte
In The Human Genome Project and Minority Communities: Ethical,
Social and Political Dilemmas. Edited by Raymand A. Zilinskas
and Peter J. Balint, Westport, CT: Greenwood, pp. 53-66
Anthropology tries to bring together the exotic and the mundane.
In classical anthropological research, investigators go into the
field and study the lives and thoughts of remote peoples. The
knowledge thus obtained has important implications. First, it
shows that the life, the concerns, and the feelings of a Pueblo
Indian or Sudanese Nuer are in fundamental ways not all that different
from yours or mine; in other words, what at first seems exotic
is really quite mundane. Second, cross-cultural understanding
reveals that our own ideas, which we take to be entirely natural,
are in many cases somewhat arbitrary social conventions and not
natural at all. If looked at from a distance, the way we see the
world, which seems mundane, is actually exotic.
To some extent
this is recognizable from the study of history. We can look back
at the dress styles of the 1960s, which seemed entirely appropriate,
normal, natural, at the time, and see them now as weird. Anthropology
does this more broadly. It shows that the ideas we take for granted
are not necessarily the way things have to be, maybe not even
the way they actually are. It is an intellectual field that can
be threatening - primarily because its very reason for being is
to subvert existing social power structures and to question things
we take for granted as natural about the way we are (Boas 1928).
Now, one of the ideas we take for granted most strongly in
our society is that races represent natural categories of people.
That is to say, the human species comes packaged a small number
of ways, even color-coded for your convenience: black, white,
yellow, red. You belong to one of these categories. Your race
is a property of your constitution, innate and assigned at birth.
And by virtue of being in that category, you have more in common,
particularly more of the fundamentally important things in common,
with other people in the same category than with people in other
I want to begin by questioning that assumption.
The earliest anthropologists in the mid-1800s recognized that
there was an intimate connection between the way people think
about the world and how they classify it. After all, this is how
we make sense of the infinite jumble of things we are exposed
to - we decide "this" is a kind of "that," and slightly different
from something else, which also a kind of "that," but a different
kind of "that."
This is particularly evident in social relationships
centering on the family. You, for example, give the same name
to four different people: your mother's sister, your father's
sister, your mother's brother's wife, and your father's brother's
wife. Of course, I am describing your aunts.
Why should you
put all those people in the same category? Your mother's brother's
wife and your father's brother's wife aren't even genetically
related. Your mother's sister and father's sister are genetically
related to you, but they're on opposite sides of the family. Traditionally,
they don't even have your family name; only your father's brother's
wife has your family name.
Well, the fact is that other people
do it differently. They may have one term for an aunt on the father's
side of the family and a different word for an aunt on the mother's
side of the family. They may have one term for blood relatives
and another for spouses of blood relatives. You might notice also
that you differentiate by sex the names of your father's brother
and father's brother's wife,- they are your uncle and aunt - but
their children, both male and female, are all termed cousins.
Why not differentiate male from female cousins as we do uncles
and aunts? And we don't even have a word for the person married
to your cousin (Schneider 1968).
So people impose order on
their social universe by classifying it, by deciding that these
people cluster together under this name, and that they're different
from those other people assigned a different name. These classifications
sometimes match genetic relationships and sometimes diverge from
them significantly. How we classify is not based on nature, not
determined by nature, but is a construction of our social minds
that we impose on nature to help us organize things, in this case
How did we come up with these social conventions
for classifying our relatives as we do? We don't really know.
We do know a bit more about how we came to classify species
as we do, and the same general things hold true. Jorge Luis Borges
(1965) writes of a Chinese encyclopedia that "divides animals
into: (a) belonging to the Emperor; (b) embalmed; (c) tame; (d)
suckling pigs; (e) sirens; (f) fabulous; (g) stray dogs; (h) included
in the present classification; (i) frenzied; (j) innumerable;
(k) drawn with a very fine camels hair brush; (l) et cetera; (m)
having just broken the water pitcher; (n) that from a long way
off look like flies." This is apocryphal, of course, but it makes
the point well: You have to classify animals somehow. Why not
If you go to the Bible you find that the ancient
Hebrews classified animals too: see for example Leviticus, chapter
11 and Deuteronomy, chapter 14. They did it to decide what was
ritually clean or unclean, and on that basis, what was edible
or inedible (Douglas, 1966). And their criteria, which are entirely
natural, were where the animal lives and how it moves. And so
they divided the animals into flying animals, swimming animals,
and walking or crawling animals. These divisions certainly work,
although there are some areas where they do not map well onto
our modern categories. The bat is classified with the birds, for
example; and lizards and mice end up together.
Our own modern
scientific classification of animals is based on evolutionary
relationships, common ancestry - although in fact scientists started
categorizing animals this way about a century before they realized
that was what they were doing.
We, for example, are mammals.
That was established in the year 1758, a hundred years before
Darwin, by a Swedish biologist named Linnaeus. Mammals constitute
a natural category. If you ask biology students, they will tell
you we're mammals. Why? Because we nurse our young.
something the student probably can not tell you. Do we nurse our
young because we are mammals, or are we mammals because we nurse
our young? Let me rephrase the question: Why is milk so important
in the great scheme of things that we should take our very name
on that basis? Couldn't we come up with the same group using a
different criterion, and so why don't we?
For example, Aristotle
more than two thousand years ago called land animals "Quadrupedia"
(four-legged), and divided them into those that lay eggs and those
that give birth to live offspring. Creating a category of four-legged
creatures that give birth to live offspring gives you basically
the same constellation of animals as the category of mammals (with
a few exceptions, like the duck-billed platypus).
have many features that distinguish them from reptiles, amphibians,
fish, and birds - hair, for one thing. Some scientists in the
18th century actually did call this group "Pilosa," or hairy things.
But Linnaeus called us mammals, based on an anatomical feature
that's only functional in half of our species, and then only rarely.
So why did he do that?
It turns out to have been a political
gesture. In the 1750s, there was major controversy surrounding
the practice of wet-nursing. Many middle- and upper-class women
in Europe were sending their babies off to stay with poor women
in the country to be fed, rather than nursing the infants themselves.
Linnaeus was active in the movement opposing this practice. In
fact he wrote a book on the virtues of breastfeeding your own
children, how it was natural for mothers to do this, and how therefore
wet-nursing was something unnatural and bad. Up to that time he
had been calling mammals simply Quadrupedia, like Aristotle. Now
he calls mammals Mammalia, and uses his "objective" scientific
classification to make this point. He is saying the natural role
of women is to nurse their own children - that is what is right,
and that is what your family should do (Schiebinger, 1993).
The point of all this is to show that what a biology student takes
for granted as a fact of nature, that we are in our very essence
a lactating species, is actually a fact of history - a political
stand from the 18th century embedded into biology. It is true,
of course, mammals are a natural unit and the group can be defined
by nursing, but having a shared natural property doesn't make
a group an objective category, simply "out there" to be discovered.
It is not obviously the case that breastfeeding is the key feature
that makes us mammals, any more than having a single bone in the
lower jaw (which all Mammalia have, and only Mammalia have) is
the key feature that would make us "One-bone-in-jaw-malia." There's
more here than nature.
So: we make sense of our place in the
universe by classifying; our classifications are not necessarily
derived from nature; and even when they are derived from nature,
they encode cultural information.
Now, if there isn't a natural
classification for the things we're interested in, we often come
up with one anyway. For example, time is continuous, but we divide
it into sixty-minute hours, twelve-hour days and nights, and seven-day
weeks, with the days named after skygods. These are arbitrary
conventions; we inherited these time divisions from the ancient
Babylonians (Zerubavel, 1985).
Here's the paradox. The classifications
that are the most arbitrary, and the least natural, seem to be
the ones that matter the most to us. People could be categorized
in many ways. There are short people and tall people; people with
straight teeth and crooked teeth; with wiry, muscular, or chunky
body builds; with freckles; with more or less body hair. These
are natural differences, but they're not very important to us.
What is important? Whether you're an American or an Iraqi. Whether
you're a Nazi, a Communist, a Democrat, or a Republican. An Oriole
fan or a Yankee fan. Rich or poor. Us or them. These categories
of history and of society, the categories of human invention,
are far more important to our daily lives than the categories
of natural variation in our species.
Sure, people look different,
but the people who hate each other the most are generally the
people who are biologically the most similar --Irish and English,
Hutu and Tutsi, Arab and Israeli, Huron and Iroquois; Bosnian,
Croatian, and Serb. Group identifications and animosities, lives
and life-and-death struggles, are rooted in cultural, social,
political, and economic differences, not in biological differences.
Biological difference can be recruited to reinforce them, because
that makes human evil appear to be the result of nature, but nature
is not at the root here.
So returning to the issue of race,
how old is the idea that there are, say, four kinds of people,
each localized to a continent? The answer is that the first person
to suggest it was a Frenchman named François Bernier in 1684.
The ancient Egyptians and Greeks had recognized that people
from different places looked different, that the Egyptians were
more darkly complected than the Greeks, and less darkly complected
than the Nubians, and all of them were lighter than the Scythians.
Of course in those days, long travel was done over land, where
the physical differences between neighboring peoples were more
subtle and gradual.
But by the end of the seventeenth century,
most of the world had been visited by Europeans. Their typical
mode of travel was by boat - you boarded in one place where the
people looked a certain way, and several weeks later you got off
at a port where the people looked quite different, for example
in West Africa and East Asia (Brace 1995).
It was our friend
Linnaeus, once again, who in 1758 scientifically formalized the
distinction among the continental populations of the world. The
order Primates (a term Linnaeus coined) subsumed several genera,
of which our genus Homo was one. Homo (Linnaeus thought) subsumed
two species, Homo sapiens (us) and Homo nocturnus (incorporating
the more anthropomorphic descriptions of the chimpanzee). So how
many subspecies did the species Homo sapiens subsume?
decided there were five subspecies of our species. One was Homo
sapiens monstrosus, which included people with birth defects,
and the other four were geographic. Those were white Europeans,
yellow Asians, red Americans, and black Africans.
maintained that he was simply doing to humans what he did to any
other species, being scientific and objective in his categorizations.
But if you read the characteristics he used to differentiate the
geographic subspecies, you see that they're ridiculous over-generalizations,
frequently outright slanders, and usually not even biological
attributes at all.
Thus, for example, Homo sapiens americanus
is red, ill-tempered, and impassive. After a terse description
of looks and personality of each group, Linnaeus proceeds to describe
their dress and government. Americans paint themselves, Europeans
wear tight-fitting clothes, Asians wear loose-fitting clothes,
and Africans anoint themselves with grease.
Now, it's easy
to bash scientists from 250 years ago. The point I'm trying to
make, however, is that this is very specifically the origin of
the idea that there is a scientific and authoritative way to categorize
people into four distinct groups (Hudson, 1996).
of scholars immediately after Linnaeus jettisoned the use of clothing
as taxonomic criterion. But it's not until the middle of the present
century that anthropologists began to question the empirical basis
for generalizing continentally about the human species (Montagu,
1941). We now recognize that these are neither the discrete fundamental
units of our species, nor are they even comparable biological
The human species simply doesn't come packaged
into something like zoological subspecies. Rather, what we find
are local populations that are similar to other populations nearby
and different from populations far away. This variation no more
tells us there are four kinds of people than it tells us there
are five or six or twelve or thirty-seven kinds of people (Montagu,
1963; Livingstone, 1962; Marks, 1995).
If we focus on the people
from the most geographically divergent places of the earth - say,
Norway, Nigeria, and Vietnam - of course they look different.
But what does that difference represent? There is no reason to
think it represents primordial purity, as if once upon a time
there were people living only in Oslo, Lagos, and Saigon. There
have always been, as far as we know, people living in the rest
of the Old World.
Consider, for example, the people of South
Asia - India and Pakistan. Many of them are darkly pigmented like
Africans and have facial features similar to Europeans, yet they
live on the continent of Asia. What do you do with these people?
And if you put them in a separate group, then what about all the
other people who look distinctive - Polynesians, New Guineans,
Australians, North Africans?
Our ideas about the small number
of basic human groups have been shaped largely by accidents of
European history - the ports of call for the merchant fleet -
and by patterns of immigration into the United States. Immigrants
to the United States have come disproportionately from the regions
surrounding those ports of call.
Africans are incredibly heterogeneous.
When we think of Africans we often think of West Africans. But
remember you have the tallest people in the world in parts of
Kenya and the Sudan, and the shortest people in the world in parts
of the Congo and the Central African Republic. The people of East
Africa look different from the people of West Africa; the people
of southern Africa look different too. There are populations of
very variable facial features and skin tones.
Why group them
all together and distinguish them from Europeans and Asians? Answer:
because it's a difference we want to emphasize for political reasons.
Of course, when you do that, you create a classic empirical problem
at the boundaries. Let's say you juxtapose a Negroid African race
against a Euro-Mediterranean Caucasoid race, as anthropologists
used to do. Here's the simple fallacy: it works for the Swedes
and the Senegalese, but what about the Ethiopians and Iranians?
Any way you compare them - physically, genetically - the African
Ethiopians are more similar to the "Caucasoid" Iranians than they
are to the people of Senegal. Why? Simple: they are closer geographically.
Likewise, Iranians are more similar to Ethiopians than they are
to Swedes. So how can you objectively put a boundary line between
them and decide they're in different groups. Such a division is
just not biologically true.
Humans vary gradually in nature,
yet for cultural reasons we partition them into races (just as
we divide time, which is continuous, into discrete units of minutes,
hours, and weeks).
Race is intended to denote discrete basic
subdivisions of the human species, equivalent to a subspecies
of mice, within which there is little variability and among which
there are discrete differences. These subdivisions do not exist
objectively in the human species. Why? Two reasons: First, populations
are adapted to the places they live. Since geography and climatic
conditions vary gradually and continuously, so do the human populations
occupying these spaces. And second, what Cole Porter called "the
urge to merge" has its effect. That is, human populations interbreed
with their neighbors: population A with population B, B with C,
C with D. And of course, sometimes A with C or D - that is, with
people from further away. All human populations have histories
- they trade. None of them has been sitting isolated and untouched
since the Pleistocene (and the failure to appreciate that, by
the way, is one of the last great ethnocentrisms in modern science).
This is why anthropologists no longer talk about races; we
talk about populations. We talk about local, fluid, bio-cultural
units. Those are what are out there in nature, as far as we can
Now, because what we have are fluid, biocultural, historical
populations, not discrete subspecies, we run into a problem when
we superimpose our preconceptions about heredity on genetic data.
Let's imagine that Mom and Dad have a baby girl. For some reason
Baby Girl either wants to, or has to, prove her racial identity.
The ultimate arbiter of hereditary issues is science, the science
of genetics. Mom and Dad look racially appropriate as does Baby
Girl, but for some reason that's not enough. So Baby Girl is subjected
to a genetic test to look for a specific genetic marker that her
race has and that others don't.
If we take her family back
two more generations, we know she has four grandparents and eight
great-grandparents. Did all eight have that genetic marker? Because
if one of them didn't have it, there is a small but significant
chance that Baby Girl inherited that racially "wrong" genetic
marker. And that's precisely the problem. If one great-grandma
was different - either she was from somewhere else, or she just
inherited a different marker from one of her ancestors, or the
genetic generalization was incorrect - then the "wrong" marker
has a fifty-fifty chance of being passed on each generation.
In other words, you could have a child who looks just like you
and your spouse, but fails a genetic test to match her to your
racial category on account of one great-grandparent (who may have
been just as racially "correct" as the other seven). That's why
you can't do a genetic test for race. Race and genetics don't
map on to one another particularly well.
This parallels, of
course, the old miscegenation laws, which prohibited marriage
between blacks and whites. If you're going to prohibit intermarriage,
you have to define precisely who is black and who is white. The
classic definition came to be known as the "one drop of blood
rule" - any non-white ancestry made you non-white. In practice,
one black great-grandparent defined you as legally black; seven
white great-grandparents weren't enough to make you white (Wright,
1996; Pascoe, 1996).
The technology is different today, but
the cultural mind-set is the same. The problem is simple and anthropological.
Race is inherited, but in a different fashion from biological
heredity. Race is inherited according to no scientific laws, but
rather by a commonsense or folk cultural system.
Like the way we name our relatives, racial divisions are not
determined by biology, and they don't map very well onto genetic
relationships. In fact, races are simply named groups, nothing
more. Naming is what confers meaning, and this is wonderfully
illustrated by a photomontage from Newsweek a couple of
years ago. They asked "What Color Is Black?" and showed that the
category "black people" subsumes people who look very different.
And that's precisely the point. A genetic test for "black" would
be failed by half the people on that page of photographs (and
not necessarily the lightest complected half either), and would
even be failed by half the inhabitants of Africa. On the other
hand, many non-Africans would "pass" the test.
The key thing is to appreciate that race and
genetics aren't from the same worlds. So it's not that one is
good and the other is bad. It's that one is scientific, and the
other provides a means of localizing yourself and others in a
very subjective world of social relations. The difficulty comes
when we confuse them for one another. It's not that race doesn't
exist, an idea I occasionally see espoused in the newspaper; it's
that race doesn't exist as a "biological entity." It certainly
exists as a symbolic, social category. That actually makes it
culturally more real and more important than if it were biological.
Race is not a category derived from genetics. But our folk views
are very deep rooted. For example, I can see the sun rise, traverse
a path across the heavens, and set over the opposite horizon;
yet we now know, of course, that the sun doesn't go around the
earth. It's an optical illusion. To a large extent the growth
of science involves overturning those commonsense ideas and showing
them to be better explained in other ways that aren't immediately
There are four major categories of folk ideologies
of heredity. The first is the one we've already discussed - the
existence of human subspecies or "taxonomism." The second is "racism,"
the belief that a person is simply the embodiment of the group,
and thereby possesses whatever attributes are assigned to the
group. It's a folk theory of heredity because it confers innate
properties upon people based just on membership, rather than through
observation of what the person is really like.
There is another component to this fallacy, and that is the
relationship between what people don't do and what they can't
do. The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray 1994) argued
from test scores to what the authors called "cognitive ability".
In fact, however, we can't study abilities, we can only study
performances; and the relationship between them contains an important
asymmetry - ability is only one component of the performance you
observe. Good performance implies abilities; but poor performance
does not imply the lack of abilities. The very concept of ability
- something endowed at birth, yet perceptible only after it's
been developed - is not scientific, not genetic, not empirical,
and exists as simply folk wisdom (Marks 1997).
Third is "hereditarianism," the idea that you are whatever is
in your cells, that "blood will tell" because "like begets like".
This idea goes back a long way in human history. The royal family
is treated better than the average Londoner for that very reason.
This mode of thought, obviously, has provided a justification
for hereditary aristocracies for millennia.
We see it in high-tech
forms now, in the idea that genes, rather than blood, will tell.
The problem here is that we know very little about the development
of normal traits in people. Much of what we know comes from the
study of pathology, and it's very tricky to infer normal function
from the study of its breakdown. Imagine trying to figure out
what the fuel injector in your car actually does by opening the
hood, smashing it with a hammer, and observing the results. Since
previously there was little coming out of your exhaust but now
you see billows of black smoke, you might come to believe that
you have isolated the "smoke controller". Well, of course, that's
not what the fuel injector actually does - smoke emission is just
a side effect of screwing it up.
Let me give you a more concrete
example. There is a rare disease called Lesch-Nyhan syndrome.
It results from mutation of a gene located on the X chromosome
that codes for the production of an enzyme called hypozanthine-guanine
phosphoribosyl transferase (HGPRT). The mutated gene cannot produce
HGPRT, and without this enzyme you have Lesch-Nyhan syndrome.
Boys afflicted with this syndrome have an irresistible compulsion
to flail and to bite. They end up biting their lips and fingers
and require strong restraint.
Now, the failure of this gene
has a behavioral effect - a terrible, horrible effect. But what
does this tell us about normal people who self-mutilate? What
does it tell us about nail-biters like me? Or rituals of scarification?
Or punks with pierced body parts? Or teenage girls with low self-image,
who cut themselves? Absolutely nothing. The vast majority of self-mutilating
behavior in our species occurs in people who don't have Lesch-Nyhan
syndrome, people who are genetically normal. The gene for a bizarre
pathological behavior tells us virtually nothing about the general
occurrence of the behavior.
Nevertheless, a geneticist can be quoted making precisely that
connection in Scientific American (Beardsley 1995). It
is actually a non-sequitur; an inference from folk heredity. And
now we learn that social graces are controlled by a gene on the
X-chromosome, based on a study of girls with Turner's syndrome
The last major component of
modern folk heredity is "essentialism," the idea that we have
to ignore apparent differences to find an invisible underlying
uniformity. That is the basis for thinking there might be a genetic
test for race, as we discussed earlier.
In a recent study (Skorecki
et al. 1997), it was determined that 54 percent of self-designated
Hebrew priests, many of whom have the surname Cohen, had the same
configuration of two genes on the Y-chromosome; as opposed to
only 33% of Jews who did not think they were priests. On this
basis the authors inferred that this one was the real genetic
constitution of the Jewish priestly line inherited directly from
Of course, often people with the same last names are going to
be more closely related than people with different last names,
reflecting recent common ancestry (known as isonymy). If you survey
their Y chromosomes, you're going to find more homogeneity than
you'd find in a random sample. Without a control group, to look
at the Y chromosome in a sample of Horowitzes or Steinbergs for
example, the inference that the one represented at 54 percent
rather than 33 percent in Cohens is somehow distinguishing and
authentic is dubious at best. But the result was reported in the
New York Times nevertheless (Grady, 1997a, 1997b).
the authors of that report find themselves in the middle of an
identity controversy; after all, people want to know authoritatively
if they are "really" Hebrew priests or not. Of course, nobody's
a Hebrew priest; there hasn't been a priesthood for centuries.
Even so, these genetic data are invested with cultural authority,
in spite of how shaky the inference is. The construction of identity
is a political arena in which geneticists are uniquely unqualified
to work. The failure to appreciate the responsibilities thus incurred
contributed to the demise of the Human Genome Diversity Project
(Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1991; Mead, 1996).
Let me conclude,
then, with a diagnosis and a prescription. Genetics is a very
important area of scientific research; we need it, and we need
public understanding of it. But what is even more pressing is
the need to understand the difference between scientific heredity
(or genetics) and folk ideas on heredity. Geneticists should contribute
to educating the public about these distinctions. There are three
reasons why they haven't lived up to that responsibility. One,
as cultural beings, geneticists have assimilated the same folk
ideas as everyone else, and it is very hard to step out of their
mind-set. Two, this is largely humanistic knowledge, outside the
formal training of an average geneticist.
The third reason
is a bit more insidious. When geneticists tell you that genetics
is the solution to social problems, personality problems, global
problems, they may have a conflict of interest. In other words,
sometimes geneticists are willing to exploit cultural ideas to
justify scientific ones.
To get the Human Genome Project off the ground, its first director,
James Watson, told Time (Jaroff 1989), "We used to think our fate
was in the stars. Now we know, in large measure, our fate is in
Now that, as Clarence Darrow used
to say, would be interesting if true. But it raises a lot of questions.
Do we have fates, in any significant sense of that term? Do we
know they have been localized to our cellular nuclei? Is genetics
really just hi-tech astrology, although presumably more accurate?
The problem is that such a statement might be a true inference
about nature, but obviously it's more than that. It's also a political
statement about the immutability of one's place in the fabric
of society. If we have fates and they are in our genes, then by
implication the differences between a Harvard professor and an
urban teenage gang member are explained by recourse to bands and
blots and gels, and there would be little hope to change their
life trajectories. Also, the statement encodes a political philosophy
towards the social problems out there requiring solutions.
To appreciate Watson's statement fully, you have to realize that
it was also a grant proposal. It was made in the context of trying
to raise 10 billion dollars of federal money to study genetics.
Of course geneticists are going to tell you that what they study
is the most important thing in your life. To the extent that folk
ideologies about heredity reinforce the importance of genetics
in the public eye, there's not much incentive to distinguish between
them. It was true in the 1920s and it's true now.
We face two
questions. First, how do we get geneticists to distinguish between
scientific and non-scientific ideas about heredity? (Because if
they don't, the rest of us certainly can't be expected to.) And,
second, how can we believe what geneticists say when they have
an economic stake in the outcome of the research? It is the responsibility
of the genetics community to confront these two problems, and
it may require rethinking how geneticists are trained.
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Brace, C. Loring (1995) Region does not mean "race" -- Reality
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Grady, D. (1997a) Finding genetic traces of Jewish priesthood.
The New York Times, 7 January.
Grady, D. (1997b) Father doesn't always know best. The New
York Times, 19 January.
Herrnstein, R. J. and C. Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence
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