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Home arrow History arrow Life History Evolution and Sociology: The Biological Backstory of Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010

A Fault Line Fifty Years in the Making

Abstract The American sociologist Charles Murray recently published Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, a book that documents 50 years of changed college admission standards, government incentives, mating practices, and migration patterns that have wrought national divisions across indexes of marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity. Herein a relevant summary of Coming Apart is supplied, providing readers with a common and current understanding of the book’s pertinent content. As will be seen, Coming Aparts thesis is that America is cleaving into separate populations across levels of marriage, industriousness, honesty, and other virtues putatively prerequisite for a functional republic.

Keywords Charles Murray • Coming Apart • evolutionary psychology • cognitive elite

Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, written by Charles Murray and published in 2012 by the Random House subsidiary Crown Forum, documents the divisive stratification of American culture into lower and upper classes, respectively, represented by Fishtown and Belmont. Enveloping a small portion of Interstate 95 as it traces the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, the portside neighborhood of Philadelphia known as Fishtown is most extensively described by Murray on page 215. Among other sources cited by Murray are the studies of local historian Kenneth Milano (2008, 2010) who traces Fishtown’s eponymous origins to an apocryphal comment by Charles Dickens, and a more established practice ofshad fishing © The Author(s) 2016

S.C. Hertler, Life History Evolution and Sociology, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48784-7_1

by early inhabitants of the region.1 Whatever its history, this predominately working-class Irish Catholic section of Philadelphia now has low home values, rents that often do not exceed 800 dollars monthly, a median household income below 40,000 dollars annually, and a predominance of persons terminating their education before, or just after, finishing high school.2 Belmont, in contrast, is a wealthy suburb of Boston bordered by Cambridge, Watertown, Lexington, and Arlington. Originally under the aegis of some of the aforementioned surrounding towns, Belmont transitioned from region to incorporated town in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the financial assistance of John Perkins Cushing, one of its most wealthy citizens. By the turn of the century, farmers and farms decline, being replaced by artists and authors, physicians, and scientists (Belmont Massachusetts 2016). Murray (2012) finds the town much the same. These same elite professionals are joined by university professors, lawyers, engineers, and a variety of business professionals, making the Baccalaureate commonplace and the median household income well more than six figures. This is a combination then of education and wealth. Rather than constituting a literal comparative study of these two towns, Coming Apart treats Fishtown and Belmont as exemplars of a divided America.

During the early 1960s, Fishtown and Belmont began diverging, with unprecedented bifurcation and isolation resulting by 2010. Previously, Murray argues that the United States was subject to a set of founding values, held by the elite, and shared by the masses. As the prologue stresses, choice and mobility remained limited in the 1960s, such that those on the upper and lower ends of the economic ladder did not differentiate themselves to excess, or separate themselves in residence. Americans shared their culture, listening to more or less the same music, attending similar churches, mingling, mating, and marrying one another. The elite drove cars mostly of American manufacture and lived in houses not grossly more expansive or expensive than that of your traditional working class family dwelling. Importantly, Murray does not contend that American society had been classless, he acknowledges that the rich and the poor sometimes lived and worshipped in different parts of town and observed different customs and practices. The difference between past and present is one ofdegree. At present, however, the degree ofseparation, both in terms of proximity and across “core behaviors and values,” creates an unparalleled alienation fatal to cross-class perspective taking, founding American principles, and national unity (Murray 2015). Fishtown and Belmont have diverged like the sciences and humanities,3 with Murray acting the part of C. P. Snow (1993) in documenting the separation and trying to slow it.

Foremost among the mechanisms enabling this divergence is the college sorting machine. As Murray explains, earlier cohorts at elite institutions were not as uniformly brilliant as those now in attendance. There is presently a high market value for intelligence, and, partially in response to that market pressure, elite institutions began more effectively identifying and recruiting the cognitive elite based on proxies for intelligence such as the GPA and SAT. So while in previous generations an extremely intelligent person may have worked the land, the demand for intelligence would draw him out, and the college sorting machine would get him to the right place. He is plucked off the farm, taken out of the small town occupied by less overwhelmingly intelligent peers, and placed among his own kind. In this way, the cognitive elite met, mingled, and mated in college, in graduate school, and in the high-end vocations that they thereafter occupied. The result was intellectual and educational homogamy, which refers to interbreeding among peoples with like characteristics. Formed by the college sorting machine and maintained by the insularity of affluent zip codes, elite mating pools allow greater choosiness, such that the highly educated and extremely intelligent can now easily practice homogamy. Further still, the national divide transcends intelligence and education to encompass virtues. The consequence is two Americas: one that appears to be maintaining and another that appears to be losing virtues taken by most founding fathers as requisite for a functional republic; these are (1) marriage, (2) industriousness, (3) honesty, and (4) religiosity (Murray 2012).

When Murray (2012, p. 11) says that “this book is about an evolution in American society that has taken place since November 21, 1963,” he might have literally meant it. Though, in that passage he was using the term evolution synonymously with change, on page 299 of the hard cover edition,4 in a chapter entitled “Alternative Futures,” Murray predicts that:

over the next few decades advances in evolutionary psychology are going to be conjoined with advances in genetic understanding, leading to a scientific consensus that goes something like this: There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to the norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and to hold jobs. These same reasons explain why child abuse is, and always will be, concentrated among family structures in which the live-in male is not the married biological father. These same reasons explain why society’s attempts to compensate for the lack of married biological fathers don’t work and will never work.

The central thesis of this chapter is that the advances in evolutionary psychology and genetics that Murray looks forward to actually became available in 1985, exactly midway into the 50 years examined by Coming Apart.


  • 1. Here, the neighborhood’s Wikipedia page was also accessed for edifying information, some of which is taken up by K. Milano in more detail https://,_Philadelphia
  • 2. These specific statistics accessed at the following cite: com/neighborhood/Fishtown-Philadelphia-PA.html
  • 3. C. P. Snow, well positioned as a physical chemist turned novelist, gave a 1959 Senate House speech in Cambridge that was subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. As Coming Apart documents a great societal schism, The Two Cultures documented a great intellectual schism that had been taking place since the specialization of the sciences. As Snow’s thesis wends, there were no longer general intellectuals embodying Western wisdom, but scientists that knew but a bit of Dickens and humanists that could not define the second law of thermodynamics.
  • 4. Throughout, any page numbers cited refer to the hardback edition of the book.
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