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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

The Biology of Bifurcation

Abstract At one point, Murray looks toward a future date where the sociological variables that serve as the fodder of his book will be contextualized within a biological framework. This chapter argues that life history theory, though it has successfully explained variation in human behavior since 1985, is the biological framework for which Murray expectantly waits. After briefly stating what life history theory is, this section moves on to outline the remainder of the book.

Keywords Rushton • Differential K Theory • life history evolution

The evolutionary and genetic explanatory framework that Murray feels the want of is a mid-level subdiscipline within evolutionary biology called life history evolution. The psychologist who would apply MacArthur and Wilson’s (1967) original articulation of life history evolution to humans was John Philippe Rushton who published a landmark paper in 1985 on Differential K Theory, showing how life history evolution could explain differences in mating behavior, criminality, and intelligence across human populations (Figueredo et al. 2005; Rushton 1985, 1987, 1990, 1995, 2004). Though life history evolution hides behind every line of Coming Apart, its remains unmentioned. Nevertheless, life history theory was discussed previously by Murray. Murray, the author of Coming Apart, is also coauthor of The Bell Curve (1994) wherein Rushton is mentioned © The Author(s) 2016

S.C. Hertler, Life History Evolution and Sociology, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48784-7_2

several times in the body of the work, and then discussed pointedly across two pages of Appendix Five. Along with coauthor Richard Herrnstein, Murray summarizes Rushton’s life history thesis, noting how intelligence is situated within a larger complex oftraits that include reproductive timing, hormone level, criminality, and marital stability, among others.1 Writing in 1994, Herrnstein and Murray (p. 667) note that Rushton had theretofore defended his application of life history theory from vitriolic critics with “increasingly detailed and convincing empirical reports”; though they conclude, “the theory remains a long way from confirmation.” In the 18 years separating the publication of The Bell Curve from the publication of Coming Apart, human life history variation has been studied intensively by Rushton and a great many other theorists, amassing a data set that presses ever closer towards consensus, if not confirmation. Though Coming Apart takes up some of the same topics broached by The Bell Curve, it does not revisit life history theory, either as it was described originally by Rushton or as extended by subsequent researchers. Additionally, since its publication, it does not appear that the biological backstory of Coming Apart has been but once pointedly identified and, even now, it remains unexplained.2 Across many searches, one book review written by Bo and Benjamin Winegard (2012) was found in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, which reviewed Coming Apart, while at one point, on page 206, specifically discussing the relevance of life history evolution.3

The purpose of the present chapter is to tap the heretofore unrealized potential of life history evolution to explain Coming Apart via the following structure: Life history evolution will be generally explained as it applies to humans (Chapter 3). Thereafter, education and intelligence (Chapter 4), community and religiosity (Section 4.1), industry and honesty (Section 4.2), and marriage and parental investment (Section 4.3) will be reviewed as they relate to contemporary life history evolutionary literature and the social changes documented in Coming Apart. The discussion section broaches the following questions: what drives life history variation? (Chapter 5); how do life histories change in persons and populations? (Section 5.1); how might a life history framework broadly inform policy? (Section 5.2); what is the rationale for homogamous mating? (Section 5.3); what are the implications of elite migration and isolation? (Section 5.4). Selectively surveying relevant intellectual history, the fifth and final section of the discussion (Section 5.5) more broadly addresses the implications of biological applications and explanations of human sociological data.


  • 1. A word search for life history within The Bell Curve using both Amazon and Google’s searchable indexes reveals only one finding and this is on page 816 within the bibliography wherein a book chapter entitled the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development was referenced within Kerner and Kaiser’s (1990) Criminality: Personality, Behavior, Life History. On the other hand, Rushton is referred to many times. His life history theory is pointedly discussed; it is only that Herrnstein and Murray omit the label life history.
  • 2. I read Coming Apart in June of 2015. Earlier that month, I had just submitted an article on life history evolution to the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science (Hertler 2015b); an article that required a sweeping survey of the life history literature to prepare. Coming Apart and the mass of life history literature were then conveniently juxtaposed, making the connection between the two obvious. Noticing the book was published three year earlier, I began some general and several systematic searches, recognizing that anyone familiar with both Coming Apart and the life history literature might have thought to explain what I have termed the book’s biological backstory. A Google Scholar search conducted on June 17, 2015, using the terms life history and coming apart, each in separate quotations, retrieved 231 articles and books. However, many of these hits predate the publication of Coming Apart in 2012. When limiting the search parameters to articles and books written between the years 2012 and 2015, only 48 results were procured. Many dealt with life history evolution, but, like Charlene Donahue’s publication in the Maine Entomologist, used the term Coming Apart to refer to something tangible, such as a metal cage. More commonly, publications, like that of Rymarz and Belmonte (2014) did use the phrase coming apart in reference to the book by that title written by Charles Murray, but they used the term life history in reference to one’s historical life narrative, as used in psychoanalytic and historical literatures, and exemplified in Runyan’s (1984) Life Histories and Psychobiography: Explorations in Theory and Method. Of the 48 potentially relevant retrievals, there was only one that was actually relevant. This was Salter’s (2012) article in Quadrant entitled War against Human Nature in the Social Sciences, which mentions life history strategy in mice and fish and also mentions Murray’s book, but not perhaps pointedly relating the two, and without making it the subject of the article. A custom search of book reviews through Google on the same date yielded more than 1,900 reviews with the quoted words coming apart, but only one result when life history is separately quoted; and this being a review of an unrelated book.

3. The Winegards were the first, and possibly the only ones, to make this connection. With the exception of Murray, they were apparently the only ones that were familiar with Coming Apart and life history evolution. Their identification of the connection, but also its lack of explanation and exploration, can be seen in the quotation below:

Before concluding, we would like to forward a brief and evolutionarily plausible explanation for the problems Murray documents. Humans are cultural animals and invest heavily in cognitive and symbolic capital (Baumeister 2005; Hill and Hurtado 1996/2011). From a life-history perspective, such investments entail a number of trade-offs. If a particular culture does not offer an obvious path to long-term status and success, the people in it will choose shorter investment strategies. The new lower class has largely lost the opportunity to procure a decent paying factory job. Such jobs, at one time, conferred healthy amounts of status and unions provided important social capital, allowing an uneducated worker to live a comfortable and respectable life (Shipler 2005). Without these jobs, an important avenue of status is removed from society, and those who would have occupied them are forced to take low status jobs; jobs that provoke the scorn of most who can avoid them. Furthermore, these low status jobs do not offer mobility. A thirtysomething Wal-Mart cashier cannot reasonably expect that his hard work will be rewarded with consistent raises and promotions, terminating, perhaps, in a solid management job. Thus the new lower class is deprived of opportunities for engaging in long-term (or even medium-term) cultural strategies. Understandably, then, they turn their attention to short-term strategies, competing for immediate rewards and ephemeral boosts in status and self-esteem. Concurrently, those who can invest in long-term strategies battle each other for dominance of the cultural narrative (because this confers status), and their concerns become further removed from those of the average American.

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