Nothing is more American than the belief that with enough hard work and perseverance you can achieve anything you want and be anybody you wish. It’s beautiful when taken metaphorically but many people take this idea literally, and that’s where trouble begins.
We are massively constrained by our physical, biological reality that prevents us from doing anything we might want. American culture is perennially waging a war on the limitations of human bodies, leading to extremes such as denying that men can’t give birth and women can’t produce sperm. It all looks quite comical to people from cultures that don’t have the same obsession with transcending the body.
I’ve tried to understand why the simple fact of difference in cognitive ability between individuals and groups elicits such an emotional response in the US but I still don’t get it. I conducted a mental experiment and imagined that a study came out proving definitively that Russians have a significantly higher mean IQ than Ukrainians. Let’s say, two standard deviations higher, which is 30 points. This is a huge difference. And the scenario is not in the least impossible, given that Russians have Finnish genes that produce significantly higher IQs than the Ukrainian mix of genes.
Would I get upset and try to deny not only the findings but the very existence of cognitive ability as a physiological reality that you can’t change through an effort of willpower any more than you can change your height?
No, I wouldn’t. It’s just a physiological fact. Russians are often light-haired. Ukrainians are often black-haired. (Not me, obviously, but you should see my raven-haired Ukrainian mother). So what? There’s no moral value attached to the physiology unless you decide that there should be.
Yes, cognitive ability has been used historically for evil, racist purposes. But so have foot sizes. Female foot binding is an example of that. Do we now deny the existence of biological, inborn, and immutable differences in foot sizes? Or that men on average have larger foot sizes than women on average? OK, things being crazy as they are, maybe some idiots do. But it’s not a widespread delusion.
I’m well-aware of the limitations of my cognitive ability. I strongly believe that accepting that there are some things you can’t do intellectually no matter how hard you try is very liberating. People buy into this ridiculous lie that anybody’s cognitive ability can be developed to any level and then they feel horrible when it doesn’t work out this way. They try and try, blaming themselves, when it’s a simple physiological thing.