The Intellectual Capacity Of Women by David Stove


Jim Franklin hosted this classic essay of the late David Stove’s for many years. But he received a complaint from one of the intellectually Tolerant. As Franklin said on this site, “An authorized officer of the University of New South Wales has requested that one of David Stove’s articles not be hosted on a UNSW web server. So the David Stove website has moved. It can be found at [Gerry Nolan’s Stove site].”

The article is “The Intellectual Capacity Of Women”, which appears in Chapter 5 of Cricket Versus Republicanism, Quakers Hill Press, 1995 and was originally published in Proceedings of the Russellian Society, Vol. 15, 1990. It also appears in a must-have compendium of Stove’s work edited by Roger Kimball Against the Idols of the Age (it was Kimball who first alerted me to Franklin’s predicament). Franklin, who is Stove’s literary executor, gave me permission to host the article here.

To say that this essay was controversial is like saying Hillary Clinton is shrill. I post it for several reasons. One: there’s gold to be mined from it. Two: to prove that those who say “In science no topic is sacrosanct” and “There are no dogmas in science” lie. Three: to make sure it doesn’t die. Four: Stove was a self-professed non-theist, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t brilliant. Still, word has it that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with parts of this essay as time went by, so there is plenty to discuss (such as the nature of probability). Five: Since the main article is partly philosophical and mainly probabilitistic, it will be of great interest to regular readers.

One word of advice: read it before commenting. Off we go! A PDF of the article can be downloaded here. Update It is becoming obvious many are ignoring the admonition to actually read the entire argument..


I BELIEVE THAT the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole inferior to that of men. By “on the whole,” I do not mean just “on the average”; though I do mean that much. My belief is, if you take any degree of intellectual capacity which is above average for the human race, as a whole, then a possessor of that degree of intellectual capacity is a good deal more likely to be man than a woman.

This proposition is consistent, of course, with there being women, and indeed with there being any number of women, at any level of intellectual capacity however high. But it does mean, for example, that if there is a large number of women at a given above average level of intellectual capacity, then there is an even larger number of men at that level.

In the past almost everyone, whether man or woman, learned or unlearned, believed the intellectual capacity of women to be inferior to that of men. Even now this is, I think, the belief of most people in most parts of the world. In this article my main object is simply to remind the reader of what the evidence is, and always was, for this old belief, and of how strong that evidence is.

An opposite belief has become widely current in the last few years, in societies like our own: the belief that the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole equal to that of men. If I could, I would discuss here the reasons for the sudden adoption by many people of this opinion. But I cannot, because I have not been able to find any reasons for it, as distinct from causes of it. The equality-theory (as I will call it) is not embraced on the grounds of any startling facts which have only lately come to light. It is not embraced on the grounds of some old familiar facts which have been misunderstood until lately. It is not embraced, as far as I can see, on any grounds at all, but from mere prejudice and passion. If you ask people, “What evidence is there for the equality-theory?”, you do not get an answer (though you are likely to get other things).

Rather, the question is felt to be somehow improper, morally or intellectually, and is thought not to deserve any answer.

I do not know why it should be thought so. The question is a perfectly proper one morally and intellectually, and should not be hard to answer. That men and women have the same intellectual capacity is not, after all, a self-evident proposition, like (say) “7 + 5 = 12” nor is it something just obvious, like (say) the sun’s rising in the east. So if it is rational to believe it, there must be evidence for it: facts which lead to it by good reasoning. But where is that evidence to be found?

By contrast, there is no difficulty at all in saying what the evidence is, and always was, for the other theory, the theory of the inferior intellectual capacity of women. This evidence is not at all esoteric, but on the contrary is of the most familiar and homely kind. The main reason why I believe, and the main reason why nearly everyone always has believed, that the intellectual capacity of women is inferior to that of men, is just this: that the intellectual performance of women is inferior to that of men.

The reasoning involved, then, is reasoning from inferior performance to inferior capacity. It is reasoning of the same general kind, therefore, as that which convinces us, even if we understand nothing of the internal make-up of cars, that Fords are on the whole inferior to Mercedes; or as that which convinces dog-fanciers that Irish setters are not as smart as labradors; or as that which convinces everyone that the intellectual capacity of seven-year-old children is on the whole inferior to that of nine-year-olds. They do not do as well, and we infer from this that they cannot do as well.

This is a very homely kind of reasoning, to be sure. But that is not to say that there is anything wrong with it, and in fact no one distrusts reasoning of this kind. On the contrary, we could scarcely take a single step, in science or in common life, if we did not rely on this kind of reasoning.

Of course no thoughtful person mistakes such reasoning for proof. Inference from inferior performance to inferior capacity is fallible: that should go without saying. Everyone knows that a car, or an organism, may on a given occasion fail to perform as well as it can perform: there was some interfering factor at work. And this can happen not just on one occasion, or to just one organism. A whole class of organisms might perform below capacity, in a given respect, for any length of time, or forever. It is even logically possible that every organism of a certain kind should have a certain capacity, and yet that interfering factors prevent every one of them from ever exercising that capacity even once. So far, then, is inferior performance from being an infallible indication of inferior capacity. And so far, too, should we be, from mistaking the inferior intellectual performance of women for a proof of their inferior intellectual capacity.

This, then, is one commonplace truth which needs to be borne in mind when we think about the intellectual capacity of women: that capacity does not require performance. But there are other such commonplace truths, and some of these point in the opposite direction.

One is that, although performance is no infallible guide to capacity, it is, in the end, the only guide we have or can have. I do not mean that there can be no evidence of A’s capacity to F, unless A actually has F-ed at least once. That would be a stupid thing to say. When I meet a brown snake in the bush, I have good evidence of its capacity to inflict a dangerous bite on me, even if this particular snake has never bitten anyone. Again, a chemist often has good evidence concerning the capacities of a compound which, until he makes it in the laboratory, has never even existed, and which therefore cannot possibly have yet exercised any of its capacities. All I mean is, that the evidence for an unexercised capacity, which is a kind of unrealised possibility, cannot consist in its turn just of other unexercised capacities, or unrealised possibilities. Such evidence must include some actualised possibilities, some exercises of capacities. If the chemist, for example, is entitled to say in advance that his new compound X will have the capacity to F, that is because he knows of capacities which have actually been exercised by existing elements or compounds. While, then, capacity does not require performance, still evidence of a capacity does require performances, of some kind, by something or other, somewhere along the line.

Another important commonplace about capacity and performance is this: if we believe that something has a certain capacity, but the expected performance is not forthcoming, then we may not postulate just any old interfering factors in order to explain the discrepancy. Suppose our pet theory is that every B has the capacity to G, but the evidence is that B’s have never or hardly ever G-ed, although there have been billions of B’s, placed in the widest variety of circumstances. Then we may not save our theory just by saying: “H is a factor which inhibits G-ing, and it is possible that H has been present in most of the cases.” Nor may we just say, “Oh well, there must be something which has so far stopped B’s from G-ing”, or “Somehow, B’s have never had a fair chance to G.” Nor may we just say, “Satan likes to stop B’s from realising their G-potential; he is a non-B himself, you know.” Statements such as these might happen, indeed, to be true. But given the evidence of the B’s’ actual performance, one would be irrational to believe them. Where the relevant performance is absent, it is rational to believe that a capacity is present, only if there is evidence of some actual, specific, and detectable interfering factor. Merely possible interfering factors, or actual but indefinite ones, or ones which, even if actual and definite , are undetectable (like Satan), will not do.