n the past few months, there has been much discussion about the book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. This latest incarnation of biological determinism, where specific test scores and achievements are supposedly predetermined by genetic inheritance, has generated much controversy. A large number of magazines and papers have covered the authors' claims, and have perhaps unintentionally legitimized the topic in rational discussion. As a science and technology magazine, we felt that we ought to address an issue fundamentally based on scientific knowledge. Are Herrnstein's and Murray's ideas, in fact, as scientifically sound as they claim? Malcolm Browne of the New York Times Book Review commented in his article that the authors were "recognized by colleagues as serious scholars." Jeff Cowley of Newsweek further characterized the book as follows: "As the shouting begins, it's worth noting that the science behind the Bell Curve is overwhelmingly mainstream." Is it mainstream, or plain bunk, repackaged Social Darwinism and eugenics masquerading as a new discovery in genetics and "statistical" truths? As in most academic discourse, the text itself is written in a seductively ambiguous manner, claiming no implied racism or political bias, but a definite answer can come from looking directly at the history and background behind the Bell Curve's theories. Though the philosophical and policy issues surrounding the subject are of greatest importance, the book's assertions will ultimately stand or fall at the source.
The first suspicions of the book's scientific worth were confirmed by an investigation into the identities of
Herrnstein and Murray. Neither of their backgrounds are in genetics or even the biological sciences. The late
Richard Herrnstein was educated in psychology and Charles Murray earned a degree in political science. Both had
histories of chronic racism. Herrnstein was picketed at Harvard in 1971 for his racist views. In one of several
incidents, a young Charles Murray held a cross-burning in his hometown. Murray also has a definite political ideology,
being a member of the American Enterprise Institute. In the mid-1980s, Murray wrote a book called Losing Ground. In it,
he advocated essentially the same views (disadvantaged sections of the population remaining marginalized due to their
own genetic defects) as his more recent publication. He has campaigned for the end of welfare, one of several direct
policy recommendations of the Bell Curve.
As for the book's findings, none of its "research" was new or original. The authors drew on several sources, none of whom were reputable geneticists. In fact, many were long discredited IQ researchers such as Arthur Jensen who hypothesized in 1969 that blacks were inferior and set out to prove it. They also cited Philip Rushton, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, whose own pronouncements on race drew fire from geneticists across the world. His theory of sexual-mental tradeoffs (i.e., people with larger genitalia suffered from decreased mental capacity) expressed in human races was declared "plainly science" by Murray and Herrnstein, even though Rushton stands alone in supporting it.
By far the most text citations originated from the Mankind Quarterly, a pseudoscientific anthropological journal that was founded by eugenicists and assorted fascist ideologues. Its original goals of combating communism, egalitarianism, and championing apartheid were based on a philosophy astonishingly close to the Nazi "racial sciences". The Bell Curve cites Richard Lynn, an associate editor of the magazine 24 times. Lynn has expounded the merits of genocide under the guise of so-called "human evolutionary progress". Allusions like Lynn's to evolution in a Social Darwinian fashion are frightful if not absolute scientific rubbish. That evolution determines progress and fitness within human populations fails to consider either the enormous time span involved in substantive evolutionary processes or the relative human genomic homogeneity in regards to race. (Most geneticists agree that race accounts for only a small fraction (~6%) of our genetic diversity. Other traits are much more important in determining our total genetic makeup)
Much of the funding for the work of these pseudoscientists came from a shadowy primary source: The Pioneer Fund. Formed in 1937 during the Depression era over concerns of "dysgenic" pressures on the American population, this New York-based foundation wishes to maintain "race hygiene" by ending racial integration and stopping immigration, goals long sought by eugenicists and racists alike.
Much of the speculation about racial intelligence differences comes from the 19th century practice of craniometry, where samples of skulls from several races were examined for brain capacity. Many scientists believed that such crude evaluations of people's brain sizes "apparently" corresponded to a person's mental ability. In those days, female inferiority was taken for granted and the smaller skull measurements of women confirmed those "findings." Also samples of skulls from around the world confirmed Western European supremacy. The "scientists" in pursuit of these studies always failed to clarify how typical these skulls were of their respective populations. Simple selection of skulls easily biased results, without a scientist necessarily realizing his own subjectivity. (19th and even 20th century sketches often depicted supposedly inferior peoples with exaggerated ape and monkey-like characterizations. A culture based on such visualization would have great difficulty overcoming the associated prejudices as seen by Victorian England's attitude towards its Imperial subjects) The craniometrists also disregarded the body sizes of their subjects. Moreover, their measurements were subjective and specious as estimated by later scientists. It was not until ethical scientists stepped forward to discredit pseudoscientific claims did the racial and gender theories behind these studies crumble. This style of science escaped destruction though and continued well into the 20th century as IQ.
The [children of the poor] are catalogued, measured and deemed wanting the moment they enter school; they are tested before they are instructed. The teacher become a judge; the class' standing in the reading and arithmetic is a yardstick of collective failure; and the fear of inadequacy pervade the classroom, suffocating teacher and pupil alike.
- Vera John and Eleanor Leacock in Transforming the Structure of Failure, 1979
The idea that IQ tests and the "g" factor (generalized intelligence) supposedly determine intelligence is likewise rather
dubious. Anyone who believes that IQ has much to do with intelligence and inheritance will find no compelling data in the
Bell Curve. In truth, the data that deals with heredity fails to mention any accompanying genetic processes. Such
simplistic and inadequate analyses are overwhelmingly represented in the works of the sources. Measuring intelligence
has long been a source of contention, yet most would agree that such a feature would prove too complex to quantize as
transferable genetic material from generation to generation. Furthermore, Murray and Herrnstein consistently confuse IQ
with cognitive ability, intelligence, and smartness as if they were all one and the same thing. This obfuscation seems
deliberate, as a thorough reading of the text would unveil the shakiness of their IQ = intelligence based reasoning.
In addition to learned reasoning abilities, IQ measures little more than a person's ability to take an IQ test, as scores
increase dramatically as a person is trained or familiarized with the tests. Like SATs, many IQ questions are culturally
based and extensive acculturation of the test-taker to the test-giver's background is needed (i.e., proper schooling,
role models, etc...) Some questions are idiom, expression, or historically related that are entirely dependent on the
test-taker's knowledge of general American culture. For example, this question: "Washington is to Adams as blank is to
blank" could not be answered by a non-American, or for that matter, a person who has never heard of the Founding Fathers.
The fact that such questions abound in IQ tests casts enormous doubts over the validity of the tests' attempt to assert
"intelligence" as a measurable quality.
The Bell Curve's extensive statistics do present some interesting correlations, yet Murray and Herrnstein avoid some of the more obvious explanations. By summarily dismissing socio-economic factors in favor of race and heredity, the authors fail to account for cultural destabilization, demoralization, oppression, poverty, violence, fear, lack of health care, malnourishment, drug use, and literally hundreds of other reasons for differentiable IQ scores. Most nutritionists rank diet high as a factor in pre- and post-natal mental development, something not mentioned at all in the book. In 1993 alone, 12 million children went hungry in the U.S. In the last 20 years, only the U.S. and Britain fell behind the other industrialized nations in providing for their young. In developing nations, nutritionists have long noted that poor children suffer mental deficiencies along side starvation and deprivation, as proper physical and mental development are arrested and irreparably damaged by years of hunger. Closer to home in Boston, malnutrition has been detected at high levels in the city's poor. Such cruel and criminal neglect of society as a whole has no place for discussion in Murray's and Herrnstein's book, a work more interested in writing off large sections of the American population in a "rational" manner.
Calculating the IQ was also never meant as a test for intelligence. At the turn of the century, Alfred Binet, a
French psychiatrist, devised a method of testing for learning disabilities. Though a former craniometrist and
proponent of measuring intelligence himself, Binet succeeded at devising the first widely accepted intelligence
test, unlike his more rabid eugenicist colleagues. Binet figured that by doing so, he could design appropriate
remediation programs to help children with difficulties. He actually argued that with proper education and aid,
most students regardless of background could catch up and do quite well in school: "Some recent thinkers seem to
have given their moral support to these deplorable verdicts by affirming that an individual's intelligence is a
fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we
must try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing." Unfortunately, Binet did not live to see or challenge the
eventual application of his original pedagogic ideas as eugenicists in the U.S. discovered a far more sinister role
for his scale. By testing workers, soldiers, immigrants, or students, the American eugenicists marketed an adapted
quotient-based Binet scale (IQ) so that employers, governments, or schools could separate out the "feeble-minded",
and further segregate society along racial lines.
Many state governments adopted eugenics laws in accordance with these tests. Over several decades, 60,000 American citizens and Native Americans were deemed "white trash" or mentally retarded (i.e., genetically inferior) and forcefully sterilized for race hygiene purposes. The preamble "Whereas heredity plays a most important part in the transmission of crime, idiocy, and imbecility" recurred in all the sterilization laws. New Jersey added "feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, criminal tendencies, and other defects" while Iowa accounted for "the prevention of the procreation of criminals, rapists, idiots, feeble-minded, imbeciles, lunatics, drunkards, drug fiends, epileptics, syphilitics, moral, and sexual perverts, and diseased and degenerate persons." Beginning in 1911, the tests were administered to immigrants with predictable results. After long sea voyages filled with hunger, deprivation, and fear, immigrant groups were tested immediately upon disembarking at Ellis Island. To their bewilderment, the people were asked questions they had never seen before, in a language they did not speak, and under conditions that were traumatizing. Predictably, most scored very poorly. A modern day legacy of these tests is the "Polish joke", as Poles scored the lowest of all groups in these trials. Over 80% of Jews, Hungarians, Italians, and Russians were also found to be feeble-minded. Later, the results of these "studies" generated so much concern that the U.S. government passed the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.
One of the most appalling effects of this act is detailed by Stephen Jay Gould in the Mismeasure of Man:
The quotas stood, and slowed immigration from southern and eastern Europe to a trickle. Throughout the 1930s, Jewish refugees, anticipating the Holocaust, sought to emigrate, but were not admitted. The legal quotas, and continuing eugenical propaganda, barred them even in years when inflated quotas for western and northern European nations were not filled... We know what happened to many who wished to leave but had nowhere to go.
The full consequences of that act will forever remain unknown.
Without offering any data on all that occurs between conception and the age of kindergarten, they announce on the basis of a few thousand questionnaires that they are measuring the hereditary mental endowment of human beings. Obviously this is not a conclusion based on research. It is a conclusion planted by the will to believe... If the impression takes root that these tests really measure intelligence, that they constitute a sort of last judgment on the child's capacity, that they reveal "scientifically" his predestined ability, then it would be a thousand times better if all the intelligence testers and all their questionnaires were sunk without warning in the Sargasso Sea.
- Walter Lippmann
The disinformation masquerading as "sound science" in the Bell Curve should be particularly challenged by scientists. It is dismaying to see the subject return as a legitimate topic of discussion to academic circles. Long put to rest by both the aversion to past atrocities and scientific progress, the Bell Curve heralds a possible return of biological determinism in our era of mean-spiritedness and hard choices. As the authors claim the scientific mantle to expound outright racism and prejudice, those with a deeper understanding of statistics, evolution, genetics, and sociology must respond. Analyzing the data point by point as many have tried would do little good if we do not understanding the underlying scientific fallacies of the book's arguments. Such a detailed examination based on false assumptions would emesh the reviewer in a quagmire of statistics, charts, and equivocal statements, a trap that could muddle and confuse a simple issue. As scientists and critical thinkers, it's up to us to firmly debunk such studies. The task is somewhat similar to exposing paranormal hoaxes, yet in this case, the fate of millions of people hang in the balance. To see so-called "science" become a tool of oppression and discrimination would be shameful and tragic.
Here's a sampling of quotes (with a mean score of nasty and within two standard deviations of evil) from the ideological forerunners of Herrnstein and Murray. These are typical of the thinking of a great number of psychologists and IQ researchers during the high-water mark of eugenics theory early this century. (drawn from Gould, 1981 & Kamin, 1974)
[low IQ] is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks which they come... Children of this group [low IQ] should be segregated in special classes... They cannot master abstractions, but they can often make efficient workers... There is no possibility at the present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.
- Professor Lewis M. Terman of Stanford University, introduced and popularized the Stanford-Binet Scale, the precursor of all subsequent IQ tests.
The Nordics are... rulers, organizers, and aristocrats... The Alpine race is always and everywhere a race of peasants... The Alpine is the perfect slave, the ideal serf... the unstable temperament and the lack of coordination and reasoning power so often found among the Irish... our army sample of immigrants from Russia is at least one half Jewish... Our figures, then, would rather tend to disprove the popular belief that the Jew is intelligent... We must face a possibility of racial admixture here that is infinitely worse than that faced by any European country today, for we are incorporating the negro into our racial stock ... The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro.
- Assistant Professor Carl Brigham of Princeton University in A Study of American Intelligence. Dr. Brigham also served as secretary of the College Entrance Examination Board and the American Psychological Association. He designed the first Scholastic Aptitude Test.
The thesis is carefully worked up to by a logical and careful analysis of the results of the army tests... we shall certainly be in hearty agreement with him when he demands a more selective policy for future immigration and a more vigorous method of dealing with the defective strains already in this country.
& 1923 Journal of Educational Psychology's review of Brigham's landmark book.
[It would be wise] to further restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe... A large proportion of this immigration consists of the Hebrew elements... some of their labor unions are among the most radical in the whole country.
- Francis Kinnicut of the Immigration Restriction League, testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Immigration, 1923.
We have been overrun with a horde of the unfit... We shall degenerate to the level of the Slav and Latin races... pauperism, crime, sex offenses, and dependency...we must protect ourselves against the degenerate horde... We must apply ourselves to the task with the new weapons of science... it is now as easy to calculate one's mental equipment as it is to measure his height and weight... this new method... will enable us to select those who are worthy and reject those who are worthless.
- Dr. Arthur Sweeney, appendix to the hearings of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, 1923.