y any conceivable criterion, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray have produced in The Bell Curve (New York: Free Press, 1994 ) an educational work of prodigious scholarship. At the very least their book should be valued as a compendium of vitally important information on what is actually happening to intelligence and class structure in the late twentieth-century United States. For its political significance alone The Bell Curve deserves careful perusal and thoughtful assessment. However, judging by the prevailing tenor of the emotionally charged reviews in the popular press, the initial response amounted, instead, to a confused clamor of indignant ad hominem attacks on the authors.
Perhaps such a response was inevitable. Perhaps Herrnstein and Murray unwittingly obscured their central message by presenting the concepts of intelligence and class within the framework of ethnicity. But it is difficult, today, for an honest social critic to avoid that explosive subject. More and more Americans are choosing to define themselves in terms of minority-group membership. And, increasingly, each group's members define themselves according to observable indicators of ethnic heritage such as skin color. But Herrstein and Murray are not among those who seek to exaggerate the importance of bloodlines and mystical ancestral "spirit" as defining criteria of citizenship. On the contrary, they make it plain throughout their book that they support a political/social system based on justice for individuals--regardless of ethnic roots. Clearly they are alarmed at the prospect of the balkanization of the United States' citizenry. In fact, they are attempting to sound a warning about the shoals ahead, for any
society embarking on that suicidal course.
Ironically, however, the authors have inadvertently obscured their real message by falling in line with "politically correct" terminology. They chose to accept the currently established categorization of Americans by skin color, and then proceeded to draw comparisons among those categories in terms of the average intelligence of the individuals assigned to them. This may be legitimate as a statistical exercise, but whether or not their findings are meaningful within the American setting is another question entirely. The results of such an analysis are only valid and reliable to the degree that the original categorization was in fact derived from real and discrete differences both in genetic inheritance and in early childhood cultural influences which, together, determine intelligence.
The majority of those who define themselves as "black," "white," "Latino," "aboriginal," or "Asian" in North America today are so genetically mixed, and so socialized from birth into the media-generated American culture, that the labels have meaning almost entirely in political terms. Any cross-group comparison of average scores is likely to tell us more about the recent history of the groups in question than about what one might expect of specific members. The mean IQ of a group reveals nothing about the range of ability encompassed, nor of the probability that a given person will be in the upper or lower percentiles of measured ability. In fact, the major--and predictable--result of average group IQ scores is the encouragement of unwarranted prejudgments of individuals on the basis of largely irrelevant criteria.
One could argue that Herrnstein and Murray have done more harm than good to their cause by accepting conventional wisdom to the extent that they have and employing scientifically invalid (and socially divisive) categories in