n 1971 Richard Herrnstein, co-author with Charles Murray of this weighty volume, published an article in The Atlantic Monthly arguing that success--status, income, power--now depends on intelligence. We are becoming a "meritocracy" with great hereditary inequalities. The Bell Curve lucidly organizes an immense amount of data demonstrating empirically that, despite costly efforts to stave it off, meritocracy is becoming a reality. Before continuing, let me dispose of two distractions which have produced hysterical and silly columns--e.g., in The New Republic (unexpected) and the New York Times (expected); although, to be fair, elsewhere the Times was rational.
The Bell Curve shows that cognitive ability measured by IQ tests reliably predicts success--professional, academic, pecuniary--and that, on average, African-Americans have an IQ about 15 points below that of Caucasians, whose IQ, in turn, is lower (by about 5 points) than that of East Asians. Success differs accordingly. However, the point would be the same if all low-and high-IQ persons were Caucasians. Ethnic differences in IQ cause political complications but do not otherwise affect the hereditary social stratification described and predicted by The Bell Curve. (Incidentally, why should anyone expect all ethnic groups to have the same average IQ? Why not the same skin color?) The authors establish the predictive validity of IQ tests for all groups and estimate that 60 per cent of the variation in measured intelligence is due to genetic differences, which means that nearly half of the variation depends on environmental factors. The proof of this point seems fairly conclusive, based on identical twins separated at birth and on adopted children. Yet if intelligence depended exclusively on environmental influences, if it were entirely an acquired trait, that would hardly make a difference. We have no way of influencing the average cognitive ability of any group, regardless of whether it depends on environmental or genetic factors. Whatever other benefits they may yield, Head Start and similar schemes do not permanently raise the IQ of disadvantaged groups. Perhaps in the future we will find a way to increase cognitive ability genetically or environmentally. So far we have not. Thus it matters little whether the cognitive ability of groups is inherited or acquired. (Needless to say, there may be a genius within a low-IQ group and dolts within a high-IQ group; what applies to averages does not apply to individuals.) Without distractions, what does The Bell Curve tell us? Past societies have offered very unequal opportunities and, linked to them, very unequal outcomes. Education was distributed unequally, depending on parental status. So was everything else. Individual status was ascribed rather than achieved. Little depended on intelligence, much on inherited status and wealth. This has changed. Opportunity has become more and more equal, inherited social privileges less and less important. College education is widely distributed, and the best colleges are available to the talented poor. By now, intelligence on the average predicts outcomes better than parental privilege.
Liberals believed that, once opportunity was equal, outcomes would become equal too: they thought unequal outcomes were due largely to unequal opportunities. However, Herrnstein and Murray show conclusively that inequalities won't disappear. This may account for the liberal media's rancorous reception of The Bell Curve. Individuals are born not as tabulae rasae, as many liberals believe, but with different intelligences, which produce very unequal outcomes.
Equal opportunity redistributes social inequalities but does not diminish them. It may increase them. God is not an egalitarian, much as Jefferson thought it "self-evident" that He is. People are born unequally gifted. If they have equal opportunity to use their unequal gifts, major social inequalities are unavoidable.
These inequalities may be augmented because people usually marry others with similar IQs. The poor transmit their low IQs and therewith their poverty. Their fertility exceeds that of the more intelligent and produces a permanent and growing underclass. Unwed mothers have low IQs on the average and provide environments not likely to help their children. They help to perpetuate the underclass. Criminals also come from low-IQ groups. With our egalitarian ideology we will have major social problems with the increasing inherited inequalities predicted. Their congruence with ethnic groupings will accentuate political problems.
The data Herrnstein and Murray provide are convincing, but I do have reservations about their more speculative inferences. People with low IQs will not be left hopeless, as they imply. Many kinds of socio-economic success are independent of intelligence. A low-IQ youth may become a baseball player or a pop singer and do better than any professor. A low-IQ girl may become a supermodel. Such careers require neither stupidity nor intelligence. Sure, the (non-IQ) talents needed for these careers are rare and, therefore, such outcomes are statistically insignificant. But psychologically they generate hope, just as lotteries do. Success is possible, if not probable, for the low-IQ individual. Further, even those confined to the lowest jobs need not dwell in misery. In any future society practically all can be reasonably comfortable regardless of talent (unless they are highly self-destructive). The prediction of The Bell Curve that people with low IQs have to become wards of the government is rank speculation. We cannot predict future social policies and conflicts. Remember Karl Marx?
In any case, the structure of a future society does not really tell us how people will feel about it. The authors mention that intelligence is only one factor in prestige or self-esteem; but they hardly note that, in most high schools currently, intelligence is a negative factor, athletic ability (or attractiveness) a positive one in prestige and self-esteem. I do not know whether people in a future society will go far beyond these high-school evaluations. Will mathematicians be esteemed more and will they earn more than former high-school athletes? The authors rightly commend individualism as an answer to group dissatisfactions based on low IQs and low success. Yet "affirmative action" and similar anti-individualist capers show that neither liberal politicians, nor bureaucrats, nor the favored groups want individualism. It would take another volume to explore why they have prevailed. Will they in the future? Charles Murray is just the man to explore this question.