ur intellectual landscape has been disrupted by the equivalent of an earthquake and, as the ground settles, intellectuals are looking around nervously and bracing themselves. At such times, the best policy is to heed the evidence that leads toward truth.
The problem with this policy today is that on at least three matters--IQ, heritability, and human nature--the rules we have lived under for some decades now are evasion, euphemism, and taboo. The earthquake has been caused by the simultaneous violation of all three. The problem is especially acute for liberals who have invested virtually their entire substance in three unusual beliefs: that almost everything important about human beings originates in the environment; that environmental factors may be manipulated at will by an intelligent and highly moral elite (composed of themselves); and that the ideal condition of human life would be a certain uniformity, which they call (equivocally) "equality." By the latter term, they do not mean equality under the law, or even equality of opportunity, but an administered equality of result.
The Herrnstein--Murray findings have violently shifted the ground from under these intellectual foundations; hence the loud wailing and gnashing of teeth. Hence, as well, rapid efforts to shovel the earth back under the wobbly walls. Hence, finally, the hysterical efforts to assassinate the messengers. Their message cannot be true because much more is at stake than a particular set of arguments from psychological science. A this-worldly eschatological hope is at stake. The sin attributed to Herrnstein and Murray is theological: they destroy hope.
Meanwhile, two important theses of the book have been ignored. They concern the right and left tails of the bell curve, and the special hazards attached to having above-average or below-average intelligence.
At the top of the distribution, the special hazard is isolation and a loss of realism. Herrnstein and Murray argue that those at the top of the IQ distribution have been migrating more and more into isolated enclaves, not only during their university years and in the sorts of occupations they take up, but also in the residential and associative patterns their lives exemplify. The data assembled by Herrnstein and Murray make a strong case that this is in fact happening, to a degree unprecedented in American history.
The implications of this generalization have barely been explored in the public discussion. The cognitive elite, for example, is subject to prairie-fire panics (the Alar scare, nuclear winter, global warming) that sweep through it on a regular basis, scorching the American landscape. The law schools especially, and at some distance behind them the courts, have been swept with enthusiasms new to American jurisprudential history, most notably the sustained effort to eliminate all traces of Judaism and Christianity from the public square, including courthouse lawns and public schools. This elite is blind to its own contradictions; it is, for example, strongly pro-abortion and anti-smoking, supporting "free choice" in the one case and ever-tighter restriction of choice in the other. A newly empowered American cognitive elite, quite aware of its new power, is in area after area trying to make over a sometimes passive, sometimes recalcitrant country in its own image.
Most public policies relative to people lower down on the financial and social scales are made by the cognitive elite. From this fact it does not follow that these policies are realistic, down-to-earth, and actually beneficial for those on whose behalf they have supposedly been designed. The form and function of these public policies may be informed more by conceptual clarity and logic than by the actual habits of citizens of average or low IQ. Evidence of failure seldom seems to result in the abandonment of such policies, but rather in the demand that more money be spent and more strenuous efforts made. It is the will of the cognitive elite, not the actual good of the averageand low-IQ citizens, that is decisive.
The most significant Herrnstein--Murray thesis, in summary, is that the physical isolation and intellectual hubris of this elite are distorting its vision, leading it into utopianism, and enfolding it in a world of unreality. This is the fundamental reason for the pessimism that Herrnstein and Murray reluctantly voice.
The Herrnstein--Murray diagnosis makes somewhat analogous points with respect to the low end of the IQ distribution.
The authors frequently point to character as an important element in various kinds of success. I wish they had said still more about it. Put another way, I wish someone would write a companion study, as scholarly as theirs, concentrating on issues of character rather than on issues of intelligence. That might give us a fuller and rounder appreciation of the evidence and, incidentally, another way of grasping the importance of IQ, above all in the moral sphere. Common sense suggests, and historical evidence confirms, that some civilizations better than others offer persons of low IQ favorable habitats for successful living. Common sense further suggests that persons of low IQ will do better, and report higher degrees of happiness, within cultural structures that are firm, clear, and supportive. When the cultural signals telling them what to do and what not to do are neither clear nor compelling, neither punishing nor rewarding, neither reinforcing their sound moral instincts nor holding in check the darker angels of their nature, they become easily confused. For those with a high IQ, mixed cultural signals are difficult enough; for those of low IQ, the difficulties are even more severe.
Ordinary experience teaches one, paradoxically, that persons of low IQ are often happier than persons of high IQ. For one thing, they don't perceive all the differences and distinctions that the more intelligent perceive. Thus, they overlook some dangers and ambiguities, often to the benefit of their peace of mind if not their permanent safety. For another thing, they tend not to be quite so introspective; few spend a lot of time analyzing the movements of their psyches. Quite subtly, in fact, Herrnstein and Murray suggest a point most reviewers are ignoring: high IQ is often its own punishment.
Perhaps not coincidentally, since about 1950 the cultural elite has aggressively propagated what Lionel Trilling called "an adversary culture." Many things that earlier generations of Americans considered to be evil, the cultural elite now celebrates as good, and vice versa. We are in the grip of cultural warfare.
It is difficult enough for those of high IQ to know what to do, to discern the good to pursue and the evil to avoid. For those with less intelligence, chance and contingency are bound to play an even more powerful role. If they fall into good company, they are very lucky; if into bad, they may make a single mistake from which they will never recover. Those with fewer chances in life have much more to lose with every chance they bobble. In brief, Herrnstein and Murray accuse our society of failing those of lower IQ, most of all in the moral arena.
Besides being a reliable report on the state of psychological knowledge, the Herrnstein--Murray work is also, implicitly but unmistakably, a moral tract. Herrnstein and Murray show a far greater degree of empathy and concern for those of lower IQ than most readers will ever have encountered. They also diagnose much more clearly what those of lower IQ need, if they are to attain greater success in life and a higher degree of personal satisfaction. They diagnose, above all, how they are being betrayed by the cognitive elite.
Murray and Herrnstein have pointed an accusing finger at the cognitive elite, said publicly who they are, and diagnosed both the nature and the cause of their current intellectual and moral failures. Many in the cognitive elite are not taking this criticism well.