he Bell Curve is a powerful statement about highly sensitive issues, full of ideas that deserve extensive, lively, and honest debate.
The book's principal message is that IQ is more closely correlated with social outcomes than is any other factor: negatively with social pathology and positively with social success. Though that correlation is far from one to one, it is demonstrated by so many different studies as to be undeniable.
In the latter part of the book they detail the evidence of significant differences between the races so far as average IQ is concerned. The liberal Left cannot allow that, and consequently has made every effort to persuade the public that The Bell Curve is outside the realm of respectable scholarship and legitimate public discourse. Even conservatives have tended to treat it very cautiously, fearing to be charged with racism.
In seven chapters that form the heart of the book, Herrnstein and Murray examine multiple statistical studies (the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth being a principal source) that trace the relationship of a variety of factors (socioeconomic status, education, marital situation, cognitive ability, etc). to success and failure in life. The findings regarding poverty are typical, and the summary of that chapter provided by the authors gives a sense of the book.
Each chapter of the book begins with a precis, making it possible to get a good understanding of the authors' thesis by reading no more than about thirty pages. The full chapters present further detail; the extensive notes and methodological commentary intended for other scholars are relegated to a separate section of appendices--the last 300 pages of the book. From beginning to end, it is apparent that Herrnstein and Murray are eminently reasonable, responsible, civilized, and compassionate human beings. Throughout their work opposing arguments and schools of thought are assiduously canvassed. Readers are alerted over and over again to contrary views and differing interpretations of the evidence presented. The expository chapters are written without jargon. The prose is exceptionally lucid, often elegant; far from being a boring, heavy-handed tome, the book is a good read from start to finish.
Even before publication, unburdened by having read the book, editors of the Boston Globe denounced it and its authors in a lead editorial headed "A High Ignorance Quotient." Shortly thereafter, the New York Times Magazine weighed in with a cover story branding Murray America's "Most Dangerous Conservative." The New Republic leapt into the fray early, differing from journals more politically correct by printing a Herrnstein-Murray article giving readers a good idea of what the book says--though preceding it with fifteen mini-essays by hysterical staff members outraged by the mention of racial differences. Jacob Weisberg, in New York magazine, was one among several critics who falsely asserted that "the authors conclude that this difference [between the average IQ of blacks and whites! is probably based more on genetic factors than on environmental ones."
Much of the attack on The Bell Curve has centered on dismissing IQ as a measure of intelligence. Critics insist, variously (though some, consecutively), that (1) IQ is a figment of the testers' imagination, but (2) if it does exist, it does not matter, and (3) if it both exists and matters, it is only one among many human attributes that matter--the last being a statement that none will deny. What few of these critics address, however, are the correlations that lie at the heart of the Herrnstein-Murray argument. Even if one is persuaded that intelligence is something other than what IQ measures, the correlation of whatever it is with various human outcomes loses none of its force. Call it "banana" if you will (as Alfred Kahn suggested of "inflation" ; IQ remains the single best predictor we have for a wide range of human pathologies and achievements. No one disagrees with those critics who insist on the importance of those human attributes that IQ does not pretend to measure--charm, humor, friendliness, honesty, persistence, ambition, artistic or athletic ability, to name but a few. But there is little evidence of any significant correlation between such other attributes and success or failure in life, outside of the specialized fields of sports and the arts.
Stephen Jay Gould (Harvard's Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology), a long-time foe of Herrnstein (Harvard's Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology), appears to have forgotten that his attempt to destroy the very concept of IQ in The Mismeasure of Man was quite discredited by the late Bernard Davis (Harvard's Adele Lehman Professor of Bacterial Physiology). Gould now insists that the correlations The Bell Curve relies upon are insignificant, creating a disagreement among experts that the layman is in no position to resolve. The fact that he dismisses, a priori, the possibility of a genetic root for differences in human behavior, however, gives the same laymen reason to wonder about the reliability of his argument. Science for the People, a vaguely Marxist group of which he has been a member, adamantly opposes all research into the genetic roots of human behavior. The possibility of such a connection contradicts their philosophy. Some years ago, the group mounted a campaign of intimidation that succeeded in closing down a Boston study that sought to resolve the question of whether possession of an extra Y (male) chromosome predisposes some men to criminal behavior. In the same way that Gould fears the social consequences of The Bell Curve's findings, so this group argued that identifying XYY babies might prejudice their future, whatever the ultimate finding. Better we should not know--an odd position for scientists to take.
But if the statistical argument lies beyond the grasp of most laymen, our whole experience tells us that some people are, by nature, brighter than others and that this is a very important factor in determining their individual achievement. We see it in ourselves, we see it in our children. Needless to say, we recognize, too, that the role of environment is always crucial to the development of any organism. (Herrnstein and Murray, making that point, instance the fate of a potentially vigorous plant denied water). We also know, or think we do, that it is genetics that accounts for many obvious physical differences between people, and that genetics is the root of the shared physical characteristics of those groups we designate races. While fully aware that common sense can mislead dreadfully, it is hard to resist the notion that just as different genes produce different physical characteristics (their realization always dependent on environment), different genes probably contribute to differences in human behavior. All of this is so apparent it would seem only prudent to try to learn more about it--if only to discover once again that common sense is mistaken. That is the task The Bell Curve undertakes, and it seems extraordinary that U.S. intellectuals are unwilling to consider the book calmly and to debate its argument in civilized fashion.
There is no question, either, that Herrnstein and Murray draw from their data social-political conclusions that are anathema to the Left. In five chapters at the end of The Bell Curve, the authors argue several such propositions: (1) that past attempts to raise cognitive ability (by programs such as Head Start) have been disappointing and the prospects for future success are not bright; (2) that focusing on the disadvantaged in the public school system has helped them only marginally and has resulted in more gifted students (and, hence, society as a whole) being shortchanged; (3) that affirmative action, as now prescribed by federal law, is counterproductive, both in the realm of education and in the job market, and that it is past time to return to the original conception: that is, to make special efforts to spread the net wide, while judging candidates for admission or employment by a common standard, rather than using different ones for different races. The focus should be on the individual, not on his or her status as a member of a particular group. Bias for and against people because of their group affiliation was, of course, the norm before the civil rights movement. Ironically, it is now enshrined in affirmative action law.
When it comes to policy recommendations, the authors speak in only very general terms but, again, little of what they say is congenial to those of left-liberal persuasion. If we proceed on our present course--that is, the generally progressive agenda of the past half century--we will end up with "something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite firmly anchored at the top." Such an outcome will destroy U.S. civil society as we have known it. Their suggestions for avoiding this denouement look to the past in several ways: We must not have exaggerated hopes as to what can be done to overcome intellectual disabilities. Programs for helping the underclass should be "based on a realistic appraisal" of its members' cognitive limitations rather than on the premise that, given enough help, anyone can do anything. Environmentally imposed limitations are often no easier to overcome than are those of genetic or biological origin. Positive steps should be taken to simplify the criminal and civil law in order that it be understandable to those of limited intellect. Ways must be found to rebuild the sense of community, typical in small-town America, that easily accommodated those of both high and low intelligence. A recognizably "progressive" note is heard only in their plea that we explore ways of providing respectable work and adequate earnings for those unable to compete successfully in the complex jobs now required by our highly technological society. Critic Stephen Jay Gould indulges in hyperbole, but is not wholly wrong, when he says that their policy prescriptions are "grotesquely inadequate" to the problems they describe.
Another important factor motivating many of The Bell Curve's fierce critics is an entirely sincere feeling of empathy for blacks. Well-meant this surely is, yet I believe it to be misplaced, as well as uncomfortably patronizing. By adulthood, most us have learned that there are many people of every race brighter than we are. Seldom does this undermine our sense of our own worth. The data presented by Herrnstein and Murray makes clear that, on average, Asians are brighter than whites and Ashkenazi Jews are the brightest of all. None of the critics, many of whom are Caucasian and Christian, seem to be cast down by this finding. Undeniably a few practitioners of race hatred will take comfort in the thought, but that is only to add slight reinforcement to prejudice that is unshakable in any case. The overall effect on racism in our society will be infinitesimal. That small loss must be set against the great advantages to be gained if, as a nation, we could persuade ourselves to speak honestly to one another about racial matters.
Unfortunately, the central thesis of The Bell Curve, the dangers of excessive social stratification, has been largely ignored as debate has focused on the matter of racial differences, and this reveals what must be termed pathology in the intellectual life of the United States at the end of the twentieth century. The Bell Curve's argument is the belief that it is the welfare of the individual that must be the focus of society's concern. Only by returning to that conception, fundamental to the nation's founding philosophy, can we deal wisely with the fact--if it be a fact--that modern technology threatens to divide our society into classes based on differences in intelligence.