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For Whom The Bell Tolls

THE BELL CURVE: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life By Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. The Free Press, …

THE BELL CURVE: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life By Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. The Free Press, 845 pp., 830.

Creepy, ” “bizarre,” nasty,” “indecent,” “ugly,” and “grisly” BAILEY are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe this best-selling book. Is it a new spine-chiller by Stephen King?

No. It is “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” written by  the late Richard Herrnstein (he died of lung cancer just before publication), a psychology professor at Harvard University, and political scientist Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950- 1980.”

The book has the left-liberal media and political establishment in America scurrying around like ants whose rock has been overturned. The staff of the New Republic had the moral equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown when the editor agreed to publish an essay based on the book. The staff insisted on publishing hysterical denunciations preceding the actual essay. The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek featured the book on their covers; the Times Magazine dubbing Murray “the most dangerous conservative,” and Newsweek describing the tome as “angry” and “deeply pessimistic.” And these are some of the nicest comments, Others have called the book “racist,” “reactionary,” and “neo-Nazi.”

What’s all the fuss about? By now, many readers will have heard that “The Bell Curve” asserts, “IQ is destiny,” “Genes determine intelligence,” and “Racial differences in intelligence are genetic.” It does not. What it does offer is a powerful analysis of how differences in intelligence are affecting American society, along with a devastating critique of the unintended consequences wrought by 30 years of trying to implement left-liberal social policies that ignore differences in intelligence.

First, Herrnstein and Murray detail a consensus among experts that IQ tests actually measure a general mental capacity for inferring and applying relationships drawn from experience, usually called “g.” For example, people who do well on one type of mental test also tend to do well on others, regardless of their content. Furthermore, Murray and Herrnstein demonstrate that people with higher IQ scores tend to be more successful in life, while very low scores correlate with certain social pathologies. They do not, however, claim that IQ is destiny. What they do say is: “Measures of intelligence have reliable statistical relationships with important social phenomena, but they are a limited tool for deciding what to make of any given individual [emphasis theirs],”

The distribution of IQ scores along an axis form what is called the “normal distribution” or “bell-shaped curve,” hence the name of the book. Many other natural phenomena arrange themselves this way; e.g., the heights of people. Most people in either height or IQ cluster around the middle range. Nearly two-thirds of people have IQs between 85 and 115. The social phenomena of concern to Herrnstein and Murray are those experienced by the very dullest and the very smartest.

But are the differences in IQ the result of genetic or environmental factors, or both? Many critics claim Herrnstein and Murray are saying genes determine intelligence. That’s not so. They do argue that “cognitive ability is substantially heritable, apparently no less than 40 percent and no more than 80 percent.” They settle on 60 percent as a moderate estimate. That leaves a large portion of intelligence subject to environmental influences. However, IQ scores after age 10 seem to be pretty immutable. Still, shouldn’t we be able to increase cognitive functioning by manipulating the environmental circumstances of children before age 10?

Herrnstein and Murray show pretty conclusively that we have yet to discover any easy and certain way to raise IQs. Many people on the political left, including Hillary Clinton, point to the much ballyhooed Head Start program as a way to boost test scores of disadvantaged children. However, follow-up testing shows that IQ gains made in Head

Start quickly fade, and “by sixth grade, they have vanished entirely in aggregate statistics.” Herrnstein and Murray find IQ gains made by other programs also surprisingly small.

Since IQs are so stable, Herrnstein and Murray argue, it doesn’t matter much whether they are determined by genes or the environment. They are wrong. From a public-policy point of view, it matters a great deal. If IQs are mostly genetically determined, then people would have to reconcile themselves to the mental abilities that nature gave them and their children. But if there is a large environmental component to IQs, then, even if we don’t now know how to intervene to raise them, officials, educators, and parents will ceaselessly search for some new way to enhance cognitive capacities.

How are differences in intelligence affecting class structure in America? Herrnstein and Murray say that the vast majority of Americans in the middle of the IQ distribution are doing just fine, thank you. It’s what’s happening at either end of the bell curve that’s causing problems, People with IQs over 120 are coalescing into what they call the “cognitive elite.” Those with IQs under 85 are disproportionately members of the increasingly impoverished and violent “underclass.”

First, let’s consider the “cognitive elite.” The leaders in business, government, entertainment, and academia have attended the same set of elite universities that tend to shape a common worldview. They are being even more handsomely rewarded as the importance of brain work grows, relative to the performance of traditional blue-collar industry and service jobs. Herrnstein and Murray argue that the members of the cognitive elite are ever more isolated, both psychically and physically, from their fellow Americans and blame the cognitive elite for promoting a permissive culture with regard to drugs, sex, and family life. Members of the cognitive elite have more of the emotional and financial resources needed to recover from the negative consequences of drug use and other addictions that contribute to the breakdown of the family unit. Meanwhile, the other end of the bell curve, populated by those with IQs under 85, suffer greatly from the consequences of a permissive culture. How?

Most Americans are dismayed by increasing crime rates, illegitimate births, and welfare dependency. Let’s look at some somber statistics derived from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth as analyzed in “The Bell Curve.” Forty-eight percent of the poor came from the bottom 20 percent in intelligence (IQs under 87); also, 45 percent of women who ever received welfare; 57 percent of chronic welfare recipients; 62 percent of men ever interviewed in prison; 66 percent of high-school dropouts are in the bottom 20 percent; as are 52 percent of illegitimate children born to women in that bottom percentile. But why have all these problems gotten so much worse in the last generation? Surely, the general level of intelligence can’t have fallen so much so fast to account for the dramatic rise in social ills. There were plenty of dumb people in the past. Why now?

Herrnstein and Murray argue that the cognitive elite erased the bright lines that once regulated social behavior, while at the same time provided social programs that cushion people from the worst consequences of bad behavior. A generation ago, cultural norms were much stronger out of wedlock births were severely stigmatized; divorce was rare; punishment for crimes and illegal drug use was swifter and more sure; able-bodied men were expected to work; and welfare payments were much lower. It is precisely the people who have the least ability to judge the long-term consequences of their actions who are likely to fall prey to social ills. Even those with relatively high IQs have difficulty coping with social changes and temptations. In addition, the cognitive elite moved to suburbia, concentrating the less intelligent in inner-city communities. One result: social chaos.

What about the vexed question of linking IQ with race? Breaking this taboo is what has sent most liberal commentators around the bend. Although Herrnstein and Murray don’t discuss ethnic differences in IQ until Chapter 13, they know their audience. They write: “That many readers have turned first to this chapter indicates how sensitive the issue has become.”

Even the most enraged critics acknowledge the fact that, on average, black Americans score 15 points lower on IQ tests than whites. This means the average white person tests higher than about 84 percent of blacks. Despite the assertions of numerous left-liberal commentators, Herrnstein and Murray do not say the difference between IQ scores of the average black and white person is due to genetics. They remain “resolutely agnostic on that issue: As far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate.” Nevertheless, IQ scores, whatever the relative contributions of nature and nurture, are stable and difficult to raise. The social pathologies that afflict all people with lower IQs are tragically epidemic in the black community Some 68 percent of all black children are born out-of-wedlock, compared with 18 percent of all white births; 21 percent of black women ages 15 to 44 receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children, compared with 4 percent of white women; and blacks are about 3.8 times more likely to be arrested than whites.

One attempt to social engineer away inequalities between blacks and whites is affirmative action. Herrnstein and Murray analyzed the entering classes at 26 top universities including Harvard, Berkeley, Virginia, Columbia, Princeton, and Stanford. They found the median difference between the white and black test means was 180 Scholastic Aptitude Test points. This puts the average black student at about the 10th percentile of white students at these elite universities, Similarly, large employers that would like to use a test as an initial job-applicant screen cannot, because minority applicants “disproportionately” fail such tests. In practice, employers must meet numerical quotas regardless of job applicant qualifications in order to comply with federal regulations. The authors urge us to return to “the original conception of casting a wider net and leaning over backward to make sure that all minority applicants have a fair shot at the job or promotion.” They rightly point out that the current ethnic “spoils system” is socially corrosive and violates elementary notions of fair play. Sadly, accomplished minority Americans often have their credentials called into question, because everyone knows there is a lower affirmative action standard blacks and Latinos must meet in academia and business. Affirmative action is paternalism in its worst form.

What happens to America if it continues to be increasingly stratified by intelligence? Herrnstein and Murray fear that the cognitive elite, fed up with the seemingly intractable problems of the underclass, will establish “a high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation’s population, while the rest of America tries to go about its business. In its less benign forms, the solutions will become more and more totalitarian.” To avoid this, the authors recommend a return to individualism. They assert that “a person should not be judged as a member of a group but as an individual.” I hope that once the reactionary furor dies down, perhaps “The Bell Curve” will spark a soul-searching debate on how we can start moving again toward Martin Luther King’s dream of a nation where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”


Ronald Bailey is the producer of the national weekly public television series “Think Tank With Ben Wattenburg,” and author of “Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse” (St. Martin’s Press)

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