Commentary Magazine


The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray

For Whom It Tolls

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.
by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray.
Free Press. 845 pp. $30.00.

Is there anyone left with access to a microphone, television camera, or printing press who has not unburdened himself of an opinion of The Bell Curve? I cannot recall a serious book provoking such a gusher of commentary. It has already been a subject of discussion at a presidential press conference. Pundits have had a field day. Cover stories in news and opinion magazines have featured the book and its authors. Besides the several hundred-thousand copies now circulating, millions more people have seen press accounts of it, some of them incorporating reasonably faithful summaries of what it says.

As any author can attest who has brought forth a book and waited months for even the hometown paper—let alone the New York Times—to review it, the instant celebrity accorded The Bell Curve is astounding, the more so when one hefts this weighty tome and finds it chockablock with charts, graphs, tables, statistical exotica, and technical appendices. Though the authors strove to make it accessible to a general audience as well as to scholars and policy-wonks, this is not a volume that one is apt to read for relaxation. So why has it entered the national consciousness like a noseful of cocaine?

The reason, of course, is its provocative discussion of inherently controversial subjects: intelligence, genetics, race, and the relationship of this trinity to success or failure in American society. To make matters even touchier, the authors state facts and draw conclusions that violate longstanding taboos.

These taboos that have led some thoughtful people concerned with preserving social harmony to adopt a “shouldn’t-have-written-it” line. “I ask myself,” concludes Nathan Glazer in a sorrowful comment in the New Republic, “whether the untruth is not better for American society than the truth.” But, with exceptions that can be counted on one hand, most of The Bell Curve’s critics do not much seem to care whether what the book says is true.

Their main project has been to hurl enough brickbats to drive both book and authors out of the public square. The objective, it is apparent, is to restore the taboos and to intimidate anyone else who would dare violate them again. Since Herrnstein died of cancer as the book was being published, Murray has taken most of the blows (though a few grim commentators have sought to trash Herrnstein’s reputation as well).

Of course, Murray has been driving liberals to distraction for years. His earlier books, Losing Ground (1984) and In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (1988), and myriad articles and op-eds (most famously, his 1993 Wall Street Journal essay on “The Coming White Underclass”) have established him as perhaps our most influential critic of the modern welfare state and its social consequences. Bringing him down would be no small accomplishment for the Left. Yet however the attempt to do so may ultimately affect Murray’s reputation and the impact of his ideas in policy arenas such as welfare reform, thus far it seems mainly to have pumped up The Bell Curve’s sales.

If anything, the intensity of the campaign against this book is powerful evidence of the deep roots that the presumed mutability of intelligence has in our educational arrangements, in our public policies, in our popular culture, and in widely held Western religious beliefs about the perfectibility of man. Americans, especially, want to regard intelligence much as they do physical fitness, family income, or the state of one’s lawn: if you really work at it, you can do something to improve it. That is why test-score-boosting courses are proliferating, as are magazine articles that counsel parents on how to raise their children’s IQ. Intellect, it is thought, can be pumped up along with one’s triceps.

Certainly that is what we preach and teach. Private whispers sometimes take on a more cynical tone, perhaps accompanied by a knowing wink: so-and-so really isn’t very bright; she’s been promoted a level beyond her ability; he’s obviously an “affirmative-action hire,” not smart enough to get the job on merit. And so forth.

That what we say in public is not necessarily what we think when it comes to intelligence is partly hypocrisy, partly manners, and partly fear of the culture cops. But there is more: many of us actually do hold two conflicting views of intelligence.

On the one hand, we know intelligence is not uniformly distributed and that it matters whether one has a little or a lot. As with other forms of talent—artistic, musical, athletic, etc.—we do not really expect everyone’s intellect to be the same and we accept the fact that those who are smarter are apt to get farther in life.

Yet, on the other hand, most of us bridle at the thought that any given individual’s prospects are inexorably shaped or bounded by intelligence alone. It is too simple, too pat, too . . . un-American, especially when we have all met smart people who are shiftless, unprincipled, or irresolute, and others who may not be geniuses but whose enterprise and decency have carried them far.

When it comes to groups, our attitudes are still more complex, our public utterances even more muted. There has been a virtual ban in contemporary America on general statements about the typical or average abilities of certain demographic fractions. It is presumptively racist (sexist, etc.) to draw comparisons among groups, let alone to infer anything about an individual from average or typical characteristics of a group to which he belongs. All comments along those lines are best kept to oneself, or made behind sealed doors. And that is pretty much what happens—except when an article or book like this one appears.

The taboo has three roots. The first is political correctness in all its chilling power. Recall the storms that descended on eminent scholars like Arthur Jensen and (from an earlier work) Herrnstein himself when they dared to report research indicating that IQ is more dependent on heredity than on environment. Though Herrnstein said nothing about race, he was smeared as a racist along with Jensen, who had pointed to evidence—since confirmed in hundreds of studies by dozens of scholars—that the average IQ of blacks is lower than that of whites. Today, as we know, the PC police are even more numerous and heavily armed.

The taboo’s second source is a widespread and historically-based view of how groups get ahead in America. There is a well-worn path that most groups have followed from poor immigrants to working class to solid middle class to—at least for some—status, distinction, and wealth. In such a land of opportunity, we think it wrong to suppose that where a group is today has much to do with where it may be tomorrow.

Third, a great deal is at stake—for a great many people—in the “nature-nurture” debate. We have elaborate institutional arrangements—and lots of professional careers and taxpayer dollars—riding on the proposition that nurture matters more. Is it not true, as the educators say, that “all children can learn”? Cannot early intervention—prenatal health care, sound infant nutrition, high-quality day care, Head Start, and so on—launch children on the path to success, even if their parents are poor or not very bright? Will not mentoring programs, tutoring, summer camp courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund, after-school activities, midnight basketball, and the professional ministrations of counselors and social workers enable even the most seriously disadvantaged to make it in the end?

Those are three of the main reasons why prudent Americans have assiduously eschewed generalizations about the abilities of groups. And that is the environment into which The Bell Curve landed. Though written with care (and often erring on the side of caution), it thumbs its nose at the taboos. It overturns innumerable applecarts. It challenges all manner of assumptions, social programs, and institutional arrangements. And it contains a trove of useful information, insight, and analysis—as well as some assertions that may not be so solidly founded.

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As is now well-known, the book’s primary thesis is that intellectual ability (of which, the authors prove beyond much doubt, IQ is a serviceable indicator) makes a huge difference in American life both for good and for ill, and that a new kind of stratification is emerging as members of the “cognitive elite” fare ever better and the dull-witted underclass ever worse. Though we cannot know whether an individual will follow, beat, or lag behind the probabilities for his intelligence range, we can generalize about what is likely to happen to “typical” members of that range: smart people gain wealth, success, and status, while stupid people are apt to be poor, dependent, and on the margins of society, if not outcasts or outlaws.

Murray and Herrnstein offer the most extensive documentation to date of these propositions, and their display of the relationship between intellect and success is the book’s most distinctive contribution. The authors also proffer compelling evidence that stratification by intelligence is largely a development of the 20th century, especially of the past several decades, and is fueled by changes in the marriage and labor markets, and above all by the “sorting” mechanisms of higher education.

Universities that as recently as 1950 were preserves of the wellborn and well-to-do (but frequently less-than-brilliant) had, by the 60’s, become places that screened applicants primarily for intellectual prowess. Enhanced social mobility has made it easier for the “cognitive elite” to live, work, and socialize primarily within itself, and has encouraged “assortative mating” that leads smart people to marry other smart people and raise smart children. In the world of work, one can no longer count on landing (much less keeping, or being promoted from) a good job because of social standing, parental influence, or membership in the right club.

The combined force of these trends tends to reinforce the isolation of the new elite. And not only in America:

[M]odern societies identify the brightest youths with ever-increasing efficiency and then guide them into fairly narrow educational and occupational channels. These channels are increasingly lucrative and influential, leading to the development of a distinct stratum in the social hierarchy.

The meritocracy, it seems, is working incredibly well.

That is a triumph, of sorts, but more than a little irony inheres in this tale. Our success in opening and equalizing opportunity, tearing down old barriers, and shrinking the influence of race, religion, gender, and hereditary status with respect to who gets ahead has placed more of a premium than ever on intellect. But in lowering the traditional barriers, say Herrnstein and Murray, new and seemingly intractable problems have appeared.

For one thing, not everyone is equally well-equipped with brainpower for the meritocratic sweepstakes. This is not in and of itself terribly worrisome. People have different strengths they can bring to bear in the struggle to get ahead: some sing better, others are more beautiful, while others can swim faster, and so on.

But (for another thing) intellect is not merely spread unevenly among individuals; it is lumpy with respect to population subgroups too. Although innate intelligence is distributed through the entire population on a “bell curve”—with most people near to the average and fewer at the high and low ends—the distribution varies by race and ethnicity, with the gap between black and white Americans no doubt posing the thorniest challenge of all to our race-sensitized society.

While high intelligence correlates with success, low intelligence correlates to a large and distressing extent with poverty, unemployment, illegitimacy, dependency, criminality, and other worrisome modes of behavior. Herrnstein and Murray take pains to point out that low intelligence does not necessarily cause these social problems. But that it is “prevalent” among people who manifest such problems is demonstrated by graph after graph. High proportions of problem-plagued people come from the bottom fifth of the intelligence distribution: 48 percent of those living in poverty; 66 percent of high-school dropouts; 57 percent of “chronic” welfare recipients; 52 percent of women giving birth to illegitimate children; and so forth.

The point is that any purposeful effort to solve such problems must take account of the fact that many of the people afflicted by them are also not very bright:

Do we want to persuade poor single teenagers not to have babies? The knowledge that 95 percent of poor teenage women who have babies are also below average in intelligence should prompt skepticism about strategies that rely on abstract and far-sighted calculations of self-interest. Do we favor job-training programs for chronically-unemployed men? Any program is going to fail unless it is designed for a target population half of which has IQ’s below 80.

Most troubling of all, intelligence is to some degree inherited, hence not wholly malleable through pre- and post-natal intervention schemes. The authors say that respectable scientific evidence yields estimates that intelligence is from 40 to 80 percent determined by inheritance. They opt for the middle of that range—i.e., for the proposition that intelligence is three-fifths the product of nature, and two-fifths the product of nurture. This means that all efforts to boost intelligence (parenting, schooling, and sundry social programs) must work whatever miracles they can within the limited span of 40 percent.

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To ask a question that few of their critics have asked: how true is what Murray and Herrnstein have to say? It seems to me that there can be little or no doubt about their findings on the predictive power of IQ in relation to success and failure in contemporary U.S. society, or about the (current) differences in IQ among groups, or about the (partial) heritability of intelligence. But at least with respect to the crucial mutability-of intelligence issue, some legitimate doubts can be raised that bear on individuals and groups alike.

A baby’s brain is not fully formed at birth. Much of its development—physiological, neurological, cognitive—occurs in the early months and years of life, and there is ample evidence that the extent of this development is influenced by the experiences the baby has. Prenatal experience matters, too. Everyone knows that when a pregnant woman drinks heavily, smokes crack, or injects heroin, there is a good chance that her baby will be born with some neurological or cognitive impairment. Such behavior may not be easy to change, but neither is it genetically encoded or permanently fixed.

Moreover, success in life has to do with many factors besides raw intellect. Murray and Herrnstein acknowledge this with respect to individuals, meticulously distinguishing their fate from group generalizations and averages. But it almost certainly makes a difference for groups as well. Does anyone doubt that one of the major reasons East-Asian immigrants, for example, do so well (their average IQ is higher than that of whites) is that our society rewards the self-discipline and family cohesion that are highly prized in their tradition? When it comes to groups that are faring less well, there is no reason to believe that the cultural factors that today foster undesirable behavior are utterly inert and cannot, under the right conditions and with the passage of time, change for the better.

Finally, “intervention” strategies may not be so hopeless as Herrnstein and Murray conclude. Such thoughtful commentators as Douglas Besharov and E.D. Hirsch have cited evidence of institutions, programs, and actions that appear to have greater and more enduring positive effects on cognitive functioning than The Bell Curve concedes. The authors themselves mention a couple of these, notably adoption (at an early age, into a better family). Other wholesale shifts in a young child’s environment, such as an outstanding orphanage or boarding school along the lines of Boys Town, would likely produce much the same result. Hirsch cites data from long ago and other countries suggesting that topnotch day-schools and good pre-schools may perform better in boosting intellect and reducing gaps than the contemporary American educational institutions that comprise most of Herrnstein and Murray’s data base.

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We certainly cannot afford to be romantic about intervention. We have tried a thousand times in a thousand ways to reduce, compensate for, or simply paper over differences in innate ability. Frequently such enterprises have made matters worse. The pursuit of “equity” in American education, for example, has leveled and dumbed-down schools and colleges to a point where gifted youngsters get short shrift, standards are slack or nonexistent, and many institutions (not the handful of selective ones favored by the “cognitive elite”) now admit everyone, offer few incentives for high achievement, and confer diplomas and degrees that signify less and less.

Well-intentioned government policies, in short, have not substantially solved the social problems associated with the “bell curve” and in some respects have exacerbated them. If we continue on our present course, Herrnstein and Murray predict in a bleak, apocalyptic, chapter, reminiscent in its language of the (1968) Kerner Commission report on race in America:

[T]hese trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose.

If they are right about this, we could find ourselves facing the greatest pressure ever for quota-style affirmative action. Herrnstein and Murray are strongly opposed to affirmative action of this kind, but if the meritocracy serves to trap entire castes of society within menial jobs, low incomes, and third-rate educational institutions, we might expect intensifying interest in curbing the meritocratic system. Considerable segments of the public (remember that 50 percent of the population, by definition, is distributed somewhere along the bottom half of the IQ bell curve) might insist that our government should reallocate the opportunities and benefits that flow to the cognitive elite, much as India reserves growing fractions of its university places and civil-service jobs for members of the “scheduled castes.” No matter that such policies would shackle economic growth and technological progress; we will be told that social justice demands the sacrifice.

And if such pressures fail to materialize, will we then proceed toward the kind of grim future that Murray and Herrnstein forecast: a bifurcated society in which the able and affluent do “whatever is necessary to preserve the mansions on the hills from the menace of the slums below,” including the emergence of a “custodial state” that will treat the underclass much like Indians on a reservation?

My own view is that only some aspects of this dark future are at all likely to arrive. People with means surely have ample incentive to continue investing in their suburban homes, private schools, guards, transportation arrangements, catalogue shopping, and other forms of insulation from violence, squalor, and mediocrity. But I do not see much likelihood that “custodial” care will be imposed on the underclass, save perhaps for those who commit violent crimes and are incarcerated. Indeed, our obsession with the rights of biological parents (and the race of adopting parents) impedes such promising forms of custodianship as orphanages and adoptions.

If anything, the underclass has plenty of champions in the U.S. these days, ranging from a Department of Education that will not permit states to administer high-school-graduation tests, to a Congress that came within a whisker of applying racial quotas in the imposition of capital punishment, to universities more apt to recruit a minority youngster of middling talent and weak achievement than a winner of the National Merit Scholarship who had the bad luck to be born white. Though such practices certainly smack of paternalism, I do not believe they point in the direction of reservations for the underclass or the “custodial state” that Herrnstein and Murray predict.

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One can reject Herrnstein and Murray’s grim vision of walled villas and squalid favelas without quarreling with their recommendations about how to fend off this fate. What they suggest would be entirely sensible even if, somehow, the many problems that stem from stratification by intelligence were miraculously solved.

First, they say, we should restate the principle of equality in terms that require everyone to be accorded equal liberty, not vouchsafed equal outcomes. Second, not everyone need be a rocket scientist to deserve respect: the fellow who collects the trash or drives a cab should be valued for the contribution he makes, which might also include coaching a Little League team or singing in church. Everyone, smart or slow, should be encouraged to find his own “valued place” in society. And third, simplify the overcomplicated rules that permeate our lives, whether they have to do with earning a living or anticipating the consequences of bad behavior like criminality and illegitimacy. It should not require a high IQ to pay one’s taxes—or to know that one is responsible for the support of any children one may bear.

Those are all eminently sound ideas as far as they go, yet I nevertheless found the last few chapters in which they are elaborated the weakest portion of The Bell Curve. After working through more than 400 pages of analysis with mounting alarm over the direction in which they suggest our nation is heading, one may be forgiven for anticipating a more comprehensive set of policy recommendations.

But perhaps Herrnstein and Murray judged the book would already cause enough of a stir. If so, they were probably right. Certainly, the controversy ignited by The Bell Curve has been stunningly fierce. It will continue in the pages of scholarly journals, where, given the leanings of today’s academic social scientists, many of the next round of reviews will surely be negative. The book’s reception by the new Congress and governors, on the other hand, may be more respectful.

Still, even if only half or one-quarter of this book endures the assault, its implications will be as profound for the beginning of the new century as Michael Harrington’s discovery of “the other America” was for the final part of the old. Richard Herrnstein’s bequest to us is a work of great value. Charles Murray’s contribution goes on.

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