To the Editor:
Chester E. Finn, Jr. in his review of The Bell Curve [Books in Review, January] has done much to counterbalance the avalanche of opprobrium heaped upon the authors of the book, Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein. . . . Nevertheless, some of his statements—or omissions—merit further examination. . . .
There is no getting around the fact that the heritability of any multidetermined characteristic is always (except in monozygotic twins) partial. This, of course, follows logically from the estimate of “60 percent heritability,” but more should have been made of the remaining portion, determined by “nurture.” The omission is made more noxious by the authors’ failure to observe (as Mr. Finn notes only in passing) that the “sifting” due to inherited capabilities is anything but highly efficient, a fact which mitigates their phenotypic effectiveness. . . .
Mr. Finn . . . nearly defeats his and the authors’ purpose by attributing to them a position they never advocated, viz., that group difference should lead to inferences about individuals. Indeed, it is one of the authors’ principal arguments that individuals should be assessed as such, regardless of racial or other factors. To argue otherwise would indeed justify the accusation of an ignominious racism.
We can also see that many seemingly trenchant criticisms simply miss the mark. For instance, it has been held that, since we can point to a gene which determines eye color but not to one for g, the latter must be a spurious construct. This is nonsense. No one would argue that g, if it exists—and there is good reason to assume that it does—is determined by a single gene. Indeed, its presumed genetic components are likely to be extremely complex, depending upon a network of interacting components, which could be charted only if we had a complete blueprint of the human genetic map. . . .
Lastly, can we get around the ineluctable fact that in any society, regardless of its political structure, some form of social and economic stratification will occur? The authors, in spite of their pessimism, would not deny that a stratification based upon a perhaps fortuitous mixture of intelligence, motivation, socially valued skills, and (perhaps unfortunately) certain physical traits deemed to be “attractive” will . . . ultimately determine who rises and who remains behind. This may not be “fair,” but then, what is fair in life?
Apart from a monastic community, does anyone have a better idea than equal opportunity, which does not exclude the “helping hand” where needed? Call it affirmative action or whatever, it should be based on an individual’s needs and merits rather than on his belonging to a particular—and often arbitrarily defined—group.
Hunter College, CUNY
New York City
To the Editor:
Chester E. Finn, Jr. remarks in his review that “IQ is a serviceable indicator.” But an indicator of what? Mr. Finn accepts the answer given by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein. He says IQ indicates something called “intellectual ability.” Some citizens might want to question this, however. Two recent high-IQ Presidents, Nixon and Clinton, have shown that “intellectual ability” is likely to be short on the Declaration’s “self-evident truths.” . . .
Murray and Herrnstein report that the new high-IQ “cognitive elite” is separating itself deeply and widely from society’s dregs. The elite is increasing its economic advantage. Its members effectively exclude outsiders by marrying, working, and playing only with one another. These findings arouse a worried response from the authors’ fellow social scientists who are scandalized by natural inequalities they associate with “success.”
But who could expect anything else? The IQ test is a measure primarily of analytical, quantitative abilities, and secondarily of compatible verbal skills. Furthermore, all the IQ tests abstract from common experiences of today to measure future possibilities imagined by what establishment education calls “higher skills.” Thus, the IQ test ranks respondents on a scale which is well-adapted to the task of modernity’s mathematical physics, the task of transforming a chaotic universe into life-nurturing technologies.
But what of the human “sciences”? When an IQ scale is also used for ratifying social and political elites . . . it can only encourage thoughtlessness and concentrate ever greater power in ever fewer hands.
What needs to be watched is not the authors’ discovery that there is a new, unrecognized elite. After all, social science has often been jarred by such commonplaces and it always reacts with the same tiresome outrage. What needs to be watched instead is another tendency toward which The Bell Curve points. . . .: a tendency for citizens to defer broadly to a radically different kind of elite, an elite which threatens freedom.
Admission to the new elite is certified by our universities together with the public schools they dominate. These have recently begun to recognize IQ as the most important indicator of student admissibility, as Murray and Herrnstein point out in their book. And not surprisingly, the change in admissions policy has been motivated by a change in the curriculum. The new curriculum builds on IQ skills, arguing that they are necessary for living in an emerging world community.
More alarming is the associated political doctrine. The new curriculum is openly hostile to a representative government of separated powers. It argues that entrenched oppressors use institutions like these to prevent the emergence of oppressed peoples. The new curriculum prefers the intimate, direct democracy of the opponents of the Constitution, a democracy unguarded against even the most base demagoguery. It prefers a direct democracy, it claims, but only if it is watched over by a pro-technology elite-managed judiciary.
The new curriculum prefers creativity to established truths meant for all time. It prefers a soft nihilism of “value preferences” to serious moral thought. It thus undermines the ability of voters to select representatives they admire. It leaves voters without a basis for choosing their “best.” If it achieves its objectives, it will bring the downfall of the only kind of popular government which is adapted to modern life: representative republicanism.
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Chester E. Finn, Jr. writes:
Insofar as Harry Kaufmann has a quarrel to pick, it seems to be more with Messrs. Murray and Herrnstein than with my review of their book. I am not sure what he has in mind when he asserts that “more should have been made” of the “nurture” portion of intelligence. Indeed, my main point of divergence from The Bell Curve, plainly stated in the review, is that this portion may be somewhat more malleable than the authors suggest.
Mr. Kaufmann simply misread my review if he thought I attributed to Murray and Herrnstein any inclination to make individual inferences from group averages. As I wrote, the authors “meticulously distinguish” the “fate [of individuals] from group generalizations and averages.” Elsewhere in the review I said that “we cannot know whether an individual will follow, beat, or lag behind the probabilities for his intelligence range.”
But I have no disagreement—nor, I believe, do Murray and Herrnstein—with Mr. Kaufmann’s view that if some kind of stratification is inevitable, it should be based on individual ability rather than on group membership.
David Broyles is correct that intelligence is only one of the factors society weighs in appraising individuals. And it is legitimate to point to some recent occupants of the White House as evidence that high IQ does not necessarily make one admirable (or, in the present case, effective). Nothing in my review—or in The Bell Curve—suggests otherwise.
As for what Mr. Broyles terms the “new curriculum” in American universities, he has accurately taken its ideological measure. But he loses me with the assertion that IQ-based, meritocratic admissions policies are a result of that curriculum. To the contrary: the erosion of those policies in the name of affirmative action and enhanced “diversity” is what the “new curriculum” (and its faculty acolytes) point to. I have seen this up close in recent months as my son has presented himself for admission interviews at a number of medical schools. Almost without exception, someone connected with the process has said to him and his fellow applicants that of course the institution could fill its class with top-scoring candidates, but that of course it prefers to ensure an appropriate demographic blend. (It is hinted, for example, that Native American applicants would be admitted with little attention to test results.) Thus do some of our elite institutions seek to retard the ability-based stratification that Messrs. Murray and Herrnstein describe and attempt to substitute judgments based on group characteristics—precisely what many of The Bell Curve’s critics wrongly accuse the authors of doing! Is it any wonder that the affirmative-action issue is heating up?