Bad Idea

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

Dense, hefty and measured, The Bell Curve has ignited an intellectual brushfire in the United States.

At The New Republic, a majority within the magazine’s editorial ranks opposed the publication of an essay adapted from the book, on the grounds that it could only dignify a hateful argument. But hateful or not, the book makes an explosive contribution to a long-simmering debate, and The New Republic could ill afford to ignore it. The essay was published, accompanied by no fewer than 17 rebuttals and some well-chosen words from beyond the grave from the late Walter Lippmann.

Hence, the major irony of The Bell Curve‘s reception: The vocal American right, which presumably will find much in the book to applaud, has been relatively muted in its reaction. American liberals, who detest the book down to its spine, have publicized it via a chorus of censure.

This is understandable. Herrnstein and Murray have invaded highly sensitive territory: the issue of race and intelligence in U.S. society. To liberals, The Bell Curve is not only offensive, but it provides the basis for genuinely dangerous social policy. Quite rightly, they see the book as a threat to all that they believe in.

Herrnstein was a professor of psychology at Harvard University and had long been a figure of controversy in the IQ debates. He died a month before this book was published. Murray is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

They write in anticipation of their own denunciation. Still, for all their telegraphed awareness of the opprobrium coming their way, they are strangely oblivious as to why their arguments are so incendiary. They prefer to see the inevitable howls of outrage as simply a politically correct response to stabbing an exposed nerve.

But what they argue is as old as the hills, and no good has ever come of it. The book’s contention is that some bloodlines are demonstrably inferior to others. Specifically, the authors argue that social benefit properly accrues to intelligence, and that there is a hierarchy of racial intellect. East Asians are supposedly brighter on average than whites (although not by much), and whites are over all brighter than blacks and Latinos by a fair margin.

Herrnstein and Murray are at pains to point out that this does not mean all whites are smarter than all blacks, but this doesn’t make the proposition any more palatable. No one disputes that certain individuals are more gifted or graced than others. On the contrary, we celebrate individual accomplishment. It’s why we have the Olympics. It’s why we remember Mozart.

However, the insistence that some races are superior to others has no such happy history. Its pedigree is slavery, apartheid and genocide. Those who are most adamant about their racial superiority often prove to be the ones with an appetite for evil.

This is not to say The Bell Curve was written with malevolent intent. Fair’s fair, the book deserves to be assessed on its own terms: as a work of popular science as well as a political intervention.

Despite a 58-page bibliography and 108 pages of endnotes, the book speaks to non-specialists (albeit folk prepared to wade through an 845-page brick full of charts and graphs). And considered purely as an attempt to render intricate statistical analysis understandable, it is a model of clarity. Smart people wrote this dumb book.

Its success as a political intervention, however, depends on whether one finds it persuasive, and that probably hinges on the prejudices of the reader.

In sum, the authors argue that there is an innate human quality they call “cognitive ability,” and that this is empirically quantifiable via intelligence testing. They hold further that the data show U.S. society segregating itself into a cognitive elite and a vast, expanding caste of lumpen dullards. The former supposedly go to the best schools, get the best jobs, reap the lion’s share of material rewards, and perpetuate these advantages by marrying one another. The latter, according to Herrnstein and Murray, are victims of their own slow-wittedness. It is not deprivation that leads to crime and poverty, they insist, but lack of brains.

Why, then, are American blacks disadvantaged? Because, as an ethnic group, they are less intellectually endowed. And what can be done to alleviate the ills of the underclass? According to The Bell Curve, very little, because you can’t make people any smarter. In the main, the book’s policy recommendations amount to a call to stop throwing money at an intractable problem, an end to affirmative-action programs, and a redirection of immigration policy so as to select for brighter citizens.

The project of progressive social justice is doomed, the authors suggest, because the proof is in the numbers and the data don’t lie. We must stop fostering false expectations and instead create jobs for the underclass that are commensurate with their intellectual capacities, but that nonetheless make them feel they are valued members of the collective. What Herrnstein and Murray advocate is cheery drudgery: street sweepers in Disneyland.

All this tommyrot might make sense if one accepts the book’s initial premise: that “intelligence” is invariant, hereditary and easily measured. If one holds, however, that “intelligence” is a much more ineffable quality – a mixture of talents that reveal themselves in different circumstances – then The Bell Curve is nothing short of crackpot.

Think of physical attractiveness, for example. It is certainly true that some people are better looking than others. It is also true that, while appearance can be enhanced by grooming and dress, for the most part good-looking people are born that way. No doubt, too, there is a social advantage to being physically attractive, and this advantage is perpetuated by the fact that good-looking people tend to marry other good-looking people. It is also presumably possible to measure attractiveness on a gradient (the Pulchitrude Quotient, perhaps). But no one would think of constructing an elaborate alarmist argument to the effect that society is dividing itself into the homely and the handsome, with a beautiful elite besieged by an uncomely underclass.

Yet this is precisely what The Bell Curve argues with regard to “cognitive ability.” For a book about intelligence, it is relentlessly single-minded, dismissive of contrary evidence, historically amnesiac, and blind to the hurt it will cause. In a word, stupid. Not to mention

  • Globe and Mail November 19, 1994