Apocalypse Now?

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life

by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray
Free Press, 845 pp., $30.00
Charles Murray
Charles Murray; drawing by David Levine


The Bell Curve is the product of an obsession, or, more exactly, of two different obsessions. Richard Herrnstein—who died on September 24 of this year—was obsessed with the heritability of intelligence, the view that much the largest factor in our intellectual abilities comes in our genes. He was also convinced that there had been a liberal conspiracy to obscure the significance of genetically based differences in the intelligence of different races, social classes, and ethnic groups, and that all manner of educational and economic follies were being perpetrated in consequence. Charles Murray—who is energetically and noisily with us still—is obsessed with what he believes to be the destructive effects of the American welfare state.

The result of their cooperation is a decidedly mixed affair. The politics of The Bell Curve are at best slightly mad, and at worst plain ugly. Its literary tone wobbles uneasily between truculence and paranoia. Its intellectual pretensions are often ill founded. For all that, anyone who has an interest in the philosophy of science and a taste for public policy will enjoy much of The Bell Curve; it is full of interesting, if dubiously reliable, information, and it offers the always engaging spectacle of two practical-minded men firmly in the grip of irrational passion.

Richard Herrnstein’s passion was the conviction that each person has a fixed or nearly fixed quantum of “cognitive ability,” the intelligence whose quotient constitutes your IQ. Herrnstein began his career as a disciple of the behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner, and therefore as a devout environmentalist. Then he fell in love with “Spearman’s g.” Charles Spearman was a turn-of-the-century British Army officer and statistician who thought that people possess varying amounts of general intelligence—or “g”—and invented statistical techniques to discover which intelligence tests most directly tap into this basic ability.

Skeptics have always said that g explains nothing: the fact that the performance of individuals on different tests is closely correlated, and predicts their success in school work and some occupational settings, is important and interesting. Talk of g adds nothing to the fact of the correlation. Herrnstein, however, was no skeptic in this matter. At the first mention of g he confesses that “its reality … was and remains arguable.” But eleven pages later, he claims that g sits at the center of the mind’s capacities “as an expression of a core mental ability much like the ability Spearman identified at the turn of the century,” while eight pages on, after a further bout with the skeptics, he announces that it is universally accepted that “there is such a thing as a general factor of cognitive ability on which human beings differ.”

Does it matter? Only to the extent that it reinforced Herrnstein’s fascination with ethnicity. The more you think that talk of IQ is talk of a mysterious something that possesses the same reality as visible qualities like skin color…

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