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Apocalypse Now?

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life

by Richard J. Herrnstein, by Charles Murray
Free Press, 845 pp., $30.00


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 or the curliness of the hair, the more obvious it will seem that ethnic groups that differ in such visible qualities must differ in intelligence too. By the same token, it bolsters the extraordinary fatalism that infuses The Bell Curve: once you discover that the average IQ of people in jail is 93, it’s easy to believe that people with too little g are more or less doomed to social dysfunction. How other countries of the same ethnic composition as white America manage to commit fewer murders and yet jail far fewer of their citizenry remains for ever inexplicable. Conversely, a certain skepticism about what there is to IQ besides being good at certain sorts of tests may make us less superstitious about its importance.

Charles Murray is intoxicated by an apocalyptic vision of the American future, nicely summarized as “The Coming of the Custodial State.” The anxieties about the widening inequality produced by the American economy are ones that Mickey Kaus and Robert Reich long ago familiarized us with, but they are here run through Murray’s wilder and darker imaginings to yield a vision of an incipient semifascist future that neither of them would recognize.1 American society is increasingly partitioned into a high-IQ, ever more affluent, upper caste, a hard-pressed middle class, and a cognitively underprivileged underclass, whose criminality threatens the rest of us and whose unchecked breeding threatens to dilute the pool of talent, and so alarmingly on. The well-off migrate to enclaves of comfortable housing, which are walled-off, well-policed, and equipped with decent schools; the underclass are shut away in urban slums. The struggling middle class feels trapped.

The elite may hold liberal views and they may be willing to pay for help to the poor, but they will not live among them. The middle class have neither money to spend on the underclass nor tolerance of its ways. They will insist on coercive policing and a more punitive welfare system, and will want the underclass kept in whatever “hightech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation” it takes to keep them from preying on the respectable. The end result, Murray argues, is catastrophe: a version of the welfare state in which the incompetent have their lives managed without their consent.

It is difficult to imagine the United States preserving its heritage of individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives, once it is accepted that a significant part of the population must be made permanent wards of the state.

This is a eugenicist, and not (in the usual sense) a racist, nightmare, for Murray believes that the bottom 10 percent of the white population is headed for the degradation that already afflicts the black urban underclass. The people he affectionately describes as “white trash” will need as much looking after as their black counterparts.

So far as I can see, none of Murray’s anxieties about the direction of American domestic policy depends on the truth of Richard Herrnstein’s ideas about the ontological status of g, and none of Herrnstein’s claims about intelligence support Charles Murray’s ideas about social policy. Murray himself seems to recognize this: “Like other apocalyptic visions, this one is pessimistic,” he says, “perhaps too much so. On the other hand, there is much to be pessimistic about.” That statement is a bit casual when it is used as the basis of social prophecy; there always has been much to be pessimistic about, but not much of it licenses the expectation of the imminent extinction of American civil liberties. For all the scientific apparatus with which they are surrounded, Murray’s fears are closer to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh’s audience than to Tocqueville’s anxieties about “soft despotism.”

Herrnstein and Murray don’t explicitly contradict each other, to be sure, but Murray was hostile to the welfare state long before he encountered Herrnstein; and Herrnstein’s views on intelligence are in principle consistent with the politics of almost any persuasion from socialist to libertarian. Socialists might think that ineradicable differences in IQ should be met by making sure that the less clever were compensated with more education than the gifted, and with income supplements to make up for their difficulties in the competitive marketplace; libertarians might think we should treat such differences as the luck of the draw, no more worthy of treatment than the accident that makes some of us better baseball players than others. Between trying to obliterate their effects and letting them make whatever difference they make in the labor market, there are innumerable further alternatives.

Herrnstein and Murray have many common enemies—Head Start, open door immigration, unwed mothers, lax ideas about sexual morality, and the “dumbing down” of American secondary education—but The Bell Curve is very much not the work of one mind. Indeed, each of the authors is in more than one mind on more than one issue.


For all its oddities, The Bell Curve is a fluent piece of work. It is a still more fluent piece of publicity-seeking. The authors have tried to have their cake and eat it, and they have succeeded in a big way. They—this is largely Murray’s achievement—claim to be frightened that they will stir up terrible controversy, but they have advertised their fears in such a way as to do just that. They insist that they have no urge to stir up racial dissension or give comfort to racists, but then say that their findings only reflect what people already think in their heart of hearts—which is, that blacks and white trash are born irremediably dumb, that black Americans have been overpromoted in the academy, that smarter white workers have been displaced by incompetent black ones at the behest of the federal government. A disagreeably wheedling tone is an unsurprising feature of such arguments.

There is a good deal of genuine science in The Bell Curve; there is also an awful lot of science fiction and not much care to make sure the reader knows which is which. What catches the eye of reviewers and reporters are Herrnstein’s gloomy predictions about the declining intelligence of the American population, and Murray’s prediction of imminent fascism. Fewer readers will notice the authors’ throwaway admissions that these predictions are highly speculative, and only loosely rooted in the data they assemble. Take the connection between the fact that illegitimacy rises as IQ declines, and Murray’s fears about the imminent collapse of the liberal state. It is, for a start, quite impossible—as is readily acknowledged by the authors—that the rising rate of illegitimate births in both the black and white American populations should in the first instance have had much to do with intelligence.

The rate remained almost stable between 1920 and 1960, at about 5 percent of all births, then took off sharply in the early 1960s to reach 30 percent in 1990. Herrnstein and Murray say, “If IQ is a factor in illegitimacy, as we will conclude it is, it must be in combination with other things (as common sense would suggest), because IQ itself has not changed nearly enough in recent years to account for the explosive growth in illegitimacy.” They then evade the obvious implication that their obsession with IQ is largely irrelevant. They say “some of these ‘other things’ that have changed in the last three decades—broken homes and the welfare system being prime suspects—interact with intelligence, making it still more likely than before that a woman of low cognitive ability will have a baby out of wedlock.” True, but largely beside the point; the social pressures they mention make it more likely that women of any degree of cognitive ability will have a baby out of wedlock. If the pressures operate more powerfully on women of lower intelligence, we want to know why this is so.

The interesting question is not one of genetics but one of changes in the culture; it is not what has happened to the intelligence of the mothers that needs explaining, but what happened in the early 1960s that so altered the incentives to have babies later rather than earlier and in wedlock rather than out. (It must mean something that divorce rates rose at the same speed during the same years.) That is the sociologist’s territory, not the psychometrician’s, and too often The Bell Curve relies on Herrnstein’s real distinction as a psychologist to prop up what is essentially armchair sociology. A sociologist would at least wonder why the welfare system should be one of the “prime suspects” in the rising rate of illegitimacy when it has been decreasingly generous over the past thirty years; and a sociologist would at least notice that other Western societies such as Britain and the Netherlands have experienced rising illegitimacy rates, too. None of this suggests we ought not to worry about the propensity of the less clever to get pregnant out of wedlock, but it does suggest that we ought to attend to the real complexities of the social environment in which all this takes place.

  1. 1

    Mickey Kaus, The End of Equality (Basic Books, 1992), cited in The Bell Curve, p. 524; Robert Reich, The Work of Nations (Knopf, 1991), cited p. 529. I ought to note that Kaus himself describes Murray’s views in general as “alien and repellent,” The New Republic, October 31, 1994, p. 4.

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