For Whom the Bell Curves

A new book raises a ruckus by linking intelligence to genetics and race

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Since Herrnstein died in September, Murray is facing the new round of uproar alone. Not that he's sheepish. After Reaganites discovered his 1984 book Losing Ground, which said poverty programs actually worsened the problems of the poor, he became the sociologist liberals loved to hate. More recently he introduced himself into the debate on welfare reform by insisting that unwed motherhood, not joblessness, was the key problem. His solution was to get rid of welfare altogether. Murray says when he and his co-author started work on The Bell Curve, "((Herrnstein)) said to me, 'You know, we're the only two people in America who can write this book because they've already said everything about us they can think of.' "

Maybe not. In this week's issue of the New Republic, which includes a Murray-Herrnstein article that summarizes their views, an accompanying roundup of their critics describes the theories of the two men as "indecent, philosophically shabby and politically ugly," and as "pseudoscientific racism." Racism? asks Murray. "I am absolutely baffled by the overwhelming tendency of people to say we are pushing the genetic explanation," he says. "We are staying smack dab in the middle of the scientific road regarding nature and nurture. For us to say that IQ is 60% heritable actually gives us more problems with people who say we have erred on the other side. The best studies tend to give higher estimates."

Which is a view that may just shed more darkness where obscurity is already the rule. While few scientists would argue that genes have nothing to do with IQ, fewer still are ready to conclude just how genes fit in. Specialists in the intelligence field complain that Herrnstein and Murray all but ignore what is known about brain development before and after birth. "When it comes to science, the book could have been written a hundred years ago," complains Harvard professor of education Howard Gardner. A pregnant mother's nutrition or drug abuse can have a crucial impact on her child's eventual intellectual capability -- which could go far to explain the lower IQs of inner-city children. After birth the brain's higher intellectual centers show explosive growth. Around eight or nine connections between neurons in the cerebral cortex are pruned back. The rule that governs this elimination is simple: use the connection or lose it. Children without a rich early life exposure to reading or numbers may be at a disadvantage that can register later as diminished intellect.

"Most people think that when you say IQ is genetic, you're saying you can't change it. That isn't what it means," insists Christopher Jencks, the liberal social scientist. "If you say breast cancer is hereditary, it tells you nothing about whether you can cure breast cancer." Craig Ramey, a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, studied poor children who were enrolled as infants in a multiyear program that provided them and their mothers with health care and a stimulating learning environment. Many of them developed and sustained normal IQs of around 100, while those in a control group were as much as 20 points lower. The Bell Curve describes Ramey's Abecedarian Project as provocative but inconclusive and leaves it at that.

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