For Whom the Bell Curves

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

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Charles Murray, the influential conservative social scientist, is resigned to the fact that a lot of the people who pick up his new book will turn immediately to Chapter 13 -- the one blandly titled "Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability." It's a rare sociological text that gets rifled for the dirty parts, but The Bell Curve (The Free Press; $30), 845 pages of provocation-with-footnotes that Murray co-authored with the late Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, touches upon what the authors say is a great taboo of American life: IQ differences between the races and the degree to which intelligence is hereditary.

That blacks on average score lower than whites on IQ tests is not disputed by anyone who has studied the scores. (The cumulative test results form a bell curve on a statistician's graph.) Everything from that point on is subject to challenge, including whether IQ tests are a valid measure of intelligence or even what intelligence is. Murray and Herrnstein side with those who believe IQ is real and reasonably measured by the available tests. Their truly inflammatory notions are in what follows. While they acknowledge that intelligence is shaped by both heredity and environment, they say heredity plays the larger role -- perhaps 60%, perhaps more -- and insist that it's almost impossible to nudge IQ upward by much after the earliest stage of life. Government attempts to do so, like the Head Start education program, have been a failure. Until we know what, if anything, works at raising intellect, say Murray and Herrnstein, let's stop trying. The Bell Curve's explosive contentions detonate under a cushion of careful shadings and academic formulations. Even so, they explode with a bang. To give credence to such ideas -- even when doing so with loud sighs of alas! -- is to resume some of the most poisonous battles of the late 1960s and '70s, when the sometimes cranky outer limits of the IQ debate were personified by Arthur Jensen, the Berkeley psychologist who stressed the link between race, genes and IQ, and William Shockley, who proposed paying people with low IQs to be sterilized. Murray says the reaction against them shut off a necessary discussion. "The country has for a long time been in almost hysterical denial that genes can play any role whatsoever."

Herrnstein threw himself into the quagmire with a 1971 article in the Atlantic Monthly. He wrote that because economic status depends in good measure on IQ, which he believed was largely determined by genes, a true meritocracy, such as America sought to be, would develop a hereditary upper class, a notion the book elaborates into an emerging "cognitive elite." Before long, his classes at Harvard were being disrupted by student protesters.

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