[This review was published in the Jan/Feb 1995 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 35-8.] 


Book Review 


The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life

By Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray

The Free Press, 1994


Reviewed by Dwight D. Murphey 


            The Bell Curve has provoked more comment than any book in this reviewer’s memory.  In October, The New Republic published an 11-page synopsis written by Herrnstein and Murray themselves, followed by a series of commentaries by a variety of authors.  In early December, National Review followed with a symposium of its own.  But these have been just the more extensive treatments; reviews, columns and even television features have appeared ubiquitously, so that it is hard to imagine an American who is even modestly alert to the discussion of public issues who is not by now aware of the book.

            A fine work that deals with important subjects, it merits the attention it is receiving.  As the reader will see, I am critical of the book taken as a whole, but it makes a number of valuable points that I will discuss later in this review.

            Considered in its entirety, it is an odd book, one that is excellent in much the same way that a camel, arguably one of nature’s more functional and yet aesthetically least satisfying creatures, is excellent.

            Some subjects, such as intelligence and the statistics that go into studying it, primarily reflecting the psychometric work of the late Richard Herrnstein, are discussed extensively.  Because of their prominence, disproportionate to the rest of the work, these may be likened to the humps on the camel’s back.  Other subjects that are important to the analysis are hardly discussed at all; and the theme that seeks to tie it all together seems, like a camel’s spindly legs, to insubstantial to support the humps’ great bulk.

            Subjects that are slighted.  To be specific, the authors tell us that low intelligence correlates with the population of an increasingly menacing underclass in the United States, and the book contains a series of chapters about specific social problems in which it is shown that each problem correlates with low intelligence.  Regression analysis, the authors say, shows that intelligence is a cause of most, if not all, of these problems.

            What needs to be noticed, though, is that such a correlation by itself, even if it indicates causation, is in no way the same things as a full consideration of the causative factors that have, since 1965, led many people of lower intelligence to act as they do.  The overall level of I.Q. did not drop precipitously for any group within a half a decade (1965-70), but the behavior certainly did.  The analysis of those other causative factors would require studies of the ideology of victimization, the impact of moral relativism, the disincentives of welfare, the pathologies of the “therapeutic state,” the decline of the family and of true community--most, if not all, of which have received serious attention in Murray’s other work, but which receive only passing mention here, especially in comparison to the massive attention that the book gives to the factor of intelligence.

            In law, juries are instructed that one thing is a cause of another if the second “would not have occurred but for the occurrence of the first.”  Applying this in the context of The Bell Curve, we can perhaps say that the pathologies of the underclass would not exist if it were not for its members’ lower intelligence.  But this does not mean that there are not a number of other causal agents, such as I have listed above, that also constitute “but-for causes.”  Causation is not limited to one cause.  There is compelling reason to think that but for the ideological turn-for-the-worse that America took in the mid-1960s, the members of our society with relatively low intelligence would for the most part have comported themselves as good citizens.  When we say this, we are not saying anything that Murray doesn’t know himself.  It’s just that the book places so much emphasis on intelligence, as part of spelling out so thoroughly Herrnstein’s work, that these other, perhaps more important, causal factors are given short shrift.  To the extent they are discussed, it is in the realm of moral philosophy, not of the empirico-mathematical science that the authors apply to intelligence.

            The insubstantial nature of the theme.  Because my own experience is that book reviewers are sometimes lazy and don’t even read the book they are reviewing, I wondered as I read The Bell Curve whether many commentators would separate themselves enough from the book’s elaborate discussion of statistics and intelligence to even notice the overall theme.  It has been a pleasant surprise to find that many have.  Much of the commentary has been of high quality.

            The theme points to the occurrence of an on-going “cognitive partitioning” in American society.  Brought on by rapidly increasing technology, it is a process that separates a super-intelligent “cognitive elite” from the mass of ordinary people.  These in turn are separated from a growing underclass that is drained of intelligence to the point of becoming a pathological “critical mass.”  (I am tempted to speak of the “cognitively challenged,” but we should be careful about that, since it would invite the addition of yet another category to the list of persons who are entitled to the expensive protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act.)  The partitioning simultaneously threatens democracy with its growing class stratification and points ahead to an increasing assault on civilized life by members of the underclass.

            Taken on its face, this appears important.  So why do I call it “insubstantial”?  For three reasons:

·        Because Herrnstein and Murray give it such truncated treatment.  The reader is left to wonder until the final chapter “how does all of this about intelligence fit into anything?”, and the authors speak of the partitioning without offering much by way of solutions, certainly not with regard to the upper end of the predicted hierarchy.  These things suggest that they subordinated the general theme to their extensive discussion of the specifics about intelligence.  The unifying theme clearly plays a secondary role and may even have been an afterthought brought to mind precisely to provide a theme.

·        Because the theme about the rise of a cognitive elite centered in the professions and technical trades, when stated forebodingly, isn’t fully convincing.  The authors suggest that it portends a closed-class aristocracy.  But there is nothing necessarily exclusive about it; it does nothing to make impossible the success of countless other people, albeit somewhat less than geniuses, who can make fortunes in the many other pursuits of life and thereby come to belong, also, to the “elite.”  The great wealth made by many ball players and entertainment personalities comes to mind, but a moment’s reflection tells us that there are countless other possibilities for those who make up with character and energy for what they lack in genius.  Indeed, there are many situations in life where character and energy are more “predictive of success” than I.Q.  The elite will be neither small nor exclusive.

·        Because it is not fully persuasive, either, in its discussion of the “underclass.”  As we know from the country’s experience prior to the mid-1960s, there is nothing about low intelligence that condemns the less intelligent to less than a productive, civilized existence.  True, it conduces to it in several ways, not the least of which is the foreshortened “time perspective” that Edward Banfield talked about several years ago in The Unheavenly City.  But a reversal of the other causative factors that have since the 1960s led to a “menacing” underclass—alienated ideology, moral relativism, overweening paternalism, the decline of the family, etc.—would make the situation far less apocalyptic.  This would take away much of the impact of “cognitive partitioning.”  Murray knows this himself, and so devotes attention to an alternative vision of society along neoconservative lines, favoring, as Irving Kristol has, a conservative welfare state (i. e., one whose redistributive programs reward acceptable rather than pathological behavior).  The addition of I.Q. and “cognitive partitioning” to the equation has added a causal ground for pessimism, to be sure, but one that is not nearly so compelling as the book’s emphasis makes it seem.  Murray’s other writing, such as in Losing Ground, is in many ways a better statement of the overall situation.   

            The book’s camel-like nature almost certainly arises out of the fact that two very different thinkers have come together to collaborate on a book that merges their work quite unevenly.  Herrnstein, who died of lung cancer this past September, was an empirico-mathematical social scientist from Harvard; Murray is a social philosopher and cultural commentator from the American Enterprise Institute.  The result of their merger goes into great detail about the psychometric evaluation of intelligence, including even some quite excellent instruction to the reader on the basics of statistics.  This reflects Herrnstein.  It is all placed in a context of social philosophy, but without having space to elaborate on it sufficiently.  That is Murray’s part.  One way to look at it is that Murray has performed the service of making possible a vehicle for bringing Herrnstein’s psychometrics to wide public attention.

            But enough mention of the book’s overall awkwardness.  What is really valuable about The Bell Curve is found in its specifics.  Here are some that I have picked for discussion:

            Upholding freedom of inquiry.  A few of the commentaries have bordered on hysteria, and have pointed to the potential for reawakening what they see as the sleeping giant of a Nazi-like abuse of eugenics.  Their point is valid enough as a reminder that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” but otherwise such fears, in the context of a work of serious research and thought, should be seen for what they are: a form of hyperbole that seeks to foreclose inquiry.  If we must perceive the Nazi shadow every time we speak honestly about race, we are in serious trouble. 

            One of the very valuable contributions of the book is that it runs counter to the taboo.  By its very existence, it cries out for freedom of inquiry.  The question is raised, “Why bring up these issues?  They are better left unmentioned, unstudied; and to the extent they are not, society should impress a taboo upon them!”  What we need to realize about this is that it raises again the issues that we once tough were settled when modern Western civilization came to embrace the outlook of the open society.  It was just two hundred years ago that the delightful English conversationalist Samuel Johnson could argue that “every society has a right to preserve public peace and order, and therefore has a good right to prohibit the propagation of opinions which have a dangerous tendency…. No member of society has a right to teach any doctrine contrary to what that society holds to be true.”  I am among the first to argue that there are a number of social cements that need to be preserved to maintain even a free society, but we also—contrary to Johnson—need to hold fast to our faith that the inquiring mind is one of the principal pillars of freedom, both as a means and an end.

            Implications for America’s growing system of minority preferences.  I think it is safe to say that a substantial number of Americans now sense that “civil rights” has betrayed its initial moral premises and has become an ideological-political-opportunistic con game.  The Bell Curve strikes a mighty blow to the myths that underlie this untoward extension.  I suspect that it is this, far more than a genuine apprehension of impending Nazism, that throws the greatest fear into the multiculturalist Left.

            Prior to the civil rights movement that followed World War II, American society lived with a form of “cultural exceptionalism.”  White Americans generally believed quite sincerely in the principles of a free society, with include “equality under the law” and a willingness to judge each person on his merits.  But during the Progressive movement and for several years thereafter it was felt that historical circumstances, coming out of the existence of slavery and its aftermath, justified the compartmentalization that was reflected in the concept then known as “equal by separate.”

            As well all know, this came under the most powerful moral attack during the civil rights movement.  Blacks were no longer to be treated as an exception; it was imperative to make universal the principles of legal equality and individual merit.  The consensus for those values was so strong that they seemed self-evident to most Americans, who were even willing to impose upon themselves a system of legislation commanding individuals in the great run of life’s activities to judge people by their merits and not to make race any part of their criteria for decision.  Ours was to be a color-blind society.

            It wasn’t long, though, before liberal ideology swept us past that.  The issue of color-blindness became muddied by the presence of “de facto residuals” of the earlier social order.  The desire to overcome those residuals suggested compensatory preferences, which themselves would suggest, once again, a form of “cultural exceptionalism.”  But the preferences didn’t long retain their character as temporary expedients to return us to a truly color-blind society.  Instead, the ideology, now confident of its power, came to embrace “multiculturalism” and the “benefits of diversity.”  The idea of color-blindness went out of fashion, except for whites for whom it remained mandatory, among the “politically correct”; now people are to be advanced because of their blackness, or their being female, or their ethnicity.  It is this that amounts to a “con game,” since it transfers the moral impetus from one thing to something else quite different and because it invokes a double standard, proscribing to whites, and especially to white males, what it encourages in others.  It has led us into a double-track system of rights and privileges, leaving behind a unitary system of law and of Constitutional protections.

            It is into this context that Herrnstein and Murray have come forth to splash a bucket of cold water onto the amorous coupling.  Assuming they are right—and it takes an expert in social science methodology, which I am not, to judge that—what they point to is shattering:

·        That the distribution of intelligence among blacks—in a bell-shaped curve that is offset somewhat to the left of that of the society at large—is not such as to make available large numbers of persons who are intellectually capable of success within the cognitive professions.  There are many very intelligent blacks, but their percentage at the higher scale of intelligence doesn’t match the percentage of blacks in the population as a whole.  What this means, say, is that if universities and government departments adopt a policy, as many are, of hiring almost all minorities until a certain social reconstruction is achieved, they will be competing for the same small pool of qualified individuals.  This will force them to lower their standards, will cast a shadow of doubt over the achievements of all blacks, and will cause resentment among those who, though better qualified, are displaced.  The idea that such racial preference can be indulged without adverse consequences depends upon the faith in equal intelligence, and that is precisely what Herrnstein and Murray are puncturing.

·        That blacks are already equally, and sometimes overly, represented in high-level positions—and in education, occupations and wages—relative to what would be predictable if intelligence were the criterion.  The revolutionary impact of this is that it contradicts the myth of continuing “victimization” (a new word for the old Marxist concept of “exploitation”).   The idea that a vicious mainstream society is victimizing minorities is the glue that holds together the ideological alliance of the Left’s alienated intellectual culture with the groups that, the intelligentsia hopes, will long relish being disaffected and unassimilated.

            Dysgenic trends.  Three genetic forces, the authors say, are at work to lower the level of intelligence in the United States: a higher birthrate within the less intelligent underclass, a postponement of child-bearing for several years by more intelligent women, and the nature of recent immigration, which has been from the Third World.  The first two of these forces are at work not just within the society at large, but also within the black community, leading to a worsening of prospects for blacks within a civilization that is increasingly rewarding intelligence.  This is a matter that should be of major concern to blacks themselves.

            Of course, a discussion of anything genetic is taboo, since an investigation of dysgenics automatically conjures up images of Hitler’s abuse of eugenics.  The facts are important, however; they certain call, as the authors do, for at least so much as a repeal of the policies that presently favor more babies by low-income women.  The issue isn’t whether we should impose a draconian eugenics, but whether we should stop doing things to encourage dysgenics.

            A call for a more humane social order.  It may seem incongruous to mention it in light of the cries that have been raised that the book, by comparing the intelligence of races, is proto-racist, but we should take time to notice that Herrnstein and Murray sketch the outlines of what could be a much more humane society.  Understandably, they see few profound human satisfactions in the crumbling, warring inner cities fostered by the custodial, therapeutic state.  They offer the alternative of a truly free society, in which people at all levels find sustenance, warmth and a “valued place” through the local, interpersonal processes that multiply so profusely within humanity when government and ideology don’t get in people’s way.

            Two criticisms of this vision can be made from a conservative perspective.  First, that “some sort of redistribution is here to stay” should, at the very least, be debated.  What is needed is a vigorous discussion on the Right about whether a “conservative welfare state” is in fact a minimal necessity.  This especially means identifying and scrutinizing its specific components, comparing them, as libertarians and classical liberals are so wont to do, with voluntaristic and local alternatives.

            Second, Herrnstein and Murray say that we must “return to the melting pot as metaphor and color blindness as the ideal.”  It is rapidly becoming too late simply to endorse a melting pot without qualification.  We have for thirty years been flooded with Third World immigration.  The melting pot was a splendid ideal when the newcomers would melt into a high Euro-American civilization.  We ought strenuously to oppose, however, a reverse process whereby Euro-American civilization melts into that of the Third World.  And that is what will happen unless Americans quickly form and effectively enforce a consensus to limit immigration.  The authors express concern about the current immigration because of its dysgenic effects.  The concern must go further and center on the long-term continuity of the United States culturally and politically.  But this is hardly a criticism of Herrnstein and Murray; it is too much to expect them to have carried the dialogue that far.  The issues they bit off are more than enough for any two thinkers, however courageous.

            Nothing in this reviewer’s memory has done so much to provoke so stimulating and widespread a discussion.  This is a perfect time to initiate something akin to a Nobel Prize for Freedom of Inquiry.  Herrnstein and Murray would win it hands down.