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The Bell Curve

Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life

by
Richard J. Hernnstein & Charles Murray
1994

reviewed by Mira de Vries


"Please don't, it will annoy me," I responded when a friend offered to send me this book. During the two dozen years since its publication, it has been widely condemned for its racism. It arrived anyway.

I had decided in advance to judge the book by three criteria:
    1. Does it offer a narrow definition of intelligence?
    2. Does it provide an objective way to measure intelligence?
    3. Does it plausibly explain why we would want to measure intelligence?
  1. Herrnstein and Murray (H&M) tend to the definition right away in their introduction. While not providing one of their own, they cite the definitions of others in the fields of psychology and social sciences. In this they compare favorably to many authors who write entire books without ever defining their subject. H&M are also quite fair in including the views of their opponents. Yet in the end they appeal to our intuition. Everybody knows that some people are smarter than others. They use the adjectives "smart" and "bright" throughout the book as well as "dull" and "dumb."
  2. Also regarding the matter of measurement they are well aware of the criticism. They spend many pages trying to persuade the reader that IQ tests are not biased. Yet again, in the end it comes down to whether one believes H&M or the opponents. As they don't succeed in narrowing down the definition of intelligence, intelligence turns into whatever it is the tests measure. Thus the reasoning becomes circular: you are intelligent if you score high on an IQ test which objectively measures intelligence. Indeed throughout their book the authors alternate the terms "intelligence" and "IQ."
  3. Why measure intelligence? IQ tests administered as early as age six predict where on the bell curve someone will wind up, they claim. H&M's concern is for the people at the extremes. At one end are "the cognitive elite" whom they portray as "the thinnest cream floating on the surface of American society" and at the other end are the unfortunate feeble-minded sinking into pools of poverty at the bottom.
The problem they see with the cream is what H&M call "partition" and "stratification." Creamies attend creamy universities, attain creamy jobs, earn creamy incomes, live in creamy homes with creamy neighbors and choose creamy friends and spouses. They have hardly any interaction at all with the normals who are the vast bulk of society, let alone with the dummies. Yet these tiny, privileged specks of cream "acquire ... not just the good life but often an influence on the life of the nation." Towards the end of the book they clarify: "The political clout of this group extends well beyond its mere voting size because of its financial contributions to campaigns and because this group contributes a large proportion of local political organizers." In other words, creamies undermine democracy. Yet nowhere in the book do the authors suggest a way of clamping down on "the cognitive elite."

The problem with the bottom is that they fail in life. IQ determines success in every occupation, even a menial one, say the authors. "The really good busboy is engaged in using [intelligence] when he is solving the problems of his job, and the more [intelligence] he has, the more quickly he comes up with the solutions" thus enabling him to keep his job and income. H&M could have tested their hypothesis by taking jobs as busboys themselves.

More disturbingly they relate low intelligence to what they call "social behavior," a mixed bag of phenomena, some of them heavily value laden. Dummies drop out of school earlier, marry less, divorce more, are less employed (more "idle"), subsist under the poverty line, and use more welfare. They have more "illegitimate" babies. Their children have lower birth weight, slower motor development, and are less well behaved. H&M even claim correspondence between stupidity and infant mortality even though they admit their data does not support such a link. Conspicuous by its absence from this grab bag list is any mention of psychiatric interventions and their detrimental effect on social functioning. Also street drug use is not mentioned unless it is meant to be included with crime.

To substantiate their statements H&M present data mainly from the National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Market Experience of Youth (NLSY) which from 1979 followed some 12 thousand children into adulthood by grossly invading their privacy. H&M punctuate their assertions with graphs and tables representing the data drawn from the surveys. Parallel or diverging lines on a graph form a mighty strong visual image illustrating the correlation between IQ and success or virtue. However, the text reveals that the data were adjusted, calculated, combined, compiled, compounded, computed, converted, corrected, created, cut off, drawn together, extracted, extrapolated, and picked out. These manipulations are rather reminiscent of the methods used by drug companies to make their products look good.

At the same time H&M inject their own partisan preferences. They state, "We use the older term 'illegitimacy' ... because we think that ... the word illegitimacy will prove to be the right one." They consider fathers indispensable yet the only disadvantage of birth "out of wedlock" they identify is poverty. They fail to establish that if a poor mother had been married to the father of her child the family would have been economically or otherwise better off. Furthermore, it could be that the reason there are more single mothers in the lowest socioeconomic class is not because they are less intelligent but because they are less able to afford abortion, a morally sensitive social phenomenon that the authors mention nowhere. They object to common law marriage as lacking in responsibility. In a later chapter H&M "urge that marriage once again become the sole legal institution through which rights and responsibilities regarding children are exercised" presumably for all income groups. This means, they explain, no child support for mothers and no visitation rights for fathers. So they condemn parenthood outside of marriage on the grounds that it engenders poverty and deprives the child of a father, yet lacking a certain piece of paper they would impose more poverty on the child and less father. By the way, marriage was never "the sole legal institution through which rights and responsibilities regarding children are exercised."

H&M may not like single parenthood but they had better get used to it because the next generation has to come from somewhere, and they don't like immigrants either, unless they are from Sweden or Japan, and those don't happen to be the countries whose citizens are queuing up at the US borders. In my country these last decades half of all children are born to single mothers, though many of these mothers are in a stable relationship with the biological, live-in father. Of the other half, the children whose biological parents were married to each other at the time of conception, half's parents are divorced, and many of those divorces are acrimonious. Every human being is legitimate. An example of illegitimacy is H&M's presenting their private prejudice as fact backed science.

According to their graphs, crime rates increase as IQ drops except for the lowest 10% who, the authors speculate, are too dull to commit crimes. But they also state that "retarded" persons are not included in the statistics. Why would someone within the normal range of intelligence be too stupid to commit a crime? Perhaps IQ does not predict criminality after all? Furthermore, creamies don't become pick-pockets or burglars but they do commit fraud, corruption, and racketeering, crimes which threaten the health, wealth, and freedom of millions of people. Of course, the creamy participants in the NLSY may have been smart enough to not confess their crimes to the interviewer. In addition, such crimes tend to be committed at an age that the participants of the NLSY had not yet reached.

So, is the book racist? Perhaps not according to the meaning of the word in the US, namely malice towards blacks (black being the term they use throughout the book). In the section linking intelligence to success and virtue they avoid the issue of race by culling data on whites only. In the next section they attempt to persuade us that blacks are less intelligent than whites. Although in a late chapter they advocate treating people as individuals the body of their book does the opposite. It's not that they don't like blacks. They just don't like dull people of any color.

Racist the book is in the original sense of the word, absolutely, definitely. The authors' arguments perfectly dovetail eugenic theory. They call eugenics a science and several times approvingly cite the inventor of eugenics and IQ tests, Francis Galton. They even echo Galton's prime tenet: "people with lower intelligence [will] be outproducing people with higher intelligence and thereby producing a dysgenic effect." Though they vehemently deny it, their arguments lead up to just one conceivable conclusion, Galton's, the original racism: government control of fertility. It gave us the Holocaust. H&M remind me of the person who said to me, "I'm not an anti-Semite but I don't like Jews."

The conclusions they do admit to drawing aren't all better. Head start programs should be abandoned they say because they don't work. Instead "we want to return to the state of affairs that prevailed until the 1960s, when children born to single women ... were more likely to be given up for adoption at birth." But those children weren't "given up" voluntarily, their mothers were compelled to relinquish them, often by embarrassed parents at precisely the middle to high end of the socioeconomic ladder. H&M are right that "The supply of eager and qualified adoptive parents for infants is large" but baby trafficking, including in the guise of legal adoption, is a violation of human rights. Having their child torn away from their breast leaves mothers deeply scarred for life, and often the adopted child feels scarred too. Foster care (not adoption) would be appropriate when the mother is crack-addicted, but nothing will undo the damage incurred in utero.

Another suggestion they make is providing the children of dull mothers with vitamin supplements even though they admit that research does not support any benefit. They don't mention the one foodstuff that research actually has linked to higher IQ: breast milk. One wonders whether they regret that women are involved in procreation at all, as perhaps their IQs are lower than men's? This correlates to their claim that married people who grew up with only a mother are 25% more likely to divorce than those who grew up with both parents, however there is no such deleterious effect to children growing up with only a father!

They further recommend repealing affirmative action. Blacks were already increasingly being accepted into universities and top jobs before affirmative action was legislated anyway, they maintain. H&M are right, of course, that there is no way to positively discriminate one individual or group without negatively discriminating another. They say this fosters resentment towards blacks. The lowering of standards by schools and employers to be able to meet quota fosters not only resentment but also incompetence. And it damages the self-esteem of the blacks who have to compete from a lower vantage point. If this is true, the authors' concern may be justified. Would it be fair to expect shorties to compete with tallies at basketball? (My allegory, not theirs.) H&M do want blacks to attend Ivy League universities, but only the ones whose qualifications match those of the other students.

A fine recommendation they make is that government should leave parents free to choose an education for their children themselves. Only this way can a program be chosen that caters to an individual child's abilities and needs, and the family's culture and values. This policy is best for the fastest who are under-served by the general school curriculum as well as for the slowest who are subjected to too high demands.

The authors go a step further and propose that government overall step back. "Federal and state policy makers ... stripped neighborhoods of traditional functions." They make it harder for dull people to make a living and carve a place for themselves in community life. With its excessive rules and procedures government makes life too complicated which is "a nuisance to people who are smart [but] much more of a barrier to people who are not ...  cognitively equipped to struggle through the bureaucracy." Surely most of us nod in agreement even if we are employed by government ourselves.

One obvious recommendation they don't make is that government stop forcing taxpayers to finance the education and careers of creamies. We do need some super talented people, for instance those who design the houses that shelter us, the water and sewage systems that keep us healthy, the transportation that keeps us mobile and the communication channels that keep us informed. Those creamies will have no problems funding their own education and finding work. Big businesses are screaming for more of them. We also need physicians, though judging by the amount of disease mongering apparently necessary to keep them all in work we could make do with far fewer. And today we need experts in artificial intelligence. The best of them are likely to be adolescent whiz kids wasting their time in school learning things they'll never need to know. We do not need psychologists or social scientists like Hernnstein and Murray.

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