For Whom the Bell Tolls

"Still the best published synopsis of The Bell Curve"Charles Murray

(Article on The Bell Curve in Forbes Magazine)

[See sidebar on Richard Herrnstein, The Purpose of Tenure]

First published October 24, 1994
Forbes  v154 n10 p153(7).

Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein have published a highly controversial book 'The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.' The book examines the relationship between heredity and intelligence and how the two are related to social turmoil.

"MY POLITICAL aspiration," the American Enterprise Institute's Charles Murray tells FORBES, "is the restoration of the Jeffersonian republic."

Murray's critics may read his aspirations differently—and a good deal less charitably. For five years there has been fascinated speculation about his collaboration with Harvard's Richard J. Herrnstein (who died of lung cancer in September). Herrnstein was one of the most honored academic psychologists in the country. Murray is one of the most influential social scientists, whose work has been accepted by conservatives and liberals alike.

Now these formidable talents were jointly taking on the most feared taboo of modern times: the links among intelligence, heredity and some of the puzzling but apparently unstoppable pathologies raging in American society—such as crime, family breakup, the emergence of the underclass.

Finally, their long-awaited book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, $30.00) has appeared. It's massive, meticulous, minutely detailed, clear. Reading it gives you the odd sensation of trying to swim in a perfectly translucent but immensely viscous liquid.

Like Darwin's Origin of Species—the intellectual event with which it is being seriously compared—The Bell Curve offers a new synthesis of research, some of which has been mounting insistently for years, and a hypothesis of far-reaching explanatory power.

But what about the Declaration of Independence—"All men are created equal"?

The ideal of equality was central to the American and the French revolutions. But is it to be taken as a literal statement about abilities?

Some would say yes, that, given the same opportunities, most people are pretty much alike.

But the reality is that guaranteeing equal opportunity does not produce equality of results. Some people are more disciplined than others, work harder—and, yes—are more intelligent. Some of the traits that make for worldly success can be acquired, but some are genetic, programmed in. Out of an erroneous, if well-meaning, overemphasis on egalitarianism, Herrnstein and Murray argue, we downplay the programmed-in part.

Psychometrics, the measurement of mental traits including intelligence, was a rapidly developing science earlier this century. But then came the savagery of Nazism. The pendulum swung. Any talk of inherent differences became taboo.

In the last 20 years, as Herrnstein and Murray note, public repression of psychometrics reached its climax. Scientific popularizers like Leon Kamin and Stephen Jay Gould were able to proclaim not merely that intelligence was 100% determined by environment and a meaningless concept anyway but that any argument to the contrary was racist.

Herrnstein, tragically, is gone. But Murray still has a lot to lose. His 1984 book Losing Ground argued that Great Society programs had largely failed to help the poor and were actually stimulating illegitimacy. When it came out Losing Ground was bitterly assailed, but it has recently been enjoying a curious vindication as welfare reform becomes an ever hotter issue. Newspapers like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune have noted his new acceptability. Even President Clinton mentioned Murray's work favorably in an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw.

But isn't heredity discredited? Isn't intelligence a meaningless concept?

No, the authors argue forcefully. And they have many allies. The most extraordinary aspect of this extraordinary episode of intellectual regression is that psychometric research has continued, quietly, in ivory towers. And in the last 20 years every major objection to its findings has been rebutted.

The bizarre result: Surveys by psychologist Mark Snyderman and Smith College political scientist Stanley Rothman, published in their IQ Controversy: The Media and Public Policy (Transaction, 1988), found a gulf between the consensus among experts in the field (cognitive scientists, behavioral geneticists) and the consensus among the "media elite" (key editors and journalists.)

Basically, the experts believe that human intelligence

  • can be measured;
  • matters, a lot;
  • differs by heredity (40% to 80% of IQ variation).

The media elite believe, and report, the opposite.

So what? It's a theoretical issue—what's it got to do with practical problems like crime and drugs?

A lot, Herrnstein and Murray argue. They believe that intelligence is highly predictive of how people will do in the world.

Consider two issues that have preoccupied the U.S. media: poverty and inequality.

  • Poverty. For several decades the proportion of Americans living in poverty fell. It went from over half the population in 1939 to less than 15% in the late 1960s. Then—ironically, just as the Great Society programs to abolish poverty were kicking in—the decline stopped. Poverty has stayed stubbornly static for more than 20 years (see chart, below).

To avoid having their argument sidetracked by the race issue, Herrnstein and Murray looked at poverty among non-Hispanic whites. Their finding: A white individual's intelligence now predicts the likelihood of his being poor far better than whether or not he was born into poverty.

Among whites born into average socioeconomic conditions, but with IQs below 85, the probability of poverty in adulthood reached 26%—inner-city proportions. Conversely, among whites born into the very worst poverty, but with average intelligence, the probability of poverty in adulthood was only one in ten. About two-thirds of America's poverty-level population is white. Of that group, nearly two-thirds have IQs below 96.

Ironically, more equal opportunity means that differences in intelligence matter more than they once did. Born poor but smart, a child has a good—though not, of course, guaranteed—chance of rising in the world. Born middle class but dumb, he has a significant chance of descending in the world.

That was always somewhat true in the U.S.—shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations—but never to the degree it is today.

That's offensive—Murray and Herrnstein are saying that the poor deserve to be poor!

That's not at all what they say. But they do suggest that a good deal of poverty may be getting down to an intractable core, caused by personal traits rather than bad luck or lack of opportunity.

Which does not mean nothing can be done about poverty. Even most sub-75 IQ whites, after all, are still not poor. That's where environment comes in. Whites of below-average IQ who come from stable families are less likely to be in poverty than those born to unstable families. This suggests that people of below-average IQ are poverty prone but are by no means destined for poverty. Note carefully: Herrnstein and Murray don't claim that IQ is the only thing that matters. A good home environment, nutrition, motivation, all still count. Unfortunately, Herrnstein and Murray demonstrate massively, these characteristics today are less likely to be present in families with low-IQ parents than in families with high-IQ parents.

  • Income inequality. The economy is placing an increasing premium on skills. This process began well before the much-reviled Reagan Decade of Greed (see chart, above). There is more competition for brainpower and skills than for strong backs. And significantly, even within the "high-IQ professions," such as accountants, lawyers, physicians, Herrnstein and Murray show that individuals with superior IQ scores tend to earn significantly more.


Which suggests that income inequality cannot be eliminated simply by stuffing more schooling down the throats of those who, up until now, have been able to avoid it. The students must actually be able to use that schooling as well.

But why would this be happening now?

Apart from the economy's increasing premium on skills, education has become a much more efficient sorting mechanism.

In 1920, Herrnstein and Murray note, only about 2% of 23-year-olds had college degrees. By 1990 the proportion had reached 30%. And the relationship between intelligence and college had become much closer. In the 1920s only one in seven of American youths with 110-plus IQs went directly to college. By 1990 it was four in seven. For the very highest IQs, college had become almost universal.

And the sorting continued within the college population. In the 1950s, for whatever reason—maybe it was the newly completed interstate highway system—a national market in higher education suddenly emerged. Admissions standards at Harvard and other elite colleges jumped dramatically, and decisively, as they spread their geographical nets more widely. And the average IQ of students at these elite colleges drew away from the average of college students overall, even though that had increased, too (see chart, p. 156).


This, perhaps, would have pleased the Founding Fathers. And that's not counting sex. Despite reports to the contrary, love is not blind. Studies dating back to the 1940s show that the IQs of spouses correlate powerfully, almost as closely as that of siblings. More recent evidence suggests this "assortative mating" may be intensifying, as college graduates increasingly marry each other—rather than the boy or girl back home or someone met in church. No surprise, since the intelligent of both sexes are increasingly corralled together, on campuses and afterward in the "high-IQ professions."

The results are startling. The children of a typical Harvard-Radcliffe Class of '30 marriage, Herrnstein and Murray estimate, would have a mean IQ of 114; a third would be below 110—not even college material, by some definitions. But the children of a Harvard-Radcliffe Class of '64 marriage, after the admissions revolution, would have an estimated mean IQ of 124. Only 6% would fall below 110.

The American upper class, Herrnstein and Murray conclude, is becoming an upper caste. Society is stratifying according to cognitive ability. A "cognitive elite" is emerging at the top.

Americans can take a lot of pride in much of what this book describes. In one sense The Bell Curve is a description of how thoroughly the U.S. has realized the Founding Fathers' vision of equal opportunity for all.

Just look around. Who are the new American elite? They are, at least in part, drawn from every class, race and ethnic background. The old domination of the so-called WASP class is over. Where once it was common to find mediocre people occupying high places by reason of birth, today it is much less so. The poor farm boy, the laundryman's children do not inevitably languish in their parents' social situation but have the opportunity to rise in the world.

If you doubt the American dream, read this book. Your eyes will be opened.

Isn't that great?

Well, yes, Herrnstein and Murray say, but....

The "but" is that the sorting process may be ending. Herrnstein and Murray argue that the "cognitive elite" may be increasingly isolated from the rest of society.

And the problems of the lower reaches of society, increasingly unleavened with intelligence, may become more chronic. Herrnstein and Murray, confining themselves first to the non-Hispanic white population, show that lower IQ is now more powerful than the socioeconomic status of parents in predicting an adult individual's likelihood of poverty, welfare dependency, dropping out of high school, unemployment, workplace injury (even when adjusted for type of occupation), divorce, illegitimacy and criminality.

Still, intelligence can't be that important. Look at all those rich businessmen in Kansas City with IQs of 106!

This comment was made recently by a prominent New York academic. But it just shows that, like many people, he hasn't thought through the way intelligence works in society.

Look at the chart (p. 157). This shows that intelligence is distributed according to what statisticians call a "normal" (or "bell") curve. Most people are around the average of 100. Over two-thirds of the population are between 85 and 115. Very small numbers of people compose the extremes, or "tails." Five percent have IQs below 75. And 5% have IQs above 125.


This last is the group Herrnstein and Murray roughly define as the "cognitive elite." They estimate it at about 12.5 million Americans—out of a total population of nearly 260 million.

The chart makes two points clear:

  • Numbers fall off rapidly going up the IQ scale. Whatever snotty academics may think, Herrnstein and Murray report, the IQ of top executives is typically high—above the 115 average for college graduates.

But even if that rich Kansas City businessman really did have a 106 IQ, he would still be above 60% of the population.

  • Life gets rarefied rapidly in the right tail. Paradoxically, the special cocoons in which society's winners live often confuse them about the critical role of intelligence. They see that success among their peers is not highly correlated with test scores. A chief executive realizes that he has many people working for him who are IQ-smarter than he or she is. It's almost a cliché today to say, "I'm where I am because I have a lot of people smarter than I am working for me." But people who say that forget that they themselves are probably well out there on the bell curve—their associates just happen to be a bit further out.

Basketball players might say that height doesn't matter much—if you're over 7 feet tall.

Come on, everyone knows tests don't predict academic or job performance.

Everyone may "know" this, but it's not true. Tests actually work well. This is not to say that the highest scoring person will necessarily be the best performer on the job. Performance correlates with test scores: It is not commensurate with them. So, overall, the best performers will be recruited from the pool of higher test scorers.

But what about cultural bias?

The argument that intelligence testing reflects white European cultural values was always shaky. Tests do predict performance (approximately) for everyone. And East Asians tend to outperform whites. Herrnstein and Murray estimate the mean East Asian IQ to be about three points above whites'. Is anyone arguing that the tests are biased against Caucasians?

Moreover, IQ appears to be reflected by an objective measure: neurologic processing speed, as measured in recent laboratory experiments that involve hitting buttons when lights flash.

But even if heredity is important, surely that environmental factor is enough to swamp it?

Not quite. Unlike the dominant intelligence-is-environment orthodoxy, the hereditarian position, as reported by Herrnstein and Murray, is actually very moderate: Everyone acknowledges that environment plays a role (20% to 60%) in determining intelligence.

But remember: We're talking about environment controlling 20% to 60% of the variation. The average variation between randomly selected individuals is 17 points. Equalizing environment, assuming a midpoint environmental influence of 40%, would still leave an average gap of nearly 10 points.

But haven't IQs increased over the years?

It's an apparently unkillable myth that IQ researchers once claimed that Jews and other immigrant groups in the 1900s were "feebleminded." They weren't, and the testers never claimed it. But, yes, there has been a significant worldwide upward drift in average scores over the century—the so-called Flynn effect. One explanation: improvements in nutrition. Average height has increased similarly. As with IQ improvement, the increase in height is concentrated among individuals at the lower end of the range. Neither giants nor geniuses seem more common, but there are fewer dwarfs and dullards. Wide and systematic variations, however, remain.

Don't compensatory programs like Head Start make a difference?

Not much, the authors say. Periodically there are optimistic press stories, but under careful scrutiny even the most expensive and ambitious programs have turned out to have little lasting effect, particularly on IQ.

What about Thomas Sowell? He's just argued in his new book Race and Culture: A World View (Basic Books, $25) that improving environments will eventually overcome group IQ differences.

Characteristically, FORBES' pugnacious columnist, an economist at the Hoover Institution, has a position in the IQ debate that is distinctly his own. He agrees with Herrnstein and Murray that tests do predict individual performance and that ignoring their results is destructive for tester and testee alike. But he also thinks that environment determines much (although not all) cognitive ability. So he predicts that low-scoring groups will eventually improve with better social conditions.

Murray's response: Sowell's concept of "environment" must invoke extraordinarily subtle and pervasive cultural factors to explain why groups can live side by side for generations and still score differently. Sowell himself says it offers little opportunity for quick intervention and improvement. As a practical matter, Sowell and The Bell Curve's authors are not so far apart as they might seem.

IQ isn't everything. The tests can't capture creativity, special talents ...

Quite right, says Murray. He's a keen but not brilliant chess player, and says he wouldn't like to think his competitive rank reflects his IQ. (Which he says he doesn't know, but seems pleased with anyway.) Chess ability is correlated with, but is not at all commensurate with, general intelligence.

More generally, Murray argues, there's no reason any individual should regard an IQ score as a death sentence: Intelligence is only one of many factors contributing to success. Good personal habits, an ability to defer gratification, discipline, all these factors matter. Even without high IQ, individuals obviously can and do lead productive and satisfying lives.

So, what's the point of discussing IQ? There's nothing we can do about it.

In fact, The Bell Curve argues, social policy is already doing a lot about it—in a damaging and dangerous way.

  • Welfare: "The technically precise description of America's fertility policy," the authors write, "is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution." They propose making birth control devices and information more widely available to poor people.
  • Education: The impressive thing about America's education system, Herrnstein and Murray suggest, is not that 55% of sub-75 IQ whites drop out of high school—but that 45% graduate. The idea that everyone should complete high school is very new: As late as 1940, fewer than half of American 17-year-olds did so. However, that apparent progress among the less bright may have incurred a very high price. The Bell Curve demonstrates in a particularly closely argued passage that it has been achieved by focusing on the less able, a "dumbing down" that has resulted in sharply poorer performance among the most gifted children.

In 1993 over nine-tenths of federal aid to schools went to the "disadvantaged," meaning those with learning problems. Earmarked for the gifted: one-tenth of 1%. Herrnstein and Murray suggest a national scholarship program, to be awarded solely on merit.

  • Adoption: Adopted children tend to do better than their natural siblings. Heredity still counts: They still tend to underperform their adoptive families. But this is an intervention that works—yet adoption is increasingly discouraged, particularly across racial lines.
  • Affirmative action: There are high-IQ individuals of all races. But, exactly as Thomas Sowell has argued, young blacks and young people of other minority groups are the victims of college admissions officials blindly trying to fill quotas. This means they throw bright members of some minority groups into extremely competitive situations that neither they nor most whites can stand. Result: burnout.

Thus the average Harvard black student had an SAT score 95 points below the average Harvard white student—not because there aren't brilliant black kids but because Harvard overwhelms the quality of the black pool with its quota-based admission policies. This has the perverse effect of creating the illusion that minority kids cannot keep up.

Here's the rub: Some minority students over their heads at Harvard might do very well at other elite schools. The average black score at Harvard is about the same as the white average at Columbia, a fine school by any standard. By contrast, Asians appear to be held to a higher standard than everyone else at almost all the top schools.

"Whatever else this book does," said Herrnstein, showing his deep faith in the power of ideas, "it will destroy affirmative action in the universities." This may be hoping for too much. But remember that Murray's ideas about welfare were thought radical ten years ago.

This IQ stuff is too awful to think about.

Americans are optimists. They don't want to believe there are problems to which there are no solutions. The idea that IQ is destiny suggests a preordained universe that is uncongenial to us.

Ah, but there are things we can do, the authors say. What do they recommend?

Return to a society with "a place for everyone"—simpler rules, more neighborhood control, more direct incentives for virtue and disincentives for vice. A society where once again the cop on the beat is everyone's friend, where fortunate neighbors help unfortunate neighbors. A society that understands marriage is not just an inconvenient artifact but an institution that evolved to promote the care and nurture of children.

Thus, Herrnstein and Murray argue, people who disparage marriage and conventional morality are doing particular damage to the less intelligent portion of the population. Murphy Brown may be able to cope with being a single mother and even give her kid a good upbringing. But a poor woman with a relatively low IQ is less able to.

Herrnstein and Murray are not libertarian dreamers. They are critical of many past policies—state-sponsored segregation, for example. And they assume that government redistribution of income is here to stay. Indeed, in a society where the market puts increasing premiums on cognitive skills, they think that government should restore some balance by making routine jobs more attractive. Thus they express interest in such income-supplementing programs as Milton Friedman's negative income tax.

But—they insist—the reality of human differences must be recognized. "What good can come of understanding the relationship of intelligence to social structure and public policy?" the authors write in their preface. "Little good can come without it."

Republished in VDARE.COM on April 23, 2002