Review of Steven Fraser (ed), The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence and the Future of America

Basic Books, 1995. 216 pp. , $16.00 (pb)

By Phil Shannon, in Green Left Weekly, 20 October, 1995

In the last few months, you may have seen an imposing book glowering down at you from the new releases shelves, all 800 of its pages offering intimidating scientific proof that the poor, and especially the black poor, are poor because they are less intelligent than their betters, that this inferiority is genetic and that the poor are thus assigned to their class fate by unchangeable laws of biology.

A runaway best-seller amongst the "better'' class of people, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by two prominent academics, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, picks up where the psychologists Eysenck and Jensen left off in the '70s, dipping its massive and supposedly erudite toe into the stale waters of the "scientific'' justification of class inequality and racial discrimination.

This exercise in "respectable'' racism and elitism has long been discredited but is being revived by two high profile academics in a political environment in the US hungry for justifying cuts to welfare expenditure, affirmative action and other liberal programs targeted towards the disadvantaged.

The Bell Curve Wars presents an antidote to the elitist and racist pseudo-science of Murray and Herrnstein. The contributors question whether human intelligence can be described by a single number (an IQ score), is genetically based or unchangeable. On the contrary, there are multiple intelligences - practical, musical, social, spatial as well as the verbal and mathematical cognitive abilities traditionally measured by IQ tests. There is more to intelligence than being able to repeat a sequence of numbers backwards or answer multiple choice questions under time constraints.

The genetic base of intelligence, although real in some small measure, has been overrated and is amenable to a change in social environment. As US blacks, for example, move from the depressed rural south to the urban north, their IQ rises. Blacks adopted into white homes, and white children of low socioeconomic status adopted into affluent homes, have higher IQ scores. Children of white German women fathered by US soldiers stationed in Germany after World War II, showed no difference in IQ regardless of whether their father was black or white.

The 15-point difference in IQ test scores between blacks and whites, which does exist, is a product of environment (and cultural bias in the IQ tests) and not skin pigmentation. Indeed, the whole concept of racially based genetic differences is a cockamamie idea, its proponents unable to explain the physical mechanism for the influence of skin colour on intellectual functioning. The human race is one race, after all, differing biologically only by superficial evolutionary adaptations.

The important human differences are social and political. Class differences in IQ, for example, are a result of the richness or paucity of material environment, educational resources and family income, not a gene which determines whether one is to be a wage plug or a company director.

The Bell Curve ignores or misinterprets the data in the field of the psychology of intelligence. Although The Bell Curve's science is impressively packaged, it fails to measure up to accepted scientific standards of interpretation. Its statistical methodology is shonky, and its sources include disreputable race theorists and eccentric eugenicists. It is little more, despite its bulk and hype, than "hate literature with footnotes''.

Stephen Jay Gould calls it "a manifesto of conservative ideology'' because of its "anachronistic social Darwinism''. It is elitist because it argues that the poor masses naturally precipitate down to their lowly class fate, too dumb for the responsibility of running society - a job which is left to the "cognitive elite''. The smart will rule and the dumb obey.

If this happy state of affairs is to be protected from the higher fertility of the lower and dumber orders and the consequent threat of "genetic degradation of the national stock'', argue the authors of The Bell Curve, immigration must be tightened, welfare payments denied to sole mothers and the dumb underclass controlled by a custodial state or made to feel happy in their appropriate place, as they were when picking cotton on Mississippi estates in the glorious days of yesteryear.

Affirmative action programs should be disbanded, they argue, because the IQ ladder can never be scaled by the cognitively deficient. Think of the social benefits, the authors enthuse, if, for example, the Washington police force recruited and promoted solely on merit. There would be a more intelligent (all white) police force "which will be of tangible benefit to the hundreds of thousands of Blacks who live in that city''. I have never heard a horse laugh but I reckon this view that what blacks in the US need is more white cops would create considerable equine mirth.

In writing their big, statistically sloppy and politically poisonous book, Murray and Herrnstein, our "fearless scholars'', have the front to proclaim their "courage'' in exploring "forbidden territory'', defying the Politically Correct taboos of the liberal left and claiming the scientific high ground in "proving'' the genetic inferiority of blacks and showing that it is low IQ, and not the maldistribution of wealth and power, that causes unemployment, poverty, sole parenthood, industrial accidents and crime.

The only thing The Bell Curve does prove is that racism amongst the intelligentsia is still alive. It marks another sorry page in the history of conservative social scientists trying to justify social inequality. "Why let a single and false number [IQ] divide us'', asks Stephen Jay Gould, "when evolution has united all people in the recency of our common ancestry?''. Perhaps this should be a question in a moral intelligence and political IQ test - if so, the authors of The Bell Curve would surely fail.

First posted on the Pegasus conference by Green Left Weekly. Correspondence and hard copy subsciption inquiries: Six-month airmail subscriptions (22 issues) to Green Left Weekly are available for A$60 (North America) and A$75 (South America, Europe & Africa) from PO Box 394, Broadway NSW 2007, Australia