The Bell Curve Controversy


The Bell Curve Controversy

With the publication of The Bell Curve (1994) by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Decline of Intelligence in America (1994) by Seymour W. Itzkoff, and Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1994) by J. Philippe Rushton, debate over the relationship between genetics and intelligence has been re-ignited. Although the precise subject matter of the books differs, the authors share several controversial convictions: intelligence—the ability to reason, think abstractly, and organize information—can be quantitatively measured and expressed as I.Q.; intelligence is largely immutable and at least partially heritable, therefore linked to race; I.Q. scores correlate, although weakly, with job performance and rates of birth, crime, participation in the political process, and welfare dependency; and society must allow for topics regarding intelligence and race to be freely debated. The authors of The Bell Curve, which has so far received the most attention, postulate that present trends in reproduction in the United States favor the eventuality of a nation split between a ruling caste of high-I.Q. "meritocrats" and a large, powerless underclass that lacks the intelligence to prosper in a society dominated by sophisticated machines. Democracy will disintegrate in such a society, Herrnstein and Murray warn, while racial hatred and alienation will grow as America becomes a "custodial" state. The authors draw much of their evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a study of more than twelve thousand high school students who were tested in 1979 and have had their progress tracked ever since; and the Armed Forces Qualification Test, a general intelligence test which the military uses to predict success in military training schools. The authors argue that core intelligence has been the single most important determinate of success in the National Longitudinal Survey and that the Armed Forces Qualification Test has proven to be an extremely reliable predictor. The term "bell curve," from which the book's title derives, refers to the shape of a normal distribution graph, which bulges in the middle and narrows at the edges. The majority of people, being of average intellect, form the bulge in the middle, while the low and high achievers make up the bell's edges. As Malcolm W. Browne has noted, Herrnstein and Murray "frequently refer to bell curves to make a point: that predictions about any individual based exclusively on his or her I.Q. are virtually useless. It is only when weak correlations between intelligence and job success are applied to large groups of people that they have predictive value. Within statistically large groups of people, the authors say, the pervasive influence of I.Q. on human society becomes evident."

Critical reaction to The Bell Curve has generally been negative, with many commentators denouncing the book as a racist product of conservative ideology. However, as Christopher Winship has argued, "much of The Bell Curve is not about race at all, and parts of it have been misrepresented." Winship and other critics note that a sizeable portion of the book deals solely with the relationship between behavior and I.Q. among whites and that Herrnstein and Murray believe that only sixty percent, not one hundred percent, of intelligence is genetically determined. One of the most contentious claims in The Bell Curve is that intelligence is, for the most part, not improvable. Numerous critics have attacked Herrnstein and Murray's bleak prognosis, arguing that educational programs for disadvantaged children like Head Start do make a difference and that society can work to alter the social environment and therefore positively influence the population's general intelligence. One of the major problems with such statistical studies as Herrnstein and Murray's, scholars argue, is the difficulty of isolating determinate factors in a system as complex as human society and the resulting danger of overlooking other variables. Herrnstein and Murray have been criticized as well for failing to discuss and substantiate the theoretical basis behind their claims regarding intelligence and for ignoring significant studies in the fields of genetics, psychometrics, sociology, and psychology which would compromise their conclusions. Remarking on the durability of their arguments, Stephen Jay Gould has commented: "Intelligence, in their formulation, must be depictable as a single number, capable of ranking people in linear order, genetically based, and effectively immutable. If any of these premises are false, their entire argument collapses…. The central argument of The Bell Curve fails because most of the premises are false." Still, several opponents of The Bell Curve's conclusions, such as Gregg Easterbrook, are grateful for Herrnstein and Murray's work, since it brings "the arguments about race, inheritance, and IQ out into the open … because the more you know about this line of thought, the less persuasive it becomes."

Representative Works Discussed Below

Brigham, Carl
  A Study of American Intelligence (nonfiction) 1923
Gould, Stephen Jay
  The Mismeasure of Man (nonfiction) 1981
Herrnstein, Richard J.
  Crime and Human Nature (nonfiction) 1985
  The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America [with Charles Murray] (nonfiction) 1994
Itzkoff, Seymour W.
  The Decline of Intelligence in America: A Strategy for National Renewal (nonfiction) 1994
Jensen, Arthur R.
  Educability and Group Differences (nonfiction) 1973
  Bias in Mental Testing (nonfiction) 1980
Murray, Charles
  Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980 (nonfiction) 1984
  The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America [with Richard J. Herrnstein] (nonfiction) 1994
Rushton, J. Philippe
  Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (nonfiction) 1994
Wright, Michael
  The Moral Animal (nonfiction) 1994
Young, Michael
  The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (nonfiction) 1958


Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (essay date 10 October 1994)

SOURCE: "Race, Pathology and IQ," in The Wall Street Journal, October 10, 1994, p. A14.

[In the following essay, Herrnstein and Murray contend that IQ test results are the most reliable predictor of socioeconomic success and failure in society.]

"But what about race?" we are asked whenever we try to talk about The Bell Curve. Part of the correct answer is that there are many interesting questions involving race and intelligence. Racial differences in means and distributions on IQ tests are a reality. As far as anyone can tell, they are not artifacts of test bias. Some of them call for a rethinking of policy, especially affirmative action. All of these topics are...

(The entire section is 1033 words.)

Malcolm W. Browne (review date 16 October 1994)

SOURCE: "What is Intelligence, and Who Has It?," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1994, pp. 3, 41, 45.

[In the following review, Browne examines The Bell Curve, J. Philippe Rushton's Race, Evolution, and Behavior, and Seymour W. Itzkoff's The Decline of Intelligence in America, focusing on IQ testing and the role of genetics in determining the intellectual potential of a person or group.]

One may loathe or share the opinions expressed in the three books under review, but one thing seems clear: The government or society that persists in sweeping their subject matter under the rug will do so at its peril.

The issues...

(The entire section is 4207 words.)

Mickey Kaus (essay date 31 October 1994)

SOURCE: "Behind the Curve," in The New Republic, Vol. 211, No. 18, October 31, 1994, p. 4.

[An essayist and nonfiction writer, Kaus is the author of The End of Equality (1992). In the following essay, he contends that The Bell Curve neglects the environmental factors that influence intelligence test results.]

In Losing Ground, the 1984 book that made his name, Charles Murray pooh-poohed the role of race in America's social pathology. Instead, Murray blamed liberal welfare programs that trapped black and white alike in poverty. "Focusing on blacks cripples progress," he declared in a 1986 op-ed piece (titled "Not a Matter of Race"),


(The entire section is 1112 words.)

Christopher Winship (review date 15 November 1994)

SOURCE: "Lessons Beyond The Bell Curve," in The New York Times, November 15, 1994, p. A29.

[In the following review of The Bell Curve, Winship applauds the thoroughness of the authors' research, which argues a link between intelligence levels and social problems.]

At a meeting of social scientists at the Harvard Business School last month, Richard Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's controversial book The Bell Curve came up. One group reported that in an earlier conversation they had thoroughly "trashed" it. Heads around the room nodded in approval. I asked the room at large—about 20 people—how many had actually read the book. Two raised their...

(The entire section is 967 words.)

Alan Ryan (review date 17 November 1994)

SOURCE: "Apocalypse Now?," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 19, November 17, 1994, pp. 7-11.

[Ryan is an educator, political scientist, and critic. In the following review of The Bell Curve, he contends that Herrnstein and Murray are using IQ research to support a political agenda that includes a racist meritocracy and the dismantling of the social welfare system.]

The Bell Curve is the product of an obsession, or, more exactly, of two different obsessions. Richard Herrnstein—who died on September 24 of this year—was obsessed with the heritability of intelligence, the view that much the largest factor in our intellectual abilities comes...

(The entire section is 5851 words.)

Stephen Jay Gould (review date 28 November 1994)

SOURCE: "Curveball," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 39, November 28, 1994, pp. 139-49.

[A paleontologist, educator, and critic, Gould is the author of The Mismeasure of Man (1981). In the following review, he charges that the authors of The Bell Curve used inadequate and biased data and that their conclusion "that minority groups exhibit lower IQs which are both hereditary and immutable and a threat to America's intellectual pool" is highly questionable.]

The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, subtitled "Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life," provides a superb and unusual opportunity to gain insight into the...

(The entire section is 4390 words.)

Andrew Ross (review date 29 November 1994)

SOURCE: "Demography Is Destiny," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXIX, No. 48, November 29, 1994, pp. 95-6.

[In the following excerpt from a review of The Bell Curve and Robert T. Michael's Sex in America, Ross contends that the authors of the former have deliberately ignited racial controversies and questions their assessment of the relationship between genetics and intelligence.]

The recent elections provided a brief respite from the platitude that politics are stage-managed entirely by cyborg pollsters and media spin surgeons. Left and right seem to be persuaded that an electoral swing of such proportions cannot be attributed wholly to the PR industry's...

(The entire section is 1910 words.)

Gregg Easterbrook (essay date December 1994)

SOURCE: "The Case Against The Bell Curve," in The Washington Monthly, Vol. 26, No. 12, December, 1994, pp. 17-25.

[In the following essay, Easterbrook examines the intelligence data used in The Bell Curve and contends that it should "be seen as a tract advocating a political point of view, not a detached assessment of research."]

Years ago, hoping to persuade this publication to hire me, I quit a decent job in Chicago and moved to Washington. Unemployed and low on money, I lived in a seedy neighborhood behind the Navy Yard in Southeast D.C. Because the editor of this magazine unaccountably took his time in acknowledging my merit as an applicant, to blow...

(The entire section is 5203 words.)

Charles Murray (essay date 2 December 1994)

SOURCE: "The Real 'Bell Curve'," in The Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXXIV, No. 108, December 2, 1994, p. A14.

[In the following essay, Murray responds to the negative criticism of The Bell Curve.]

In the past few weeks, I have found myself occasionally leafing through The Bell Curve to reassure myself. Richard Herrnstein and I didn't really write the book people are saying we wrote, did we? We didn't.

The Bell Curve that you have read about in most publications is unrecognizably different from The Bell Curve that exists. I will not try to explain why it has been so blatantly misrepresented. I suspect that answer would require...

(The entire section is 1773 words.)

Michael Barone (essay date 5 December 1994)

SOURCE: "Common Knowledge," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, No. 23, December 5, 1994, pp. 32-3.

[Barone is a lawyer, essayist, and critic. In the following essay, he favorably assesses The Bell Curve and claims that it encourages Americans to help the intellectually deficient.]

Perhaps because I'm congenitally optimistic, I think The Bell Curve's message is already widely understood, by the American people if not by the elite. Ordinary citizens know that some people are in significant ways more intelligent than others, that only a relative few are extremely bright or extremely dull, and that intelligence bunches up at the center. They know that...

(The entire section is 822 words.)

Ernest Van Den Haag (essay date 5 December 1994)

SOURCE: "Not Hopeless," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, No. 23, December 5, 1994, pp. 38, 40.

[In the following essay, Van Den Haag favorably assesses The Bell Curve, applauding it as thorough and accurate.]

In 1971 Richard Herrnstein, co-author with Charles Murray of this weighty volume, published an article in The Atlantic Monthly arguing that success—status, income, power—now depends on intelligence. We are becoming a "meritocracy" with great hereditary inequalities. The Bell Curve lucidly organizes an immense amount of data demonstrating empirically that, despite costly efforts to stave it off, meritocracy is becoming a reality....

(The entire section is 1046 words.)

James Q. Wilson (essay date 5 December 1994)

SOURCE: "Acting Smart," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, No. 23, December 5, 1994, pp. 46-8.

[Wilson is an educator and author of Families, Schools, and Delinquency Prevention (1987). In the following essay, he favorably assesses The Bell Curve, contending that the book accurately reveals the differences in intelligence levels between racial groups and that low and high IQs actually determine success or failure in society.]

Serious readers will ask four main questions about The Bell Curve. Is it true that intelligence explains so much behavior? How can IQ produce this effect? If it does, is there anything we should do differently in public...

(The entire section is 1291 words.)

Arthur R. Jensen (essay date 5 December 1994)

SOURCE: "Paroxysms of Denial," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, No. 23, December 5, 1994, pp. 48-50.

[Jensen is a psychologist, educator, essayist, and author of Bias in Mental Testing (1979). In the following essay, he argues that The Bell Curve represents thorough research and draws accurate conclusions about inherited intelligence.]

Commenting not as an advocate but as an expert witness, I can say that The Bell Curve is correct in all its essential facts. The graphically presented analyses of fresh data (from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth) are consistent with the preponderance of past studies. Nowadays the factual basis of...

(The entire section is 1045 words.)

Loren E. Lomasky (essay date 5 December 1994)

SOURCE: "Meritocracy That Works," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, No. 23, December 5, 1994, pp. 52-3.

[In the following essay, Lomasky applauds The Bell Curve's suggestion of a social meritocracy in which intellectual and/or physical abilities are the deciding factors of success in life.]

Some people succeed because of fortunate birth, some because of nuggets of good luck they find along the way. But high-level achievement mainly depends on ability. What makes one person more able to excel than another is, of course, partly a matter of upbringing and education, but there is overwhelming evidence that to a considerable extent it is a function of the mix...

(The entire section is 1096 words.)

Lisa Graham McMinn and Mark R. McMinn (essay date 12 December 1994)

SOURCE: "For Whom the Bell Curves," in Christianity Today, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 14, December 12, 1994, p. 19.

[Lisa Graham McMinn is an American sociologist and Mark K. McMinn is an American psychologist. In the following essay, they fault The Bell Curve for asserting that "intelligence is of utmost importance for success."]

In The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray suggest blacks are less intelligent than whites and assert that intelligence cannot be improved significantly enough to merit policies designed to help blacks.

The authors' conservatism may give The Bell Curve a stronger than usual hearing among some...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

F. Allan Hanson (essay date January-February 1995)

SOURCE: "Testing, The Bell Curve, and the Social Construction of Intelligence," in Tikkun, Vol. 10, No. 1, January-February, 1995, pp. 22-7.

[Hanson, an American educator and critic, is the author of Testing Testing: Social Consequences of the Examined Life (1993). In the following essay, he faults The Bell Curve for arguing that intelligence testing is an accurate and valid measurement of human intelligence.]

At some gut level, many middle- and upper-class white Americans apparently harbor the conviction that they are more intelligent than people of the lower class and ethnic minorities (especially of African descent). While its obviously racist...

(The entire section is 3734 words.)

Jack Fischel (essay date 10 February 1995)

SOURCE: "Strange 'Bell' Fellows," in Commonweal, Vol. CXXIII, No. 3, February 10, 1995, pp. 16-17.

[Fischel is an American educator. In the following essay, he faults The Bell Curve for its "poorly disguised political agenda" which fosters racism.]

Eugenics is as American as apple pie—well, stale apple pie. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was notoriously enamored of it. Even Norman Thomas, a putative champion of the common man, bemoaned the tendency of "those of a definitely inferior stock" to go on reproducing themselves. Now come the new kids on the genetic block, The Bell Curve authors Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. Their...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)

Adrian Wooldridge (essay date 27 February 1995)

SOURCE: "Bell Curve Liberals," in The New Republic, Vol. 212, No. 9, February 27, 1995, pp. 22-4.

[An American journalist, Wooldridge is the author of Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England 1850–1990. In the following essay, he favorably assesses The Bell Curve' s conclusions about the importance of IQ testing as society's primary means of identifying talented individuals. Wooldridge also discusses the evolution of IQ testing in Western society, America's political reliance on egalitarian educational programs, and the role of an intellectual meritocracy in the development of society.]

Opposition to the use of I.Q. testing goes back as...

(The entire section is 2322 words.)

Ned Block (essay date December-January 1995–1996)

SOURCE: "Race, Genes, and IQ," in Boston Review, Vol. XX, No. 6, December-January, 1995–1996, pp. 30-5.

[In the following essay, Block faults The Bell Curve's explanation of the influence of genetics and heritability in determining intelligence.]

According to The Bell Curve, Black Americans are genetically inferior to Whites. That's not the only point in Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's book. They also argue that there is something called "general intelligence" which is measured by IQ tests, socially important, and 60 percent "heritable" within Whites. (I'll explain heritability below.) But my target here is their claim about Black genetic...

(The entire section is 7363 words.)

Further Reading


Beardsley, Tim. "For Whom the Bell Curve Really Tolls." Scientific American 272, No. 1 (January 1995): 14, 16-7.

Critiques Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve. Beardsley questions the concept of biological determinism and the authors' reading of statistics relating to education, intelligence, and economic performance.

Berger, Brigitte. "Methodological Fetishism." National Review XLVI, No. 23 (5 December 1994): 54-6.

Calls The Bell Curve a "narrow and deeply flawed book" and offers alternative explanations for Herrnstein and Murray's data....

(The entire section is 892 words.)