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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2445

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life is the latest in an intermittent series of works that have emerged in psychology since the turn of the century which argue for a strong relationship between genetics and intelligence. The book tries to demonstrate that intelligence is unequally distributed among ethnic groups and that genetic-based group differences in intelligence rather than environmental influences are responsible for the country’s class structure. While the book offers little in the way of new ideas (no social scholar refutes the idea that intelligence has some genetic base or that ethnic groups score differently on intelligence tests), it stands out as the most elaborate discussion of the relationship between intelligence and social class to date. The authors go further than any of their predecessors in arguing that social consequences—upward mobility as well as social pathologies—are directly linked to “cognitive ability.” The book is controversial because these ideas, put together, argue for an inherent racial inferiority and an overrepresentation of social pathology among African Americans and Latinos. The book comprises an introduction and four distinct but related parts, with the first three providing the foundation for the policy recommendations proposed in the final section.

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Herrnstein and Murray’s introduction offers several important premises to their thesis that intelligence is an inherited and dominant force in the lives of human beings. It begins with an essential but brief and incomplete discussion of the conceptualization and measurement of intelligence. The authors’ preference for a classical model of intelligence is itself controversial. Classicists presume that intelligence represents a “general intellectual ability” whose structural components can be measured by short paper-pencil tests and reflected in a single score. This may be the most serious flaw in the book. Intelligence scholars have yet to agree on what intelligence is, let alone how it is most effectively measured. Robert Sternberg’s 1986 study of intelligence, for example, emphasizes the cognitive processes inherent in problem solving and creativity. In his 1983 study, Howard Gardner proposes seven intelligences or “ways of viewing the world,” including linguistic, logical-math, spatial, musical, body- kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Different cultures may require and therefore emphasize different abilities, resulting in some forms of intelligence having greater value than others. Sternberg’s and Gardner’s models of intelligence differ from those presented by the classicists and necessitate more complex and individualistic methods of measurement. While Herrnstein and Murray do briefly describe competing schools of thought in the field of intelligence and examples of particular models, they do so far too casually and incompletely, given their thesis. Their focus on the IQ score then, as the best measure of intelligence, directly contradicts more than “popular” or “fashionable” opinion. It is also significantly at odds with the ideas of eminent scholars in the field.

Part 1 of the book, “The Emergence of a Cognitive Elite” (chapters 1 through 4), establishes support for the relationship between intelligence and social mobility by describing the formation of a new class: the “cognitive elite.” According to the authors, one consequence of the social policies that began in the 1950’s was substantial growth in the college population. Increasingly efficient ability testing widened the pool of prospective students so that intelligence became a more significant screening mechanism than social class. Thus, with the advent of group ability testing, college became a reality for members of the working class and middle class. As the brightest (top-scoring) students were attracted to and concentrated at a handful of elite schools, they began the experience of cognitive stratification, an isolation of the most intelligent individuals in society from the less intelligent, which would continue and intensify in the occupational world. Why should this pattern of isolation continue into the job market? Because, the authors argue, intelligence operates as a screening mechanism here as well. The most elite occupations require higher education, which is limited to the most elite minds. The authors attempt to attribute cognitive success almost exclusively to raw intelligence rather than training, but do so ineffectively, often times inferring, speculating, and offering inappropriate initial assumptions about educational experiences in the United States. Indeed, they virtually equate early educational experiences across social classes and ethnic groups, dismissing the effects of private education, advanced placement classes in select high schools, and other social differences that have been documented as important prerequisites to high scores on aptitude and ability tests.

Since the authors believe that intelligence is largely inherited (rather than simply partly inherited), they predict that economic pressures will only intensify cognitive stratification and segregation, resulting in greater opportunities for a narrower segment of the population: the cognitive elite. They also introduce the reader to their political agenda when they criticize existing prohibitions against hiring based on intelligence testing. Arguing that intelligence is related to efficiency and productivity at all occupational levels, they propose that America and its citizens would be better served if employers were allowed to hire primarily from among the brightest applicants. In short,The Bell Curve is a political response to social policies the authors find objectionable. They end this section of the book by suggesting that it may be undesirable to have the cognitive elite continue to form the social policies by which the rest of society must live because less bright people may neither understand nor be capable of adhering to them. This may strike some as a contradiction, for if the brightest cannot establish social policy because they are incapable of anticipating a range of responses from various social and cognitive groups (despite their high cognitive functioning), who is best suited for the task?

If part 1 contains the “good news” about intelligence, parts 2, 3, and 4 contain the “bad.” Part 2 of the book, “Cognitive Classes and Social Behavior” (chapters 5-12), offers data about the predictive relationships of intelligence and social class to a range of social problems. In an effort to appear unbiased and scientific, the authors limit the data in these chapters to white subjects. The authors conclude that higher intelligence is associated with socially desirable behavior, and low intelligence with social problems including poverty, high school dropout rates, unemployment, idleness, injury in the workplace, divorce, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, poorer parenting skills, physical, social, and behavioral problems in one’s offspring, criminal behavior, and lesser capacity for “civility” and adherence to “middle-class values.”

Readers may become overwhelmed by this section of the book, which includes some discussion of statistical procedures and a lengthy series of graphs and tables. The following points should facilitate readers’ interpretation of these chapters. Although the statistical methods used by Herrnstein and Murray are appropriate to their task, their emphasis on the statistical significance of the relationships detracts from three important points. First, causality cannot be inferred from correlational analyses. The authors sometimes use statements that directly contradict the statistical interpretations that can be drawn from regression analyses. The use of the word “cause” on page 189 serves as an example: “Our main purpose has been to demonstrate that low intelligence is an important independent cause of illegitimacy.” Second, statistical significance is sometimes different from practical significance. For example, some of the group differences presented distinguish between IQ scores within three and six points of one another. What functional difference in intelligence could three points make? Finally, by illustrating only the regression curve, the researchers fail to demonstrate the strength and form of the relationships, implying deceptively that a stronger, more uniform relationship exists. Thus, despite the fact that intelligence explains only a small percentage of the variance among people in any of the analyses presented (often between 2 and 10 percent), the authors’ discussion and presentation of the data suggest a more powerful and direct relationship. Although the authors hint at each of these points, the hints are easily subordinated to an overwhelming series of graphs and data, and they are sometimes only included in the appendix. Readers are encouraged to refer to the tables presented in appendix 4 so that they can draw more precise conclusions.

The most controversial section of The Bell Curve is found in the third part of the book, “The National Context” (chapters 13-16). It is here that Herrnstein and Murray extend their analyses of cognitive ability and social problems to nonwhite ethnic groups. The authors, to their credit, caution readers that differences within groups are greater than differences between groups, a concept that is difficult to grasp. They also go on to assert, however, that “there are differences between races, and they are the rule, not the exception.” What differences do the data suggest? Nothing new. Japa-nese, Chinese, and Koreans as groups score between three and ten points higher than whites on tests of cognitive ability, while whites score between ten and fifteen points more than blacks. Although the gap between whites and blacks has narrowed in recent years, the authors argue strenuously, in keeping with their previous position about the strong heritability of intelligence, in favor of a genetic basis for intelligence and against any environmental basis. They do so in opposition to data that offer evidence of cultural bias in testing, variation in sibling scores, and the purported impact of transracial adoption.

How are ethnicity and cognitive ability related to social mobility and social problems? With respect to social mobility Herrnstein and Murray suggest that blacks are more likely than their cognitively matched white peers to experience educational and occupational success. For example, some data suggest that blacks are overrepresented in almost all occupations, but most of all in the high-status occupations. With respect to social problems, many of the differences between blacks and whites are reduced or equalized when intelligence is included in the analysis, including annual family income, unemployment, labor force participation, illegitimacy, child development indicators, crime, and adherence to middle-class values. Much of this discussion suggests that America’s racial problems are merely sensationalized and that intelligence, rather than race, accounts for social mobility and social problems. Indeed, if intelligent blacks are overrepresented in elite jobs, is not America responding effectively to race?

Their conclusion to this section, the suggestion that “large proportions of the people who exhibit the behaviors and problems that dominate the nation’s social policy agenda have limited cognitive ability” is disconcerting. Given the authors’ line of reasoning, it is difficult not to conclude that because groups differ and black (and to a lesser extent Latino) IQ scores are lower on average than white IQ scores, and because cognitive ability is primarily inherited and associated with social problems, that blacks as a group are doomed to a life of intellectual inferiority and social pathology.

Having prepared the readers for the inevitability and relative permanence of intellectual inequality, Herrnstein and Murray discuss social policy in part 4 of The Bell Curve, “Living Together.” The authors’ political agenda is most evident in this section of the book.

Their initial concern is with the “dumbing of America,” and their recommendations are to shift educational emphasis to the brighter students and offer individuals greater choice in their educational opportunities, particularly through the use of tax credits and vouchers. Evidence is provided for some decline in high school standards (relaxed course requirements in math and science, fewer Advanced Placement courses, lower SAT scores), which they attribute to an inappropriate focus on cognitively disadvantaged students at the expense of cognitively gifted ones. While the causes they offer for the decline (multiculturalism, fostering self-esteem, reducing racial differences in performance) are questionable, it is difficult to argue against increased intellectual standards across the board. Yet, the authors do not do this. Insisting that cognitive ability is difficult to raise, they essentially state that Americans should leave well enough alone and, in contradictory fashion, encourage the development of the cognitive elite. Would that not serve to isolate them further from the population at large?

Educational experiences in the United States are and have always been discrepant, making it difficult to generalize about the role of environment in forming intelligence. Moreover, when there have been opportunities to raise the educational standards for all, the courts have chosen instead to impose a lower limit. Equalizing education is one manner in which the authors’ thesis about the relative permanence of ability could be tested. Permitting those with the resources to buy their education is not significantly different from the cognitive and social stratification that presently characterizes American society in the 1990’s.

The authors’ political agenda is clearest in the two chapters dedicated to a discussion of affirmative action. Chapter 19 is an attack on educational affirmative action; chapter 20, an attack on occupational affirmative action. In the former, the authors argue for class-based affirmative action, although it is clear that they prefer individualism and equal treatment for college applicants (despite favoring differential treatment in education prior to college). It is difficult not to assume that the recommended class-based affirmative action policy is a response to race, especially in the light of the disingenuous concern the authors express about minority self-esteem, the confirmation of minority stereotypes held by whites, and increasingly tense race relations. Their appeal for a “fair” society casts affirmative action as a zero-sum situation which unfairly and unreasonably disadvantages poor whites.

The authors also criticize affirmative action in the workplace. They argue that since the early 1960’s, blacks have been overrepresented in white collar and professional jobs, given their intelligence scores, while discrepancies in job performance continue to run along ethnic lines. They find the resulting economic inefficiencies to be unacceptable and propose that affirmative action in the workplace be reconsidered.

Scholars in the area of intergroup relations have recognized for years that ethnocentrism and stereotyping increase during times of economic crisis, because they ease the fears of groups whose status is seen to be in jeopardy. On the one hand, The Bell Curve does a good job of alleviating the fears of the “cognitive elite” by justifying the social hierarchy, illustrating social differentiation between groups, and attributing cause for the different social patterns to something inherent and unchangeable in the targeted groups: intelligence. On the other hand, the book is replete with stereotypes of the poor, women, Latinos, Asian Americans, and especially African Americans. By interpreting the differences as they have, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray are essentially proposing a caste system in which the best society can do is to learn to value and respect the “appropriate places” individuals from the various cognitive classes will occupy.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXI, November 12, 1994, p. 3.

The Economist. CCCXXXIII, October 22, 1994, p. 29.

The Nation. CCLIX, November 7, 1994, p. 516.

Nature. CCCLXXII, December 1, 1994, p. 417.

The New Republic. CCXI, October 31, 1994, p. 4.

The New York Review of Books. XLI, November 17, 1994, p. 7.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, October 16, 1994, p. 3.

Newsweek. CXXIV, October 24, 1994, p. 52.

Time. CXLIV, October 24, 1994, p. 66.

The Times Literary Supplement. December 2, 1994, p. 5.

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