Obscuring the Message and Killing the Messenger: The Bell Curve

Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Perspectives on Political Science (Winter 1996) Vol. 25, No. 1, p.15- 18.

KEY TERMS: Richard J. Herrnstein -- Charles Murray -- intelligence -- class -- ethnicity -- heritability -- gene-culture co-evolution -- social policy -- IQ -- social stratification -- the cognitive elite -- the underclass -- meritocracy -- knowledge-based society

By any conceivable criterion, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray have produced in The Bell Curve (New York: The Free Press, 1994) an educational work of prodigious scholarship. At the very least it should be valued as a compendium of vitally important information on what is actually happening to intelligence and class structure in late-twentieth century America. For its political significance alone The Bell Curve deserves careful perusal and thoughtful assessment. However, this does not seem to be occurring. Judging by the prevailing tenor of the emotionally charged reviews in the popular press, the early response has tended to amount, instead, to a confused clamor of indignant ad hominem attacks on the authors.

Perhaps this response was inevitable. Perhaps Herrnstein and Murray unwittingly obscured their central message by presenting the concepts of intelligence and class within the framework of ethnicity. But it is difficult, today, for an honest social critic to avoid that explosive subject. More and more Americans are choosing to define themselves in terms of minority-group membership. And, increasingly, the group is being drawn by its members according to observable indicators of ethnic heritage such as skin color. But Herrnstein and Murray are not among those who seek to exaggerate the importance of bloodlines and mystical ancestral "spirit" as defining criteria of citizenship. On the contrary, they make it plain throughout their book that they support a political/social system based on justice for individuals -- regardless of ethnic roots. Clearly they are alarmed at the prospect of the balkanization of America's citizenry. In fact, they are attempting to sound a warning about the shoals ahead, for any society embarking on that suicidal course.

Ironically, however, the authors have inadvertently obscured their real message by falling in line with "politically correct" terminology. They chose to accept the currently established categorization of Americans by skin color, and then proceeded to draw comparisons among these categories in terms of the average intelligence of the individuals assigned to them. This may be legitimate as a statistical exercise, but whether or not their findings are meaningful within the American setting is another question entirely. The results of such an analysis are only valid and reliable to the degree that the original categorization was in fact derived from real and discrete differences both in genetic inheritance and in the seedbed of early-childhood cultural influences which, together, determine intelligence.

The majority of those who define themselves as "black", "white", "Latino", "aboriginal" or "Asian" in North America today are so genetically mixed, and so socialized from birth into the media-generated American culture, that these labels have meaning almost entirely in political terms. Any cross-group comparison of average scores is likely to tell us more about the recent history of the groups in question than about what one might expect of specific members. The mean IQ of a group reveals nothing about the range of ability encompassed, nor of the probability that a given person will be in the upper or lower percentiles of measured ability. In fact, the major -- and predictable -- result of its use is the encouragement of unwarranted prejudgments of individuals on the basis of largely irrelevant criteria.

One could argue that Herrnstein and Murray have done more harm than good to their cause by accepting conventional wisdom to the extent they have, and employing scientifically invalid (and socially divisive) categories in their generally laudable attempt to report on what is happening to the intelligence level and class status of Americans.

A second and related problem with the authors' overall approach is their insistence on attributing a precise proportion of intelligence to heritability as opposed to environmental influences. The more we learn about evolutionary theory, the more we are forced to acknowledge the futility of this particular pursuit. Indeed, natural selection is nothing less than the means by which the totality of environmental demands determine which behaviors and attributes are likely to be selected through reproduction and which, instead, are doomed to disappear from the gene pool. And, increasingly in human evolution -- with the growing power of science to alter the environment through the introduction of new technology -- the most effective of these external shaping forces have come to be cultural. Because this definitive socio-cultural aspect of gene-culture co-evolution is the only part of the inextricably fused process which is amenable to rational social control, surely this is where we should focus our concern!

Indeed, it turns out that the most important messages of Herrnstein and Murray have to do with exactly that. For example, they identify the selective role currently being performed by certain types of social policy in altering the demographics of cognitive ability in the population. And they argue that if the proportion of the population with the lowest intelligence consistently reproduces at a disproportionately rapid rate, the results over a number of generations are predictable and ominous. Couple this environmentally driven genetic selective process with the cognitively and emotionally crippling early-childhood socialization likely to occur at the hands of low-ability parents in poverty-stricken and often brutal and depraved environments, and we are faced with the prospect of a rapidly expanding, increasingly dependent and violent underclass. This is a problem of truly gigantic proportions.

The authors' insertion into this discussion of an unwarranted precision concerning the heritability of IQ contributes nothing whatsoever to the quest for a solution. It merely adds fuel to the arguments of those who would discount the validity of any attempts to measure general cognitive ability. Given what we now know about the inherently interactive and open-ended nature of evolutionary processes, assigning percentages either to genes or environment is likely to be about as fruitful as were the endless theological debates of the Medieval scholastics. Surely any effective solution requires reversing the current direction of two readily identifiable types of selective pressures on cognitive ability: (1) those legislated incentives which are presently reinforcing socially destructive fertility patterns in the population; and (2) those cultural influences shaping community and family socialization processes which, in turn, affect the cognitive development of the individual. Both sets of influences on the composition of the population's intellectual resources are presently contributing to the vicious downward spiral documented by Herrnstein and Murray. And both are amenable to change -- as the genetic makeup of an individual is not.

So much for the authors' contribution to an unfortunate obfuscation of their valuable data and conclusions. If we can agree that a comparison of the average level of intelligence of "racially" defined groups -- as well as any attempt to assign precise weightings to genetic versus environmental sources of intelligence -- amounts to a scientifically unwarranted and fruitless introduction of "red herrings", perhaps it will be possible to focus on the important messages in the book. To begin with, we can perhaps also agree that the authors are perfectly justified in employing categories such as "black" and "white" in order to determine the results of governmental policy designed in terms of this particular mode of categorizing people -- unfortunate though we may consider such a practice. We need to discover what is actually happening to the individuals thus defined for political purposes such as affirmative action programs.

For example, are the individuals who have been identified as "black" or "white" becoming more or less poor as time goes on? More or less welfare-dependent? Has either group been producing more or fewer illegitimate children? More or fewer children of low cognitive ability? Are more of the individuals in either group succumbing to crime -- family breakdown -- unemployment? In other words, is there a disproportionate number of people in a particular politically defined category falling into the underclass? And to what extent is cognitive level correlated with vulnerability to these experiences, regardless of whether one is categorized as "black" or "white"?

We need to know whether ethnic- or gender-based discrimination against individuals continues to exist, and in what forms and contexts this occurs. This is why it is necessary to ask, as the authors do in the chapters on affirmative action, to what extent individuals of equal cognitive ability, regardless of socially assigned group membership, are currently receiving fair and equal treatment in higher education and the workplace. The results of research on all the above issues provide the kind of data that are vital to the political process in a democracy.

It is imperative that policy makers be aware of findings such as "An IQ test is a better predictor of job productivity than a job interview, reference checks or a college manuscript". (p.64) And that "as affluence spreads...the people who are left behind are likely to be disproportionately those who suffer not only bad luck but also a lack of energy, thrift, farsightedness, determination -- and brains." (p.129) We need to be honest enough to acknowledge the well-confirmed fact that "The higher the proportion of children who live in households headed by a single woman, the higher the proportion of children who will live in poverty." (p.137) It is necessary for us to acknowledge that recognizing these things has very little to do with "blaming the victim", but a whole lot to do with discovering how to prevent people from becoming victims in the first place -- and how to rescue those who have acquired that status. And we very much need the reminder, offered by Herrnstein and Murray, that "Condescension is not in order, nor are glib assumptions that those who are cognitively disadvantaged cannot be productive citizens." (p.166)

Less than one-fifth of the book deals with presumably ethnic-based differences in cognitive ability or in those factors associated with socioeconomic status. It is unfortunate that this one section has overshadowed all the others in the public attention. It is doubly essential, therefore, to note what the authors are telling us about their broader subject. Their most important contribution may well be their documentation of the emergence of what they call a "cognitive elite": a prestigious, powerful and highly rewarded class comprising the most intelligent members of society. This is happening in all those post-industrial "knowledge-based" societies in which higher education has indeed become available to the population at large. Although the phenomenon has been recognized previously by sociologists, Herrnstein and Murray are the first to trace its actual occurrence in a particular social context. For this alone their work should be widely distributed and valued.

The book's major thesis is that, for good or ill, cognitive ability is rapidly becoming the decisive dividing force in American society, and only by knowing what is happening, can we hope to ameliorate the potentially devastating consequences of the process. The authors are not oblivious to the potential social perils involved in the use of IQ measurement. Nor are they unaware of the historical controversy over the question of the validity of such measures. They deal with these issues honestly, painstakingly and with refreshing clarity. They also express regret concerning the widespread tendency to identify intelligence with other desirable human qualities, such as strong moral character and an engaging personality -- and the corresponding tendency to attribute high social value to cognitive ability at the expense of other attributes.

This tendency is what makes the problem of the new form of social stratification so intractable. We are dealing here with a mind set as old as human culture: a mind set reflected to this day in the established reward structure of every society on earth. Indeed, the valuing of intelligence above all other competencies may have origins deep within the process of cultural evolution, in that survival in challenging environments was no doubt dependent on its use. Herrnstein and Murray are rightly alarmed by the long-term social implications of the new meritocracy.

They warn of the current trend toward a society in which the privileged elite establish secure enclaves and direct a preponderance of public resources from the maintenance of a civilized public sphere to custodial care for the socially dysfunctional. They cite as possible causes of America's exploding underclass, certain popular policies with built-in incentives which have inadvertently served to reinforce illegitimacy and fecundity among women of low cognitive ability. They do not claim that low cognitive ability causes social problems such as family breakdown, child abuse, crime and welfare dependency. What they show is that a preponderance of those suffering from the above problems are people who are disadvantaged as well by low cognitive ability. This is a crucial distinction because it means that solutions are at least theoretically possible.

None of the authors' findings imply that certain people are innately inclined to criminality or social dependency. They simply provide support for the common-sense conclusion that those youths suffering from low reasoning ability -- and the dearth of knowledge and technical skill that follows from this deficiency -- are far more vulnerable to the destructive influences abounding in American culture than are the more fortunate "bright" children. But brains are not everything. In post-industrial societies, emotional maturity and a loving personality may yet prove to be of greater worth. And as Piagetian researchers have so compellingly demonstrated, advanced cognitive development (whatever its genetic and experiential origins) is not in itself sufficient for advanced moral development. However, it is necessary for the attainment of the farsightedness and wisdom that are associated with the highest level of moral functioning. This accords with Herrnstein's and Murray's finding that, regardless of socioeconomic status, it is the low-IQ children who are most at risk today -- in a culture where even the most elementary forms of moral education are either absent or actively negated by the media.

Although the problem so starkly drawn by the authors might seem to be irresolvable, they have actually taken the first step toward a solution by defining the situation in terms of factual evidence rather than wishful thinking. The next step is to consider how society could be made more just and fair, in spite of the rapid onset of meritocracy. Here the authors offer little other than the hope that we can all learn to value other kinds of social contributions than those associated with high intellect.

It is up to us, the readers, to move the discussion a step beyond the analysis so capably presented in The Bell Curve. Perhaps we should ask, as Herrnstein and Murray did not, why those roles requiring high cognitive ability should necessarily be the most highly paid? Surely it is possible for well-intentioned people with ample knowledge of the destructive long-term consequences of unjust social systems to institutionalize structures designed to work in the opposite direction. Why should individuals unfortunate enough to have low intellectual ability be twice punished -- first by nature and early nurture and again by society -- while their more fortunate fellows are twice rewarded?

Why not consider removing all present institutional supports and incentives favoring the relatively affluent? This would include tenure for professionals, functionally irrelevant restrictions on entrance to training for traditionally highly rewarded professions, closed shops, special privileges based on seniority, deferred taxes and government-subsidized services, pensions, and "perks" of all kinds for those above average in income -- as well as the right to strike! Why not restrict all such incentives solely to willing workers currently in the bottom half of the pay scale? This would allow the system to sort itself out and achieve a better balance of rewards for those who perform the currently underpaid and less desirable, but "socially valuable" roles cited by the authors. Jawboning people about the worthwhile nature of their humble and often backbreaking contributions to society will not work when the reward system is communicating the opposite message. No society can function well over the long term if the various social "goods" provided by its members are valued and rewarded on a grossly unequal basis.

We all know this, but the cognitive elite who are now rapidly consolidating the political clout that automatically accrues to the control of knowledge in a knowledge-based society seem no more committed to social justice than were their property-based predecessors in power. So far, their decisions have been made in the service of their own short-term gains, rather than the long-term social welfare. And they have been made at the expense of the less articulate working poor who are all too easily persuaded that their interests coincide with those of some elusive, all-encompassing "middle class" to which they aspire but can never hope to belong.

The first solution, then, lies in the direction of rewarding all roles more equitably. A second, and equally essential, solution to the problem involves making the contest for roles more fair in the first place. This demands a renewed focus both on prenatal care and the socialization process -- including its formalized version which we all know as education. Herrnstein and Murray are persuasive in their argument that it has been the very success of American society in its quest for equality of educational opportunity that has brought about the troubling prospect of an entrenched meritocracy. They suggest, however, that real equality of opportunity must involve an equal chance for all children to access socially valued roles, and that -- due to the misguided and bureaucratic nature of many publicly funded programs -- the United States is far from achieving that goal.

Their argument could be taken much further. In addition to necessary changes in the reward structure, real equality of opportunity for all children would seem to imply two other moves, both of which are likely to be resisted fiercely until the serious nature of the coming crisis is more widely recognized. The first of these is the institutionalization of some means of providing a basic level of protection for unborn children so that any would-be mother who persists in abusing her body with drugs or alcohol would either be prevented from doing so or would have her pregnancy terminated at once. To prattle about "the right to life" -- or equal opportunity -- for children whose brains have been wantonly destroyed in the womb is mere sophistry. The second requirement is a safe and cognitively challenging early-childhood environment for all children from the moment of birth. Until we place the rights of children to develop their cognitive potential above all competing individual rights, there can be no hope of halting the current downward spiral.

The task is a daunting one. It demands a re-examination of long-established prejudices about personal freedom and the distribution of rewards. It requires the sustained dedication of every responsible citizen. But there is simply no alternative. Those members of the well-insulated cognitive elite who argue vociferously against any effective move toward decreasing social inequality -- and against efforts to establish a less violent popular culture and a public climate of order and civility -- had better think again. No fortress can be built so high that it will shield their own offspring from the growing turbulence without. In the dark future foreshadowed by trend lines tabulated in The Bell Curve there will be no place to hide.

Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 200-1802. Copyright 19.