IQ, Genes, Race, American Society

— Steve Bloom

MOST READERS OF this magazine have probably already formed strong opinions about The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. (See, for example, the comments of Noam Chomsky, John Vandermeer and Mike O'Neill in the previous issue, ATC 54 -- ed.)

So first a word of caution: Many commentaries tend to present a caricature of the book's arguments. This is easier to refute, of course. When mainstream opinion runs (correctly) contrary to the book it is even possible to get away with such an approach. But it seems to me that a more nuanced response is required.

On one level Herrnstein and Murray's viewpoint is not much more than a rehash of old social-Darwinist theories. But a simple refutation of social-Darwinism in general cannot provide an adequate answer to it. I began reading with a mental checklist of logical fallacies generally committed by this socio-philosophical school. One by one I had to cross them off as points to discuss since the text warned about and avoided the most obvious.

One example is the reason for group differences in average scores on IQ tests. Does this have a genetic component?

The topic of “heritability” of IQ, even in individuals, is controversial. The book avoids dealing in much detail with that controversy by declaring it settled: “If you gathered the top experts on testing and cognitive ability...it would quickly become apparent that a consensus already exists” on several questions, including that “cognitive ability is substantially heritable, apparently no less than 40 percent and no more than 80 percent.” (23)

But these particular “top experts” must be a select group. Others offer a different judgment, and this reflects a general problem: the authors consistently cite those who already agree with them as if that makes it unnecessary to prove some central thesis.

And yet most who believe in the inherent intellectual superiority of one “race” over another go further. They claim that if IQ differences in individuals are influenced by genes, the same must be true for racial groups. The authors of The Bell Curve, however, actually provide a good illustration of why this is false:

“Take two handfuls of genetically identical seed corn and plant one handful in Iowa, the other in the Mojave Desert, and let nature (i.e. the environment) take its course. The seeds will grow in Iowa, not in the Mojave, and the result will have nothing to do with genetic differences.” The authors acknowledge: “The environment for American blacks has been closer to the Mojave and the environment for American whites has been closer to Iowa.” (298)

There is, of course, a sinister side to this careful methodology. While the book disclaims the worst logical errors and most extreme racist conclusions, many will inevitably use it less scrupulously. Nevertheless, the authors of The Bell Curve cannot be refuted by responding to things which they don't actually say.

Even some of the best commentary suffers from the tendency to treat the issues too schematically. Here, for example, is how Stephen Jay Gould summed things up in a generally excellent review for the November 28, 1994 New Yorker: “Intelligence, in their formulation, must be depictable as a single number, capable of ranking people in linear order, genetically based, and effectively immutable.” The first two statements are fine. The second two, however, fail to capture the actual argument presented by Herrnstein and Murray.

In fact, the book asserts that it makes no difference if intelligence is 100 or 0 percent genetic. Strong differences between individuals and groups exist and persist nonetheless. Whatever the cause, say the authors, social policy must recognize this fact; and as of now, they continue, no one has found a way to raise IQ very much. The book asserts that attempts to compensate for individual and group differences -- through the Head Start program, for example -- have been effectively useless. Without some new breakthrough technology, it concludes, society should not be counting on our ability to find a solution along these lines.

Scientific Fallacies

Despite what some reviewers have contended, one need not be a scientific or statistical expert to find abundant logical flaws and unconvincing arguments in the book. Any reasonably critical reader can do so. I will cite three problems.

First, Herrnstein and Murray do contend that group differences in IQ (between Blacks, Whites, and Asians) probably have a genetic component. The key word in the last sentence, however, is “probably.” They acknowledge that no one can prove it. But they report “scientific evidence” that supposedly points in that direction, praising it for its rigor and objectivity. For other data, which tend to refute their claims, they stress any methodological limitations. Such biased reporting is blatant throughout.

At one point, in discussing whether prejudicial circumstances in the USA could possibly account for the group difference in average IQ between Blacks and whites, Herrnstein and Murray discuss a study of African Blacks -- presumably living in an environment where they are not victimized by the same kinds of factors. What they find should make even these two zealots stop and consider the usefulness of their approach: A median IQ of 75.

The authors draw no conclusion from this extremely low figure. Clearly, if it is to be believed at all, factors such as deficits in childhood and prenatal nutrition, lack of adequate schooling, etc., must be at work. What value, then, can statistical comparisons between different populations have? Isn't the entire method seriously flawed?

This suggests a question which I have never seen addressed by those who claim that racial differences in IQ are based on genes: What evolutionary pressure could possibly create substantial variation among human populations?

Significant genetic difference among groups, involving a trait that is important for survival, arises because one or more distinct populations become subject to some natural force that is unique to its environment. The process of selection, working on individuals in that population, then causes it to evolve along different lines. Yet this could hardly be true of intelligence, which must be generally beneficial for survival in every environment and in every culture.

A second interesting question is the distinction between genetic traits and those which are actually congenital -- that is, influenced by the environment of the fetus before birth.

Herrnstein and Murray simply dismiss the fetal environment. And yet, if the single most predictive factor for low IQ in future life is a child's weight at birth -- as the book notes -- then doesn't this raise some provocative questions?

Won't the diet of the mother and her access to prenatal care have some substantial effect? What about the use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs? (Isn't it interesting that such factors, in our culture, correlate with what we think of as racial groups?)

Finally, we should take up in more detail the book's discussion of early childhood enrichment. Although the authors acknowledge that IQ scores can be raised temporarily for disadvantaged children who go through such programs, they assert that these fall back toward the average for their peers by the sixth grade.

Their conclusion: such gains are illusory. The time and money spent is a social waste. Yet even if we accept all the statistical evidence as presented, the beneficial effects could still be real -- but simply negated later by a social environment and public education system unable to continue stimulating interest in learning.

If that is true then our solutions should be quite different from those proposed by Herrnstein and Murray.

A Social Manifesto

This illustrates the main purpose of The Bell Curve. It is not scientific at all, but political. The authors start by citing a growing schism -- social, cultural, and economic -- between the “cognitive elite” (the upper echelons of the intelligence scale) and the rest of society. Increasingly, places in the best schools, the best jobs, the highest incomes and social status, go to those with the greatest “cognitive skills.”

While people with average ability can still do OK, there are fewer and fewer meaningful places in society for those with low IQ. They are becoming marginalized, relegated to chronic dependence on welfare, or to prison. Since their children are (for whatever reason -- genetic, environmental, or a combination) destined on average to be no smarter than their parents, and since welfare policies encourage fertility within this group, we are sitting on a time bomb.

Most of the book's heralded statistics are designed to prove this case. Herrnstein and Murray claim that low intelligence is the greatest single causative factor in poverty, school drop-outs, chronic unemployment, “illegitimate” births, welfare dependency and crime.

But even if their facts are correct all they show is a strong correlation between low IQ and these particular “social problems.” Understanding the key distinction between correlation and causality is essential. If low IQ does not cause the social reality which Herrnstein and Murray rail against, then they have no case.

In a way the book is simply circular in its reasoning. IQ, in fact, cannot be demonstrated to measure intelligence because, despite assertions to the contrary, no one really knows what “intelligence” is. High scores on IQ tests can predict success in the type of “learning” and discipline that is expected by the American educational system. Is it any wonder that people who do well there should also prove successful in the job market or in other measures of social acceptability?

Cliches, Agendas, Social Assumptions

In the end the authors of The Bell Curvefall back on old sociopolitical cliches and an agenda that is strikingly similar to the prevailing conservative ethic. This is based not on science but on a series of social assumptions.

Indeed, my most common marginal comment was to note how deeply ingrained the basic ethic of capitalist society was within all of the book's “logic” -- from its discussion of crime and definition of what makes a successful life (earnings and social prestige) to the question of how we can motivate kids to stay in school (so they can get a good job with high earnings and social prestige; what ever happened to a love of learning?).

But the status in our society of rock stars and baseball players should be proof enough that earnings and prestige are the result of socially determined values -- not God-given or scientific laws. And we are tempted to pose the question: Does a lack of intelligence really foster crime? Or do the “smart” people in control of society define crime as what others get caught doing?

I would like to see the results of a random survey, asking workers whether they think their bosses and supervisors have gained positions of authority because of superior intelligence. I can imagine the whoops of laughter such a “scientific” finding would elicit.

One of my favorite examples has always been the social assumption that the best schools and most effective teachers should be dedicated to the “brightest” students. The Bell Curve tries, not particularly convincingly, to place this idea in the category of scientific truth. But I still consider the opposite argument to be plausible: that more needy students could actually benefit most from such resources.

There is also a more profound question: Are there really no more resources available for education? Must we be content to divide up a limited pie, to enrich the experience of one group of students at the expense of another? Why not take funds from the military and improve the educational environment for everyone?

Many reviewers have noted The Bell Curve's reactionary agenda, but without understanding these pernicious social assumptions that give it life. Such a limited approach will never be able to generate an adequate response.

We don't need more half-way measures or liberal reforms. These inevitably fail, precisely because they go only half way. And that failure provides grist for the mill of the Herrnsteins and Murrays of this world.

To really combat the ideology of The Bell Curve we have to break with its entire framework, with the idea that a “free market,” dividing people up based on (real or imaginary) cognitive ability, is an expression of some natural law.

No one could formulate a more laudable goal than the one that the book actually presents in its final chapter: that everyone should “find, and feel they have found, a valued place in society.” (535) Yet the main force standing in the way of achieving this is the self-same market economy, which increasingly throws onto the social scrapheap anyone whose labor cannot be “profitably employed” in today's technological workplace.

So while Herrnstein and Murray may address some real problems, the capitalist market cannot solve any of them. A touch of irony lurks in the fact that if, indeed, there is any validity to the statistics and analysis of The Bell Curve, the book simply provides one more proof of this historic truth.

ATC 55, March-April 1995

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