The most interesting thing about "The Bell Curve," the Charles Murray-Richard Herrnstein book about race and intelligence -- maybe the only interesting thing -- is not its thesis but the attention it's been getting from the mainstream media: an entire issue, practically, in The New Republic, the cover of Newsweek, a long and highly respectful piece by New York Times science reporter Malcolm W. Browne, in the Times' Sunday book review.
"The government or society that persists in sweeping [this subject] under the rug," Mr. Browne says, "will do so at its peril."
There is, in fact, little new in the book. Its core argument, as Mr. Browne summarizes it, is "that America is rapidly evolving a huge underclass, an intellectually deprived population whose cognitive abilities will never match the future needs of most employers [and may therefore be permanently locked] in welfare dependency, poverty, crime and lives shorn of any hope of realizing the American dream."
And, the authors say, since people with the lowest cognitive abilities are outbreeding the brightest and since intelligence is at least partly inherited, the country will become increasingly less able to deal with its problems. All the social efforts in the world to lift performance of the disadvantaged with remedial programs can have only limited success.
That's hardly a new argument, but some version seems to come back in every era of major social stress. The racial stocks "most prolific of gifted children," wrote Lewis M. Terman, one of the pioneers of testing, in 1923, "are from Northern and Western Europe, and the Jewish [while] the least prolific are the Mediterranean races, the Mexicans and the Negroes." Worse, he told the National Education Association, "if the present differential birthrate continues, 1,000 Harvard graduates will at the end of 200 years have but 50 descendants, while in the same period 1,000 South Italians will have multiplied to 100,000."
The part of the Murray-Herrnstein argument that's drawn the most attention is their association of race with intelligence -- Asians are at the top of the scale, then whites, then blacks. The trouble is that both race and intelligence are such scientifically squishy concepts that linking them is like trying to work the alchemy of phlogiston.
The questions pile up. What is an Asian? What is the child of the great-granddaughter of American slaves (who herself probably has some white ancestors) and the Jewish refugee from Stalin? What, for that matter, is "a Mexican"? Children of Chinese immigrants once disparaged as mental inferiors are now disparaged for their competitive acuity. And what is intelligence? After World War I, a researcher, sifting through Army intelligence tests, concluded that the mental age of the average American adult was 14.
Unfortunately, for all its silliness that kind of "science" has not been without serious consequences. Terman, who was a professor at Stanford for more than 30 years, was also a leader of the California Human Betterment Foundation, which was credited with more than 6,200 eugenic sterilizations in the 1920s. Now, not surprisingly, such theories are a perfect rationale, on the one hand, for tougher immigration restrictions and, on the other, for cutting the educational and social remediation programs toward which the country (according to recent polls) has become increasingly restive and hostile.
Yet if "The Bell Curve" is an expression of residual racism and frustration, it surely also feeds on the dangerously excessive tendency of the left -- too much enshrined in all government policy -- to pursue group rights, to categorize by race and to pursue remedial programs defined in narrowly racial terms. Why scholarships or affirmative action set in ethnic and not economic terms? Why the self-defeating and pointless demand for racially proportional outcomes in virtually all areas? Why the absurd insistence that anything that produces disproportional outcomes must be invalid and unfair?
"The Bell Curve" makes semi-respectable what a great many people say under their breath to one another (and that people such as Rush Limbaugh have been saying out loud) but hasn't generally been permitted in polite company. In turn, the serious treatment the book is getting from the media is making it respectable. But both are more a measure of social mood than an indication of any new science.
Mr. Browne may be right that it's time to rehabilitate rational discourse on the subject of intelligence. But we'd better be damn careful how it's done. In its prior incarnations, it led to the eugenics of the Race Betterment Foundation (and in Germany to a lot worse); to declarations like that of Edward L. Thorndike, another of the gurus of testing, that about the only "sure service which the inferior and vicious can perform is to prevent their genes from survival" and to statements such as that of Prof. Henry E. Garrett of Columbia, a former president of the American Psychological Association, that the IQ differential between whites and blacks "spells the difference between a cultured society and savagery." Thorndike's statement was made in 1939, Garrett's in 1966.
Peter Schrag is a columnist for McClatchy News Service.