Sunday, November 07, 2004

The 10th Anniversary You Didn’t Read About

Ten years ago last month, The Free Press published a seminal book in social policy called The Bell Curve (TBC). If you’ve heard about TBC at all in the mainstream press, you’ve likely heard it described as a racist polemic that condemned blacks as intellectually inferior using the “pseudo-science” of I.Q. Shortly after its publication, TBC was relentlessly assailed by left-wing social scientists, who declared its premises racist, its science unsound and its motives right-wing.

Written by social scientists Charles Murray and the late Richard J. Herrnstein, TBC began with the idea that intelligence is heritable (genetic), and proceeded examine the consequences for society when high intelligence becomes the primary determinant of socioeconomic success. In fact, demonstrating the emergence of a high-I.Q. “cognitive elite” occupies the majority of the book. Only a single chapter dwelt on differences in I.Q. among racial groups, and here Murray and Herrnstein declared themselves agnostics regarding the exact origins of those differences. Nevertheless, TBC’s critics seized upon this chapter and declared the entire book an attempt to justify white supremacy. Numerous academic articles and a small flurry of hastily assembled books, now almost all forgotten, furiously denounced Murray and Herrnstein and TBC. Much of the criticism devoted itself to linking some of the research quoted in TBC to various right-wing foundations (often viciously described as “neo-Nazi") and questioning Murray and Herrnstein’s ideological associations (Herrnstein was a conservative; Murray is a libertarian). Of course, few of these critics ever pointed out their own leftist orientation. It was scarcely mentioned, for instance, that the late evolutionary biologist and vocal TBC detractor Stephen J. Gould was an avowed Marxist, an ideology that cannot abide the notion of innate inequalities, a predisposition which might just possibly have colored his opinion. Interestingly, most conservatives declined to join in the fray – perhaps warded off by the threat of being denounced as racists. Conservative John McLaughlin of TV’s The McLaughlin Group dismissed TBC curtly, "It is largely pseudo-scientific and it is singularly unhelpful." Facing unpopular facts can be “unhelpful” if you don’t like being called a racist.

Almost twenty years earlier, evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson found himself on the receiving end of the left’s fury when he advanced the idea that human behavior might be rooted in human biology as shaped by evolution. Wilson advanced his ideas in a 1975 book called Sociobiology. The book sparked a firestorm. Academic tirades accused Wilson of providing a defense for slavery, genocide, Nazi eugenics, racism and sexism; protestors targeted Wilson at speaking appearances, infamously dousing him with a pitcher of water at a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. However, sociobiology has flourished in the nearly three decades since Wilson published Sociobiology and his ideas have gained widespread acceptance as the evidence in their favor has mounted. Oddly enough, though many conservatives (most notably social scientist James Q. Wilson) have invoked sociobiology in their analysis of social issues, a rising challenge to sociobiology now appears to be escalating from the right where evolution-denying creationism in the guise of “intelligent design theory” threatens to do for conservative thought what Lysenko-ism did for Soviet science.

Ten years later, discussion of TBC has all but disappeared from the mainstream media. However, many of the ideas proffered in TBC have quietly emerged from the shadows. The idea that intelligence (along with personality traits and many mental disorders) have strong genetic components is no longer a heretical notion, though in depth talk of I.Q. remains decidedly beyond the bounds of politically correct discussion. In his 2002 bestseller, The Blank Slate, MIT professor of psychology Steven Pinker observes:

“… there is now ample evidence that intelligence is a stable property of an individual, that it can be linked to certain features of the brain (including overall size, amount of gray matter in the frontal lobes, speed of neural conduction, and metabolism of cerebral glucose), that it is partly heritable among individuals, and that it predicts some of the variation in life outcomes such as income and social status.”

This, of course, is simply a somewhat more moderate recapitulation of Murray and Herrnstein's underlying premise.


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