Book Reviews -- the Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray

Article excerpt

RICHARD J. HERRNSTEIN and CHARLES MURRAY. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York, NY: Free Press, 1994. 845 pages. $30.

Perhaps it is an understatement to say that Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve has caused considerable controversy. Obviously, a sensitive nerve was touched in the American public. We are a society that believes in "liberty and justice for all," and we have struggled with varying degrees of success with equality at our water fountains, in our schools, and at our work places. Hence we find it unthinkable, or at least unmentionable, to suggest that members of certain groups may have privileges that are largely unavailable to others. And for many, establishing a genetic link to these privileges is an abhorrent thought. We want to believe that through persistent hard work one can achieve just as much as any other person or that we can design an intervention that will level the playing field for all players. It is the contention of the authors, however, that "to try to come to grips with the nation's problems without understanding the role of intelligence is to see through a glass darkly indeed, to grope with symptoms instead of causes, to stumble into supposed remedies that have no chance of working (p. xxiii)."

What is most striking about the controversy that has surrounded this book is that it has focused on one chapter, that on ethnic differences in cognitive ability. Neither the information presented in the chapter nor the reaction to it: is new. In fact, anyone familiar with the history of the "IQ controversy" will notice a similarity between the media's negative reaction to articles in the late 1960s and early 19?0s demonstrating group differences in IQ and genetic links. However, it is understandable that attention to this chapter does not fully convey the authors' message.

To make an informed decision as to whether or not reading this book is worth your while, it is necessary to understand the full argument put forth by Herrnstein and Murray. Hence, the remainder of this review will provide a more complete overview of the book, thus better informing potential readers.

The authors have presented their argument in four sections, with the following being a distillation of each section's message.

* Within our society, there is a cognitive elite, and being a part of this group has many advantages.

* Our society also consists of a cognitive "underclass," and many societal problems are associated with membership in this group. …