For Whom the Bell Tolls

Peter Brimelow, Forbes, October 24, 1994.


“MY POLITICAL aspiration,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray tells FORBES, “is the restoration of the Jeffersonian republic.”

Murray’s critics may read his aspirations differently—and a good deal less charitably. For five years there has been fascinated speculation about his collaboration with Harvard’s Richard J. Herrnstein (who died of lung cancer in September). Herrnstein was one of the most honored academic psychologists in the country. Murray is one of the most influential social scientists, whose work has been accepted by conservatives and liberals alike.

Now these formidable talents were jointly taking on the most feared taboo of modern times: the links among intelligence, heredity and some of the puzzling but apparently unstoppable pathologies raging in American society—such as crime, family breakup, the emergence of the underclass.

Finally, their long-awaited book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, $30.00) has appeared. It’s massive, meticulous, minutely detailed, clear. Reading it gives you the odd sensation of trying to swim in a perfectly translucent but immensely viscous liquid.

Like Darwin’s Origin of Species—the intellectual event with which it is being seriously compared—The Bell Curve offers a new synthesis of research, some of which has been mounting insistently for years, and a hypothesis of far-reaching explanatory power.

But what about the Declaration of Independence—“All men are created equal”?

The ideal of equality was central to the American and the French revolutions. But is it to be taken as a literal statement about abilities?

Some would say yes, that, given the same opportunities, most people are pretty much alike.

But the reality is that guaranteeing equal opportunity does not produce equality of results. Some people are more disciplined than others, work harder—and, yes—are more intelligent. Some of the traits that make for worldly success can be acquired, but some are genetic, programmed in. Out of an erroneous, if well-meaning, overemphasis on egalitarianism, Herrnstein and Murray argue, we downplay the programmed-in part.