Not Hopeless

Ernest Van den Haag, National Review, December 5, 1994.


The Bell Curve shows that cognitive ability measured by IQ tests reliably predicts success—professional, academic, pecuniary—and that, on average, African-Americans have an IQ about 15 points below that of Caucasians, whose IQ, in turn, is lower (by about 5 points) than that of East Asians. Success differs accordingly. However, the point would be the same if all low-and high-IQ persons were Caucasians. Ethnic differences in IQ cause political complications but do not otherwise affect the hereditary social stratification described and predicted by The Bell Curve. (Incidentally, why should anyone expect all ethnic groups to have the same average IQ? Why not the same skin color?) The authors establish the predictive validity of IQ tests for all groups and estimate that 60 per cent of the variation in measured intelligence is due to genetic differences, which means that nearly half of the variation depends on environmental factors. The proof of this point seems fairly conclusive, based on identical twins separated at birth and on adopted children. Yet if intelligence depended exclusively on environmental influences, if it were entirely an acquired trait, that would hardly make a difference. We have no way of influencing the average cognitive ability of any group, regardless of whether it depends on environmental or genetic factors. Whatever other benefits they may yield, Head Start and similar schemes do not permanently raise the IQ of disadvantaged groups. Perhaps in the future we will find a way to increase cognitive ability genetically or environmentally. So far we have not. Thus it matters little whether the cognitive ability of groups is inherited or acquired. (Needless to say, there may be a genius within a low-IQ group and dolts within a high-IQ group; what applies to averages does not apply to individuals.) Without distractions, what does The Bell Curve tell us? Past societies have offered very unequal opportunities and, linked to them, very unequal outcomes. Education was distributed unequally, depending on parental status. So was everything else. Individual status was ascribed rather than achieved. Little depended on intelligence, much on inherited status and wealth. This has changed. Opportunity has become more and more equal, inherited social privileges less and less important. College education is widely distributed, and the best colleges are available to the talented poor. By now, intelligence on the average predicts outcomes better than parental privilege.

Liberals believed that, once opportunity was equal, outcomes would become equal too: they thought unequal outcomes were due largely to unequal opportunities. However, Herrnstein and Murray show conclusively that inequalities won’t disappear. This may account for the liberal media’s rancorous reception of The Bell Curve. Individuals are born not as tabulae rasae, as many liberals believe, but with different intelligences, which produce very unequal outcomes.

The Bell Curve Archive