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IQ and Social Justice : What good can be served by racial-inequity theories?

October 23, 1994

A century ago, the British statistician Karl Pearson argued that genetically inferior people were outbreeding superior ones and that the human species was degenerating by dysgenics. His thinking helped spawn the scientifically baseless eugenics movement that later led to the sterilization of thousands of "feeble-minded" people in the United States and Europe. Eugenics was perverted into the ultimate murderous evil by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust.

Now comes a new wave of this old dysgenics to explain the woes of modern times. This time it is in the form of a provocative and deeply depressing new book that maintains that human intelligence is largely inherited and that blacks, on average, are intellectually inferior to whites, who in turn are slightly less intelligent than Asians.

The book is "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life," by the late psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein of Harvard and the political scientist Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. In 845 pages of sharp rhetoric and dense statistics they argue that the United States is being polarized between an "emerging cognitive elite" and a low-IQ underclass destined, in disproportionate numbers, to lives of crime and welfare dependency.

They see this "cognitive partitioning" widening, and argue that affirmative action in education and jobs has only increased tensions among races without reducing differences in accomplishment. They call for cutbacks in welfare and other government programs to discourage people with low IQs from reproducing.

"Bell Curve" has fueled a fierce new debate on a stale topic. It comes out at about the same time as two other books that, with differing rhetoric and purpose, make similar arguments. The two others are "The Decline of Intelligence in America: A Strategy for National Renewal," by Seymour W. Itzkoff of Smith College, and "Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective," by J. Philippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario.

Certainly these scholars are right to discern a racially polarized class structure. Herrnstein and Murray argue for the primacy of IQ, rejecting contentions that differences in scores are rooted in cultural biases of tests.

But we are not convinced the science is adequate to distinguish the genetic component of IQ from environmental factors--such as historical discrimination, long-term poverty and alcohol and drug abuse. IQ studies have long been plagued by methodological problems and even whiffs of fraud and racial politics. Nor does "Bell Curve" deal adequately with the possibility there are many kinds of intelligence other than the cognitive ability measured by IQ tests. And it is difficult to reconcile the Herrnstein-Murray argument with the expansion of an affluent black middle class in recent years.

However, we strongly oppose censoring such controversial research. And we denounce campus thought police who would harass scholars who dare to undertake it. Still, it must be asked: What is the real purpose of such research?

Herrnstein's and Murray's answer is that we need less social engineering by government and a "return to individualism," meaning less emphasis on group identification. The stress, they say, should be on "finding valued places if you aren't very smart." That was easier in past times, they argue, when the economy was agrarian and manual labor more valued.

They say local neighborhoods rather than government should now assume responsibility for many social functions to "multiply the valued places that people can fill." In other words, in their words: "It is time for America once again to try living with inequality, as life is lived. . . . "

We find that a defeatist conclusion. Past studies attempting to link race and IQ have often given comfort to the forces of evil, stigmatizing large groups and legitimizing even murder. We see little chance of a resurgence of eugenics. But nothing is to be gained by resigning ourselves to a biological fate of two separate and unequal societies.

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