The Bell Curve

This book is about differences in intellectual capacities among people and groups and what those differences mean for America's future. Richard Herrnstein och Charles Murray

In October 1984, The Free Press published Richard J. Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve - Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Herrnstein was a professor of psychology at Harvard, Murray is a well-known, conservative social scientist and debater. In the book, the authors set out the task of examining whether the conventional explanations for social problems are still valid. Are social factors determining who commits crimes? Are all people at the same risk of becoming unemployed? Why do some succeed in their studies while others fail? Why do some people get poor? Herrnstein and Murray argue that the classic sociological explanations for social problems are no longer sufficient.

The Equality Paradox

Traditional society was very much a society in which inherited wealth and social status determined where the individual ended up on the social ladder. Those who had money and social status belonged to society's elite. Those who lacked these attributes were excluded from power. Modern society is the most democratic society history has ever seen. But the image of modern society is not unequivocally positive. The authors point to something that one might call the paradox of equality: the more socially balanced a society is, the greater the role that non-social, i.e. genetic factors, will play in the stratification of individuals. Herrnstein and Murray says:

That intelligence is a highly hereditary characteristic.
That modern society rewards high intelligence.
That the traditional master classes will therefore be replaced by a cognitive elite.

The traditional class structures were built by humans and therefore changeable. The meritocracy that rises on the ruins of the old class society will not be as easy to break.

The New Class Society

The authors identify several stratifying processes in modern society and the common denominator is their connection to cognitive ability or intelligence. The education system plays a central role in Herrnstein's and Murray's theory. Just over 100 years ago, only 2 per cent of men and women with 23-year-old men had university degrees. An academic degree was a privilege reserved for a small minority. Nowadays, higher education is open to all. One might therefore be tempted to describe the reform of the education system in terms of democratisation and equalisation. But if Herrnstein and Murray are right, the picture is more complicated than that. The problem with the equalisation stun is that it overlooks the fact that the group of university students does not represent a cross-section of the population. The authors argue that the modern education system has become more adept at identifying smart young people. The link between an individual's intelligence and the likelihood of studying at university has not weakened, on the contrary, it has been strengthened, not least for the brightest young people:


Changes in the education system interact with labour market processes. For a long period of time in human history, talented individuals were found in all professions. The demand for high intelligence was limited. The technological revolution has revolutionised the labour market in this regard:



The result has been an increasingly two-tier labour market and an incipient cognitive homogenization of workplaces. Herrnstein and Murray also argue that family formation has become increasingly selective and predict that it will have a negative impact on social mobility. Intelligent men and women meet at universities, get well-paid jobs, get married, settle in exclusive areas and have intelligent children that they send to private schools where children then have the same experiences as their parents. The process leads to the emergence of a wealthy, smart and prosperous power elite living in isolation from an underclass ravaged by poverty, crime and drug abuse. The emergence of the information society also marks the end point for all seriously conceived and grandiosely designed reform projects. The cognitive elite will distrust the possibility of changing society for the better. In the long run, therefore, the tax system will lose its ideological character and be reduced to an instrument by which the cognitive elite buys themselves free from the pathologies that plague the underclass. If the bourgeoisie of classical capitalism was manipulative, the upper classes of the information society are cynical.

The intelligence question and the underclass

If you have to choose, is it better to be born smart or rich? The answer is unequivocally "smart"
The Bell Curve

If Herrnstein and Murray are right, the pathologies of modern society are not created by society, but a consequence of differences in intelligence. The authors discuss, among other things, poverty, unemployment, dependency on benefits and crime in order to flesh out their thesis. The classic explanations for social pathologies have often included a moralizing component. In the mid-18th century, it was common to make a distinction between people who had earned their poverty and those who suffered from it for other reasons. Conversely, during the Marxist Renaissance in the 1960s, it was common to use system explanations. Poor, criminal, unemployed and school dropouts were perceived as victims of an unjust social system. Herrnstein and Murray stress that sociological theories do not have to be false because they seek the causes of social problems outside the individual. It is a perfectly legitimate intellectual occupation. But they point out that sociological theories explain much less than many people want to believe. Children who grow up in stable economic conditions are certainly less likely to become poor themselves than peers whose parents fail to make the money. But it is also true that individuals with low intelligence are up to 15 times more likely to become poor than people with high intelligence. Cognitive ability has greater explanatory power than socioeconomic background. Although many of the young people who are unable to complete their studies undoubtedly come from small economic conditions, there is no simple causality between socio-economic background and interrupted studies. It does not matter how poor the family, it is almost impossible to find talented young people who are not able to cope with their education.


Criminals have a normal distribution that differs from the larger population. The average intelligence ratio for a criminal is 92 points, i.e. 8 points below the population average. Repeat offenders have lower intelligence than one-time offenders. High intelligence protects against crime. Children who are talented and who have grown up in messy homes with criminal parents are less likely to become criminals themselves than their less talented peers. In reality, socio-economic background plays a very small role in explaining crime. The authors also believe that there is a positive connection between intelligence and the possibility of creating a free and civilized society. In free society, people control themselves. Citizens behave civilly and responsibly because they understand that all options are inferior: "A smarter population is more likely to be, and more capable of being made into, a civil citizenry. For a nation predicated on a high level of individual autonomy, this is a fact worth knowing." Herrnstein's and Murray's conclusions were received with a more or less protracted yawn. Had we not heard it before, many critics seemed meant. One reason was probably that the authors' reasoning was based on statistical analysis of a material that only covered white Americans. To say that there are stupid, white Americans is not very controversial. The contents of the book's thirteenth chapter would completely change the sound of the bark.

Ethnic differences in intelligence

Chapter 13 is titled Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability and asks whether it makes sense to talk about differences in intelligence at the group level. The authors' thesis is simple: intelligence differences at the group level exist and they have implications for society. The question of whether there are differences in intelligence between different ethnic groups is, of course, sensitive in multiethnic societies such as the American and authors were portrayed as racists and, in some cases, also as colportators of Nazi propaganda. Michael Barone pointed out that the criticism came mainly from politically correct media and that the overwhelming majority of Americans probably have no problem at all with the theses that Herrnstein and Murray make:
Ordinary citizens know that some people are in significant ways more intelligent than others, that only a relative few are extremely bright or extremely dull, and that intelligence bunches up at the center. They know that intelligence is not randomly distributed among members of different identifiable racial and ethnic groups. These are lessons that are taught in everyday life, and you have to undergo a pretty sophisticated indoctrination and enlist in a tightly disciplined ideological army to believe otherwise.
The accusations of racism and Nazism were based on two assumptions:

The thesis that The Bell Curve only formulates a new and more "scientific" version of the Nazi notion of Europeans as a ruler race.
The assumption that Herrnstein and Murray, like the Nazis, believe that the differences in intelligence between ethnic groups should be explained in biological terms.

Both assumptions are incorrect. Herrnstein and Murray write that European Jews, a relatively small group of individuals, have the highest intelligence. Hardly a conclusion that one would expect from a book written by Nazis. Europeans and white North Americans will have to settle for a modest third place (nor is it a conclusion that is expected of two Nazis) in the IQ hierarchy. Place number two is occupied by Asians. South Americans are in fourth place, and at the bottom of the intelligence ladder we find America's African Americans. Nor was the book as extreme as some critics wanted to claim. When psychologist Mark Snyderman and political scientist Stanley Rothman asked more than 1,000 researchers on the subject how they viewed the differences in intelligence between black and white Americans, 15 percent answered that the difference was entirely due to environmental factors. One per cent of respondents said that it depends exclusively on biological factors. Forty-five percent thought that both genes and the environment are involved. A quarter of respondents said that existing data does not allow for a qualified opinion. Fourteen percent chose not to answer Snyderman's and Rothman's questions. Herrnstein and Murray join the majority position. They add that psychometric research has shown significant differences between ethnic groups in terms of cognitive ability, but they also add that there is much to suggest that the explanation for these differences must include references to both  genes and the environment: "What might the mix be? We are absolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not justify an estimate." Hardly a controversial reasoning. Moreover, the book was not as terribly unique as many of the critics imagined. Herrnstein and Murray did not conduct their own psychometric scans.  The Bell Curve  is a book about books. The authors summarize and discuss opinions that others have formulated.  The Bell Curve  is based on decades of psychometric research. The thesis that there are differences in intelligence between ethnic groups is perhaps contentious, but it is not a position that first saw the light of day in The Bell Curve. The factor that probably perhaps mattered most to the excitement surrounding the book was the fact that it placed the country's African Americans at the bottom of the intelligence ladder. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom write in  America in Black and White - One Nation, Indivisible  that white Americans are afraid that blacks will fail because they are worried that they will be accused of racism. Black Americans are afraid that they will fail because of their inferiority feelings. From this perspective, it's not very difficult to understand why the reactions to The Bell Curve became so violent. The book not only addresses a sensitive issue, by discussing intelligence differences it is sprinkling new salt in already infected wounds. The American social debater Dinesh D'Souza quantified this outrage when he said that if the average African-American had been white, he would have belonged to the group of whites with the lowest intelligence:

Blacks are about six times more likely than whites to fall in the IQ range of 70 or below, which educators consider a signal of mental deficiency. Equally disturbing, blacks are scarce at relatively high IQ levels of 110-120: only 2 percent of blacks, compared with 18 percent of whites, score in this range. At very high thresholds of 120 and higher, whites continue to be represented while blacks are virtually nonexistent.

It has been said of The Bell Curve that the book is one of those books that everyone talks about, but which very few have read. It's a shame.  The Bell Curve  is in many ways a fascinating book. Whatever your opinion on the substance, it is useful to have it illuminated from different directions and this function serves the brickof Herrnstein and Charles Murray by far. Thomas Sowell, African-American and well-known American social debater, has said the following:

This is one of the most sober, responsible, thorough and thoughtful books to be published in years. I don't happen to agree with everything in it, but that is beside the point. ... The Bell Curve deserves critical attention, not public smearing or uncritical private acceptance.

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