The Bellicose Curve

`THE Bell Curve,'' the hot new 845-page book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, comes from a cold and dark place in American thought.

Subtitled ``Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,'' the book addresses issues of race, intelligence, and social policy ``so sensitive,'' as the authors say, ``hardly anybody writes or talks about them in public.'' Such ``honesty,'' as these authors knew, ensured that when their book came out, people would talk about little else.

The book's thesis, openly Darwinian and behaviorist, is that ``intelligence'' is, to a marked degree, genetically inherited. More important to the authors, however, is their view that intelligence, or IQ, is ``intractable'' - that is, people can't be ``smarter'' than they are born to be, despite environment and education. If IQ determines economic success and social status, then it follows that social structures in America are ``bound to be'' inherited and unchangeable.

All this has a clear racial undertone; the authors report that blacks score, in aggregate, 15 points lower on IQ tests than whites.

The book then goes on to discuss the underclass, welfare, teenage mothers, and other admittedly very real problems. It offers a conservative attack on the liberal egalitarianism of the 1960s. ``The Bell Curve'' implies that such thinking distorts the ``truth'' about people's ``differences,'' and that without ``honest'' talk about ``less smart'' people, we will not solve social problems.

This book does reflect a certain limited kind of truth, if one could see no sign of spiritual experience breaking in on what is so often defined as an uncompromisingly material world. But millions of people do find such evidence continually in their lives.

What makes ``The Bell Curve'' such a disturbing piece of writing is its attempt to appease public thinking. It says to the American middle class: ``Don't worry, those complicated feelings you have about prejudice or fear are nothing to be concerned about. It is really more honest to say that people aren't equal, and can't ever be.''

The arguments have a friendly and responsible tone but are similar to right-wing views in Europe. They support ethnic bonding and nationalism. If such views seep into popular culture, ``IQ'' may be equated with ``worth.'' Calling the book an abuse of science, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations stated: ``As Jews, we know too well how these theories have been used against us ... to justify hatred, discrimination, even murder and genocide.''

A Herrnstein associate told the Monitor, ``If you take this seriously, eugenics is just around the corner.''

With the family and social fabric already weak, and a need for a vision to show better ways of living together, are we to get wrapped up in genetic debates about who is smartest?

Even the notions of intelligence here are limited and skewed. They show nothing of the kinds of moral intuition, for instance, that scholars such as Carol Gilligan find. And under the criteria of ``The Bell Curve,'' such Americans as poet Robert Frost or Abraham Lincoln might not rate.

The most intelligent people we know are quite suspicious of IQ, and of the wisdom of shaping social policy out of the Darwinian habits found and practiced in the academy.

This newspaper is interested in civil intelligence, moral intelligence, and what early American theologian Jonathan Edwards called ``spiritual sense.'' Sadly, ``The Bell Curve'' has little to say about these intangibles - so important for shaping any truly intelligent American future.

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