The Bell Curve is a controversial book published in 1994 by R. J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray examining the relationship between race and intelligence and exploring the role of intelligence in understanding social problems in America. The title is a reference to the shape of the bell-shaped graph of IQ scores (see normal distribution).

Many advocates have denounced the authors for their book, which claims both to document and to explain substantial individual and group differences in intelligence between different 'racial groups' in America. Others suggest that the book is taking heat for daring to explore an American taboo.

John C. Culbertson of the University of Kansas wrote:

"...the entire book is not dedicated to ethnicity and intelligence. The latter half of the book addresses this notion, but the first half outlines the basis of an emerging cognitive elite among white America and how that has contributed to the separation of the cognitive classes." [1]

Frank Miele, who interviewed Murray for a 1995 review of the book in The Skeptic, wrote:
"But the most explosive of The Bell Curve's arguments is that some of the difference in mean IQ scores between the white European population of the United States and the African-American population (one full standard deviation of 15 points) is probably attributable to genetic factors. No one in the field disputes this difference. The argument is over why the difference exists and, of course, whether and how it can be reduced." [1]

Following in the footsteps of Harvard researcher Arthur Jensen, Murray and his co-author published reams of statistical data showing correlation between 'race' and the results of various intelligence (IQ) and aptitude tests. On this basis the authors conclude that intelligence is somewhere between 40% and 80% heritable and determined to a large degree by 'race'. See race and intelligence for a fuller discussion of the issues involved.

Dr. Herrnstein died before the book was released, leaving Charles Murray to do most of the public defense of the book. In response to the publication, some publicly denounced the authors as Nazis; others merely claimed that their research was flawed. However, a public statement circulated by 52 internationally known scholars was published in The Wall Street Journal, December 3, 1994, in support of some of the conclusions in The Bell Curve. It is true that, historically speaking, racist assumptions have often distorted scholarly work. On the other hand, it is also true that conservative polemics on race are subject to bitter denunciation even by people who have not read them.

Stephen Jay Gould published a detailed scientific criticism of the science in The Bell Curve in the 1996 revised edition of his book The Mismeasure of Man, where he provides a point-by-point critique of its arguments. However, Murray claimed that Gould misstated his claims; for instance, Gould says Murray boils down intelligence to a single factor while Murray denies that there is a single factor.

Another popular book written at least in part to refute some of The Bell Curve's claims is the Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. Diamond argues that the differences in technology produced by various races are the result of differences in factors like terrain or the availability of natural resources -- not on differences in intelligence.

Bauer speaks in part to Diamond's thesis, saying:

"African backwardness amidst ample natural resources is only one conspicuous example of the fact that material progress depends on personal qualities, social institutions and mores, and political arrangements which make for endeavour and achievement, and not simply physical resources." P.T.BAUER, 1981, Equality, the Third World and Economic Delusion. London : Methuen.

However the most fundamental factor in technological development, according to Diamond, is a geographic location that allows easy exchange of technology with numerous and distant cultures. And according to Diamond, the regions of Africa which remained most technologically undeveloped was also the most isolated geographically.

A recent paper in the Psychological Review, "Heritability Estimates Versus Large Environmental Effects: The IQ Paradox Resolved" presents a mechanism by which environmental effects on IQ may be magnified by feedback effects. This may provide a resolution of the contradiction between the viewpoint of The Bell Curve and its supporters, and the repeatedly observed 'nurture' effects observed by others.

See also: Flynn effect

Citation for "Mainstream Science on Intelligence"
  • Gottfredson, Linda S.; "Mainstream Science on Intelligence". Published in The Wall Street Journal, December 13, 1994, and also in Intelligence, January-February 1997.

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