The Bell Curve revisited

by Grace

Last year Charles Murray reflected on the 20-year anniversary of his “extraordinarily influential and controversial book”, The Bell Curve.

Murray believes his book’s predictions about “all the ways in which cognitive ability is associated with important outcomes in life — everything from employment to crime to family structure to parenting styles” are relevant today.  Here’s a quote from the book:

Predicting the course of society is chancy, but certain tendencies seem strong enough to worry about:

  • An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
  • A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
  • A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive distribution.

Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose. (p. 509)

It’s hard to dispute the relevance to today’s concerns.

… As technology becomes ever more complicated, and with an age of robotics on the horizon that could upend the labor market, we wonder if there will long be a valued place in society for people with low intelligence. Many already see a college degree as a necessity for a decent life. The continuing rise of cheap travel, opportunities for women, and college attendance has enabled the brightest people to increasingly segregate themselves socially, solidifying the “cognitive elite” Herrnstein and Murray wrote about. Racial and class gaps in test scores haven’t changed much and have often gotten worse, No Child Left Behind and Head Start be damned.

Murray did not claim that IQ differences between races are due solely to genetics.  Another quote from his book:

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate. (p. 311)

But he confesses to a satisfaction in his prediction that the politically correct position of “a purely environmental explanation of all sorts of ethnic differences” will soon be completely discredited.

On this score, the roof is about to crash in on those who insist on a purely environmental explanation of all sorts of ethnic differences, not just intelligence. Since the decoding of the genome, it has been securely established that race is not a social construct, evolution continued long after humans left Africa along different paths in different parts of the world, and recent evolution involves cognitive as well as physiological functioning.

Murray believes the exposure of corruption in the social sciences is an important legacy of The Bell Curve.

… The reaction to “The Bell Curve” exposed a profound corruption of the social sciences that has prevailed since the 1960s. “The Bell Curve” is a relentlessly moderate book — both in its use of evidence and in its tone — and yet it was excoriated in remarkably personal and vicious ways, sometimes by eminent academicians who knew very well they were lying. Why? Because the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality, and too many social scientists think that threats to the orthodoxy should be suppressed by any means necessary. Corruption is the only word for it.

One of the many controversies surrounding The Bell Curve was its connection to The Pioneer Fund, commonly described as a “neo-Nazi organization” and “hate group”.

Charles Murray defended the use of studies supported by the fund in his book The Bell Curve by saying: “Never mind that the relationship between the founder of the Pioneer Fund and today’s Pioneer Fund is roughly analogous to the relationship between Henry Ford’s antisemitism and today’s Ford Foundation. The charges have been made, they have wide currency, and some people will always believe that The Bell Curve rests on data concocted by neo-Nazi eugenicists.”

But that debate has not been resolved, as explained by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In fact, the Pioneer Fund’s ties to eugenics and white supremacy are not nearly as historically remote as Murray would have his readers believe. The president of the Pioneer Fund at the time The Bell Curve was written was Harry Weyher, who was a personal friend of the Fund’s founder, Wickliffe Draper, and shared his supposedly archaic views on race; just two months after the initial publication of The Bell Curve, Weyher gave an interview in which he argued, among other things, that desegregation had “wreck[ed] the school system.” Another of the Pioneer Fund’s board members at the time Murray was writing, John Trevor Jr., was also an officer of Coalition of Patriotic Societies, which, during his membership, was indicted for sedition over “pro-Nazi activities” and called for the release of all Nazi war criminals. Despite Murray’s claims, the Pioneer Fund continues to support “research” into race differences conducted by outright white supremacists.


Natalie Scholl, “‘The Bell Curve’ 20 years later: A Q&A with Charles Murray”, AEIdeas, October 16, 2014.

Robert VerBruggen, “The Bell Curve’ Turns 20”, Real Clear Books, October 6, 2014.

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