Charles Murray, bon vivant and conservative ideologue, ponders the question like a wine of doubtful vintage and provenance. Is ""The Bell Curve,'' his latest work, in any way related to the pessimistic and surly mood of America in 1994? ""I don't think so,'' Murray says, rendering his verdict with sibilant distaste. He gives reasons for his judgment and adds a few tangential thoughts. Then he reconsiders: perhaps the question has merit after all. ""Let me back off from what I was saying before,'' Murray says. ""If you're asking a broader question -- do I think this book addresses the underlying sense that the country is coming unhinged? I sure do.''

""The Bell Curve'' is a big, complex book that is based on a deeply pessimistic -- and deeply angry -- view of American society. Murray and his coauthor, the late Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, argue that intellectuals and policymakers have largely overlooked the role intelligence plays in determining wealth, poverty and social status. They say America is increasingly stratified by intellectual ability, with a ""cognitive elite'' of highly educated politicians, professionals and business leaders at the top and a growing underclass of dullards at the bottom. Their most explosive argument is a blunt declaration that blacks as a group are intellectually inferior to whites, which leads them to a dead-serious attack on affirmative action. Although Murray emphatically denies that the book panders to white resentment, ""The Bell Curve'' may be a mirror for our morally exhausted times. It plays into public anxieties over crime, illegitimacy, welfare dependency and racial friction. It feeds and confirms the sense that, as Murray puts it, society is coming unhinged.

The book is already getting big play in the news media. Scientific research into race and IQ is inherently controversial -- not least because it has so often been used to justify prejudice against blacks. And ""The Bell Curve'' debate has an eerie similarity to the 1969 furor over race and IQ involving the late William Shockley, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen. (Jensen, who has spent much of his career studying IQ and race, is now one of Murray's supporters.) The Wall Street Journal devoted an entire op-ed page to excerpts of Murray and Herrnstein's discussion of IQ and race. The New Republic followed suit with an 11-page article adapted from the book, accompanied by 14 commentaries ranging from mournful to apoplectic.

Murray and Herrnstein say the evidence of a black-white IQ gap is overwhelming. They think the difference helps explain why many blacks seem destined to remain mired in poverty, and they insist that whites and blacks alike must face up to the reality of black intellectual disadvantage. Nevertheless, they maintain that the differences should have no bearing on the way individual whites and blacks view each other. ""We cannot think of a legitimate argument why . . . whites and blacks need be affected by the knowledge that an aggregate difference in measured intelligence is genetic instead of environmental,'' they write.

This positively enrages white liberals -- and it strikes black intellectuals as pious claptrap. ""They're saying it's science, but it has a racist effect,'' said Dr. Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School. ""For whites who are already predisposed to believe that blacks are inferior, this is going to confirm their prejudices.'' Poussaint said blacks ""have been hearing for a long time'' that ""people think they're inferior,'' but said the book's message was especially ""hurtful'' to younger African-Americans. William Julius Wilson of the University of Chicago said there was ""nothing new'' and ""nothing to get excited about'' in the Murray-Herrnstein thesis. He also said the book ""will not withstand scientific and scholarly criticism.'' Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, attacked ""The Bell Curve'' with icy sarcasm. ""Having delivered African-Americans to inferiority and inequality,'' Wieseltier wrote, Murray ""tells them to "Have a nice day. . . .'''

Murray, an intellectual snake charmer whose greatest gift may be the knack of always seeming to be fair and always in earnest, vehemently denies he is racist. An inveterate number cruncher whose fund of social-science data seems inexhaustible, he is now the star salesman for a neoconservative policy agenda that is radical by any standard. That agenda includes a call for the outright abolition of welfare and limitations on affirmative action. ""People like you must understand that people like me . . . are proposing a radically different way of thinking,'' he says pleasantly. ""We're saying, "OK, we understand you're very resistant to this. Think again. Don't change your mind right away. Just think again'.''

Whether ""The Bell Curve'' will do what he hopes -- trigger a revolution in the way Americans think about social inequality -- is anybody's guess. Murray knows it may be years before the 850 pages of densely detailed argument have any impact on government policy, if they ever do. The book represents eight years of collab-oration between Murray and Herrnstein, who died in September at the age of 64. Despite their efforts to make statis-tics accessible to laymen, they serve up a crunchy mix of data and abstruse reasoning. ""The Bell Curve'' is the sort of book that educated people will buy and dutifully attempt to read, but about which their primary source of opinion is likely to be journalistic commentaries like this one. So here's a summary of the book -- a cheat sheet, as it were, to the controversy.

""The Bell Curve'' consists of three broadly related arguments. The first is a reinterpretation of social class. As Murray and Herrnstein see it, the country is now mostly ruled (badly, they think) by a ""cognitive elite'' selected by IQ tests, the SATs and admission to elite colleges and universities. The vast cognitive middle class -- 125 million Americans whose IQs measure between 90 and 110 -- comes next, but the authors waste few words discussing them. At the bottom, ominously, lies an un-derclass of 12.5 million Americans who largely lack the intellectual capacity to make their way up the social ladder.

This is the second argument and main theme of the book -- a relentless insistence on the role of intelligence in explaining who is rich, who is poor and who is in between. ""The Bell Curve'' takes its title from what statisticians refer to as a ""normal distribution,'' which is a method for organizing data like IQ scores. Bell curves have ""tails'' on both sides. In an IQ bell curve, the right tail consists of smart people and the left tail consists of slow people. Murray and Herrnstein divide the left tail into two groups, Class IV (dull) and Class V (very dull), and they are worried about both. Together, these groups equal 25 percent of the U.S. population or 62.5 million people.

As the authors see it, social pathologies like poverty, welfare dependency, illegitimacy and crime are all strongly related to low IQ. They take it further than that, claiming that IQ is the best single explanation of why some people never get off welfare, why crime is rampant in the inner city and why some teenage girls get pregnant. They reject conventional theories about the role of environment and culture in creating dependency and crime, and they criticize liberal attempts to use government subsidies to move people out of poverty. Most of these not-so-smart people, they imply, will never become middle class.

None of this is likely to be front-page news -- and, in fact, ""The Bell Curve'' rests on some crushingly obvious ideas. Who really doubts that intelligence matters -- or that it is at least partly inherited? But then comes what Murray jokingly calls ""the 800-pound gorilla in the corner.'' This is the assertion that blacks score significantly lower than whites on IQ tests and other measures of cognitive ability. In fact, there is nothing new about this statement either: educators and psychologists have known for years that the difference between the mean (or average) white IQ and the mean black IQ is 15 points -- a score of 100 compared with a score of 85. This does not mean, as Murray and Herrnstein emphasize, that there are no black Americans with superi-or IQs. It simply means there are proportionately fewer smart blacks than smart whites.

But it also means black inferiority. Murray objects to that word, but it is inescapable -- and so are its political consequences. If blacks as a group are inferior to whites as a group, the old dream of a truly integrated society -- of blacks and whites meeting as equals -- is dead. The syllogism is complicated, and Murray and Herrnstein carefully stop short of taking it to its logical conclusion. But the logic is clearly implied in the book, and here it is: IQ is more than partly inherited -- it is largely inherited. Blacks have a lower group IQ -- and if low IQ is related to crime, welfare dependency and poverty, it follows that blacks are unlikely to overcome these social pathologies. Fully a quarter of the black population of the United States has estimated IQs below 75, which is borderline retardation. So although some blacks on the right-hand tail of the bell curve will rise and prosper, IQ testing seems to show that millions of others will not.

Murray and Herrnstein try to straddle the pivotal issue of whether the origin of blacks' lower IQ scores is genetic or environmental. They say they are ""resolutely agnostic'' on the question -- then speculate that ""the evidence eventually may become unequivocal that genes are also part of the story.'' They use test-score data to show that middle-class blacks are no closer to closing the black-white gap than lower-class blacks, a finding that also suggests a genetic explanation. But other experts strongly dispute the notion that IQ test-ing confirms the existence of genetic dif-ferences in intelligence between the races, and some say the book's use of IQ data is selective and apparently political. ""We all know that IQ tests showed some racial differences, but we also know there's a difference between "intelligence' and IQ tests,'' said psychologist Robert Sternberg of Yale. The fact that Murray and Herrnstein ignore this difference, Sternberg said, ""is proof that the authors' [political] agenda is driving their interpretation of the statistics.''

The attack on affirmative action, which consumes two chapters toward the end of the book, is clearly at the top of that agenda. Some white academics privately detest the 20-year effort to recruit more black students for elite colleges and universities, and ""The Bell Curve'' gives voice to those frustrations. (It also sharply criticizes affirmative action in the workplace.) Murray and Herrnstein tend to depict the college-admissions process as a zero-sum game between whites and blacks -- it really isn't -- and they argue that many black students lack the ability to keep up academically. This could be the reason for their emphasis on middle-class blacks' intellectual disadvantage.

Murray, interviewed by Newsweek, rejected that interpretation. He also denied that he and Herrnstein meant to suggest that black gains in college admissions were tantamount to white losses. But there is no question that the policies they recommend would reduce black enrollment at leading universities -- or that testing would become the basis for restricting opportunity.

""The Bell Curve'' culminates in a vision of political apocalypse that is the third -- and least persuasive -- theme of the book. Murray and Herrnstein say American society is becoming increasingly polarized between the ""cognitive elite'' and a grow-ing underclass composed of low-IQ blacks, whites, Latinos and immigrants. They think the cognitive elite -- politicians, professionals and business leaders -- has led the nation astray with futile policies aimed at lifting the cognitively disadvantaged out of poverty, and they predict a massive political backlash. They foresee the transformation of the welfare state into the ""custodial state'' -- a ""high-tech . . . version of the Indian reservation.'' They warn against ""racism in a new and more virulent form'' and ""totalitarian'' measures to control the underclass. They fear a ""new conservatism'' along ""Latin American lines,'' which means ""doing whatever is necessary to preserve the mansions on the hills from the menace of the slums below.''

This is frightening stuff. It is partly based on an Atlantic Monthly article Herrnstein wrote in 1989, in which he argued that dumb people are outbreeding smart people. The scientific term for such a trend is ""dysgenesis,'' and Murray and Herrnstein take it very seriously. Government subsidies to welfare mothers, they warn, are causing a slow decline in the national IQ. Similar arguments led to the rise of the ""eugenics movement'' in the United States and Europe during the 1920s and '30s. Eugenicists favored policies to encourage selective breeding by desirable population groups: Nazi Germany, with its explicitly racist ideology, was the high point of the movement. Murray, however, says he and Herrnstein don't support eugenics -- they only want to end programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

A close reading of ""The Bell Curve,'' however, suggests they may be contradicting themselves. That's because they cite a weird bit of social-science research known as the ""Flynn effect.'' The Flynn effect (named after psychologist James Flynn) is a slow but steady rise in group IQ scores first noticed in the 1930s. The increase may be due to environmental factors, such as improved education, or it may be some sort of glitch in the tests themselves. But it is equal to roughly three points per decade, or 15 points over the past 50 years. Despite this, Murray and Herrnstein argue that dysgenesis is lowering the national IQ by about one point per generation. ""You can't say IQ is going up and going down,'' says Yale's Sternberg. ""That chapter is really pathetic.''

""The Bell Curve'' suffers from other lapses as well. Murray and Herrnstein say they want ""a valued place for everyone,'' a phrase that smacks of paternalism and nostalgia for a past that almost certainly never was. Murray, in his article in The New Republic, takes condescension even further. Evoking a ""wise ethnocentrism,'' he cheerily imagines ""a world in which the glorious hodgepodge of inequalities of ethnic groups -- genetic and environmental, permanent and temporary -- can be not only accepted but celebrated.'' After writing 850 pages about the crucial importance of intellectual ability, Murray urges blacks to take pride in their intellectually inferior ""clan.''

The answer to our anxieties about race relations does not lie in ethnocentrism, wise or otherwise. Nor is it feasible, legally and morally, to roll back affirmative action for blacks: affirmative action benefits other minorities, and women, as well. Ultimately, ""The Bell Curve'' is an attempt to substitute IQ for moral worth. Murray and Herrnstein may be right in thinking that we are fed up with the seemingly intractable problems of the underclass, and they are right to point up the problem of black underachievement. But the solutions are more complex than they grant. And if the social fabric is unraveling, only we Americans can repair it -- one small stitch, and one face-to-face encounter, at a time.

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