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The Bell Curve

From Chris Wayan's 1995 journal


I just read a Newsweek review of Herrnstein and Murray's book THE BELL CURVE, which claims IQ is mostly genetic. The article plays down the book's more incendiary claim that America's become an unacknowledged smartocracy, where all the rewards go to the clever, and stupidity is downright criminalized. Newsweek sticks to the easy, familiar controversy: race! Yet the black-white IQ gap is down to seven or eight points. And the average American IQ has risen TWICE THAT in the last century (that is, modern Americans average 115 on IQ tests from 1900--and African Americans are approaching 110). So we know it's quite possible for this "inherited" factor to change with better nutrition, better education, better beliefs about yourself... pick your own reasons.

So why the hell are we doing so little about it?


Okay. I'm one of the few people in America who actually went to the damn library and found THE BELL CURVE and plowed through all five pounds of it, instead of relying on other people's summaries.

It wasn't at all what I expected from the controversy around it. For example:


The studies that "prove" heredity is the main factor in intelligence, are mostly based on twins. I'm unconvinced these prove a thing, but my reasons were hard to explain, until I mentioned the issue to my housemate Alder. She's worked 25 years in a preschool--seen lots of twins. She laughs "Twins have a bond! Ask any twin, or anyone who's raised twins! These guys just assume everything's genes or environment because anything else is outside their worldview. Sure, twins raised separately have similar IQs--they also have kids and spouses with similar names, and houses with similar decor! Come on! That's not genes for marrying Freds and living in purple houses. That's some kind of psychic spillover. I don't care what these academics say. Anyone who's worked with 'em knows they're linked. One stubs a toe, the other one cries. In the next room. Or county!"

And if she's right, intelligence may be way less fixed than Herrnstein and Murray say.


"The Bell Curve" believes reasoning underlies all other kinds of intelligence, and rejects the multiple-intelligence theory (claiming intelligence is many separate abilities: you can be logically brilliant but socially dumb and spatially/visually average). Like most of my artist friends, I strongly believe in multiple intelligences. Of course! Artistic creation requires a complex mix of skills, and we work with taboos: both CONTENT and WAYS of thinking that society neglects, or actively condemns! Personally threatening insights require more than abstract reasoning. Data-juggling helps, but it's just one component. I don't know a single artist, including those with genius-level IQs, who believes in the single-intelligence theory.

But the lawyers and doctors and CEOs and academics that form the cognitive elite that THE BELL CURVE describes, those whose minds process complex patterns in precise, rule-bound, familiar ways... THEY overwhelmingly assume there's one kind of intelligence!

Their kind. The kind America pays top dollar for.

Funny coincidence, eh?


The book makes an unpleasantly strong case that there's a GROWING not shrinking underclass, and it's not race but IQ that traps you in it. Employment, crime, health--racial differences melt away if you class people by IQ. A huge, neglected, multiracial underclass getting blamed for being lazy or something! When this society viciously penalizes low and even NORMAL intelligence, by setting up intricate rules and laws and machines and bureaucracies: government of the clever, by the clever, FOR the clever--one kind of cleverness only. America's creeping back toward... castes. With shallow mental jugglers at the top.

Do we want this?


I was a child prodigy with an IQ off the scale, and got treated as such--not with the mixture of approval, neglect and envy given to the "normally" gifted, but with disbelief, confusion, and hostility--as a freak. So I flip through the book, curious what it'll say about MY particular IQ minority, and the class hatred toward us. I was especially curious how "normally gifted" people, IQ 130-140, feel toward us geniuses. Are we like drag queens to them, while they're respectable gays still trying to get America to love them? (Helpful hint from Heloise: they never will as long as you flaunt that money, honey!)

So what does THE BELL CURVE, full of advice about groups all over the middle, say about those off the curve? It's easy to summarize:

Nothing. In 800 pages on the social consequences of grouping people by IQ, geniuses and prodigies aren't important enough to mention. We don't exist.


I didn't realize IQ stratification in American schools was so new--it began within living memory. Public schools and even elite colleges used to have a broad mix of IQs. Harvard had racial, sexual, religious and class barriers, but rather lax academic qualifications up till about 1950. But as academia dropped its old forms of segregation, it introduced a new one, sifting the gifted into a few elite schools, to meet and marry and form a new social class: a nouveau-riche class capitalizing on their brains.


The authors ask "Out of your 12 closest friends and relatives, how many have degrees or are gifted? The odds of the average American knowing even one Stanford graduate are microscopic. Most of your friends are gifted, and the odds against this are huge. If you've bothered to read this book, you're a member of this cognitive elite, this social class. Yet you're unaware of it--to you it's just the world. Odds are, you're insulated from the world of the normally intelligent, let alone the other end of the curve."
I think about this... it's true. Who do I know who's normal? Can't think of one, these days.

Mention this to my housemate Alder. She blurts "that's not true! Well, my IQ is about 120, and of course Sean went to Stanford, and Lily's gifted, and you're a genius... but this house is a fluke. My previous housemates weren't all gifted. Well, Libby is of course, but not, um..." and so on. It takes her a full minute to think of anyone at all outside the 90th or 95th percentile. And I think of Alder as the normal one around here. (I turn the page and the book says "...and you probably think of your friends with IQs of 120 or lower as slow..." Ouch.)

Though I wonder if I have my own form of denial. My friends are all gifted, but do I avoid anyone TOO gifted? I don't know anyone in my own IQ range. I've certainly avoided living inside my class norms for income, career, neighbors, education... Am I IQ-slumming too, out of leftist guilt?


As I read about THE BELL CURVE's "cognitive elite", I realize I've seen its face. I used to work at Stanford. It's true: the elite is trained to be cohesive, blind to its own taboos, well-meaning, oddly unclear if normal people are stupid (and thus deserving of charity) or just lazy (and therefore undeserving). The elite's trained to be clever, precise, and smugly sure their way of thinking is the only one.

But as a prodigy at their sort of mental gymnastics, I know firsthand that it's inadequate for dreamwork, spiritual work, serious creativity, love, any deep understanding of whole systems, of other people, or of life. My brain uses a different (and equally difficult) process when I make changes that matter. Instead of forward, tight, focused and fluttery (the feeling of IQ-test work, showing up as strong beta waves on an EEG) it's back, slower, feels like stepping out of frames or sliding out sideways--and I never got to test this on an EEG because I didn't (and don't) know of any test that seeks or stimulates this mode of brain activity!


Nancy Kress's BEGGARS IN SPAIN explored the problems caused by a cohesive cognitive elite. It's a lot more fun than THE BELL CURVE. She postulated a class of healthy, gifted, longlived people who never sleep, never miss a trick--and never dream! But hey, that's just science fiction. By a woman. Using metaphor.

No one's paying attention to the problems at the high end anyway. For Newsweek etc, it's all about racism--disputes over a few crummy points in the middle of the curve. What happens to the brightest kids, as they get lazy and insulated (or bail from their class and turn bitter)... no one cares. Yet.

But they should. The way we're going could kill social innovation.


I'm more or less convinced by the appalling chapters on degree inflation and affirmative action in college admissions. I thought the "adjusting" was maybe 20 to 50 SAT points--but it can be hundreds of SAT points, whole standard deviations in academic performance. That makes employers doubt the degrees earned by nonwhite students. Yet a generation ago, a degree from a tough school was proof you were smart and could do the work; it helped sway ignorant or bigoted white employers. So affirmative action is WEAKENING the value of college degrees, SELECTIVELY--for nonwhites only. A nasty backfire effect.

The authors want to keep affirmative action (not what I expected from white devil IQ racists, but go figure). They propose just shrinking the bonus points added to nonwhite scores: up to 50 points, such a boost is realistic, predicting academic performance and job performance pretty well. But hundreds of points can rocket-launch students into the stratosphere, where they can't breathe without massive life support. They may be at a big-name school, but they end up in slow-track courses. So you pay top dollar for a prestige school, and get a low-end education. At least under the old segregation they miseducated you for free.


The stuff upsetting Newsweek--are there racial IQ differences, do they reflect real-world intelligence, are they mostly genetic... the authors' attitude is unexpected. "It doesn't matter. It never did. If the IQ gap were real, racial, and genetic, what social policies could we change? Would racist laws suddenly be fair? Would you treat your individual friends or co-workers differently? How? Why? They're exactly the same people they were yesterday. And if the gap is environmental, what then? We don't know how to change it yet. A million programs claim they work, but that's hype. None are reliable." There's a whole chapter on the failures of highly touted programs. "We don't know enough yet to raise IQs on a mass scale."


With one surprising exception! Nutrition and general health DO influence IQ measurably. Nutrition programs, free vitamin and mineral supplements, and lead-screening programs can raise IQ seven or eight points and KEEP those gains. They did in a pilot program in Wales, and it was dirt cheap and much simpler than school enrichment or home environment programs. "But again, shouldn't we be giving kids decent nutrition and health care whether or not it affects their IQs?"


Surprising! The authors call for income redistribution, a flattening of the salary spread as in Europe and Japan, on the grounds that the poor and the stupid work harder than the rich and gifted admit, or even know; they deserve a share even if they really AREN'T as productive--their work, after all, is measured by standards the clever devised to suit them, and almost certainly under-reports intangible contributions by those at the bottom.


Wow. Now I know why THE BELL CURVE was seen as racist. It's because its surviving author, Murray, who's publicizing the book, is personally obnoxious. Heard him interviewed on the radio. He struck me as... well that's it. He struck me. With his mind I mean. A guy with a pinched soul, lashing out. That thin-lipped cleverness of a white guy putting his intellectual muscles to no good use--to bully. A product of our Euro-style university system--its bad side to be sure. It can enlarge people's souls, IF they lack malice, but the competition and coldness and hierarchy can just as easily bring out ("e-ducare" = to lead outward) latent meanness and intellectual bullying as spiritual breadth.

Maybe his late co-author, Herrnstein, was the sensible one. Oh well.

Hey! As long as Murray is anyway, let's talk about dumb black people. Every race has 'em. But I've noticed something interesting: more often than not, stupid black people have more going on behind the IQ thing than stupid white people. Call it soul if you like. I'm white and I still feel it.

IQ feels more like bandwidth or station strength, the ease with which your soul transmits stuff into our world. In his day, William Blake called the five senses "the chief inlets of soul in this age." But nowadays, brains are where the money's at.

But soul... the soul, behind the measurable intelligence, is quite different. How much soul is innate and how much is learned (or more likely NOT learned, in white culture!) I don't know. But I think it can be fostered. It's no coincidence that African Americans have more than Euro Americans and they respect it more. Native Americans too. Same thing--it's strong because it's fostered because it's respected! Chinese people feel as pinched and thin as Euros to me. "I got three beans and you only got two." Pinched by a culture that emphasizes hierarchy and competition. But some South and Southeast Asians have a lot. I'm sure some readers will conclude I'm racist, here. But I'm not. I'm CULTURALIST, a concept no one wants to look at. Some cultures crank out clannish, suspicious people, some, stuffy traditionalists, some, loud cheery spoiled brats; but some at least AIM toward sensitive, balanced maturity. So yeah, I'm a culturalist.

And if America were a culture where I could casually toss in more literal concepts of soul, reincarnated souls especially, I would. Big souls, old souls with a lot of experience--good sense and balance you can feel through this narrow window of the current brain, the current incarnation. "Sweet songs don't play too strong on broken radios." John Prine. Probably misquoted. A weak intellect you see. Inaccurate. Bad scholarship.

But soulful. I cultivated that. Blunted the sharpness I was born with, and was groomed to slash with, at the very best schools. (Lao-zi, who, like me, worked as a librarian, a guard dog of the cultural warehouse, talks a lot about "blunting the sharpness". He saw the problem 2500 years ago!) Big brains are like big teeth, and certain white intellectuals are young souls, reincarnated junkyard dogs we're dumb enough to let roam around biting everyone.

I was groomed to duel, to bite. But I quit.

Bad dog!

No MacArthur genius grant for me.


You know, I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room when I saw that Newsweek article, and I even hesitated to pick up the magazine and look. Feared I'd be harassed by the people around me, if they saw me even reading an article on IQ. This isn't paranoia. I was bashed for my IQ for years in school. And endless beatings and hostility do instill fear. The article never talks about how vicious normal people are to ANYONE different--only about how shitty life is for those on the low end of the curve. Being a kid with a high IQ (a label put on by others after all--adults!--just as they tell you your race) means being resented and stigmatized just as much. Others feared and envied and hated me, until they beat me into learning to pass--into creating a mask to hide my inner life. For me, thinking is guilty and furtive still. And that's not neurotic. It's training.

Bell Curve training.

LISTS AND LINKS: genius, prodigies, and IQ - racism and other biases - politics - fairness - inheritance - vanity & pride - social class - Alder - nutrition - genetics - Red Diaper Babies: radical guilt - more rants - a dream inspired by the Nancy Kress book: Beggars In Spain

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