The New York Times Book Review (10/16/94) ran a lengthy piece that had a simple message: It’s all right to believe that some races are genetically inferior to others.
That was the underlying theme of Malcolm W. Browne’s review of three books: the widely publicized The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, Philippe Rushton’s Race, Evolution and Behavior, and Seymour Itzkoff’s Decline of Intelligence in America.
For those who have managed to avoid reading about The Bell Curve, it’s yet another resurrection of the pseudo-science of eugenics, which applies mock-Darwinian notions of evolution to human beings, arguing that our species will somehow de-evolve unless steps are taken to make sure that the genetically inferior don’t outbreed the superior. For Murray (and the late Herrnstein), as for most eugenicists, inferiority just happens to be associated with being poor and black.
The other two books appear to be more unabashedly cranky versions on the same theme. Itzkoff, as summarized by Browne, condemns “an economically and intellectually elite caste of liberals…[who] have isolated themselves from American society…by their paternalistic treatment of the underclass, by discounting the importance of family values and by failing to raise enough bright, educated children to sustain national competence.” It sounds like Dan Quayle on steroids.
Rushton, for his part, believes that “mongoloids, caucasoids and negroids” are sub-species that have evolved “different reproductive strategies”: “Whites, on average, emphasize nurture rather than numbers of offspring, while blacks, on average, are shaped by evolutionary selection pressures to produce more children but to nurture each one less.”
Browne–who has a full-time job as a science writer for the Times–could have used his review to debunk this racist claptrap. Instead, he recommends all three books: “The possibility that the authors may be even partly right makes these three books worth plowing through and mulling over.”
All the authors, according to Browne, are “recognized by colleagues as serious scholars.” Even Rushton, with his focus on cranial capacity and genital size, “is regarded by many of his colleagues as a scholar and not a bigot.” (Browne doesn’t mention, as an October 20 Rolling Stone article did, Rushton’s linking of “Nazi Germany’s military prowess to the purity of its gene pool.”)
It’s clear that Browne has largely bought in to these writers’ eugenic assumptions. The Bell Curve, he writes, “makes a strong case that America’s population is becoming dangerously polarized between a smart, rich, educated elite and a population of unintelligent, poor and uneducated people.”
Browne even seems to chide Murray and Herrnstein for not issuing more of a call to arms. It’s hard to tell the critic from the cranks when he takes on the coolly paranoid tone of those who see themselves as defenders of the race: “Sooner or later…society may have to decide whether human beings have the right–perhaps even the duty–to strengthen our species’ cognitive defenses against an increasingly dangerous global environment.”
Browne ends his review with a plea “for freedom of debate and an end to the shroud of censorship imposed upon scientists and scholars by pressure groups and an acquiescing society.” In fact, there is no censorship of these subjects among scientists: The theory of eugenics has been debated for more than 100 years–and has lost.
The general failure of many reviewers to see through the long-discredited myths of The Bell Curve will be addressed in an upcoming issue of Extra!. One might have hoped, though, that the New York Times Book Review, widely seen as the most influential book review in the country, would have assigned these books to a writer with a little more understanding of the science of genetics–and a little less attraction to the pseudo-science of eugenics.
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