Action Alert: The Rehabilitation of Racism
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
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
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
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.
What to do
To express your opinion, write to
Editor, New York Times Book Review
229 W. 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036
or call 212-556-1466. As always, please send copies of your letters to
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