Herrnstein, Richard J.

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Herrnstein, Richard J. 1930–1994

The child of Hungarian immigrants, Richard J. Herrnstein was born on May 20, 1930. He received his undergraduate degree at City College of New York before going on to Harvard University, where he studied with the famed psychologist B. F. Skinner. He obtained his Ph.D. in psychology in 1955. After three years in the U. S. Army, during which he worked at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center laboratories in Washington, D.C., he accepted a faculty position at Harvard. He spent the rest of his life at this institution, eventually becoming the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology.

Herrnstein initially specialized in animal learning behavior, and he quickly produced a dramatic change in the field by developing a mathematical structure for relating behavior to reinforcement, resulting in what came to be called the “matching law.” Taking over the Harvard pigeon lab, which Skinner had made famous, Herrnstein soon established a reputation as one of the leading researchers in the world on the behavior of these birds, and he looked forward to his work having a wide range of applications. He expected, for example, that pigeons would eventually replace—and even outperform—human workers in numerous perfunctory tasks in both industry and military security. By the late 1960s, however, the study of animal behavior had lost the cachet it once enjoyed, and it became relegated to a backwater within the discipline. Herrnstein then turned to the opposite end of the behavioral spectrum, relinquishing the Skinnerian environmentalism that had informed his work with animals in favor of an emphasis on the predominant influence of genes in shaping human intelligence.

In September 1971, Herrnstein published his first contribution to his new interest, a highly controversial article that appeared not in a scientific journal but in a popular magazine, the Atlantic Monthly. He did not report any new research, and most of this article was merely a straightforward discussion of the psychometric definition of intelligence and the evidence for its high heritability. In the last couple of pages, however, Herrnstein outlined what he saw as the social implications of the science. He speculated that as equality of opportunity steadily increased, arbitrary advantages would play less and less of a role in determining life outcomes, leaving genetic differences in intelligence as the principal cause of individual differences in earnings and prestige. This would result in a new sort of class stratification, one in which those at the top would deserve their privileged position by virtue of their innate intellectual superiority. At the other end of the economic spectrum, he predicted that “the tendency to be unemployed may run in the genes of a family about as certainly as bad teeth do now” (Herrnstein 1971, p. 63).

Although Herrnstein made no mention of race, the issue of racial differences in intelligence was clearly lurking in the background. Arthur Jensen, an educational psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, had published his own inflammatory analysis of heredity and intelligence in 1969, concluding that racial differences were in part genetic and that as a consequence current programs of compensatory education were destined to fail. Coming on the heels of Jensen’s article, Herrnstein’s was perceived as support for the embattled Berkeley professor. In addition, the editors’ introductory comments to the article strengthened this impression by presenting Herrnstein’s article as a continuation of the discussion on race and intelligence.

Twenty-three years later, the argument that originated in the Atlantic was elaborated into The Bell Curve, an 845-page tome coauthored by Herrnstein and his collaborator Charles Murray, a policy analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Much of the book was dedicated to demonstrating that intelligence test scores show a stronger correlation than socioeconomic background to a wide variety of variables indicative of social and occupational success. In other words, the authors held that intelligence exerted greater influence on each of these variables than did class background. This time, however, Herrnstein and Murray included a chapter on “Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability,” in which they found it “highly likely” that genes were involved in the differences in test scores between blacks and whites, although they were “resolutely agnostic” on the relative strength of the genetic and environmental influences: “As far as we can determine,” they wrote, “the evidence does not yet justify an estimate.”

Although these comments on racial differences were controversial, what turned the book into a cause célèbre was its discussion of the social policy consequences of genetic differences in intelligence, both among individuals and between races. Insisting that affirmative action had been based on the explicit assumption that there were no genetic differences in intelligence between the races, Herrnstein and Murray called for radical modifications in the policy, both in university admissions and employment decisions. Indeed, they blamed the rash of criminal behavior by police in some cities on the changes in hiring standards introduced by affirmative action measures.

The Bell Curve concluded with a cautionary tale about the risks of ignoring genetic differences in intelligence, and it offered two visions of the future. A failure to face the scientific facts about intelligence, and especially the innate cognitive disadvantage of the underclass, the book predicted, would lead inevitably to a “custodial state.” This would essentially be a “high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation,” the inhabitants of which, most of them residents of the “inner city,” would be segregated from the more capable citizenry and subjected to various forms of surveillance and control. The alternative to this dismal prospect, Herrnstein and Murray argued, was a society that offered “a place for everyone,” even the less intelligent, by ensuring that society’s rules were simple and direct. Someone caught committing a crime, for example, should have to face consequences that are swift and clear. Likewise, a woman who bore a child out of wedlock should not be able legally to demand support from the father. Thus, the policy implications of genetic intellectual differences turned out to be synonymous with the initiatives promoted by Murray in his capacity as a scholar at a conservative think tank.

Herrnstein died of lung cancer on September 13, 1994, only a week or two before the publication of this hugely controversial book, and he thus did not participate in what one collection of reviews aptly called “The Bell Curve Wars.” However, reactions to the publication were intense, ranging from a Forbes writer who claimed that The Bell Curve was being “seriously compared” with Darwin’s Origin of Species (Brimelow 1994) to black intellectuals who called it “hate literature with footnotes” (Jones 1995) and “utterly racist” (Patterson 1995).

SEE ALSO Education, Discrimination in Higher; Education, Racial Disparities; IQ and Testing.



Herrnstein, Richard J. 1965. “In Defense of Bird Brains.” Atlantic Monthly 216 (3): 101–104.

———. 1971. “I.Q.” Atlantic Monthly 228 (3): 43–64.

———, and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.


Brimelow, Peter. 1994. “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Forbes (October 24): 153.

Fraser, Steven, ed. 1995. The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America. New York: Basic Books.

Jones, Jacqueline. 1995. “Back to the Future with The Bell Curve: Jim Crow, Slavery, and ‘G’.” In The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, edited by Steven Fraser. New York: Basic Books.

Patterson, Orlando. 1995. “For Whom the Bell Curves.” In The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, edited by Steven Fraser. New York: Basic Books.

William H. Tucker