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Charles Murray Is Never Going Away

The author of "The Bell Curve" has a new book about race and genetics—because of course he does.

Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal/AP Photo

Two years ago, the atheist Sam Harris told Ezra Klein that Charles Murray was cancel culture’s patient zero. The co-author of 1994’s controversial The Bell Curve, which contained a chapter arguing that genetics caused blacks to have lower IQs than whites, was really a victim of political correctness, Harris said. “When I did read [The Bell Curve] and did some more research on him, I came to think that he was probably the most unfairly maligned person in my lifetime,” Harris said. “IQ is not one of my concerns and racial differences in IQ is absolutely not one of my concerns, but a person having his reputation destroyed for honestly discussing data—that deeply concerns me.”

It was a clever rhetorical trick, one frequently employed by those defending the allegedly canceled. The substance of Murray’s work was immaterial—what really mattered is that he was being silenced for pursuing “scientific” inquiry. Never mind that Murray isn’t a geneticist or biologist. Or, for that matter, that Murray’s findings have been thoroughly debunked. Or that they repeatedly cited Mankind Quarterly, which Charles Lane, writing in The New York Review of Books, described as “a notorious journal of ‘racial history’ founded, and funded, by men who believe in the genetic superiority of the white race.” The real problem was that people were pointing out that Murray’s work was based on shoddy evidence and racist journals and thus should not be taken seriously.

Furthermore, the idea that Murray’s reputation has been “destroyed” is questionable. He has been a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for years and in 2016 won its prestigious Bradley Prize. He is a contributor to a number of respectable outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg View. In 2017, when Middlebury College students shouted down a speech he was giving, he was defended by many prominent people and institutions, including The New York Times and PEN America. (Murray recently accepted an invitation to return to the college.) And today, Hachette’s Twelve Books will publish his latest volume on the relationship between genetics and public policy, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class.

Murray hasn’t been canceled. If anything, his prominence points to the mainstream media’s continued acceptance of race science and right-wing “experts,” many of whom have benefited from publishers’ confused notion of what constitutes a diversity of viewpoints.

Murray made his reputation with 1984’s enormously influential Losing Ground, which argued that government welfare programs end up perpetuating the problems they were created to solve. The Bell Curve, co-written with psychologist Richard Herrnstein (and infamously excerpted by this magazine in 1994), made the case that helping people in need is particularly harmful when those people are genetically inferior. It encourages them to reproduce, leading more people to inevitably rely on costly government programs. “The actual conclusion of The Bell Curve,” Matt Yglesias wrote for Vox in 2018, “is that America should stop trying to improve poor kids’ material living standards because doing so encourages poor, low-IQ women to have more children.”

The appeal of Murray’s theory is clear. “There is a lot of political capital to be had from making the erroneous claim that inequality in the world is not there because of social or political factors, it’s not there because of history and the way that people have been unfairly treated, but because of biology,” Angela Saini, author of Superior: The Return of Race Science, told me. “When The Bell Curve came out, it was so comprehensively debunked by scientists and critics that we should really have left this behind by now.”

Yet Murray continues to be published and taken seriously. His claims about fundamental genetic differences between races continues to be regurgitated. Earlier this year, for instance, Andrew Sullivan, who published Murray’s Bell Curve excerpt when he was the editor of TNR, attempted to turn a debate over The New York Times’ “1619 Project” into one about genetic difference (specifically, if there are genetically determined racial differences in penis size).

The fact that Human Diversity is being published by Twelve is itself notable. Conservative publishing is a juggernaut. Each of the Big Five conglomerate publishers has a dedicated imprint for books from right-wing authors—Hachette’s is Center Street. Twelve is one of Hachette’s prestige imprints, publishing only 12 books a year that are “singular in voice, authority, or subject matter” and that “enliven the national conversation.” Murray’s agent, Binky Urban, is a publishing legend who has represented Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, and E.L. Doctorow, among other luminaries.

Twelve is pitching Human Diversity to booksellers as a conversation starter. “The subject of how we define human difference is going to be controversial,” the book’s pitch deck reads. “That’s going to spur this book and its sales.” Whether the book is more than “controversial” remains to be seen. (Twelve declined to make a copy of Human Diversity available for pre-publication review.)

Murray has long used his notoriety as a marketing ploy. Despite a lack of scientific credentials and a penchant for relying on dubious sources, he has cast himself as a heroic investigator who is simply after the truth. As Jeet Heer wrote two years ago, he sees himself “as a kind of pulp fiction hero—Robert Langdon, the protagonist of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, comes to mind—who uncovers dark secrets that the elites are hiding from the masses.” In this case, the dark secrets all just happen to make the case that we should cut public assistance programs. But this truth-hunting posture has turned him into a cause célèbre for organizations concerned about “cancel culture” and political correctness run amok—the attacks on race science become attacks on academic freedom and freedom of speech itself.

That, in turn, provides the “intellectual” justification for continuing to publish Murray. It doesn’t matter that his research has been discredited—it all falls under a “controversial” viewpoint that, for uncurious publishers, is indistinguishable from the usual conservative dreck. Far from being destroyed, as Harris once argued, Murray is seemingly always in the midst of a resurgence.