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Race and Culture.

This is a better book than its often-crabby reviews would indicate. The New York Times Book Review said that despite the book's scholarly pose, "what animates it is preconception rather than investigation, cultural determinism rather than cultural inquiry." The Washington Post said that "it reads like a book that was not quite finished," since it did not match its many anthropological observations with a satisfying overall theory. The arguments Thomas Sowell makes in it shold have received about as much attention as those by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve--which means that in an ideal world, each book would have gotten about one-tenth as much attention as The Bell Curve actually received.

The chapter of Sowell's book dealing directly with inherited differences in ability, called "race and Intelligence," was written long before anyone had heard of The Bell Curve. Still, it is a very effective rebuttal to the Murray-Herrnstein argument that inherited and unchangeable differences in intelligence play a major role in deciding which races succeed and which fail.

Sowell's discussion of this subject starts, as Murray and Herrnstein do, with the long-established observation that average IQ scores vary among races, with Asians and whites scoring higher than blacks. Some of the difference is very likely genetic, he says. "When the Chinese tested in Hong Kong, Singapore, Boston, New York, and San Francisco repeatedly show a superior sense of spatial conception, it is difficult to deny that there is something there, whatever its origin might be."

But Sowell goes on to say that if genetics were the principal factor determining IQ score, it would be very difficult to explain a number of other well-established observations. For instance, in the last several decades the IQ scores of many ethnic groups in America have changed. In the twenties, the median IQ of Italian-Americans was 92. In the sixties, it was 103. For Polish-Americans, the median IQ rose from 91 in the twenties to 109 in the seventies. Sowell points out that both these groups tended strongly to marry within their own group during the period when their IQ was rising. Therefore, an improvement in genetic stock could not explain the IQ rise; it had to be environment.

Similarly, Sowell says the IQ scores for black Americans have varied heavily with region for many years--lowest in the South, highest in the North. This difference applies even with blacks who migrated fairly recently from the South, and who were obviously from the same gene pool as their lower-IQ relatives still back in the delta and the bayous. Blacks in the North have also had higher average incomes than blacks in the South. The Murray-Herrnstein hypothesis would see the higher IQ as the cause of the higher income. (Why are black auto worker in Detroit better paid than black sharecroppers in Mississippi? Because the auto workers are smarter.) Sowell says that causation more likely runs the other way. (Why do children of Northern black industrial workers score better on tests than the children of black sharecroppers in Mississippi? Because they grow up in a better environment and attend better schools.)

The IQ for America as a whole has risen dramatically through this century, believe it or not. The gene pool of America has constantly deteriorated during this period, if we are to believe the warning of alarmists who throughout this century have said that less-talented aliens are pouring in to burden our system. How could the scores have gone up? I once heard Charles Murray suggest in a seminar that "better nutrition" might have made Americans smarter. I believe Sowell when he says that the cause is improved mass education. (Public schools may be bad now, but a century ago many children barely went to school at all.)

Sowell's more important observation on this is that "race" itself is more a social than a biological conception, especially in the United States. If you compare a Swede and a Masai, you can see some obvious racial differences. But in America it is ridiculous to think that all "whites" are similar to each other, or are clearly different from all "Hispanics" or "blacks." The painful American convention of classifying those with any detectable African ancestry as "black" says a lot about American history but almost nothing about real, scientific distinctions among "races" in America. Lani Guinier, with a Jewish mother and a Caribbean father, is an extreme illustration of a much broader fuzziness of American racial classifications. To say that the difference among American "races" is more in the mind than in the genes doesn't make the differences go away. People hate each other in many corners of the world, even when outsiders can barely tell the difference between the two warring groups. In Japan, a whole detective industry is based on finding out whether otherwise-respectable citizens are actually members of the untouchable caste known as burakumin. The reason the investigations are necessary is that the burakumin look no different from other Japanese. But when a definition of race has only a vague connection to biology, it can hardly support theories of deep differences in brain structure.

The main subject in Sowell's book is the connection between culture and economic, political, and academic performance around the world. Sowell says that because of America's edginess about its own racial problems, Americans resist the very idea that certain groups have developed certain skills or filled certain niches around the world. He says, in effect: Let's forget our own problems for a while and look at how the world actually works. He describes cultural specialization in East Asia, India, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe. The best thing I can say for his discussion is that each time it involved something I knew about first hand, for instance the tension between economically dominant Chinese and politically powerful Malays in Southeast Asia, his observation rang true. Sowell does not systematically examine why different groups have succeeded in business, academics, or politics. The best recent book on the cultural roots of economic success or failure remains Underdevelopment is a State of Mind, by Lawrence Harrison. But the book is fair-minded and worth reading, much more so than The Bell Curve.
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Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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