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Culture, Causation, and Catastrophe
Those who attribute group differences to environment need to expand their definitions of "environment."


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Thomas Sowell

The blatant and undeniable fact that different racial, ethnic, and other groups have had radically different economic and intellectual achievements for centuries, in countries around the world, has led to widely varying theories and widely varying political and other reactions.

A hundred years ago, during the Progressive era in the United States, the dominant explanation was that different genes made different races either more capable or less capable. Similar views prevailed on the other side of the Atlantic, among people on both the Left and the Right, many of whom urged eugenics, in order to prevent “inferior” groups from reproducing.

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The problem with this explanation was that it ignored the great changes in the relative positions of races over the centuries. In medieval times, Europeans could not match the achievements of the Chinese, but in later centuries their relative positions reversed — and there was no evidence of any fundamental change in the genes of either the Chinese or the Europeans.

Much was made of the fact that, within Europe, “Nordics” were prospering more than were the peoples of Mediterranean Europe. But, a thousand years earlier, the reverse was true. A tenth-century Muslim scholar pointed out that the farther north you go in Europe, the more pale the people become and the “farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross, and brutish they are.”

However much such words might be dismissed or condemned today, there is no reason to say that these words were untrue as of the time they were said. So many things that have been said about race may have had some basis as of a given time, even if the sweeping conclusion that these are immutable traits does not stand the test of time.

Today’s racial dogmas are no more realistic when they try to dismiss or downplay behavioral and performance differences among racial and ethnic groups, blaming different outcomes on the misdeeds of others. Nothing is easier to find than sins among human beings. But the fatal misstep is to assume that those sins must be the reason for the differences we see.

The more fundamental question that almost never gets asked is whether there was ever any realistic basis for expecting different racial, ethnic, or other groups to all have the same skills and orientations, even if they all had the same genetic potential and there were no injustices.

Those who see differences among groups as being due to environment, rather than heredity, too often think of environment as the current immediate surroundings. But a major part of any group’s environment is the culture that it has inherited from the past.

One of a number of factors that has made Western Europeans more prosperous than Eastern Europeans is that Western Europe was conquered by the Romans. Western European languages acquired Roman letters centuries before the languages of Eastern Europe had written versions.

Being conquered by the Romans was one of those historic happenstances with enduring consequences. For those who were conquered, it could be a traumatic experience, for the Romans could be both brutal and oppressive. Their abuses in Britain caused a massive uprising of the Britons, who were slaughtered by the thousands. Nevertheless, even such a British patriot as Winston Churchill said, “We owe London to Rome.”

The enduring cultural advantages that the peoples of Western Europe acquired as a result of being conquered by Rome in no way justifies the Romans morally. But the fact is that the advantages that Roman civilization brought to Western Europe allowed Western Europeans to advance earlier and faster in a wide range of endeavors.

In a similar way, the fact that people of African ancestry in the United States have a far higher standard of living than the people of African ancestry still living in sub-Saharan Africa is due to injustices and abuses inflicted on black Americans’ ancestors.

Causation and morality are two different things, however much they get confused today by politicians and the media.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2010 Creators Syndicate, Inc.



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