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Thomas Sowell's Genetic Fallacies
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Although I have not read Thomas Sowell’s latest book Intellectuals and Race, a discussion of its contents in his April 23 column makes me less than eager to read it. For years I enjoyed reading Sowell’s commentaries, and his early research showing the economic progress of American blacks before the passage of federal antidiscrimination laws had a powerful effect on my own scholarship. A black who rose from what today would be considered poverty, Sowell offers proof that the most solid advances in the standard of living of American blacks took place before the Civil Rights era and were mostly unrelated to government actions. Since then Sowell has attacked all affirmative action and set-aside programs for minorities not only as unfair to those who become the new victims of discrimination but also for not being helpful to those groups that are seen as deprived. He has shown that relatively affluent minorities, particularly middle-class women, have benefited disproportionately from government attempts to mandate quotas.

Unfortunately Sowell in his latest books engages in his own political correctness. It is a form of that illness that has infected the American conservative movement, and it may be an overreaction to a charge that has come from the left, branding conservatives or Republicans (they are not necessarily the same) as racists. In reaction to this charge, Sowell seems to be denying entirely the effects of genetic inheritance. He tells us that black football players are hardly ever kickers, despite the fact that blacks are not “genetically incapable of kicking a football.” The question left begging is whether the positions football players are assigned are unrelated to inherited strengths, for example, girth or running dexterity or the power of someone’s foot. Is what we achieve in life or on a football team entirely a matter of what we choose to do or be?

Sowell also gives us faulty history when he tells us that the belief that “some races are inferior to others … led to such things as eugenics and ultimately to the Holocaust.” There were many reasons that people preached eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the belief in racial inferiority was not usually a prime concern here. Eugenicists, like modern social engineers, were trying to create designer-made children, and ads that I’ve seen in progressive New York publications calling for sperm donors to produce “gifted children” fully coincide with the aims of the eugenics movement.

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I’m unclear about Sowell’s argument. Does he want to show that the “intelligentsia,” which used to exaggerate the importance of genes, now focuses on discrimination to account for the lack of socio-economic success among certain groups? I’m not sure that environmental discrimination and genetic explanations can both be reduced to the same “dogmatic insistence that one-size-fits-all theory.” They are radically different approaches to understanding society, and the argument from Nature, if refined of its onetime baggage, may tell us more about professional success than those claims about discrimination that today are routinely used to justify the government overreach that Sowell and I both deplore.

Needless to say, in the past the unequal treatment of certain groups did contribute to their unequal performance in certain areas, but that explanation, as Charles Murray argues, tells us less and less about achievement-levels as certain barriers have been removed. In his attempt to be original, Sowell calls for alternate explanations for different individual and group outcomes, for example, placing greater stress on “geography and demography.” What Sowell may not recognize is that anthropologists like Jared Diamond have been applying these approaches in their works for decades. They have done so, however, while obstinately denying the effects of heredity. In fact, such explanations may confirm the need for considering genetic factors for arriving at a fuller picture of human developments. Certain environmental conditions have favored the emergence of modern races and ethnicities that pass on useful genes once having adapted to natural surroundings.

Pace Sowell, I’m not sure it’s all the fault of the “intelligentsia.” Different people have made different arguments about different subjects at different times. It is Sowell who is playing the reductionist role, by blaming human ills on the “intellectuals.” Contrary to his one-size-fits-all charge, his assorted villains have not belonged to the same class or culture throughout human history.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Thomas Sowell 
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  1. Am immediate response and premature — admittedly. And Sowell and I are not in agreement on color issues. But this matter of the aristocracy/meritocracy if you will being part of the problem — may have some salience. Afterall it was not the coal miner in the Appalachian Mountains who created Affirmative Action and it was not the auto worker who implemented the same.

    Biut I am going to think on it.

  2. Eugenics was also a broad movement and some of the things it referred to were relatively innocuous. It could be as simple as advising women in poor communities to wait until they could properly raise a child in a stable family to give birth. The idea that race was in large part cultural and passed on through child rearing was common at the turn of the century. From that you got worrying concerns by patrician figures like Theodore Roosevelt about “good breeding.”

    That’s also where Margaret Sanger was coming from, although she also advocated abortion as an option, so gets in trouble with conservatives on that. Tying the eugenics movement to Margaret Sanger, of course, has been a useful power play for conservatives, but all its done is add to exaggerated myths about how people used to think about race.

    I can’t say I’ve read that book by Sowell, but my impression is he be surprised how much he agrees with a lot of that 19th century thought on the subject.

  3. It’s impossible not to let a tiny fart of political correctness escape–yours did when you suggested the race-in-relation-to-outcome worldview presented in Nature magazine would function as an acceptable starting template, “if refined of its onetime baggage …”

    What baggage? That’s a blank neutral question–no tone intended either way. I just want to understand how and which way this ball breaks in your analysis.

  4. I was not twitting Sowell for his reservations about eugenics, although that too may be overdone. I was shocked by his unwillingness to recognize that human achievements, even in sports, may have something to do with genetics. Is the conservative movement duplicating the Lysenkoism pushed by Stalin’s Russia, in order to avoid charges of “racism” from the left? If so, it’s a stupid defense, coming from a onetime courageous scholar. It’s also depressing to see the slobbering praise of Sowell’s book in the Murdoch press. Don’t these sheeple ever think through academic arguments?

  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Thank you for taking on Thomas Sowell, Mr. Gottfried. His sallies against intellectuals made for tiresome reading a long time ago. Sowell has written some sparkling scholarship, but his columns are terrible, redolent of epistemic closure as they are, kicking the opposition in the groin, flush with double standards, sloganeering, und so weiter. And this new book doesn’t sound like it is one of his best. It is amazing what a taboo topic genetics and race is.

    Also, I would like to say that I read your book Encounters: My Life With Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers yesterday and it was superb. I am on the moderate left but I am open to anything and everything that is well-written and of high quality. Your book caused me to think better of Herbert Marcuse than I previously had. It was touching to read about how Marcuse let you have your say in class and then gave you the best grade in the class on your paper.

    I was a conservative from 1975 to around 1986 (before migrating back to the port side) and I got a couple of nice responses from William F. Buckley Jr. when I wrote him in 1975. I must have read you in National Review somewhere back in those years , though I am not absolutely sure. I do vividly remember reading Thomas Molnar and Erik Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, who you write movingly about in Encounters.

    Lastly, I was saddened but not surprised to read about the intolerance you experienced in academia. I have ever detested the smelly little orthodoxies, wherever they crop up.

  6. tz says:

    One can hope there is a genetic component. The Liberal intellectuals are destructive, dangerous, stupid, but generally don’t reproduce. They should be selected out as any other adverse mutation would be within a generation or two.

    What is missing is that any genetic advantage is squelched in the public (anti-)education system. They feel good about putting condoms on cucumbers but cannot make change at Taco Bell without looking at the register – even if their IQ is 150. Not unlike a natural athlete that is tied down so his muscles atrophy.

  7. chris c. says:

    The belief that racial inferiority was not a prime reason for the enthusiastic eugenics push of the late 19th and early 20th century will come as a shock to anyone who has read anything about Margaret Sanger and others of like mind, such as George Bernard Shaw. References to “human weeds” were commonplace among the intellectual, social Darwinian elites of the time. The lesser races, which included Eastern Europeans, as well as blacks, needed to have their breeding controlled and managed by their intellectual betters. How and why did involuntary sterilization come about, with full legal protection in the U.S., if in fact Eugenics was benign, and not at all about controlling and eliminating “lesser” peoples? Legal abortion is an outgrowth of such thinking. The birth control/eugenics movement, which spawned Planned Parenthood, the leading provider of abortion in the U.S., was interested in more than “designer babies” as if that would itself be wholly innocent( exactly what are you to do if the baby is less than perfect??); it was interested in imposing a Quality of Life, as opposed to a Sanctity of Life mindset, as the the foundation of moral decision making. With it, we have skyrocketing illegitimacy rates, and more than 50 million unborn, destroyed in the U.S. alone since Roe v Wade. Our pro-eugenics, pro-abortion culture has blood on its hands.
    .

  8. “That’s also where Margaret Sanger was coming from, although she also advocated abortion as an option, so gets in trouble with conservatives on that. Tying the eugenics movement to Margaret Sanger, of course, has been a useful power play for conservatives, but all its done is add to exaggerated myths about how people used to think about race.”

    There’s nothing innocuous about Margaret Sanger. And there is no question she belived that blacks were inferior and should be weeded out of the collective pool.

    I don’t there is much question that Darwin’s theory was twisted into and he himself may have adopted the idea that Africans, and othe native peoples were actyually on the end slope of the human intelligence and surviveability scale.

    I did my Master’s research and my undergrad research on anger pereceptions in whites and blacks and there is no doubt that blacks were considered on the lower end of the evolutionary ladder. Such that any display of anger toward any white person waas verbotten as the lesser animal it was not permisssible.

  9. “The belief that racial inferiority was not a prime reason for the enthusiastic eugenics push of the late 19th and early 20th century will come as a shock to anyone who has read anything about Margaret Sanger and others of like mind, such as George Bernard Shaw. References to “human weeds” were commonplace among the intellectual, social Darwinian elites of the time. The lesser races, which included Eastern Europeans, as well as blacks, needed to have their breeding controlled and managed by their intellectual betters. How and why did involuntary sterilization come about, with full legal protection in the U.S., . . .”

    I think that is an accurate read of the historical record.

  10. Evan obviously confuses my reservations about certain simplistic arguments about inherited group differences made long in the past with a putdown of “Nature magazine.” I was not referring to that publication and therefore should not be accused on the basis of dubious evidence of emitting malodorous hints of Political Correctness. I wish to express my profound gratitude to Gordon Hanson for the kind compliments showered on my writings. I fully share this gentleman’s revulsion for the “smelly little orthodoxies” that have become the stock and trade of the conservative movement establishment. It is only in the interest of posterity living long in the future that I continue to record them.

  11. Sowell wrote things that are factually wrong about Brazil, my country(His writings about Japanese immigration in Brazil are mostly innaccurate, and I say that as a grandson of Japanese Immigrants). So, I´m not going to defend him as a scholar.

    But he is right in one sense: there are cultural differences that explains the differences between ethnicities. Blacks that have friends and spouses from other ethnicities are going to have an easier path to the Middle Class, and saying to Black Children that they should consider themselves Black (Even if they are in fact multiracial children with light skin, like Soledad O´Brien did on CNN) is idiotic.

  12. For the elite such discussions are difficult because they have often considered themselves above reproach in such issues, expecially liberals.

  13. Evan obviously confuses my reservations about certain simplistic arguments about inherited group differences made long in the past with a putdown of “Nature magazine.”

    I must have been Gavin Mcinnesed when I read your piece.

  14. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I have not read Sowell’s books but I have scanned through his writings that NRO carries every now and then.

    Of course, I cannot be sure but I think Sowell tries very hard to fit into the NRO type ‘conservative’ group.

    Now the ‘NRO conservative’ is a metropolitan liberal of a slightly nuanced persuasion. As a group it has broadly reconciled itself to many of the liberal – egalitarianism wins that came out of the culture wars and thus has assimilated the ‘last revolution’ (there are some exceptions).

    Sowell and co. have to discover the conservatism that truly belongs to them and their historical experience and is rooted thus. They have to find their organic conservatism.

    Borrowed totem poles of ‘NRO conservatism’ will not do much for their credibility as scholars, regardless of how many books they publish. Conservatism is not like Marxist dogma or a religious prayer book but is borne out of organic tendencies and instincts rooted in a community’s historical experience.

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