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Thomas Sowell’s Genetic Fallacies

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.

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.

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