Wednesday, April 27, 2005


The person whose writings I quote most often on this blog is Thomas Sowell. I think he is spot-on most of the time. His theory of black under-achievement is however one with which I must respectfully disagree. He says that blacks do poorly because they have absorbed "cracker" culture and that holds them back. Why? Because "cracker" culture is bombastic and anti-intellectual. His thesis would seem to require that White Southerners in general do as poorly as black Southerners on IQ tests and other achievement criteria but he offers no evidence for that dubious proposition. There are certainly SOME poor whites who do as poorly as blacks on educational and other criteria but that proves nothing. It is averages across whole groups that we have to look at if we are to explain group phenomena. See also here.

There are other reasons why Sowell's thesis does not stand up. An obvious one is that, as Sowell himself notes, "cracker" culture originates from the rural parts of British Isles, particularly from the Scotch-Irish population (see here and here). But who were the Scotch-Irish? They were Scots (mostly farmers) who had moved to Northern Ireland under the encouragement of Protestant English rulers. They were given Irish land by the English because of English dislike for native Irish rebelliousness. And their descendants still form a majority in Northern Ireland to this day. But, like all the Irish, many of them became dissatisfied with life in Ireland and moved to the United States, where they mostly ended up in the rural South, where their rural skills could be gainfully employed. So they were a Scottish people of a particularly enterprising sort -- they had first emigrated to Ireland and then again to America. And they took their fundamentalist Protestant religion with them.

But what is the one thing that we know about Scottish culture? What is the legendary preoccupation of the Scots (aside from whisky)? It is of course education. Scots are an education-worshipping people. So the idea that ANY Scottish culture features a dislike of learning and education is absurd. If "crackers" are intellectually backward, it is not because of any anti-intellectual cultural inheritance. Yet it does seem to be true that the intellectual achievements of American "crackers" have always been low. So how come? Easy. It is simply the rural effect. One of the most reliable generalizations in IQ research is that rural residents test out much dumber that their urban counterparts. Perhaps the most striking example of that is the fact that Afrikaners (white South Africans of mainly Dutch ancestry) score poorly on IQ tests. Yet their parent population in the Netherlands performs perfectly creditably. Lynn & Vanhanen have many of the figures on IQ averages worldwide, subsequently much extended in their book.

So how come? How come rural dwellers score poorly on IQ? Do Afrikaners and "crackers" score poorly because they are immigrants? Are they the dregs and rejects of their parent populations? If anything we would expect the reverse. People who have enough vision to look beyond their accustomed local horizons and set off across the seas in search of personal betterment ought surely to be a bit brighter than the norm. So emigration should surely select for slightly HIGHER IQ, not lower IQ. An interesting case in point is Australia. Up until quite recently, the Australian population has always been almost entirely comprised of people whose ancestry is in Europe or the British Isles. Almost all Australians are the descendants of immigrants, including some who came out as convicts and many who came from very poor parts of Europe, such as Ireland, Scotland, Greece and Southern Italy. The Irish component is particularly large. So what is the average Australian IQ? It has always been virtually identical to the average British or white American IQ. So it would seem in the Australian case that there has been a balance achieved between an immigrant effect leading to a slightly higher IQ and an adverse effect on IQ due to many immigrants coming from unpromising original backgrounds. In fact, it is mainly from regional areas of the British Isles that the Australian population originates so Australia might be held to constitute one big "cracker" culture. There is certainly a strong and unashamed celebration of working-class culture and origins among many Australians. Yet the evidence is clear that Australians have no need to view themselves as inferior to anybody -- and they don't.

So if it is not an immigrant effect we see holding rural populations back, why are rural populations generally a bit backward intellectually? It is presumably because of another well-known influence on IQ. IQ is only about two thirds genetic. And a major non-genetic influence is stimulation. A highly stimulating environment in early childhood leads to higher adult IQ. And, delightful though the country can be, it is just not as stimulating as the bustle of the big city. So after one or two generations growing up in the big city, people who were once mainly rural (as in the case of American blacks) should have lost the rural handicap. Yet there is no sign of the black IQ average converging on the white norm in any area where both racial groups can be found. Even where black and white parents are of similar social background, their children tend to diverge markedly in the usual direction -- as Ogbu found.

Similarly, we would expect that Southern whites who move to the North or to large Southern cities should rapidly lose any disadvantage associated with coming from a rural culture and background -- and I don't think I have to point to the many successful white Southerners in America today to show that that does happen. Similarly prominent blacks are however very few and, as Sowell points out, most of them are recent immigrants to America rather than being the descendants of slaves. So while a TEMPORARY disadvantage associated with rural origins is perfectly reasonable, to say that a lasting disadvantage accrues from that source is very tendentious.

This whole topic is a very big one with a huge history of disputation behind it so I make no claim to have covered it fully in this brief post -- and I have not even covered all of Sowell's points fully -- but I think I have outlined some reasons why "cracker" culture is a weak reed to lean on in explaining the vast black/white gap in intellectual achievement. For more background, readers might find this article interesting.


No comments: