The toll of isolation
In the 20th century, Western intellectuals' two most dominant explanations of disparities in economic, education and other achievements were innate racial differences in ability (in the early decades) and racial discrimination (in the later decades).
In neither era were the intelligentsia receptive to other explanations. In each era, they were convinced that they had the answer — and dismissed and disparaged those who offered other answers.
Differences in mental test scores among different racial and ethnic groups were taken as proof of genetic differences in innate mental ability during the Progressive era in the early 20th century. Progressives regarded the fact that the average IQ test score among whites was higher than the average among blacks as conclusive proof of genetic determinism.
A closer look at mental test data, however, shows that there were not only individual blacks with higher IQs than most whites, but also whole categories of whites who scored at or below the mental test scores of blacks.
Among American soldiers given mental tests during World War I, for example, white soldiers from Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi scored lower than black soldiers from Ohio, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania.
Looking at achievements in general, people living in geographically isolated environments around the world have long lagged behind the progress of people with a wider cultural universe, regardless of the race of the people in these isolated places. When the Spaniards discovered the Canary Islands in the 15th century, they found people of a Caucasian race living at a Stone Age level.
Many mountain communities around the world also have been isolated, especially during the centuries before modern transportation and communications. These mountain communities were not only isolated from the outside world but also from each other, even when they were not very far apart as the crow flies.
As distinguished French historian Fernand Braudel put it, “Mountain life persistently lagged behind the plain.” A pattern of poverty and backwardness could be found from the Appalachian Mountains in the United States to the Rif Mountains of Morocco.
Cultural isolation because of geographic factors afflicts not only people isolated in mountains or on islands far from the nearest mainland, but also people isolated by deserts or in places isolated by a lack of navigable waterways — or even by a lack of animal transport, as was the situation in the Western Hemisphere when Europeans arrived and brought horses that were unknown to the indigenous people.
Cultural isolation also can be due to government decisions, as when the governments of 15th-century China and 17th-century Japan deliberately isolated their respective people from the outside world. At that time, China was the leading nation in the world. But it lost that lead during centuries of isolation.
Against this background, racial and ethnic leaders around the world who promote a separate cultural “identity” are inflicting a handicap on their own people.
Isolation has held back many people in many lands — for centuries. But such social and cultural isolation serves the interests of today's ethnic leaders.
They have every incentive to promote a breast-beating isolation. It is a sweet-tasting poison.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Rossi: Pirates can’t waste McCutchen’s prime
- East Huntingdon man dies following police chase
- Giants, Bumgarner shut out Pirates in wild-card game
- Steelers notebook: Mitchell aware of need to reduce penalties
- Pirates’ Martin calls crowd chant ‘petty special’
- Steelers pressing to create opportunities to get to quarterback
- Consol Energy cutting retiree health benefits, phasing out pension
- Highmark to increase premiums, limit access to health care in new plans
- Woman dies in fall at McConnells Mill State Park
- Penguins’ Sutter is determined to keep scoring pressure on
- Search for pilot of ultralight aircraft to resume Thursday