History and Culture

Tuesday, January 30, 1996

In his new book, Migrations and Cultures, Sowell examines a number of ethnic groups that migrated from their places of origin to far-flung points of the globe. Even when separated from their homelands by thousands of miles and many decades, Sowell asserts, Chinese remain Chinese, Italians, Italian, Jews, Jewish. Culture is a complicated concept, but there can be no doubt whatsoever of its importance. Here Sowell offers a brilliant meditation on the grand theme of his book and indeed of much of his life's work, history as "an anchor in reality."

History, the Anchor in Reality

History cannot provide direct answers to the quandaries of the present because there are too many variables that change between one era and another. But if history cannot provide answers, it can at least help in defining questions, and in some cases it can utterly destroy theories which might otherwise seem plausible within the narrow confines of a particular time and place. History is an anchor in reality against the rhetorical winds of the zeitgeist. For example, one of the clearest facts to emerge from histories of various racial and ethnic groups is that gross statistical disparities in the "representation" of groups in different occupations, industries, income levels, and educational institutions have been the rule--not the exception--all across the planet. Moreover, many of these disparities have persisted for generations or even centuries.

As the French historian Fernand Braudel put it, in his A History of Civilizations: "In no society have all regions and all parts of the population developed equally." In the Austrian Empire, for example, rates of illiteracy in 1900 varied from 3 percent in Bohemia to 73 percent in Dalmatia, and per capita income in the former was nearly three times what it was in the latter during the same era. In Nigeria in 1926, only 10 percent of the children attending secondary school were from the northern part of the country, where a majority of the population lived. An international study of military and police forces later in the twentieth century could find no multiethnic society in which either organization was ethnically representative of the general population. Another worldwide study of multiethnic societies found "few, if any" which even approximated proportional representation of the different ethnic groups in different levels or sectors of the economy.

The racial, ethnic, or national minorities who have owned or directed more than half of particular industries in particular nations have included the Lebanese in West Africa, Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, Britons in Argentina, Belgians in Russia, and Spaniards in Chile. In the words of Braudel, it was immigrants who "created modern Brazil, modern Argentina, modern Chile." Minority predominance in particular industries and occupations has been common at local levels as well. In the early nineteenth century, over half the newspapers in Alexandria were owned by Syrians. In the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century, Armenians owned 209 of the 250 cotton cloth factories in the province of Astrakhan. Beginning in the 1960s, most of the installers of underground cable in Sydney, Australia, were Irish. In the 1990s, more than four-fifths of all the doughnut shops in California were owned by people of Cambodian ancestry.

Behind such striking patterns around the world and down through history is the simple fact that skills have never been evenly or randomly distributed, whether between ethnic groups, nations, regions, or civilizations. The high level of modern optical skills developed among Germans, for example, has been apparent not only in such old German optical firms as Zeiss, Schneider, and VoigtlŠnder, but also in the role of German immigrants and their descendants in the American optical industry. The first cameras produced by the leading American photographic company, Eastman Kodak, used lenses manufactured by the leading American optical firm, Bausch & Lomb, founded by German immigrants. A number of Kodak's top-quality and highest-priced cameras, notably the Retina line, were manufactured in Germany during the pre--World War II era and in the immediate postwar period. Kodak's top-quality roll film camera of the midcentury decades, the Medalist, was first manufactured during World War II when, of course, Kodak had no access to the German optical industry. However, the lens on the Medalist was a variation of a lens design created earlier in Germany. A number of American press cameras and reflex cameras in the midcentury decades used American-made Wollensak lenses, named for a German immigrant who established the company producing these lenses and other photographic equipment. The leading Swedish camera of the late twentieth century, the Hasselblad, has used lenses manufactured in Germany by Zeiss.

The point here is not that one particular country or race has had permanent possession of the leading optical skills. The point is that these skills have never been randomly or evenly distributed, but have been highly concentrated, though concentrated in different places in different centuries. Nor are optical skills peculiar in this respect. They illustrate a pattern common in many other fields.

Over long spans of history, the radical reshuffling of the relative technological rankings of different races and nations makes it hard to conclude that such standings are genetically determined. Not only was China as far in advance of Europe a thousand years ago as the reverse has been true for the past few centuries, southeastern Europe was likewise as far in advance of northwestern Europe two thousand years ago as the reverse has been true in the modern industrial era. Moreover, twentieth-century Chinese have prospered all around the world--except in China. The productivity of people of the same race has been so radically different that Chinese living outside of China were in 1994 estimated to have produced as much wealth as the entire population of China, which was of course dozens of times larger.

Unique events, specific leaders, passions of the moment, and accidental consequences of circumstances all make history more than a simple pattern predetermined by social, geographic, or other forces. Nevertheless, the skills, habits, and values which constitute the cultural endowment of a people usually play a powerful role in shaping the kinds of outcomes experienced by that people.

Cultural Capital

Cultures cover a broad spectrum of human concerns, from things as superficial as modes of dress to things as deeply felt as what one is prepared to die for. What some people think of as culture, or as "high culture"--art, music, literature--is only a small part of the vast spectrum of skills, values, traditions, and unarticulated habits of thought and action encompassed by a given culture.

Cultures are not merely customs to which people have a sentimental attachment, or badges of "identity" which permit them to engage in breast-beating. Cultures are particular ways of accomplishing the things that make life possible --the perpetuation of the species, the transmission of knowledge, and the absorption of the shocks of change and death, among other things. Cultures differ in the relative significance they attach to time, noise, safety, cleanliness, violence, thrift, intellect, sex, and art. These differences in turn imply differences in social choices, economic efficiency, and political stability. Though cultures transcend race, particular cultures are obviously often associated with particular racial and ethnic groups. Australians are Europeans, regardless of what geography may say. Not only their language and physical appearance, but also their fertility patterns, technology, philosophy, social customs, and institutions of government make them part of a culture that exists 10,000 miles away, and foreign to the culture of their neighbors in Papua New Guinea or Indonesia.

When cultures are seen as more than group differentiations, their role as vast accumulations of human capital can be better appreciated. To realize how Western Europe retrogressed after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and how many centuries it took to recover the economic level, the physical infrastructure, and the social and political cohesion achieved in Roman times, is to see the role of a generation or a whole race reduced to humbling perspective. After the fall of Rome, the races of Western Europe were the same as they had been before, but the dissolution of their cultural institutions left them far below the material and intellectual levels achieved by their ancestors. Cities and towns shriveled and some disappeared, industries vanished, law and order broke down, and in some places illiteracy became the norm, even among the aristocracy. As late as the nineteenth century, there was said to be no city in Europe whose water supply was as dependable as it had been in Roman times.

This massive and tragic retrogression is a sobering reminder of the enormous importance of a civilization's cultural capital, as compared to the isolated "ability" of individuals or even the efforts and talents of a whole generation. There is no reason to doubt that individual mental capacity was as great as ever, or that as many potential geniuses were born during the darkest of the Dark Ages in Europe as during its eras of the most shining achievements. What was lacking was an ability to "avail themselves of the great bank and capital of nations and of ages," as Burke phrased it in a different context. The institutions of such cultural transmission were simply gone with the collapse of Roman society.

Conversely, a rapid accumulation of cultural capital--usually possible only by borrowing from the cultures of others, at least initially--has also produced dramatic economic and social changes. In modern times, the sudden bursting of the Scots upon the world scene as leading figures in a variety of fields of endeavor in the eighteenth century, after having been on the backward fringes of European civilization for many centuries, illustrates the power of cultural development. The similarly meteoric rise of Japan to the economic and technological forefront in just one century likewise shows the power of the acquisition of a new cultural capital, even in a country lacking most of the natural resources required for the spontaneous internal generation of modern industry. Whatever heartening implications such historic developments may have for the hidden potential of peoples, the implication must also be faced that that potential can remain hidden for a very long time, with very serious consequences.

Widely varying amounts and kinds of cultural capital make economic and social disparities among groups and nations virtually inevitable. Yet the political temptation is to overlook the causal influences of differences in cultural capital, which often go far back into history, and, instead, to attribute these disparities to current failures of society. For example, the head of the leading black civil rights organization in the United States declared in 1994:

Almost half of all African-American children live in poverty. Black unemployment is twice that of whites. The infant mortality rate in many black communities is equal to that of many third world nations. The statistics for housing, crime and education deliver a tragic statement of despair and inequality. Yet, in polls, more than 60 percent of whites say blacks now have equal opportunity.

The very possibility that these disparities might be due to cultural differences affecting behavior and attitudes, or to differences in the human capital brought into the workplace, rather than to the behavior of the larger society, received no attention whatever, either in this statement or in much of the media or the academic world. Yet, when all this was being said, black American married couples with college degrees were at the same income level as white American married couples with college degrees. Even a quarter of a century earlier, black males raised in homes with books and library cards were at the same income level as white males raised in homes with similar advantages and similar education. While infant mortality rates were higher among blacks in general than among whites in general, infant mortality rates among black intact families were lower than among white female-headed families, even when those white females had more education than black females living with their husbands. In short, life-style differences have had major impacts on social misfortunes--though only minor impact on much thinking about those misfortunes.

The dogma that the immediate environment or the history of the surrounding society is virtually all that matters need not be replaced by a dogma that only internal cultural patterns matter. But the balance between them cannot be struck by any a priori formula. That is why history has to be studied and not constructed from theories.