Chapter 5, Section 1: Personality Development Purpose statement

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Sociology 6.0 ** Do not write on this **

Mr. McCreary

Chapter 5, Section 1: Personality Development
Purpose statement: Section 1 addresses the impact that isolation can have on individuals when it comes to their socialization. Evidence tends to point to a distinct disadvantage people who experience social isolation have in their development. Knowing this, does this social isolation have a similar impact at the macro level for large groups, societies, and cultures? Read the following excerpt of an essay to get one person’s view on that question.
by Thomas Sowell

    During the 15 years that I spent researching and writing my recently completed trilogy on racial and cultural issues, I was struck again and again with how common huge disparities in income and wealth have been for centuries, in countries around the world-- and yet how each country regards its own particular disparities as unusual, if not unique.  Some of these disparities have been among racial or ethnic groups, some among nations, and some among regions, continents, or whole civilizations.

    Nothing so intractably conflicts with our desires for equality as geography.  The physical settings in which races, nations, and civilizations have evolved have had major impacts on the cultures developed within those settings.  Those settings vary enormously-- as do their cultural consequences.  How could Scandinavians or Polynesians know as much about camels as the Bedouins of the Sahara?  And how could the Bedouins know as much about fishing as the Scandinavians or Polynesians?  The peoples of the Himalayas have certainly not had an equal opportunity to acquire seafaring skills.  Nor have Eskimos had an equal opportunity to acquire knowledge and experience in growing pineapples or other tropical crops.  Ability in the abstract is one thing, but specific capabilities of doing specific things is what matters economically.

    Too often the influence of geography on wealth is thought of narrowly, in terms of natural resources that directly translate into wealth, such as oil in the Middle East or gold in South Africa.  But, important as such differences in natural wealth are, geography influences even more profound cultural differences among the people themselves.
    Where geography isolates people, whether in mountain valleys or on small islands scattered across a vast sea, there the cultural exposures of those people to the outside world are very limited and so, typically, is their technological advancement.  While the rest of the world exchanges goods, knowledge, and innovations from a vast cultural universe, isolated peoples have been largely limited to what they alone have been able to develop.
    Few, if any, of the great advances in human civilization have come from isolated peoples.  As the eminent French historian Fernand Braudel put it, the mountains almost always lag behind the plains-- even if the races in the two places are the same.  Potatoes and the English language both reached the Scottish lowlands before they reached the highlands.  Islam reached North Africa's Rif mountains long after the people in the plains had become Moslems.
    When the Spaniards invaded the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century, they found people of a Caucasian race living at a stone-age level.  So were the Australian aborigines when the British discovered them in the eighteenth century.  Geographically imposed cultural isolation takes many forms and exists in many degrees.  Cities have long been in the vanguard of human progress, all over the world, but cities do not arise randomly in all geographic settings.  Most of the great cities of the world have developed on navigable waterways-- rivers or harbors-- but such waterways are by no means equally or randomly distributed around the world.  They are very common in Western Europe and very rare in sub-Saharan Africa.  Urbanization has long been correspondingly common in Western Europe and correspondingly rare in sub-Saharan Africa.  One-third of the land mass of Europe consists of islands and peninsulas but only one percent of the land mass of South America consists of islands and peninsulas.
    Navigable waterways have been economically crucial, especially during thousands of years of human history before the development of railroads, trucks, and airplanes.  Before the transcontinental railroad was built, it was both faster and cheaper to reach San Francisco from a port in China than from Saint Louis.  People in the city of Tbilisi bought their kerosene from Texas-- 8,000 miles away across water -- rather than from the Baku oil fields, less than 400 miles away across land.
    Such vast differences in costs between water transport and land transport affect what can be transported and how far.  Gold or diamonds can repay the costs of transport across thousands of miles of land, but grain or coal cannot.  More important, the size of a people's cultural universe depends on how far they can reach out to other peoples and other cultures.  No great civilization has developed in isolation.  Geography in general and navigable waterways in particular set the limits of a people's cultural universe, broadly or narrowly.  But these limits are by no means set equally for all peoples or all civilization.
    For example, when the British first crossed the Atlantic and confronted the Iroquois on the eastern seaboard of what is today the United States, they were able to steer across the ocean in the first place because they used rudders invented in China, they could navigate on the open seas with the help of trigonometry invented in Egypt, their calculations were done with numbers invented in India, and their general knowledge was preserved in letters invented by the Romans.  But the Iroquois could not draw upon the knowledge of the Aztecs or the Incas, whose very existence they had no way of knowing.  The clash was not between the culture created by the British versus the culture created by the Iroquois.  It was a clash between cultural developments drawn from vast regions of the world versus cultural developments from a much more circumscribed area.  The cultural opportunities were unequal and the outcomes were unequal.  Geography has never been egalitarian.
    A network of rivers in Western Europe flow gently through vast plains, connecting wide areas economically and culturally.  The rivers of tropical Africa plunge a thousand feet or more on their way to the sea, with cascades and waterfalls making them navigable only for stretches between these natural barriers-- and the coastal plain in Africa averages just 20 miles.  Regular rainfall and melting snows keep the rivers of Western Europe flowing throughout the year but African rivers have neither-- and so rise and fall dramatically with the seasons, further limiting their usefulness.  The two continents are at least as dramatically different when it comes to natural harbors.  Although Africa is more than twice the size of Europe, it has a shorter coastline.  That is because the European coastline continually twists and turns, creating innumerable harbors, while the African coastline is smooth, with few harbors.  How surprising is it that international commerce has played a much smaller role in the economic history of Africa than in that of Europe in general and Western Europe in particular?
    These particular geographic disparities are by no means exhaustive.  But they are suggestive of some of the many ways in which physical settings have expanded or constricted the size of the cultural universe available to different peoples.  One revealing indication of cultural fragmentation is that African peoples are 10 percent of the world's population but have one-third of the world's languages.
    In controversies over "nature versus nurture" as causes of economic and other disparities among peoples and civilizations, nature is often narrowly conceived as genetic differences.  Yet geography is also nature-- and its patterns are far more consistent with history than are genetic theories.  China, for example, was for many centuries the leading nation in the world-- technologically, organizationally, and in many other ways.  Yet, in more recent centuries, China has been overtaken and far surpassed by Europe.  Yet neither region of the world has changed genetically to any extent that would account for this dramatic change in their relative positions.  This historic turnaround also shows that geographic limitations do not mean geographic determinism, for the geography of the two regions likewise underwent no such changes as could account for the reversal of their respective positions in the world.
    Back in the fifteenth century, China sent ships on a voyage of exploration longer than that of Columbus, more than half a century before Columbus, and in ships more advanced than those in Europe at the time.  Yet the Chinese rulers made a decision to discontinue such voyages and in fact to reduce China's contacts with the outside world.  European rulers made the opposite decision and established world-wide empires, ultimately to the detriment of China.  In short, geography sets limits but people determine what they will do within those limits.  In some parts of the world, geographic limits have been set so narrowly that the peoples of these regions have never had the options available to either the Europeans or the Chinese.  Isolation has left such regions not only lagging economically but fragmented culturally and politically, making them prey to larger, more prosperous, and more powerful nations.
    We have seen how cultural handicaps have followed Eastern Europeans as they immigrated overseas, leading to lower levels of income than among immigrants from Western Europe who settled in the same places, whether North America or Australia.  If Africans had immigrated voluntarily to the Western Hemisphere, instead of in bondage, is there any reason to believe that their earnings would have achieved an equality that the Slavic immigrants failed to achieve?
    There is no question that Africans and their descendants faced the additional barrier of color prejudice, but can we measure its effects by assuming that black people would have had the same income and wealth as white people in the absence of this factor-- especially in view of the large disparities among different groups of white immigrants, not to mention the rise of some non-white groups such as Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans to incomes above the national average?
    Put differently, geography has not only cheated many peoples of equal cultural opportunities, it has also cheated all of us today of a simple criterion for measuring the economic and social effects of other variables, such as prejudice and discrimination.
    Nothing has been more common in human history than discrimination against different groups, whether different by race, religion, caste or in innumerable other ways.  Moreover, this discrimination has itself been unequal-- more fierce against some groups than others and more pervasive at some periods of history than in others.  If there were not so many other powerful factors creating disparities in income and wealth, it might be possible to measure the degree of discrimination by the degree of differences in economic outcomes.  Even so, the temptation to do so is seductive, especially as a means of reducing the complexities of life to the simplicities of politics.  But the facts will not fit that vision.
    Anyone familiar with the history of race relations in the Western Hemisphere would find it virtually impossible to deny that blacks in the United States have faced more hostility and discrimination than blacks in Latin America.  As just one example, 161 blacks were lynched in one year in the United States, but racial lynching was unknown south of the Rio Grande.  Perhaps the strongest case against the predominance of discrimination as an explanation of economic disparities would be a comparison of blacks in Haiti with blacks in the United States.  Since Haiti became independent two centuries ago, Haitian blacks should be the most prosperous blacks in the hemisphere and American blacks the poorest, if discrimination is the overwhelming factor, but in fact the direct opposite is the case.  It is Haitians who are the poorest and American blacks who are the most prosperous in the hemisphere-- and in the world.
    None of this should be surprising.  The fact that discrimination deserves moral condemnation does not automatically make it causally crucial.  Whether it is or is not in a given time and place is an empirical question, not a foregone conclusion.  A confusion of morality with causation may be politically convenient but that does not make the two things one.


    History, geography, and cultures are influences but they are not predestination.  Not only individuals but whole peoples have moved from the backwaters of the world to the forefront of civilization.  The late Italian author Luigi Barzini asked of Britain: "How, in the first place, did a peripheral island rise from primitive squalor to world domination?" The story of Japan's rise from a backward country in the mid-nineteenth century to one of today's leading economic powers has been at least equally as dramatic.  Scotland was for centuries known for its illiteracy, poverty, and lack of elementary cleanliness.  Yet, from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, most of the leading intellectual pioneers of Britain were Scots, and Scots also become prominent in business, banking, medicine, and engineering-- not only in Britain but around the world.

    These and other dramatic and heartening rises of whole peoples came from doing things that were often directly the opposite of what is being urged upon less fortunate groups in the United States today.  Far from painting themselves into their own little cultural corner and celebrating their "identity," these peoples sought the knowledge and insights of other peoples more advanced than themselves in particular skills, technologies, or organizational experience.  It took centuries for the English to absorb the cultural advances brought by such conquerors as the Romans and the Normans and by such immigrants as the Huguenots, Germans, Jews, and others who played a major role in developing the British economy.  Their early dependence on outsiders was painfully demonstrated when the Romans pulled out of Britain in the fifth century, in order to go defend their threatened empire on the continent, and the British economy and political structure both collapsed.  Yet ultimately-- more than a thousand years later-- the British rose to lead the world into the industrial revolution and controlled an empire containing one-fourth of the land area of the earth and one-fourth of the human race.
    Japan's economic rise began from a stage of technological backwardness that was demonstrated when Commodore Perry presented them with a gift of a train.  Here was their reaction:

At first the Japanese watched the train fearfully from a safe distance, and when the engine began to move they uttered cries of astonishment and drew in their breath.  Before long they were inspecting it closely, stroking it, and riding on it, and they kept this up throughout the day.”

    A century later, the Japanese "bullet train" would be one of the technological wonders of the world, surpassing anything available in the United States.  But, before this happened, a major cultural transformation had to take place among the Japanese people.  A painful awareness of their own backwardness spread through Japan.  Western nations in general and the United States in particular were held up as models to their children.  Japanese textbooks urged imitation of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, even more so than Japanese heroes.  Many laments about their own shortcomings by the Japanese of that era would today be called "self-hate." But there were no cultural relativists then to tell them that what they had achieved was just as good, in its own way, as what others had.  Instead, the Japanese overcame their backwardness, through generations of dedicated work and study, rather than redefining it out of existence.
    Both the British and the Japanese became renowned for their ability to absorb the ideas and the technology of others and to carry them forward to higher levels.  So did the Scots.  At one time, it was common for Scots to blindly imitate the English, even using an English plow that proved to be unsuitable for the soil of Scotland.  Yet, once they had absorbed what the English had to offer, the Scots then surpassed the English in some fields, notably medicine and engineering.

    It makes sense to blame human beings for biased rules and standards.  But who is to be blamed for circumstances that are the results of a confluence of all sorts of conditions of the past and present, interacting in ways that are hard to specify and virtually impossible to disentangle?  Unless we wish to start a class action suit against geography or against the cosmos or the Almighty, we need to stop the pretense that somebody is guilty whenever the world does not present a tableau that suits our desires or fits our theories.


To read the entire essay, go to the following link:

Questions for discussion:

  1. In a paragraph, summarize the article and the point of view of it’s author.

  2. Using what you know about the Conflict Perspective, do you think someone from that perspective would like this essay? Why or why not?

  3. In your mind, which part of the essay resonates or stands out the most? Why?

  4. Do you agree that our society looks more to the “unfairness of society is to blame” for diverse outcomes? Why?


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