Ability and Biology: Within Every Race, There Are Genetic Differences among Individuals and Families

By Sowell, Thomas | Newsweek, September 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

Ability and Biology: Within Every Race, There Are Genetic Differences among Individuals and Families


Sowell, Thomas, Newsweek


Within every race, there are genetic differences among individuals and families

MATHEMATICAL ABILITY AND MUSICAL ABILITY MAY not seem on the surface to be connected, but people who have researched the subject--and studied the brain--say that they are. Research for my book "Late-Talking Children" drove home the point to me. Three quarters of the bright but speech-delayed children in the group I studied had a close relative who was an engineer, mathematician or scientist--and four fifths had a close relative who played a musical instrument. The children themselves usually took readily to math and other analytical subjects--and to music.

Black, white and Asian children in this group show the same patterns. However, looking at the larger world around us, it is clear that blacks have been greatly overrepresented in the development of American popular music and greatly underrepresented in such fields as mathematics, science and engineering.

If the abilities required in analytical fields and in music are so closely related, how can there be this great disparity? One reason is that the development of mathematical and other such abilities requires years of formal schooling, while certain musical talents can be developed with little or no formal training, as has happened with a number of well-known black musicians.

It is precisely in those kinds of music where one can acquire great skill without formal training that blacks have excelled--popular music rather than classical music, piano rather than violin, blues rather than opera. This is readily understandable, given that most blacks, for most of American history, have not had either the money or the leisure for long years of formal study in music.

Blacks have not merely held their own in American popular music. They have played a disproportionately large role in the development of jazz, both traditional and modern. A long string of names comes to mind--Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, W. C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker... and on and on.

None of this presupposes any special mate ability of blacks in music. On the contrary, it is perfectly consistent with blacks' having no more such inborn ability than anyone else, but being limited to being able to express such ability in narrower channels than others who have had the money, the time and the formal education to spread out over a wider range of music, as well as into mathematics, science and engineering.

There is no way of knowing whether Duke Ellington would have become a mathematician or scientist under other circumstances. What is clearer is that most blacks have not had such alternatives available until very recently, as history is measured. Moreover, now that cultural traditions have been established, even those blacks who have such alternatives available today, and who have the inborn abilities to pursue them, may nevertheless continue for some time to follow wellworn paths.

In these supersensitive times, merely suggesting that there is such a thing as inborn ability is taboo. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that mental abilities run in families, even when the families are broken up when the children are young and siblings are raised separately and in complete isolation from one another. …

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