The Sciences

Vocabulary score by race, ethnicity, and region

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanDec 30, 2011 3:22 AM

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Mike the Mad Biologist has a post up, A Modest Proposal: Alabama Whites Are Genetically Inferior to Massachusetts Whites (FOR REALZ!). The post is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but it's actually an interesting question: what's the difference between whites in various regions of the United States? I've looked at this before, but I thought I'd revisit it for new readers. First, I use the General Social Survey. Second, I use the WORDSUM variable, a 10 question vocabulary test which has a correlation of 0.70 with general intelligence. My curiosity is about differences across white ethnic groups by region. To do this I use the ETHNIC variable, which asks respondents where their ancestors came from by nation. I omitted some nations because of small sample size, and amalgamated others. Here are my amalgamations: German = Austria, Germany, Switzerland French = French Canada, France Eastern Europe = Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Russia, Czechaslovakia (many were asked before 1992), Romania Scandinavian = Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland (yes, I know that Finland is not part of Scandinavia, Jaakkeli!) British = England, Wales, Scotland

Next we need to break it down by region. The REGION variable uses the Census divisions. You can see them to the left. I combined a few of these to create the following classes: Northeast = New England, Middle Atlantic Midwest = E North Central, W North Central South = W S Central, E S Central, South Atlantic West = Pacific, Mountain The key method I used is to look for mean vocabulary test scores by ethnicity and religion. I also later broke down some of these ethnic groups by religion. Finally, all bar plots have 95 percent confidence intervals. This should give you a sense of the sample sizes for each combination. First let's break it down by race/ethnicity and compare it by region to get a reference:

Next, the main course:

Finally, let's separate by religion for Germans and Eastern Europeans:

I include the last plot because these reports of nationality have to be taken with a consideration for the structure they may mask. People whose ancestors from Poland in the United States fall into two large categories: people of Jewish heritage whose identity as ethnic Poles was contested (recall that Jews often spoke Yiddish as their first language, a Germanic language), and Roman Catholic Slavs. I suspect many of those in the "None" category are also Jews by culture, if not religion. Second: there is a tendency of people of all ethnic groups to have lower vocabulary scores if they are from the South or Midwest. This tendency is in many cases outside of the 95 percent confidence interval. It's especially striking in the three groups with huge samples sizes in all regions: Germans, Irish, and British. Irish here includes both Scots-Irish and those of Irish Catholic background. Not only are the sample sizes for these groups large, but the roots of these groups in some of these regions go rather far back. In particular, the division between the people of British ancestry goes back centuries in the North vs. South divide. How to understand this? There are a lot of complicating factors. But as outlined in Albion's Seed and The Cousins' Wars the divisions between the Anglo-Celtic folkways runs deep and long. If a time traveler from the 18th century arrived in the United States today and were asked which region was the heart of intellectual ferment they would correctly guess New England. Early Puritan New England was the first universal-literacy society in the world. This was to some extent a matter of conscious planning. The leaders of the New England colonies enforced limitations upon who could emigrate to their dominion. Religious exclusions and persecutions in this region are well known, but there was also a policy of rejecting the settlement of those who were perceived to be possible burdens upon the community. New England then selected for a middle class migration out of East Anglia and the port towns of southwest England. But the fathers of the early colony also rejected the transfer of the privileges of the blood nobility from the motherland, thereby throwing up a barrier to the migration of the aristocracy. In contrast the lowland South received a more representative selection of the British class strata. The younger sons of the British nobility and self-styled gentlemen arrived to make their mark, as did those who became indentured servants and even slaves. A class society on the model of southwestern England recapitulated itself in this region. As for the uplands, what became Appalachia, an influx of Scots-Irish came to dominate the scene by the mid of the 18th century, disembarking in Philadelphia, and pushing down the spine of the high country down to the Deep South. Conflicts between these "Anglo" groups framed the terms of debate over the 18th and 19th centuries. They were to some extent at the root of the Age of Sectionalism. Today because of the salience of race, and the prominence of the later wave of migration in the late 19th and early 20th century which remained vibrant in living memory for mod, these early divisions have moved out of sight. But they still remain. The difference between Germans in Texas and the Anglos of Southern extraction remains to this day, but note that Germans exhibit the same regional differences in vocabulary score as Anglos. Why? This may be a case where the original cultural substratum has an outsized impact (the dialect of eastern New England, made famous by the Catholic Irish of Boston, is descended from East Anglian English!). Of course there might be a genetic difference. Intelligence is a quantitative trait, so it would be trivial to generate two populations which are genetically similar, but very different in trait value, simply through selection. In the 1630s ~20 thousands Puritans settled New England. For various reasons there was very little migration over the next century and a half. By 1780 New England's population was 700,000, almost all through natural increase (not only was New England the world's first universal literacy society, but its fertility was the highest in the late 17th century). Finally, there's the issue of disease and pathogen load. Endemic hookworm infection does seem likely to have made Southerners, of both races, relatively indolent and lethargic in comparison to Northerners. Who knows what pathogens simply fall below our radar? Overall I think that a more fine-grained and detailed exploration of these topics is warranted. Our public discussion is too coarse, and data-thin.

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