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Jewish World Review Oct. 7, 1998 / 17 Tishrei, 5759

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell Heredity, environment and talk

A RECENTLY-PUBLISHED STUDY in England adds fuel to the fires of controversy over the role of heredity and environment.

After studying more than 3,000 sets of two-year-old twins in England and Wales, a team of American and British scholars concluded that children in the bottom 5 percent in verbal development were delayed in speaking primarily because of heredity. But variations in verbal ability among the other children were due primarily to environment.

The implications of this reach far beyond questions about children's language development.

What it says, first of all, is that there is no simple answer to the question as to whether heredity or environment is the predominant influence. Whether the particular issue is speech or height or IQ, within some range heredity may be the biggest influence but, within some other range, environment can be more important.

It has long been common to blame parents in general and mothers in particular when children are late in beginning to talk. Yet this study shows that there is no need to lay a guilt trip on parents for not raising their children right.

Nor does speech delay necessarily mean general retardation. Only 22 percent of these late-talking children had any other delays in their development. Most are apparently just "late bloomers."

Many well-known people with high achievements have talked late. Famed 19th century pianist Clara Schumann was four years old before she talked. So was nuclear physicist Edward Teller. The most famous late-talker was of course Albert Einstein.

My book " Late-Talking Children dealt with dozens of youngsters who are exceptionally bright, while also being exceptionally late in beginning to talk. Professor Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt University is currently studying even more such children. He himself was three and a half years old before beginning to talk.

Unfortunately, too many people in schools or day care centers are quick to apply dire labels to late-talking children. Terms like "pervasive developmental disorder" or PDD are sometimes used like ketchup, as something to be put on almost anything. Children with PDD are autistic. However, Bernard Rimland, head of the Autism Research Institute in San Diego, says that PDD is a term that is often so "uninformative" and "confusing" that it "should be abandoned."

There are, of course, children who are in fact autistic and who urgently need all the help they can get. But such children are far rarer than those given such labels by school district personnel and others, including people who have no qualifications to be diagnosing anything.

For parents of any given child who is not talking at age two, the question is not about averages or even about heredity versus environment. What is needed are evaluations of that particular child by highly qualified professionals. Reliable evaluations are hard to come by and unreliable ones are usually no farther away than your local school district.

What scholars discovered about British two-year-olds applies in many other controversies over heredity and environment. The controversial book "The Bell Curve" pointed out that, while heredity appears to explain most differences in IQ among individuals in the general population, this does not mean that heredity must also explain differences between racial or ethnic groups with very different environmental backgrounds.

Nevertheless, people have gone ballistic because they think "The Bell Curve" uses heredity as a basis for racism. Probably most of these people who have gone ballistic have never read that sentence because they never read the book itself.

If something is hereditary, some assume that it is fixed and nothing can be done about it. But some hereditary conditions are easily dealt with and some environmental conditions are very hard to change.

Myopia is largely hereditary but it can be easily corrected with glasses or contact lenses. On the other hand, obesity may be due to environmental factors. Yet millions know what a struggle it can be to fight the battle of the bulge.

Many issues are too complex to be reduced to questions of "either-or." Heredity versus environment is just one example. If we insist on simple answers, we may be insisting on disaster.

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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.