The Creator Race: was McKibben celebrates stagnation

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From Razib:

I’ve decided to post this topic to siphon away some of the comments from the topic below. Additionally I invite others who have accounts on the blog to append their opinion/statement. We are a collective blog, but our opinions are not!

So a few points….

How many “civilizations” are there?

I believe there are three civilizations that have contributed to the semi-universal civilization dominant today that we term “Western,” or “Modern.” There is the genetic ancestor of the Western civilization that is superimposed over the Islamic Middle East/North Africa & Europe. This civilization has expanded in scope over the ages-its beginnings were among the interconnected riverine & oasis civilizations of the Middle East 5,000 years ago-but gradually crystallized into an axis between Persia at its eastern edges and the Pax Romana at the center and west. With the rise of Islam a split developed between the northern & southern elements of the civilization and it also expanded into new frontiers in northern and eastern Europe (not mention that the boundary between the “West” and the Dar-al-Islam kept changing). But even into the days of the British Empire those Europeans would comment on how journeying into India was a trek into alien rather than foreign or hostile lands-rather than a branch of their own civilization (not matter how distantly related), this was something that had a profoundly different origin and unfamiliar axioms.

South Asia is a smaller civilization. Its contributions to the world civilization have been more abstract and harder to pin down. The religious influence (Buddhism) as well as the possible exchange of ideas between Greek philosophers (from Pythagoros to Plotinus) and the “gymnosophists” (almost certainly the aesetic gurus) stand out. Additionally India has made some mathematical contributions early on that aided in the discoveries of Arabs & Persians during the Islamic apogee. The border between South Asia and the West exists but it is very porous. This can explain the blending of outward phenotypes that you see as semi-white Persians turn into brown Indians-and the free exchange of ideas with Persia acting as a transition culture.

Finally you have China. This civilization does not really need much elucidation, it has the most self-conscious integrated tradition and a well conceived historiography. I don’t need to rattle off the technological contributions that the Chinese made despite their inability to systematize them and so pull off the cultural explosion of the Western European West.

How does genetics effect civilization?

This is just my opinion, but I do think that g distributions have an effect in the ability to maintain a literate elite. On the other hand I am open to the idea that g distributions or the mean can shift over time because of different cultural contexts and changes that can effect relative fitness of genes & phenotypes. The idea of decline and fall and rise and ascendence can been gleaned in both ancient Rome and China (“three generations up, three generations down”).

That being said-I believe that cultural differences being caused by environmental/genographical variations should be the null hypothesis. Obviously the Japanese are not “genetically inferior” to the Chinese nor are the Swedes any less than the Rhineland Germans, though the latter of each respectively has a far longer “civilized” tradition. Civilization needs many preconditions and it not implausible that in its early stages the regress back to barbarism requires a later outside stimuli (the Classical Greeks did not used a variant of their Linear B script but one based on the Phonecian/Aramaean model)-but later one it can develop through its own impulses.

We should be careful of positing genetic differences as being the root of differentials in “cultural productivity.” The Classical Greeks thought the early Republican Romans rather dull individiauls, and true to form, in the philosophies speakers of Greek predominated throughout span of the Roman Empire. The idea that some races-the Latins in this case-could be made out to be naturally dull is an easy explanation. But historical hindsight shows this probably was not so, but rather the orientations of the two cultures were different-a great Latin mind became an orator and politician while a Greek would remain within his polis and might become an intellectual (compare the theological arcana that dominated early medieval Byzantium to the administrative wrangles that fixated the Western Church).

Finally, let me add that I suspect that historical experience shapes the traits that a civilization selects for. The Chinese emphasis on semi-competative examinations probably had an effect on selecting for whatever genes help one master obtuse literary intellectuality. That Sub-Saharan Africa had no native literate tradition (this is fuzzy, literacy comes to Europe and India from the Middle East after all!) might have meant that there was no niche of scribes for those afflicted with myopia (utter conjecture of course!). That Jews have had a literary/intellectual tradition for 2,000 years is used as evidence as to why they excel in professions like law-but the justification often reminds me of racial memory. There is surely something to a long-standing cultural practice, but we should remember that over dozens of generations these practices should shape the genetic profile of the culture!

The Creators?

First, let me get something out of the way. Many people seem to take great pride in their ancestry. Let me make an observation that might seem mean-but those who do this tend not to feel very good about their individual worth. It seems clear that we have a heirarchy of identification, first as an individual, later as whatever you care about (religion, race, ethno-linguistic group, your role-playing club, etc.)-and those that always emphasize on the upper ends of the layers of identification seem a bit off. This occurs in most races, religions, castes and classes. A semi-literate Chinese dishwasher might talk at length about the acheivments of “his people.” A Jewish friend of mine would never shut up about the acheivments of “her people.” Black people regularly get a pass when they assert that their ancestors were “Kings and Queens” (join the club brothers and sisters! Now whose ancestors were peasants I might ask?). Hindu nationalists regularly make bizarro claims about ancient India where 99.99% of the people lived short-brutish lives while a few in the upper class contemplated the ways of the cosmos (though some of the Indian mystics were lower caste, I believe most like Mahavira & Siddartha were upper caste, especially Kshatriya & Vaishya). And of course we have those that take pride in their “white heritage.” The last statement is a little hard to grapple with, because white people have acheived a lot!

The world we see around us was created by white people, most of them northwest European origin. So if you care about this stuff-take pride I suppose. But a problem is that these individuals seem to neglect that northwest Eurpe was for a long time a backwater of sorts-this is not the historical norm and the natural order of things, but the outcome of multiple strands of history, geography and genetics. Though they produced the Principia and Beethoven-northwest Europe didn’t invent agriculture, literacy, universal religions, etc. etc. And perhaps the greatest acheivment of northwest Europe is the lionization of the individual-the make of the I more crucial than the We, explaining why most northwest Europeans, in contrast to less accomplished races, do not take particular pride in this day and age..

This blog is run by people of many racial and ethnic origins. Those of us who are non-white tend to be rather cosmopolitan and quite often explicitly pro-Western in our outlook. That means we have a tendency to reflexively roll our eyes when someone trots out the “White makes Right” sort of arguments-as well as People-of-Color-Must-Unite. Such arguments are the two faces of the same coin.

Cultural achievment is the product of multiple variables, environment, historical context, cultural openness and yes, the genetic endowments of the individuals that make up the group in question. That being said-though the genetic endowments and environment are often semi-constant, cultural openness & historical context are ever shifting and interdependent and contingent (ie; would there be a England without a Sumeria or China?).

Rational discussion of facts are always undermined by amusing chest-thumping or unalloyed hatred.

Addendum from Razib: I would also like to add that I am not a “metaphysical racialist.” I mean there are those who seem to ascribe an almost mystical significance to the perpetuation of their race. You can couch this in terms of maintaining diversity, and I can understand and to some extent sympathize with their viewpoint as something that needs to be heard, but I don’t really share it. If I do have children they are likely to be half-white, knowing my tastes, probably would be able to pass as white (probably look southern European or something). It is likely that they in their turn will marry non-brown individuals. For me personally I don’t give much weight to either my racial or religious origins. On the other hand, I don’t discount those who assert that races might be on average different on non-trival matters. But just because I agree that race exists as a matter of biology or social organization, I don’t care much on a personal level for the perpetuation of “my race.” Just so people know where I’m coming from (and I think most of the bloggers who have accounts on GNXP).


  1. I am continuing the discussion here, because the other thread is too long.

    >> a) today most people would not agree that Islam and the Arabs are part of the modern Western tradition (nowadays defined as liberal democracy), nor do *they* consider themselves Western – trends which may prompt revisionism.

    “Western” is ill-defined. Some people use it to mean Western European. Others mean European. Others mean Christian European. The problem can be largely resolved if one avoids Western and uses more precise terminology, e.g., Post-Englightenment Civilization, if that is what is meant.

    If Western Civilization (for the past) is taken to mean the civilizations of the western Eurasian culture sphere, then no divergent tendency within this sphere should use the term for itself to the exclusion of others whose culture is also wholly an evolution of the Western cultural tradition.

  2. I must say that other thread was hilarious when Asians were accused of lower IQs. I still fail to see the value of this racial categorization. How many people who won Fields medals have green eyes? Who f-ing cares? I see the recipients’ racial classification as just more of the same meaningless trivia.
    The instinct to group into tribes is strong no doubt. In the filming of the original Planet of the Apes, the actors costumed as gorillas all started having lunch together exclusively, as did those costumed as the orangs, chimps, etc. despite their previous uncostumed relationships.
    Fascinating pyschology-but primitive barbarism nonetheless. What is the rational mind for if not to overcome that idiocy?

  3. How many people who won Fields medals have green eyes? Who f-ing cares?

    Did it ever occur to you why people study things as seemingly trivial to their personal survival as the anatomy of crickets and the mating behaviors of shrews? Perhaps for some people learning about how the world is is interesting in and of itself.

    I fucking care, and if you don’t please move along, b/c this whining disturbs me.

  4. I’m re-posting this message that I had originally posted in the other thread.


    Whew ! Finally someone agrees with me. A few minor quibbles …

    1. “I’m not aware of a definitive study that shows a lower variance for East Asian IQ “

    I’ll make use of a numerical example again to demonstrate why variance is irrelevant to this discourse. I know this isn’t the ideal way to illustrate my ideas and is probably pretty annoying but I find it simpler than explaining it non-mathematically. This is an oversimplified model but should do the trick.

    Consider two populations A and B having the same population, say 1 million. They also have almost identical mean IQs that i’ve approximated at 100.

    The distribution of population A is as follows:
    500,000 have IQs of 55
    499,990 have IQs of 145
    10 have IQs of 200

    The distribution of population B is as follows:
    500,000 have IQs of 60
    499,500 have IQs of 140
    500 have IQs of 200

    Population A will have a higher variance than population B though the latter has the bulk of the geniuses.

    So, even if two populations have similar mean IQs and similar variances it won’t tell us anything about the extreme right end of the Bell Curve.

    2.”The favorable reference to David Duke …”

    Yikes !! I’ll repeat i’m no fan of David Duke. I find his ideas on miscegenation and the tacit approval of the Indian caste system particularly abhorrent. Still, it makes no sense to dismiss everything he says as the rantings of a white-supremacist bigot.

    3. “There are three Asians among them (Chu, Tsui, Koshiba) and at least three or four Jews (probably more).”

    That’s still an under-representation. Since the Chinese and Japanese are genetically similar to a great degree, the scenario I expect for East Asians in the future is that the entire lot wins Nobels at the same per-capita rate as the Japanese. I’ll admit there’s an upward trend for the Japanese but the lower median IQ of China negates the possible positives of that trend for the Chinese.


    Those numbers were hypothetical, I was only trying to drive home my point by taking a numerical example.

    I’ll however try to corroborate my theory using actual numbers on Nobel Laureates.

  5. Godless:

    I downloaded the Jensen interview, but my computer keeps hanging whenever I open Adobe Acrobat.

    I’ll read it and get back to you.

  6. A. The Chinese have no interest in monotheistic theology. Before 1800, and to a degree afterwards, Christians, Jews, Muslims were lumped. Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons seem to be lumped separately with Jews and Muslims (there’s so much animosity that there doesn’t seem to be a “Christian” category). Undere the Mongols Marco Polo was classified as a “se-mu”, which meant westerners, mostly Persians, in the Mongol service.

    Muslims are distinguished from Jews by the difference between halal and kosher — there’s a tendon that’s forbidden to one group but not the other (the “tendon-eaters”). Christians are those who eat pork but not dog — though the dog-butcher I met was a shamefaced Chinese Christian. (Dog tastes pretty gamy, not like chicken.)

    So anyway, that’s “The West” in Chinese eyes.

    B. How many races are there? How much inbreeding before a people becomes a race? EG, the Icelanders have been pretty isolated for 1000 years; I wouldn’t doubt that they have extraordinarily high concentrations of certain markers, compared to other Scandinavians. Over and above blondness, I mean. (Note, guys: the age of consent in Iceland is 14, as long a s the second party is younger than 24: ). Doesn’t do me any good.

    And “brown” might mean something in American folk English, but not as a racial designation. Something like “Darker than blond, not black, not yellow). About a third of the world.

  7. Tejas wrote:

    “Those numbers were hypothetical, I was only trying to drive home my point by taking a numerical example.

    I’ll however try to corroborate my theory using actual numbers on Nobel Laureates.”

    Thanks, I’d be interested to see any data that’s out there about the IQ of Nobel Laureates (or any other group whose achievements mark them as ‘geniuses’). Since I am skeptical that differences between IQ scores above 140 or so are very meaningful, I would not necessarily predict that the relative proportion of, say, 150-160 IQs vs 140-150 IQs among Nobel Laureates is much higher than in the general population.

    Likewise, I’d be interested to see if there are any studies that show that east asians have a lower percentage of ultra-high-IQs that whites.

  8. zizka-i am going to post on “religion” soon-and partly how a monotheistic conception has distorted our perceptions of exactly is religion. also, as far as classifying races, i believe icelanders have a strong maternal celtic contribution from the irish-though some of the data is fuzzy. it gets real hard to distinguish close groups genetically.

    i tend to think of race as being defined on x number of axes, an axis for color, an axis for nose form, an axis for neutral marker n, etc. etc. geometrically there will be clusters that aggregate the interelationships of the vast number of genes that comprise and individual human. i need to do an FAQ….

  9. Razib — it seems to me that you are overemphasizing physical appearance, rather playing into the hands of your critics. (One major criticism of the race concept is that it is just a biological statement and justification of old folkish ethnic consciousness tracable back to Noah’s three sons, Cain and Abel, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, etc.)

    The money question as I see it is IQ so far, though questions of hereditary temperament/ disposition are also significant. Other physiological questions such as lactose intolerance etc. are biologically significant too. I read somewhere that from the biologist’s point of view the most distinct populations are the virtually extinct African peoples once called Bushmen and Hottentots, who have lots of unique traits. (I may have read that in SJ Gould, but it’s checkable).

    The Irish component in Iceland is well established, but after 3000 years it’s pretty well mixed in by now.

  10. zizka, i just gave you a few variables, ultimately, i guess you would keep adding variables upward (from what i remember, multidimensions is no problem mathematically).

    some of the problems also have to do with differences between neutral markers and genes that have an obvious adaptive phenotypic impact.

    in sum-it’s a complex question that everyone wants an easy answer too and so i have a hard time satisfying people, though race does seem to matter in the united states for issues of health profiling (as well as organ matching).

  11. Icelanders are actually genetically heterogeneous compared to other European nations.

  12. I read the Iceland abstract and am at a loss as to how to interpret it. Does it mean that, at the time of original settlement (around 900 ?? AD) it was already diverse, or that there’s been a lot of admixture since? The Norse were wide-ranging (Baku, Kazan, and Constantinople to Greenland) and the Icelanders were a sea people, so there could have been a lot of mixing at various points.

    I find it hard to believe though, that the 200,000 Icelanders are more diverse than, for example, the tens of millions of Spanish or Austrians. What’s a common-sense summary of the genetic language?

  13. PS In my Iceland post, “3000″ is a mistype for “1000″.

  14. ummm ok Jason-bring it on then. Tell me how many Fields medal winners had green eyes. If-just in case- you see that particular stat as irrelevant-tell me what genetic markers you are using to categorize them by race.

  15. I think you are losing sight of a lot of things here. In particular you’re all getting too fixated with the racial composition of a very small sample, high science achievers, as representative of the actual bell curve of the racial group.
    1) For all we know up to a certain minimum IQ say 140 to 150 there may be *no* correlation whatsoever between IQ and scientific achievement. Look at all the losers with pseudo-scientific ‘theories’ in the ultra high IQ societies. Hell, how many people who have achieved things other than a high IQ are there even in Mensa? I suspect achievement then becomes more a function of personality – singlemindedness, obsessiveness, pure intellectual interest, there may well be some correlation with schizoid/asperger’s traits.
    2) *Regardless of the correlation between ultra high IQ and scientific achievement, there is a strong degree of self-selection in looking at particular occupational groups. How do you know that for some reasons the highest IQ Jews tend to drift into academia while the highest IQ Asians and non-Jewish Europeans tend to drift into business and other money-making professions? For instance, this might leave proportionately more of the ‘mediocre’ Asians in academia. Who knows? Believe me, as a consultant, I’ve met many solicitors and barristers who I suspect have ultra high IQs and are laughing their way to the bank rather than winning Fields Medals.

  16. PS my remarks were not meant as a slight on Godless whom I know is in academia and whose fearsome intellect I am in awe of. Note I said ‘proportionately more of the “mediocre” Asians’.

  17. >> I read the Iceland abstract and am at a loss as to how to interpret it. Does it mean that, at the time of original settlement (around 900 ?? AD) it was already diverse, or that there’s been a lot of admixture since?

    The former. The genetic elements in Iceland were diverse to begin with, and despite 1,000+ years of inbreeding, they remain heterogeneous, more so than other European countries. Perhaps, if Icelanders remained isolated for many more years, they might become more homogeneous. But at present they are not.