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!
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).