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November 15, 2003

Why Human Accomplishment is important

If you clicked my previous post linking to an audio interview with Charles Murray about his new book Human Accomplishment you heard the host state: "We're sorry that we're focusing so much about the methodology...." What a stupid thing to say! Like many, the interview ended up to be dickering over specifics in the rankings, when the accomplishment was bringing into the public eye Murray's methodology-using a statistical analysis of the mentions of "famous" figures in a variety of references to focus in on a cluster of "great" figures. See this article by Murray elaborating his method & conclusions.

To my eye, the importance of Murray's work is that it serves as a guide for those who don't have time to read 10-20 books on world history to get a sampling of the zeitgeist. Murray makes the point that various authors have their own biases, but if you combine their perspectives, you get a non-idiosyncratic viewpoint that is a rough representation of the "accepted wisdom" in a given field.

Let me give you a concrete example. If you read Murray Rothbard's 1,000 page Man, Economy and State, you'll be highly entertained-but probably think that Thomistic & Aristotelian philosophy is more important in modern social science than it is, and that most economists actually know the term praxeology. My point is not to belittle Rothbard or Austrian economists, but someone not familiar with economics entering the field through their vantage point will be receiving an inaccurate view of the importance of issues like empiricism ("positivism") and the utility of mathematical analysis in economics (hint: they aren't fans! Why I am Not an Austrian Economist is a pretty good article on the differences between Austrians and the rest).

This example illustrates the crux of the issue for me: works like Human Accomplishment can serve as guides for those who wish to have generalized information about various disciplines. Going back to world history, individual authors craft their own narratives, but most people don't have time to read a number of works by various authors to be able to create a composite that weeds out anomalies due to personal preference or random chance. A list of "great figures" produced by statistical analysis of authoritative works can allow lay readers to discard peculiarities caused by subjective preference.

Also, check out this snide piece in Slate by Tim Noah, where he states that he "would place Einstein ahead of Newton, but that may just bespeak sentimental attachment," no, it bespeaks your ignorance jackass. On a nicer note, here is an article by Steve Sailer from a less asinine and more favorable perspective on Murray's book.

Posted by razib at 11:38 PM | | TrackBack

Statistics on Women Engineers
Posted by razib at 10:40 PM | | TrackBack

Brain Teaser II

David B. posted a nice puzzle the other day, asking you to imagine cutting a plane through a cube in such as way as to create a regular hexagon.  I'm sure you had fun with that one.

I have a couple of extra credit questions:

  1. Can a cube be sectioned in such as way as to create a regular pentagon?
  2. It appears the hexagonal section has the greatest area of all possible sections.  Can you prove it?


Posted by ole at 10:25 PM | | TrackBack

Founding brothers

This historian of George Washington notes that 1/4 of the Continental Army might have been black. Additionally, apparently Lafayette was pro-active in acknowledging and praising black soldiers after the end of the war.

Posted by razib at 08:39 PM | | TrackBack

November 14, 2003

More administration

HTML comments are enabled. Don't abuse them through laziness (close them!). Also, a cookie should remember the last values you put in for the identifying information.

Update: Number of comments per entry added. Also, comments should now show up when you click the permlink. Note for those who care/understand, the entry value is passed to PHP via the GET method, so if you remove the "entry" parameter, it will return an mysql error where "comments" should go-though entry content will be fine (ie; if you bookmark/record the permlink but remove the parameter value at the end). For GNXP bloggers, if you want comments to show up in the individual entry, rebuild that entry by by editing it....

Also, I haven't added the comment system to any of the other template pages (category archive, date archive, etc.) because 7 days seems sufficient to express your opinion. I also haven't added a commenting facility in the individual entry page for that reason, though people will be able to read comments there...don't want people coming in via google to express themselves after the conversation has died....

I think the comment system is pretty close to doing what the old one did-but tell me if you have any other needs on this thread. Otherwise, back to blogging as usual....

Update II:

Note for those who care/understand, the entry value is passed to PHP via the GET method, so if you remove the "entry" parameter, it will return an mysql error where "comments" should go-though entry content will be fine (ie; if you bookmark/record the permlink but remove the parameter value at the end).

Ignore this. I made it so the entry value is extracted from the file name....

Posted by razib at 11:51 PM | | TrackBack

Alcohol(ism) in Norden

On this blog, it is sometimes mentioned that libertarianism needs a proper social-cultural context, a loose liquor law regimine that might be mildly problematic in European nations is disastrous for Native Americans. Below is an article from The Economist that highlights the problems that the Nordic countries have had in maintaining their high taxation rates on alcohol, aimed at temperance, in the face of E.U. amalgamation. A few years ago The New York Times had an article which recounted the difference between a Finnish town and a Russian town in terms of vital statistics, but, the key was that 50 years ago the Finnish town had similar problems as across the border. The difference was partially due to a drop in alcoholism brought about by cultural changes and economic opportunity.

This is a cautionary note, because Europeans tend to have higher tolerances for alcohol than people in most of the world....

Viking binge
From The Economist print edition

How Europe's single market makes boozing cheaper

THE alcohol stores in Helsingor struggle to close on time, as Swedes cram in to grab a few more bottles before heading back across the Oresund strait that divides these Nordic neighbours. Trade in the stores has doubled since Denmark cut taxes on spirits by 45% at the start of October. Its action is inexorably chipping away at the entire Nordic region's restrictive alcohol regime.

The Danish government, itself trying to discourage people from heading across the border to Germany to buy cheap booze, felt it had no choice. Even after the tax cut, the incentives for drinkers to go abroad are powerful. A bottle of Bells Extra Special Scotch, priced at NKr270 ($38) in Norway, can be had for NKr225 in Sweden, NKr117 in Denmark and just NKr90 in Germany.

Sweden is deeply worried. In the 19th century, a lethal cocktail mixing the misery caused by industrialisation with cheap spirits helped to set off endemic alcohol abuse. Total prohibition was only narrowly defeated in a referendum in 1922. Alcohol was rationed until 1955. Strong beer, wine and spirits remain heavily taxed, and retail sales are still conducted through a limited number of state monopoly stores. Similar systems exist in Finland and Norway. Temperance movements have a strong political foothold in all three Scandinavian countries.

Since their entry into the European Union in 1995, Sweden and Finland have struggled to protect their alcohol regimes, as import restrictions have been gradually lifted under single-market rules. In Sweden consumption has risen to levels not seen since 1875. Hakan Leifman, a researcher at Stockholm University, says Swedes over 15 now consume around ten litres of pure alcohol a year, still well below the 14-15 litres per year in Ireland, but closing in on the EU average of 12. Other measures aimed at limiting sales have also fallen foul of EU rules. Earlier this year Sweden's ban on the advertising of strong beer, wine and spirits was overruled.

So far there is little evidence of a more “sophisticated” European attitude to alcohol: “binge drinking” remains the Scandinavian way. Public-health organisations are alarmed, predicting a rise in alcohol-related violence, drink-driving and chronic alcohol-related diseases.

But with Swedes in the south of the country bringing in booze from Denmark, and a virtual scrapping of controls on such imports coming in January, Bosse Ringholm, the (teetotal) finance minister, faces a dilemma. Even Sweden's state alcohol stores are campaigning for a tax cut. If Mr Ringholm does not oblige, he will lose revenues and foster an environment for illegal reselling. But if he does, cheaper alcohol will be available throughout the country. The Finnish prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, is duly proposing steep tax cuts in January, in an effort to stem imports.

Similar arguments are being heard even in non-EU Norway. The country has maintained its import control of one litre of spirits per person. But since it has scrapped most of its border checks, Norway has now become a nation of petty smugglers. Few expect the prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, a teetotal Lutheran priest, to jump at the idea of a tax cut. Some have suggested that the answer is to reimpose border controls. But if the Swedes do cut prices it will be hard for Norway to stand against the tide. One way or another, cheaper alcohol is coming.

Posted by razib at 11:33 AM | | TrackBack

November 13, 2003

Environmental indicators

Here are some international statistics on infant mortality and life expectancy and education and literacy.

The huge gap between developed and 3rd-world countries in these indicators of environmental quality will be apparent.

For a historical comparison, in Britain in the 1930s infant mortality was about 5 per cent and life expectancy at birth was about 60 - better than most African and some Asian countries today, but not as good as most Latin American countries (though the percentage of illiteracy was much lower in 1930s Britain than in Latin America now).

You can join the dots for yourself!

Posted by David B at 03:33 AM | | TrackBack

Comments on comments on comments...

As of now (about 10.00 GMT on 13 November) the Comments facility is disabled. I see that there have been a number of comments on my post 'IQ Comparisons (again)', but I have not been able to read any comments since one by Henry Harpending yesterday. If I do not respond to more recent comments, it is therefore due to neither discourtesy nor cowardice, just impossibility!

If you are really burning to comment, please put your comments on the general Message Board.

Posted by David B at 02:44 AM | | TrackBack

November 12, 2003

Comments a problem....

Readers & fellow bloggers, I've gotten a request (demand more like it) that I do something about the CGI scripts that are overloading my webhost's server. This is the second time in two months this has happened, and I don't have the time to move to another webhost right now. So, I have turned off comments. Godless or someone else can install haloscan or one of the commenting systems out there that aren't locally hosted. I will be inquiring with my webhhost if I can reinstall comments on our servers that are based on PHP, which should have a much smaller foot-print. I would like to bitch about our webhost...but this is the second webhost that we have crashed, so I guess we're just too popular.

Anyway, hope you understand.



Godless here. Just wanted to remark that this is temporary. We may install something like Haloscan as a stopgap, or else we might move directly to PHP. But we will have comments available again in the (very) near future. Till then, feel free to use the message boards to tell us why we're totally wrong/right.

Posted by razib at 11:16 PM | | TrackBack

No, not saltationism....

Research Sheds New Light on Process of Evolution:

For more than a century, scientists have concluded that a species evolves or adapts by going through an infinite number of small genetic changes over a long period of time.

However, a team of researchers, including a Michigan State University plant biologist, has provided some new evidence that an alternate theory is actually at work, one in which the process begins with several large mutations before settling down into a series of smaller ones.

Here is the abstract in Nature.

Posted by razib at 05:28 PM | | TrackBack

Opinion strikes again

Titled The difficulties of dealing with race, this article is a paean to white self-hatred and contempt. It had this choice quote:

I read quotes like this from Ann Cook: “Caucasians, especially the U.S. variety, are noted for their ruthless destruction of the cultures of others — whatever parts they can reach — and their vulgarization of what remains.”

Of course I agree. How dare I not? Cook also writes, “Even though I identify with other colored peoples of the world, since we all share a common exploiter, and I know that being the majority of the world’s population, we should unite to defeat this man . . .”

To which I think, well . . . yes. Judging from history, the white man probably should be completely annihilated.

This I think is a part of the result of the victory of the camp of Opinion, the contributions in science, statecraft and morality, facts, are irrelevant in the face of political resentments. Simply by rhetorically assaulting the Western contribution to world civilization, or more properly, the Westernization of world civilization, a small cadre of writers have changed the very nature of the historical record in the minds of a vast number of bright minds seduced by the likes of Opinion. Any factual rebuttal falls on deaf ears, after all, facts coming out of the dominant Western power structure are simply opinions, and politically unpalatable ones at that.

Finally, I bold-faced "the vulgarization of what remains" for a specific reason: I was born in Bangladesh (though to some privilege on a relative scale), and vulgarization would be a large improvement in many ways. But what do I know, my main role is to play the sinless colored who acts as the receptacle for white guilt and self-flagellation.

Posted by razib at 03:26 PM | | TrackBack

What is a Bobo?

Just curious what readers think. David Brooks said this about bobos:

A bobo is a bourgeois bohemian. These are the people who are thriving in the information age. They're the people, you go into their homes and they've got these renovated kitchens that are the size of aircraft hangars, with plumbing. You know, you see the big sub- zero refrigerators and you open the door and you think, they could stick an in-law suite in the side. So these are the people who are really making a lot of money, and I spent the last few years going across upscale America looking at the people who are really thriving in the information age. And one of the things, the chief characteristic I noticed, was that they've smashed the old categories.

Spending 1.5 weeks in Houston, it was funny going around town and stumbling across "Boboish" enclaves, some of the same stores that are mentioned in Bobos in Paradise are clustered together!

Posted by razib at 03:15 PM | | TrackBack


In response to some comments on my earlier post, I should make it clear that I don't deny that there are IQ differences between nations, and I don't deny that they could be important (see the last para of my post). It is also quite possible (and on a priori grounds quite likely) that there are some genetic differences in IQ between populations that have evolved in partial isolation from each other and under different selective conditions. There are genetic differences in everything else, so why not IQ?

All I say is that:

(a) it is technically difficult to compare IQ in different countries, so the figures may not be robust, and

(b) even on a strongly hereditarian view of IQ, such as Jensen's, the level of environmental differences between developed and 3rd-world countries would be expected to produce a substantial IQ deficit. I don't think anyone has yet challenged my argument on this point.

Posted by David B at 02:18 AM | | TrackBack

November 11, 2003

Let us presuppose....

In my previous post titled "Fact or Opinion" the Opinion character is probably most easily mapped onto someone of fashionable Leftish views. But the Fact/Opinion dichotomy was not simply a way for me to skewer the Left-many of the arguments of the Intelligent Design movement use the methods of Opinion, though the ends are far different[1]. See this post over at Carl Zimmer's blog parodying the "equal time" camp that wishes scientists were less "dogmatic" about evolution in the context of the Texas textbook debate.

An extreme case of Christian theology and philosophy existing in a hermetically sealed intellectual climate is the presuppositionalism of the conservative Calvinist tradition. Roughly speaking, presuppositionalism simply assumes the existence of God and the inerrancy of the Bible and uses these two axioms to construct an alternate mental universe. My link to the term methodological naturalism in the prior post was in fact to a presuppositionalist Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga. Though not all conservative Christians are presuppositionalists, nor are they Calvinists (Presbyterianism being the mainstream Calvinists tradition in the United States), I believe that their ideas do influence the Christian Right. Terms like "methodological naturalism" are probably more likely to be used in conservative Christian intellectual circles, because methodological naturalism is the default position in the sciences, so it needs no definition or elaboration. I also find it interesting that Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, who has spoken of both methodological naturalism and the use of Post Modernist critiques in the deconstruction of evolutionary theory, is a Presbyterian by faith. I suspect he knows of of presuppositionalism, and the new scientific paradigm that he proposes to replace methodological naturalism will probably owe some debt to thinkers like Cornelius Van Till and Alvin Plantinga.

The moral of the fable is this: the balance between skepticism, empiricism & rationalism that characterizes modern natural science, and has traditionally influenced the methods of scholarship in the West in the past few centuries, is under assault from many perspectives. Opinion seems to have fallen in love with skepticism, while the presuppositionalists are excessively rationalistic in the context of their theological axioms. Personally, I believe these attacks on the established intellectual orthodoxy is somewhat natural, in that animism, supernaturalism, vitalism, idealism, etc. and the modern movements that borrow and expand upon them, are part of our species mental substrate, while the Enlightenment Tradition is profoundly alien and unnatural, emerging out of complex interactions between the various mental modules that act to check and balance their individual excesses. The Liberal Moment in history has been waxing for the past 50 years, if those of us who are partisans of that tradition in its most broad sense wish to perpetuate its dominance, we must be wary of philosophical and social movements that aim to tear down its intellectual pillars in the interests of greater moral or religious goods.

fn1. Of course, Christians who use the methods of Post Modernist Critique don't accept the premises that undergird them, but they are pragmatic in that they understand in a pluralistic society they can't achieve a monopoly position for their Truths and so simply try to attain the most favorable perch possible-by any means necessary.

Posted by razib at 03:56 PM | | TrackBack

Charles Murray interview

Interview with Charles Murray (audio format) online about his book Human Accomplishment. I've read it once already, and am in the process of a second read through-with special focus on the footnotes. By chance I purchased and also just read the book The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History (one of the authors wrote Plagues and Peoples). If you like the big picture, these are books that will sate your appetite, with Murray focusing on the quantitative generalities and the father-son historian team of William & John McNiell adding qualitative detail[1].

fn1. The McNiell's incorporate much of the material in Guns, Germs and Steel and add a mind-blowing level of granular focus on specific items that will be sure to fascinate.

Update: William McNeill's critique of Jared Diamond is now in the extended entry-must read!.

History Upside Down

By William H. McNeill

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond

Norton, 480 pp., $27.50

Guns, Germs, and Steel is an artful, informative, and delightful book, full of surprises for a historian like myself who is unaccustomed to examining the human record from the vantage point of New Guinea and Australia, as Jared Diamond has set out to do. The book is oddly titled, for Diamond has little to say about guns and steel, though he devotes a chapter to the role of germs in human history. A better title would be History Upside Down: A Biological View of the Human Past. But the author, a researcher in "evolutionary biology and biogeography" specializing in birds, would surely object to such a description of his book, arguing instead that it is historians who err by approaching their subject downside up, thanks to their myopic concentration on literate societies and the last five thousand years of history. No matter: there is nothing like a radically new angle of vision for bringing out unsuspected dimensions of a subject, and that is what Jared Diamond has done.

Diamond frames his book around "Yali's question." Yali, a politician of some note in his native New Guinea, overtook Diamond while he was walking along a beach there in 1972, and during a lengthy conversation asked, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" "Cargo" means all the useful material objects—metal axes and the like—that Europeans introduced to New Guinea, whose peoples still used stone tools, resembling those of Europe's Neolithic Age, when traders from Europe first showed up on the island's coasts a few hundred years ago. As Diamond says, such

huge disparities must have potent causes that one might think would be obvious.
Yet Yali's apparently simple question is a difficult one to answer. I didn't have an answer then. Professional historians still disagree about the solution; most are no longer even asking the question…. This book, written twenty-five years later, attempts to answer Yali.

The easiest answer is to attribute differences in levels of human technology and culture to innate differences in the minds and bodies of the various peoples concerned. "Today," Diamond explains, "segments of Western society publicly repudiate racism. Yet many (perhaps most!) Westerners continue to accept racist explanations privately or subconsciously." But, according to Diamond, "modern 'Stone Age' peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples." That, he suggests, is because biological selection in Eurasian civilized societies was mainly for body chemistry resistant to infectious diseases which "had little to do with intelligence," whereas in New Guinea the major causes of death were "murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems in procuring food. Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality," with the result that "natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was instead more potent." Why then, Diamond asks, "did New Guineans wind up technologically primitive, despite what I believe to be their superior intelligence?"

Diamond's answer is simple in principle, but complex (and largely dependent on inference) in detail, for he asserts that "the roots of inequality in the modern world lie far back in prehistory…because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves." This sort of geographic reductionism is radically out of fashion these days, and Diamond's thesis, so baldly stated, seems unlikely to win many converts. Yet he makes a good case for the critical importance of

continental differences in the wild plant and animal species available as starting materials for domestication. That's because food production was critical for the accumulation of food surpluses that could feed non-food-producing specialists, and for the buildup of large populations enjoying a military advantage through mere numbers even before they had developed any technological or political advantage.

In addition, toward the end of the book he discerns three additional environmental factors that are relevant to answering Yali's question because they have an affect on the frequency of technical inventions and the rates of their spread. These are: (1) mountains, deserts, and day-lengths, varying with latitude and "affecting rates of diffusion and migration, which differed greatly among continents," (2) distances across open water, "influenc-ing diffusion between continents," and (3) "continental differences in area or total population size." Diamond concludes:

Those four sets of factors constitute big environmental differences that can be quantified objectively and that are not subject to dispute. While one can contest my subjective impression that New Guineans are on the average smarter than Eurasians, one cannot deny that New Guinea has a much smaller area and far fewer big animal species than Eurasia.

Quite so. No one can doubt the general accuracy of Diamond's account of the environmental differences that he makes so much of. Yet one can doubt whether there was not greater scope for what I would call "cultural autonomy" than is allowed by Diamond's effort to reduce (or raise?) history to the level of the biological sciences. What I have in mind is the way the propagation of an idea or cluster of ideas can provoke a group of human beings to alter their concepts of reality, and then by acting accordingly make all sorts of changes in their social and physical environments. It seems clear to me that human beings have been doing this ever since the invention of language permitted our ancestors to construct a world of shared symbolic meanings, and then to begin to adjust individual behavior to fit the needs and expectations of those around them. Indeed, personal and collective behavior shaped by shared meanings is what distinguishes us from other species. It is the hallmark of humanity. Diamond's effort to make human history "scientific" by emphasizing the tyranny of natural environments while neglecting the way diverse symbolic worlds shape and reshape human societies and their physical environments thus seems misguided.

Diamond does not explicitly dismiss conscious human action as a factor in history. Indeed he recognizes the importance of language and is, in fact, deeply interested in, and extraordinarily well informed about, the linguistic history of humankind. It is rather that he seizes upon the early era in the unfolding of human capacities when food production was getting started some 13,000 years ago, and then, with a single leap of the imagination, attributes all the contemporary differences among human societies to the relative advantages particular populations have enjoyed as a result of the differences in the plants and animals available for domestication in different parts of the earth.

No doubt prevailing tendencies and customs are always constrained by environmental factors. Yet the vast differences in the wealth and power that different human societies have at their command today reflect what long chains of ancestors did, and did not, do by way of accepting and rejecting new ways of thought and action, most of which were in no way dictated by, or directly dependent on, environmental factors. But Diamond seems to think that cultural innovation is a mere reflex of numbers, because "all human societies contain inventive people." And since, when agriculture was new, local distribution of the numbers of human beings did depend rather directly on the crops and domesticable animals that happened to be available on different continents and more isolated islands like New Guinea, he feels justified in treating the usual subject matter of history, i.e., everything that has happened since, as no more than a natural process of elaboration whose pace and direction have been ineluctably dependent upon, as well as derived from, prehistoric differences in local agricultural resources.

He is, of course, well aware of how his effort to envision humankind as a biological species competing and cooperating with other species in the food chain departs from prevailing notions about the human past. "Among other factors relevant to answering Yali's question," he says,

cultural factors and influences of individual people loom large. To take the former first, human cultural traits vary greatly around the world. Some of that cultural variation is no doubt a product of environmental variation, and I have discussed many examples in this book. But an important question concerns the possible significance of local cultural factors unrelated to the environment. A minor cultural feature may arise for trivial, temporary local reasons, become fixed, and then predispose a society toward more important cultural choices, as is suggested by applications of chaos theory to other fields of science. Such cultural processes are among history's wild cards that would tend to make history unpredictable.

Does unpredictability make human history irredeemably unscientific? Diamond does not commit himself. Instead he dodges the question by arguing that the significance of

cultural idiosyncrasies, unrelated to environment and initially of little significance,…constitutes an important unanswered question. It can best be approached by concentrating attention on historical patterns that remain puzzling after the effects of major environmental factors have been taken into account.

If so, what historians usually concern themselves with is no more than a bothersome residual left over after the material, biological constraints on human existence have been scientifically studied and understood.

I do not accept Diamond's dismissive appraisal of "cultural idiosyncrasies unrelated to environment." A more persuasive view might be to suppose that in the early phases of our history, when technical skills and organizational coordination were still undeveloped, human societies were indeed closely constrained by the local availability of food, as Diamond convincingly argues. But with the passage of time, as inventions multiplied and more effective modes of coordinating collective effort across space and time were adopted, the course of human history became increasingly autonomous simply because our capacities to reshape actual environments to suit our purposes became greater and greater. Cultural idiosyncrasies—systems of meaning constructed out of nothing more tangible than words and numerical symbols, and largely independent of any external referent whatever—came into their own. This is the ordinary domain of history; and Diamond is wrong to dismiss it as a mere reflection of differences of population densities arising from the initial domestication of different plants and animals in different parts of the world.

All the same, those initial constraints were never entirely overcome. As we all know, Amerindians never caught up with Eurasians, still less did the peoples of New Guinea. By emphasizing those constraints and their enduring effects across subsequent millennia, Diamond therefore draws attention to an important dimension of the human past. Indeed, his account of the domestication of plants and animals and the subsequent expansion of linguistically distinct groups of food-producers at the expense of older populations of hunters and gatherers is a brilliant tour de force. Except for a few rhetorical exaggerations, his reconstruction of what happened in neolithic prehistory struck me as very convincing, and much of what he has to say about developments in South-east Asia and the islands of the southwest Pacific was nothing short of a revelation.

After posing Yali's question (and giving its most summary answer) in the prologue, Diamond divides his book into four parts. The first part presents three short, contrasting stories, dramatizing the development of diversity among human societies from initial stages of simplicity and near-uniformity. Accordingly, the first chapter sketches human evolution and the simple and uniform life of hunting and gathering bands. Then, beginning about 13,000 years ago, food production got going in several different parts of the earth, and inaugurated radical inequalities among the populations concerned, populations that Diamond sees as the ancestors of those peoples Yali asked him about.

He then sketches "a natural experiment of history" by showing how diversely Polynesians exploited the natural resources of different Pacific islands—coral atoll, volcanic peak, or continental fragment (New Zealand), as the case might be. For example, small communities in the Chatham Islands turned into peaceable bands of hunters and gatherers because the climate was too cold for the tropical crops their predecessors had relied upon. At the opposite extreme, in the tropical and relatively spacious islands of Tonga and Hawaii, fertile volcanic soils sustained the development of intensive agriculture, radical social differentiation, organized warfare, and large-scale political consolidation. Diamond uses this example to show how geography can cause differences among human societies that have a common starting point, and how such features of civilization as class differences, warfare, and imperial governance emerge, as it were automatically, from a mere multiplication of numbers resulting from intensive food production.

In a later chapter, Diamond highlights the proximate factors behind European expansion in modern times by recounting how Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire of Peru. Diamond attributes Pizarro's success to steel weapons, guns, horses, disease germs, maritime technology, centralized political organization, and superior information, thanks to writing and printing. "The title of this book," he observes,

will serve as shorthand for those proximate factors, which also enabled modern Europeans to conquer peoples of other continents. Long before anyone began manufacturing guns and steel, others of those same factors had led to the expansions of some non-European peoples, as we shall see in later chapters.
But we are still left with the fundamental question why all those immediate advantages came to lie more with Europe than with the New World.

Accordingly, the next two parts of his book address the "questions of ultimate causation" of contemporary human inequalities. The section called "The Rise and Spread of Food Production" is the heart of the book. The successive chapter titles show both its scope and the author's rhetorical playfulness: "Farmer Power: The roots of guns, germs, and steel"; "History's Haves and Have-Nots: Geographic differences in the onset of food production"; "To Farm or Not to Farm: Causes of the spread of food production"; "How to Make an Almond: The unconscious development of ancient crops"; "Apples or Indians: Why did peoples of some regions fail to domesticate plants?"; "Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle: Why were most big wild mammal species never domesticated?"; and, finally, "Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes: Why did food production spread at different rates on different continents?"

These chapters convincingly show how Eurasia, the combined continents of Europe and Asia, outstripped Africa, America, Australia, and all the lesser islands of the earth, partly because domesticable plants and animals in Eurasia were better suited to human needs than those anywhere else, and partly because the size and shape of Eurasia allowed larger populations to interchange crops and techniques more quickly and across longer distances than anywhere else.

Diamond regularly goes out of his way to emphasize the basic importance of food supplies.

In short, plant and animal domestication meant much more food and hence much denser human populations. The resulting food surpluses, and (in some areas) the animal-based means of transporting those surpluses, were a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies. Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents.

Diamond's account of why relatively few herd animals can be successfully domesticated was news to me. He explains that the wild ancestors of domesticated large mammals maintained "a well-developed dominance hierarchy among herd members," and that this "is ideal for domestication, because humans in effect take over the dominance hierarchy," thereby creating a social structure bringing humans and animals into a new symbiosis. Diamond goes on to explain why, for this and other reasons, efforts to domesticate apparently promising species like African zebras, Peruvian vicuñas, and Asian cheetahs all failed; but he does not discuss why American bison have never been domesticated. Bad disposition? Tendency to panic? Do these characteristics counteract the social dominance hierarchy which, I believe, prevails among buffalo herds as it does among wild horses and cattle? Diamond never raises the question; but the failure of American Indians to domesticate the buffalo surely magnified their handicaps vis-à-vis European intruders.

Diamond's observation that some of the major fertile regions of Eurasia lie at approximately the same latitude, so that crops can travel east and west without having to adjust to seasonal differences in day-lengths, was also an eye-opener for me. He argues that this accident of geography facilitated crop exchanges across the breadth of the continent, thereby enlarging local food supplies, provoking population growth, and in general accelerating the elaboration of civilized forms of society throughout Eurasia. By contrast, both the Americas and Africa extend north-south across many degrees of latitude. This meant that crop exchanges between fertile regions in different latitudes required genetic alterations in order to synchronize sprouting, flowering, and fruiting with different seasonal patterns. In particular, he points out that the spread of maize from its heartland in Central America was hindered by the fact that its growth pattern, linked to changing day-lengths, had to wait many centuries for random genetic variation to produce plants adapted to different latitudes.

Perhaps Diamond makes too much of Eurasia's east-west axis. After all, India and Southeast Asia occupy different latitudes from Europe, the Middle East and north China; and the deserts and highlands of central Asia pose obstacles to diffusion of crops comparable to any in Africa or America. All the same, by emphasizing climatic and geographical obstacles to the diffusion of crops and other useful innovations within the Americas and Africa, he brings out an important dimension of the past which I had never considered before.

Diamond's Part Three, entitled "From Food to Guns, Germs, and Steel," condenses recorded history into four very interesting but radi-cally inadequate chapters—inadequate, that is, in describing the richness and complexity of the cultural innovations and interactions that actually took place in Eurasia and beyond from neolithic times to the present. Yet Diamond's criteria for inclusion and exclusion are, as usual, clear, logical, and explicit. "Farmers," he explains,

tend to breathe out nastier germs, to own better weapons and armor, to own more-powerful technology in general, and to live under centralized governments with literate elites better able to wage wars of conquest. Hence the next four chapters will explore how the ultimate cause of food production led to the proximate causes of germs, literacy, technology, and centralized government.

What he says about how infectious diseases, systems of writing, technological inventions, and political structures arose among human societies is well informed. But his point of view is provocative, for he argues that each process was the natural, inevitable result of geography interacting with increasing human numbers. This leaves scant room for human ideas and ideals, and it leads Diamond to disregard the emergence of modern science entirely and to treat religion as a mere device for making complex societies more formidable. "The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy," he remarks, and goes on to explain:

Besides justifying the transfer of wealth to kleptocrats, institutionalized religion brings two other important benefits to centralized societies. First, shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing each other—by providing them with a bond not based on kinship. Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificng their lives on behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or resisting attacks.

A biologist accustomed to studying ants or birds may find such an account of the usefulness of religion convincing. I do not, and feel that Diamond's reduction of the tangled web of recorded history to four natural processes, each apparently evolving independently of the others, is a clever caricature rather than a serious effort to understand what happened across the centuries and millennia of world history.

The last part of the book is made up of four far more satisfactory chapters dealing with the separate histories of Australia and New Guinea, of East Asia, and of the expanse of Austronesia—the vast region of the Pacific extending from Madagascar to Easter Island, in which ethnologists find island peoples speaking related languages. This is followed by a brisk comparison of Eurasian with American history. Once again, much of what Diamond has to say in these chapters was entirely new to me. I was not previously aware, for example, that archaeological investigation in the uplands of New Guinea seems to show that inhabitants of those secluded valleys resorted to food production not very long after the earliest known development of agriculture in the Middle East; and they may have contributed sugar cane and bananas to the rest of the world in subsequent centuries.

Diamond's account of how speak-ers of Austronesian languages expanded their domain across enor-mous distances was also a surprise. Starting from the southern coastlands of China, he tells us, they first colonized Taiwan, and there presumably invented outrigger canoes and used these seaworthy craft to occupy an extraordinary variety of new environments, including Indonesia and part of the Malay peninsula as well as Madagascar, far across the Indian Ocean to the west, and even the more distant trans-Pacific Polynesian islands to the east. Linguistic affinities and archaeology provide the basis for this reconstruction of one of the most far-ranging human migrations of all time. I had never before understood how its separate episodes combine into a single pattern.

I was less impressed by the epilogue entitled "The Future of Human History as a Science." Diamond begins modestly, declaring that

a host of issues raised by Yali's question remain unresolved. At present, we can put forward some partial anwers plus a research agenda for the future, rather than a fully developed theory. The challenge now is to develop human history as a science, on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology.

He hopes "to quantify further, and thus to establish more convincingly the role of, intercontinental differences …that appear to be most important." In addition, "smaller geographic scales and shorter time scales than those of this book" are needed to discover why, within Eurasia, Europeans "became politically and economically dominant in the modern world."

He hopes, or perhaps merely wishes, to discover that environmental factors will suffice to explain European dominance. But the dozen pages he uses to "at least indicate the relevance of environmental factors to smaller-scale and shorter-term patterns of history" are thin and contain several dubious statements and at least one clearly incorrect remark.[*] I conclude that Diamond knows a lot about prehistory and linguistics, but that he has never condescended to become seriously engaged with the repeated surprises of world history, unfolding lifetime after lifetime and turning, every so often, upon single, deliberate acts.

Diamond concludes his book by admitting that

it is much more difficult to understand human history than to understand problems in fields of science where history is unimportant and where fewer individual variables operate…. But introspection gives us far more insight into the ways of other humans than into those of dinosaurs. I am thus optimistic that historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of dinosaurs—and with profit to our own society today, by teaching us what shaped the modern world, and what might shape our future.

Quite so: but introspection, surely, tells us that conscious purposes and shared meanings govern much of human behavior; and a science of history that leaves this dimension out, as Diamond's does, is unlikely to explain satisfactorily the modern world or any other part of the human record.


[*] "Under Alexander the Great…power finally made its first shift irrevocably westward," because, as he goes on to explain, the "ecologically fragile" environments of the Middle East had been destroyed by human actions. This conveniently disregards the fact that Middle Eastern Muslims exercised world primacy for about four centuries after 632 AD.


June 26, 1997: Jared Diamond, 'GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL'

Posted by razib at 03:18 PM | | TrackBack

American Exceptionalism

This Economist article on the above topic is interesting, especially the graphs showing an inverse relationship between American and European responses as to "Religion plays an important role in my life" and the most important function of government is "to guarantee no one is in need."

Europe is increasingly effete for a reason. Might American religiosity be a source of national power, rather than an intellectual embarassment?

The decadent left has always attacked religion for obvious reasons-it cuts into the State's market share. Now a new faction of scientific realists ("brights" is just too ridiculous) attacks it from another angle. Just the other day, a very smart fellow told me the Declaration of Independence failed scientific scrutiny. No doubt he's right, but the virus-like quality of that idea has the potential to destroy the body politic.

As Parapundit and Razib correctly note infra, many totalitarians claim God on their side. That hardly ends the debate, however. Secular totalitarianism is far from dead. The "sharp and educated" may prove just as much a threat in the end as "massive unskilled immigration."

Posted by martin at 10:37 AM | | TrackBack


Interesting (and alarming) article here by Leo McKinstry in a recent issue of The Spectator (UK).

Inter alia the article claims that the American Psychiatric Association is discussing classifying 'racism' as a mental disorder. Anyone know about this?

Posted by David B at 03:47 AM | | TrackBack

November 10, 2003

God-the problem? Conservatism, the answer?

ParaPundit notes that secular ideologies have no monopoly on totalitarianism. In this context, he is referring to Islam. God can be fuel for the totalitarian fire, this is no discovery for the liberal imagination.

And yet recently I was thinking, "Why do I label myself a conservative when I consistenly map onto a libertarian set of values?" I can give you a long explanation of why, but I realized that the short answer is Islam! I just don't see a sensitive liberal being able to make scathing criticisms of the Islamic faith as backward, medieval and illiberal[1]. Contrarian Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens for instance is now considered a neoconservative by some for his aggressive take on foreign policy and his hostility toward conservative Islamic piety. Now, I suspect the man who wrote The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, and regularly excoriates organized theism in the generality, has not turned into a reactionary traditionalist Catholic. But, he has violated the modern liberal consensus of civility and respect for non-white cultural practices, ergo, he is now a "conservative." And so am I, and obviously for very personal reasons.

fn1. I do not deny that some of the vituperation against Islam, and more importantly Muslims, is bigoted, mean-spirited and grounded in ignorance. That does not mean that in response people of sound and reasonable intellect should abdicate our liberal values and traditions when interacting with peoples who engage in practices more befitting of the 8th century than the 21st. Certainly, liberals do not excuse the quaint micro-cultures of the American South their regressive social practices and fundamentalist religiosity (unless they are black of course) .

Posted by razib at 03:45 PM | | TrackBack

Fact or opinion

Assume two people get together to have some coffee.

"Fact" operates on the assumption that the senses can collect enough information to form an accurate picture of the world and that our reasoning capacities can construct theoretical models that have predictive power (ergo, congruency with reality). Fact is basically a methodological naturalist.

"Opinion" takes a more solipsitic tack, asserting that our view of reality is a construction of our minds, that we are influenced by preconceived notions and biases informed by our highly garbled (and already subjective) window on The-World-Around-Us. Opinion is the type of person who is wont to state that science is just another superstition.

Now, assume Fact and Opinion turn to expositing their positions on Human Nature. Fact makes a few statements that she believes align with reality. For instance....

  • Men are stronger physically than women
  • The human species is characterized by both cooperation and competition.
  • War is a human universal.
  • Patriarchy, more or less, seems to be the lowest energetic state transculturally.

Opinion thinks this is all bunk, he believes that such assertions are reflections of social biases and prejudices that have been constructed by the edifice of European patriarchy. The fact that Fact believes such things can have objective concreteness implies that she accepts the validity of the dominant power structure. Additionally, many of the traits that she believes are "natural," basically her essentialist positions, are most likely a reflection of genuine identification with the power structure. The raison d'être of the dominant European male patriarchy is the perpetuation of the status quo, war, competition and male physical & sociological subjugation of women, two gender categories which issue out of deep seated structural biases within the dominant paradigm in any case.

From the perspective of Opinion, though Fact seems to be a kind and compassionate person, the fact that she expresses such regressive opinions about human nature does not reflect well upon her consciousness of injustices wrought by the pervasive presence of the power structure that she aids and abets. Though Fact might not be evil, the opinions she expresses most certainly are, at least from the perspective of Opinion.

Stepping over to the other side of the mirror, Fact is a bit confused and amused by Opinion's opaque locutions and solipsistic rendition of "reality." Fact believes that Opinion is wrong, and in her more quizzical moments she might wonder if Opinion is wrong-in-the-head. But there is no great value judgement about Opinion's character from where she stands, and her own positions are absolutely provisional, pending further finds of fact or analysis.

The above thought experiment I have created encapsulates some of the problems encountered when the camp of Fact and the camp of Opinion engages in dialogue, at least from where I stand! While Fact maintains a high wall between is and ought, Opinion sees no great distinction and disputes the possibility of any accuracy in ascertaining an "is" in the first place, in which case, ought takes priority and suffuses all judgements.

Ultimately, such hyper-axiomatic caricatures are self-contradictory, Opinion after all shouldn't be able to pass judgement on Fact if all assertions are de-privileged. Additionally, I have been careful to qualify that Fact is a methodological naturalist to ward off charges of naive materialism. The negative light could be flipped around if Fact is portrayed in a Kelvinesque[1] manner and Opinion is viewed as a mild corrective that serves as a skeptical filter upon the premises of Fact's models.

But the reality on the ground is that the partisans of the camp of Fact tend to be a bit more moderate in their assertions, while the camp of Opinion in the commanding heights of the culture have slaughtered the camp of Fact in the humanities and are waging a ferocious pitched battle in the social sciences. In the natural sciences the camp of Opinion has used the leverage of politics to bludgeon any attempts to make statements about human nature that might conflict with the authority of its oughts.

And yet like the battles with the Creationists and assorted religious fanatics of all stripes, the camp of Fact has a difficult time taking the camp of Opinion seriously. After all, partisans of Fact wonder, "Can anyone doubt that those who assert the universe is 10,000 years old or that '...gender is but a social construction....' are daft, outside the bounds of reason and the circles of evidence?" On the other side, invigorated by their consilience of is and ought, the camp of Opinion is confident of the perfidy of their opponents, who produce "theories" that are clearly based on retrograde and destructive ideologies that buttress the established order and de-humanize those who are oppressed.

In many social contexts, it seems that the two camps are speaking past each other, not seeing the banality or political import in the talking points of the other. They exist as two dichotomous mind-sets in elite culture that are waging war across intellectual disciplines, and the participants in the individual battles often do not realize that the outcome of the conflict might determine the course of "Western" civilization....

fn1. William Thomson, or Lord Kelvin, stated at the end of the 19th century that all the great theories were under the umbrella of physics-only a few years before the emergence of Special Relativity and a generation before Quantum Mechanics revolutionized the field.

Posted by razib at 02:44 PM | | TrackBack