Saturday, August 05, 2006

Guns, Germs and Steel

Why are human societies in different parts of the world so different? Why do the Europeans and the North Americans have more than they need while many Africans have nothing? Why do some societies have very complex political and social structures while other peoples consist of bands and tribes and no central government? Some say it's genetic. They point out to the colour on people's face and make a racist conclusion that those with lighter pigment are smarter inside, and therefore their societies are more "advanced". Others conclude that if you live further north you need to build things to adapt to the colder environment or you die, therefore the countries in the North are richer than those further down south. This is the favourite explanation of modern Finns and Swedes but unfortunately almost as wrong as the first one.

Jared Diamond provides a compelling explanation in his book. The book is almost ten years old now, and a bestseller, but for some reason I hadn't read it before. I must say that I hadn't really given much thought about the "civilisation-level" dynamics of world dominance, apart from playing Civilization myself... But, I've had more interest in the individual and small group cognition and "intelligence". And so I've refuted racist claims that tap into these issues without trying to find alternative reasons from the large-scale dynamics.

For instance, some people claim that there are IQ differences that are associated with "race" or nationality. I've not wasted much ammo to showing how tedious the whole notions of "race", ethnic group or nation are, instead I've gone straight to attacking the validity and reliability of the IQ-tests themselves. There are several problematic issues about them. First, they (and there are various around) only measure a narrow band in the vast spectrum of human intelligence. No matter how narrowly you define "intelligence" (leaving out for instance the now fashionable "emotional intelligence", which BTW is a stupid term as such) you will still end up with a definition that outreaches the test's subject matter. Second, they are very culture-specific. The whole idea of pen-and-paper tests is very Western, but even beyond this slightly patronising notion, the tests fail to cover what's considered significant or natural in other than the Western schooling/oriented societies. Even within our societies the test only manages to measure stuff you learn at school the way you learn to learn at school; and, the way you have learned to be tested on stuff you learned at school. That's why you can't even directly compare scores from different times. The scales are adjusted following the overall rise in schooling in the population.

So, if you can't really use the test to compare how smart you are compared to your 15 years older cousin, how can you possibly compare scores across continents, to people who don't share your language, have different societies and schools, and value different things? In short, you shouldn't. The IQ tests also only measure your current performance which might differ from your actual abilities because you're tired etc. The test results have been shown to change along with your arousal level, and for example when you get to listen to your favourite music prior to the test you are likely to score higher points. The test results always need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the pinches for cross-cultural comparison would need to be so big that they would constitute an unhealthy dose.

I'm babbling again, but as you see, nowhere in here do you need to actually answer the counter-arguments most racists are too stupid to make, but that have influenced them in the first place: the human societies are vastly different in today's world, others are undeniably more advanced, with almost any measure (not only the elusive IQ; I say almost any measure because "happiness" seems to correlate somewhat negatively with "wealth" which correlates positively with health, education, level of technology use and other measures that usually are associated with "development"). Diamond answers to those claims. He shows how today's uneven situation is a result of historical trends over at least the last 13 000 years, and that these trends were molded by environmental factors, not differences in the faculties of the people who make up the populations of these societies. He poses questions like 'why was it the Spanish conquistadores who with a relatively small troops in short time conquered the Inca and Atztec civilisations after 1492, and why didn't Atahuallpa's Incas sail to Portugal and Spain and take over Europe instead'.

The parts that are most detailed and convicing are his explanations about domesticable plants and animals in each of the continents. He sees the transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture as the main driving factor, as this allowed people to release some of their time from providing sustenance to themselves to innovation, political organisation, war, etc., and also motivated them to develope technology, tools and larger structures (such as irrigation and castles etc.) as they didn't need to constantly move with all their possessions or use all their time collecting food. As it turns out, the Eurasian continent is by far the richest in plants that could be (and eventually were) domesticated, and similarly boasted the best selection of domesticable large mammals, essential for agricultural lifestyle as providers of food, power, hides etc. But this is only the start, what follows is the interesting bit.

So, the folks in Eurasia had cows, pigs and sheep while the South/Americans only had their llamas. What is interesting is the fact that so much of the "technology" was adopted from others and so little was self-developed. In the whole world, the main crops were domesticated only a few times, the rest of the people got them through trade and conquest. Again, Eurasia won the race as everyone else very quickly adopted the cereal crops and animals that were domesticated in the Middle East. Here comes the second environmental accident: as the main axis of the continent lies in the east-west direction, the length of the growing season is more or less the same across a wide area, which facilitated the spread of the plants, animals, and pleasant life at the countryside. Much more effort was needed to trasfer crops in north-south direction due to rapidly changing circumstances. These, Diamond argues, are the ultimate causes for the different trajectories of human societies, on their way to becoming the haves and the have-nots of today.

Oh, the germs-part might need an explanation. Pizarro and the other conquistadores didn't need a big army, as they had people who carried smallpox and other deadly diseases. These diseases wiped out much of the population in those ancient, Southern and Meso-American empires, including their emperors. Not much was left to conquer, after the little bugs had done their part. These germs originated from the animals that European peoples shared their shelters and living spaces for thousands of years, and while they did their damage in the European populations as well, the Europeans had already developed some resistance to them, over the thousands of years of exposure. The incas hadn't, and the result was almost a total annihilation. This was unintended biological warfare, and another "gain" coming from the domesticated, settled lifestyle and the combination of animals there was initially available or easily adoptable. Malaria and other tropical diseases in Africa and Southern Asia are of course working "against" the Europeans, and as a result these areas were colonised much later, with the aid of modern medicine and the instant "adaptation" they provide to these illnesses.

The picture Diamond paints is compelling and manages to convince the reader of his main point: geographical features of the continents and the environmental "accidents" are responsible of the "ultimate causes" behind the different trajectories of the development of human societies around the world. He sees the increases in complexity of human societies a direct result of increased population size, increased technological standard as a direct consequence of the available resources and time to exploit them, and the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture as the major shift in the history of humanity. At his timescale of 13000 years and his scope of the whole world this might be (at least for a 400+ paged popular science book) fair enough. It is however important to also look at what he leaves out.

In human evolution (which of course takes place over longer timescales than what Diamond looks at, and it can be argued that no significant evolutionary changes have taken place at least during the last 30 000 years) the emergence of language, tool use etc. have been posited to much of the same causes that Diamond discusses. Growing population sizes, food availability etc. have been seen as factors that have on one hand driven evolution as it exerts a pressure to select for certain traits, and on the other as the consequences of these evolutionary advances. Now, with this mill churning for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years, humans had overtaken the world from other species, and thus it was the humans domesticating the pigs and not the other way around. Just as the evolution tends to be a complex mixture of forces and factors creating consequences over longer timescales, the later developments within the species homo sapiens sapiens are similarly increasingly complex.

If it's not the genes, it's the environment, but how about cognition? The early humans developed cognitive abilities far more complex than any other species, and these skills seem to be inextricably linked to the social environment of the individuals. Language, theory of mind, intentionality, music... just name any cognitive ability that humans seem to be especially good at and I show you how it benefits living together in larger and larger groups and more and more complex societies. While Diamond would argue that there are no significant differences between the cognitive capacities of a modern hunter-gatherer in Kalahari and a university professor in Cambridge, and I would agree, it would still be interesting to see how the different development trajectories were influenced by the ways these "universal" cognitive capacities were used in different places. Diamond discusses different languages and to some extent religions on a very superficial level, but leaves the rest of it to others. Of course, these are only proximal causes, as he says, not the ultimate ones, but I firmly believe that while all humans share the same mental machinery we use it in very different ways, and those differences are interesting and important. I don't like our understanding of our most fascinating organ and at the same time our understanding of ourselves as humans to be solely driven by research on Western brains and their users.

Finally, as I opened provocatively with comparing "Western" riches to African poverty, I must emphasise that any understanding of the causes of current distribution of wealth on the earth can not be taken as a valid excuse to leave things as they are. Europeans, not Africans were the ones to colonise the others' continent, and the development leading to the differences in the societies until then can be explained by Diamond's factors. But what happened then and keeps happening now was caused by political, military, and religious decisions and deliberate choices rather than "forces of nature", and the responsibility of those decisions still lies on the hands of the nations that took them.

Moreover, just as cultural evolution took over biological evolution as the shaping force of the humanity, the industrial and technological revolution should take over environmental and religious determinism and we should fulfill our moral obligation to rid the world of poverty and undue suffering. We are the first generation that can afford to do it. I believe that we can't afford not to.

Jared Diamond 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: A Short history of everybody for the last 13000 years. London: Random House.

(Pic of the cover of the original edition, published by W.W.Norton & Company Inc.)

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