Saturday, August 20, 2011

Guns, Germs and Steel

I read Guns, Germs and Steel a few weeks ago when I was in China, making this post a few weeks old. I didn't realize, moreover, that the book was almost fifteen years old, published in 1997. That puts it in the sweet spot of irrelevance in a sense, because it's not so old that no one has ever heard of it, effectively making it new, nor is it so new that everyone's talking about it. It should be something of a required reading today given how fashionable scientific racism seems to be getting, at least on the Internet.

Guns, Germs and Steel seeks to answer the question of why it is that Eurasian societies advanced faster and further than societies in Australia, Africa and the Americas, ultimately becoming able to colonize them. The central answer it posits is geography.

Societies in Eurasia, generally speaking, were placed in locations where agriculture was possible. Geography, particularly, agriculture is so central to the fate of the world today that Diamond seems to be overreaching in the explanatory power he assigns to geography and agriculture. Agriculture, Diamond writes, was possible in the presence of favourable topography and climate, as well as the presence of plants and animals which were conducive to farming.

Nevertheless, it is a good explanation: societies which developed agriculture went on to evolve into densely-poplated states with large population bases. Contrast this with societies on Australia, where agriculture was prohibitive, population and population density very low and, consequently, there was no organization into societies which were large enough to conquer others.

Diamond is as much trying to answer a question that usually never gets answered seriously or gets answered with simplistic racism as he is trying to write a book against racism. That we over-extend by viewing things in terms of race is easy when you consider that one Maori tribe which conquered another, hitherto an equal, with the help of modern weapons would not be regarded as intrinsically superior, but Europeans who conquered indigenous Americans with the help of Chinese-developed weapons do get regarded as superior for doing so.

On the other hand, Diamond makes some leaps that are the sort of "reverse racism" (about as meaningful of a term as 'PIN number') practiced by well-meaning but misguided high school teachers. In particular, he argues that tribes living in Stone Age conditions on New Guinea are more intelligent than those of us in industrialized society because there are things they can do which we can't. While Diamond is able to correctly identify the fact that we can do things others can't because we have been trained to do so from childhood, he does not extend that some courtesy to explain why we can't do what the New Guineans can do.

As I read the book, I leaned more and more to the conclusion that even if Diamond is wrong and whites are smarter than blacks, what difference does it make? Modern racists on the Internet sometimes allow for the inclusion of Jews and some Asians as superior. Generally all racists, whether strict exclusionists or the more flexible, inclusive type, can agree on the inferiority of blacks and Hispanics.

If different ethnic groups are different in many ways, the argument goes, are differences in intelligence not possible? I personally would not be shocked if there were intellectual differences between ethnic groups, but one group would no more be "smarter" than one Jews are "healthier" than blacks by not having the gene for sickle cell anemia.

Moreover, the reality is that differences in the intellectual capacity of ethnic groups are only meaningful if that's how you see the world. If those of Russian descent are smarter than those of German descent, what does this information do for us? Should we let in more Russian immigrants than German immigrants? The smarter policy would be to simply let in those immigrants who can meet a certain standard, but that wouldn't work for those who see the world as consisting of various races, nations, ethnic groups or whatever allows them to feel superior.

What has been unfortunate for white racists has been their reliance on IQ tests, because those usually put scholastically-inclined East Asians and Jewish ethnic groups at the top. The options from there have been to broaden their appeal to include Jews, as Jared Taylor at American Renaissance has done, or to move away from being white supremacists to white nationalists preserving the uniqueness of the white race, as is more common nowadays.

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