Among the Intellectualoids

Jared Diamond on Western Civilization: ‘You Didn’t Build That’

Mitt Romney shouldn't be invoking this Pulitzer-winning purveyor of nonsense.

By 8.8.12

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When Mitt Romney made his remarks about culture accounting for the differing success made by Palestinians and Israelis in cultivating the meager resources of the Eastern Mediterranean, he was immediately pounced upon by the entire liberal world.

In response, Romney made a reference to Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond's 1996 Pulitzer-Prize-winning analysis of why different parts of the world have progressed at different rates. Diamond, being a good academic, fired back immediately with an op-ed in the New York Times in which he charged, "This is so different from what my book actually says that I have doubt whether Mr. Romney read it."

I also have doubts Romney has actually read the book because if he did, he wouldn't be enlisting it to his cause. Diamond's argument is completely dismissive of cultural achievement and reduces history to the impersonal causes. Quite simply, Diamond's argument is the academic equivalent to President Obama's now-famous remarks to the founders of small businesses: "You didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." Diamond's message to America and Western Civilization is, "You didn't build that. Something else made that happen." That something else is what he calls "biogeography."

I read Diamond's book about four years ago after all the Pulitzer Prizes had been awarded and frankly I never read such of mass of nonsense in my life. I wanted to register my objection but there was no logical place to put them. Now that it has become a campaign issue, I'm happy to have the opportunity.

Diamond's answer to why Europe and America have become so remarkably prosperous while most of the rest of the world has lagged, comes down to two words: "dumb luck." Rather than any of the cultural achievements that have characterized Western civilization -- the Judeo-Christian tradition, the respect for intellectual attainment, the rule of free institutions and individual rights -- Diamond says it's all a matter of "biogeography" -- what kind of plants and animals you had in your neighborhood and how easily they travelled from one region to another.

His main thesis, believe it or not, is that the Eurasian landmass, stretching from Gibraltar to China, lies on a horizontal axis, while Africa and the Americas are on vertical axes. As a result, it was easier for plant species, material goods and eventually ideas to flow along the Eurasian axis than it was for them to travel in Africa and the Americas. Because of this iron law of geography, civilization developed better in Europe and Asia than it did elsewhere.

Do you see any flaws in that argument? I can think of about six to start. But let's take a moment to allow Diamond to have his full say before we begin trying to evaluate his thesis.

Diamond began his quest in the 1960s while working, not as an anthropologist or geographer or developmental economist, but as an ornithologist studying birds in New Guinea. One day, as he recounts, he ended up in a long conversation with a local politician named Yali who eventually posed him with a question: "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," it should be noted, had been a big issue in New Guinea since Europeans and Americans arrived in great numbers during World War II. You may recall the story of the "cargo cults" that became a legend among anthropologists. Local tribesmen, seeing large airplanes landing with lots of "cargo," decided these were gods descending from the sky. Noting that these gods preferred to land on long airstrips, the tribesmen began clearing large swathes of jungle, hoping the gods would descend upon them with cargo as well. This went on right into the 1960s, when Diamond had his conversation.

Being a guilt-ridden academic far from home, Diamond could not respond as anyone else might: "It is probably our long tradition of scientific inquiry, beginning with the Greeks, that has led to our relative mastery of nature. Or maybe it was our centuries-long battle against magical thinking and superstition. Or perhaps it was the work of the great economists who struggled against popular and government opposition to free trade and commerce, arguing that exchange with other nations was the best route to prosperity -- a perception that has not entirely triumphed even today." Had Diamond been familiar with the work of Ludwig Von Mises (fat chance!), he might have refereed Yali to Human Action, the 400-page classic that brilliantly recounts the accomplishments of human ingenuity in shaping the modern world. None of this was on Diamond's radar, however, and so he set about putting together his own crack-brained theory about how vertical and horizontal axes account for the whole thing. In doing so, he was at least able to relieve every college professor in America of the embarrassment of having to defend their own culture.

Diamond's experience with Yali, it should be noted, was not at all uncommon. Practically every anthropologist who ever lived with a native tribe has been impressed at one point or another with their intelligence on specific subjects. Napoleon Chagnon, the one I happen to be reading now, is a University of Michigan anthropologist who spent twenty years living among the Yanomamo, a collection of tribes that straddle the border of Venezuela and Brazil. When he met them in the 1960s, the Yanomamo were spending all their time making war on their neighbors. Chagnon called them "the fierce people," thereby earning the opprobrium of every anthropologist in America, all of whom like to believe that that primitive peoples live in perfect peace and harmony with nature until they are corrupted by Western influences. Even among these "fierce people," however, Chagnon was constantly impressed at how intelligent his subjects could be in remembering long genealogies or intricate details from events that occurred twenty or fifty years ago.

Before the invention of writing, whole national sagas such as The Iliad and The Song of Roland were committed to memory. There are still people all over the Muslim world who have memorized the entire Koran. Human intelligence is not in short supply. It is the tasks to which this intelligence is put to that vary from one society to another. What else can we call these applications but "culture"? In fact, that would be a good definition of culture: "The tasks to which human intelligence are put in any given society."

All this had no place in Diamond's world, however. Here is his interpretation of world history as summarized in the Kirkus Review:

The long and short of it, says Diamond, is biogeography. It just so happened that 13,000 years ago, with the ending of the last Ice Age, there was an area of the world better endowed with the flora and fauna that would lead to the take-off toward civilization: that valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers we now call the Fertile Crescent. There were found the wild stocks that became domesticated crops of wheat and barley.… Once agriculture is born and animals domesticated, a kind of positive feedback drives the growth toward civilization. People settle down; food surpluses can be stored so population grows. And with it comes a division of labor, the rise of an elite class, the codification of rules, and language. It happened, too, in China, and later in Mesoamerica. But the New World was not nearly as abundant in the good stuff. And like Africa, it is oriented North and South, resulting in different climates, which make the diffusion of agriculture and animals problematic.… [A] fair answer to Yali's question this surely is, and gratifyingly, it makes clear that race has nothing to do with who does or does not develop cargo.

Now do you notice anything peculiar about this argument? How about that sentence, "But the New World was not nearly as abundant in the good stuff. And like Africa, it is oriented North and South, resulting in different climates, which make the diffusion of agriculture and animals problematic."

This "New World" being discussed here includes the United States of America, a continent-wide territory on a horizontal axis 3,000 miles wide that is now occupied by 330 million people living at the highest standard of living the world has ever known. When it was discovered by Europeans 500 years ago, it was occupied by somewhere between four and 12 million descendants of Asian immigrants scratching out a living by hunting-and-gathering or early agriculture. Does that suggest that something more than "biogeography" might be involved in the fate of nations?

The problem these academics create for themselves is that they do not seem to be able to distinguish between "race" and "culture." The two have nothing to do with each other. A culture can be adapted by any race of people and because different populations have evolved different cultures does not mean they are biologically or racially determined.

I am currently writing a book tentatively titled "Terrorism and Polygamy," which argues that monogamy -- a human construct entirely dependent on cultural norms -- has been the key factor in the peaceful progress of societies that have adopted it while polygamy -- a much more "natural" and biological determined arrangement -- has nevertheless created unstable societies characterized by great inequities and constant conflict among men. (I'm having trouble finding a publisher because, as you might expect, most houses are wary about printing anything negative about Muslims.) Chagnon's Yanomamo were fierce polygamists and frankly told him the reason they made endless war on their neighbors was that "We like women." Polygamy allows for the unlimited accumulation of women and invites constant raids of neighboring tribes.

Now consider Diamond's thesis that it was the "free passage of technology from East to West" that accounts for the progress of Europe and China. If that's all it takes, then why haven't Islamic countries -- which sit right in the middle of all this -- progressed at nearly the same rate? Could it be that Islam's sanction of polygamy has created unstable societies? And by the way, it isn't only plants, animals, and ideas that can travel East-to-West. The Mongol Hordes used this horizontal axis to conquer the largest empire in history, invading Europe in the 13th century with a cavalry line that stretched one hundred miles wide. The Mongols too were also fierce polygamists and genetic studies show that 12 percent of the current population of Tibet are direct descendants of Genghis Kahn. So is it possible that cultural norms, and not just access to neighboring societies, might be a better determinant?

There are enough ludicrous aspects to Diamond's thesis to occupy an entire Ph.D. thesis. Another of his arguments is that scientific discovery, is simply a matter of probability. The chances of discovering Newton's Laws may be only 1 in 100 million, but once you're reached enough population density, as Europe did after the Renaissance, then someone is bound to discover them. But if that is true, then how come Medieval China and India, which were much more densely populated, never produced similar ideas?

The answer, once again, is "culture." From the Renaissance onward, Europe developed a culture in which independent scientific thought was able to challenge religious and political elites, while at the same time a culture of unregulated enterprise enabled ambitious entrepreneurs to put new discoveries into practice. India and China, on the other hand, were dominated by oppressive bureaucracies that suppressed innovation and hoarded new discoveries to themselves. As Eric Hoffer pointed out long ago, by the 13th century, both India and Europe had the water wheel. In India, it was used to drive prayer wheels so Brahmins could be relieved of the task of praying every day. In Europe, it was employed to power grinding mills and eventually factories.

What's important to note, then, is that Obama tells small business owners, "You didn't build that," it is not coming out of his own head. The President is faithfully reiterating the prevailing opinion in today's academia, which is that success in building anything from new businesses to civilizations has nothing to do with individual achievement but is just a matter of circumstance and outside forces. Isaac Newton really didn't formulate those Laws of Motion, it was only the result of population density. Galileo didn't really discover the moons of Jupiter -- it was just a matter of knowledge passing from East to West.

Hopefully, the Era of Romney will be more than a period of economic revival. It will be an era when Americans are once again not embarrassed to take pride in their civilization. 

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.