Karl Gallagher (selenite) wrote,
Karl Gallagher
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Geography, Culture, and Racism


We had an interesting sermon this Sunday. Rev. Roshaven gave us an overview of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. I was fascinated since theories of what drives history is an interest of mine. You need to understand mechanics to design a vehicle. Understanding how societies work is necessary for anyone who wants to design one for a science fiction novel, RPG campaign, or, um, real-life politics. Most people seem to have an instinctive feel for how things work but I'm enough of an autistic that the rules of human behavior have to be learned from square one.

I haven't read GG&S but I've read articles and excerpts and heard the sermon. The central theory is that the success of human groups has followed from the natural resources of the areas they happened to be in. The most important resource was animals and plants which could be easily domesticated. Once agriculture was developed it spread quickly into similar climates (east-west) and more slowly into others (north-south). The areas with that head start developed large populations which provided a bigger economic base for expansion as well as a breeding ground for disease (often caught from domestic animals). So the conquistadors not only had a military advantage but wiped out most of their opposition with plague.

This theory fills a real need for Rev. Roshaven--an explanation of the differences between groups that's *not* based on racial characteristics. You can preach "racial discrimination is wrong" at somebody all day long but if he sees the A's having more wealth/status than the B's he's going to assume it because the A's are better as a group or as individuals than the B's. So GG&S provides an explanation for the observed differences that's not based on B's being stupider, lazier, etc. than A's and people can respect each other as equals.

I agree that having a non-racist explanation of human differences is necessary for a healthy society, but it has to be a true explanation or it'll backfire. I've got serious qualms about how valid GG&S's theory is, both in accuracy and whether it's the driving explanation. The explanation of how hard some animals are to domesticate has an air of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The water buffalo's ancestor may have been as dangerous as the Cape buffalo, which kills more hunters than lions do. I have various other objections but I don't want to into detail on them, not having read the book, but I bought it last night so I'll be correcting that shortly.

The bigger problem is what it leaves unexplained. If all peoples use their available resources to the utmost, which did China fall behind Europe in the 1400's? China had printing, gunpowder, and ocean-going ships first, but centuries later couldn't even keep out European drug dealers. A good theory needs to explain why groups fall behind as well as how they get a good start. My favorite theory of history is described in Nonzero by Robert Wright. This tracks development in terms of how people learn to engage in win-win transactions ("non-zero sum games" to Game Theory professionals). People who learn a new technique for improving their life (from a rabbit-catching net to internet auctions) get more resources to support their offspring, letting them get ahead in the great Darwinian contest. The problem becomes how to divvy up the new resources among the workers, bosses, bystanders, and thieves. Societies which reward people who come up with new ideas prosper, those who take all the benefit or allow it to be stolen stagnate, and the advancing societies out-compete the laggards which disappear. Elites suppress innovation to keep from being displaced from below, but then are destroyed by more aggressive outsiders. So over time people are more encouraged to create. The growth from new inventions feeds itself by providing a greater population and resource base to support new innovations. This positive feedback loop keeps progress accelerating until we reach today's mix of high technology and personal freedom. And there's no sign of stopping or even slowing down.

The theories are a clash of geographic versus cultural determination. Diamond explains everything by the starting conditions people found on the ground, while Wright points to the increasing returns going to those who have good ideas and more people to share them with. Both assume that individual people have the same range of mental and physical abilities throughout the world. They can explain the visible differences between peoples without resorting to racism. But there's a key difference--Nonzero is a prescriptive theory. It tells those people lagging behind the best way to improve their situation--open up to foreign ideas, reward innovators, and give people more freedom to make their own decisions. I'm afraid the GG&S message may be heard as "you got dealt a bad hand, there's nothing you can do" which is the worst thing to tell people suffering poverty and tyranny.

So I'm giving Rev. Roshaven a copy of Nonzero tonight at the newcomers' meeting, we'll see what he thinks of it.
Tags: books, culture, engineering, politics, unitarians
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