Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Jared Diamond: The Superiority of Western Culture?

I ran across an incendiary article in the National Review written by an ex-military man at the Hoover Institute--a conservative think tank--at Stanford.

The article is an hysterical attack on Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, both books by Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA who's become a bona fide public intellectual, that rarest of American types.

Diamond is also a world class physician and ornitholgist. He may be the closest thing to a legitimate 'renaissance' figure in modern America. Guns, Germs and Steel continues to be one of the best selling books in America and around the world years after its publication.

When I say hysterical I don't mean funny hysterical. I mean hysterical hysterical. You can go to the National Review if you want to read this guy's screed, but I'd discourage you from wasting your time. His article got me thinking, though.

I'd guess a lot of you read Guns, Germs and Steel and some of you may have read Collapse.

If not, here's a very brief take on Diamond's books:

In GGS he asks why Europeans and their descendants ended up dominating the world.

He makes a very powerful and comprehensive argument from a number of scientific fields that Europeans enjoyed overwhelming environmental advantages beginning many thousands of years ago (well before the development of Greco-Roman civilization or Christianity). These advantages allowed them to develop more sophisticated civilizations than other peoples.

He argues that the Europeans used those advantages to create some of the greatest contributions to world civilization while also violently dominating the world and subjegating pretty much all of the non-European peoples. He avoids using moral language but some of the gross injustices that Europeans and their descendants inflicted on others is clear in his writing as he simply describes what happened in dispassionate terms.

In his take in GGS, European superiority in technology gave their conquerors superior guns and steel weapons, and superior European agriculture and farming (and longer term contact with domesticated animals) gave them resistance to the kinds of animal borne diseases that devasted the native peoples of the Americas and other parts of the "savage" world once they came into contact with Europeans and their pathogens.

In Collapse, he looks at how various cultures in the past depleted their environmental resources and destroyed themselves as a result.

I've given you only the barest outline of his writing, but it's probably enough for the discussion at hand.

To me, this guy seems like an honest person who looks for insights based on the scientific evidence. He also appears to be an iconoclast who doesn't mind poking people of every persuasion in the eye along the way. Or in other words, he's an unusually gifted scientist.

He's become very controversial among religious and political conservatives. Our friend at Hoover is simply the latest and one of the most silly examples of the wrath of the right.

For those kinds of folks--filled as more than a few of them seem to be with passionate tribal intensity--Diamond's a traitor and the enemy. Same old, same old response to anybody they disagree with. But in this case their reasons are actually interesting.

They think Diamond threatens the idea of the superiority of western culture and the belief in the historical blessing of God on European Christian culture and its descendants here in the US.

That's why the secular conservatives--who believe in the superiority of western culture and have become pretty fanatical about the idea of meritocracy--seem to really dislike the guy.

In their minds, if European dominance is primarily the result of unmerited environmental advantages and fortuitous historical accidents, any claim to superiority based primarily on "meritocracy" is dead on arrival.

Many religious conservatives also reject him because they want to believe that God has specifically blessed western culture because it's the historical home of Christianity.

They seem to believe that the significance of the Christian faith is diminished if the European peoples enjoyed dramatic and unmerited environmental and historical advantages which allowed them to develop powerful social, technological and religious forms as well as pathogens that killed tens of millions of non-western peoples on first contact.

I sort of understand why secular conservatives are upset.

They believe they deserve the advantages they have in our current society and world. Especially the wealthy among them. And they also believe that somehow the fairly recent ideology of American meritocracy is a timeless thing that works backward to the dawn of time.

Yes, I'm being a little facetious. But you know what I mean.

If Diamond is right the ideology of unfettered meritocracy takes a big hit.

But Diamond's point of view also offers the possibility of resting in a sophisticated form of Social Darwinism, which conservatives are very comfortable with, so I'm a little confused by the secular conservative reaction. Maybe they haven't read him as closely as they should and thought about it enough.

As for the religious conservatives, well, their reaction is truly a mystery.

From a religious point of view, Diamond convincingly demonstrates that divine providence gave the Europeans every undeserved advantage well before any Old Testament Patriach arrived on the scene.

I would think most serious Christians believe that God controls all of history and that the entire biblical faith is based on the idea of God's unmerited grace to undeserving sinners.

If God chose to bless the Europeans--even before they received and/or developed Christianity depending on your viewpoint--how exactly is that a problem for biblical thinking?

And if a people so blessed used those unmerited gifts to do as much evil as good in history, I guess I'm somewhat stumped by the conservative Christian reaction to Diamond.

Aren't those Christian types the folks who believe in original sin and the falleness of the world, and aren't the protestants among them the same people who believe that the church was pretty much of a wash from Constantine to the birth of Martin Luther?

Again, so why is Diamond considered the enemy of Christian people?

From their reactions you might think that conservative Christians have abandoned any biblical point of view and have simply adopted pure meritocracy (salvation and a second home by works alone) as their creed.

Now for the secular liberals.

They seem to love Diamond for reasons I don't really understand.

Diamond's whole argument is based on the idea of the clear technological, social and scientific--and in some ways moral and spiritual--superiority of western culture. He takes that for granted and then simply asks how that happened since people from many cultures seem as smart and as capable of sophisticated social, technological and moral achievement as the Europeans and their descendants.

You would think that would get people on the left up in arms. I wonder why they aren't. Hmmm....

One thing is very clear if you accept Diamond's argument: any idea that Europeans and their descendants have some kind of "biological" (read "racial") superiority is an illusion.

I'd love to hear any thoughts on all this. I think this whole thing is fascinating.


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