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A Footnote on the racialism in Guns, Germs and Steel

Interventionist vs Non-Interventionist Politics/Policies

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Edited: Apr 20, 2007, 11:39am Top

This thread is a spin-off from a side-discussion in the only other (at this point) thread, where it was suggested it was a distraction from that other thread's main subject.

In that thread a book entitled Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or to Succeed by the author Jared Diamond was favorably quoted, and I replied, "(And I am shocked to see a liberal recommending favorably a book by Jared Diamond, whose views on racial superiority in intelligence, I should have thought, would have placed him beyond the pale.)"

I must admit I was teasing just a bit here, since I think a lot of Diamond, especially his Guns, Germs, and Steel, which raises very important issues about the "long view" of human development which I believe must inform all of our political thinking.

Anyway, LolaWalser asked "
From where do you get this?" and I promised to find the relevant quotes when I returned home and had access to my library.

Further exchanges went like this:

Lola My goodness, shocking "pages" of racist stuff in a Pulitzer-winning bestseller that no one until you has noticed! :)

It's been years since I read it, but I'll wager you seriously misunderstood him.

Me: Lola: Yes, of course I may have mis-read what he said. You can decide when I provide the quotes.

But on the other hand, perhaps his racialist speculations were overlooked, or looked upon benevolently, because they implicitly attacked a race that most of his readers despise. (The "cancer of humanity" one prominent intellectual called it.)

And by "pages", I meant that the relevant material is, on my edition, spread over two pages. And it is not a major thesis, just a casual observation.

On the other hand, it does definitely undermine the Dogma of the Blank Slate (all races and both sexes are absolutely equal in cognitive capacity -- all perceived differences must be due to the social environment). So I was surprised to see it pass without comment.

But before that happened, Lola apparently found the relevant passages, and interpreted them like this:

Lola Yes, now I'm certain you misunderstood him. While it may seem reckless to go out on a limb trying to guess which parts of the book you had in mind, I don't see that I have much choice, as I'd like to wrap up quickly and get this digression out of the way of the larger discussion.

So I'm going to venture a guess that it's in the very beginning, when Diamond speculates about (modern) New Guineans being mentally MORE able than (modern) Westerners. He bases this on his observation of their intellectual alertness and curiosity and contrasts this with (also his observation) the relative sluggishness and intellectual passivity of the Westerners.

Well, Diamond is a evolutionary biologist, interested in adaptations, and he proceeds to speculate that New Guineans exhibit these heightened-mental-activity traits in response to their environment, which presents them with constant and varied challenges. Briefly, there is less routine in the jungle than in the life of a couch potato.

Now, the question of whether New Guineans are "smarter" than the Westerners, isn't the one Diamond is posing or is interested in answering at all--he observed (correctly or not, but since HE lived there 33 years I'm inclined to believe at least his description of their abilities) a difference, and used his observation as a springboard for explaining differences in human societies in the evolutionary context, as adaptations to specific circumstances.

In fact, his entire main argument, the explanation of differences in human societies in terms of the environment and chance goes AGAINST racism, is the very opposite of its essentialism and fatalism! This is so glaring you must forgive me if I say it makes your misunderstanding positively comical.

Racism posits inherent unchangeable differences in so-called human "races": blacks were ever and ever will be (mentally etc.) inferior. Or, Jews were ever and ever will be superior.

Diamond, otoh, speculates how unique human intelligence--a flexible, develop-able, changeable, pan-human trait--adapted to the original (and in many cases still present) specific constraints of the biogeographical and historical circumstances in Australia, Europe, New Guinea, the Fertile Crescent, Mesoamerica and so on.

I hope this might help you to reconsider some of your conclusions, but if you wish to continue the discussion, perhaps we could start another thread so as not to derange the rest.

And so here we are!

So let's see what we agree on:

(1) Diamond observes that New Guineans are more intelligent than Westerners, in some respects at least. As he puts it: "From the very beginning of my work with New Guineans, they impressed me as being on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is. At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of brain function, such as the ability to form a mental map of unfamiliar surroundings, they appear considerably more adept than Westerners."

(2) He also notes that it is difficult to separate "innate" (a synonym, I take it, for "genetic") differences in intelligence from those induced by differences in the childhood "social environment".

(3) And he asserts that "tests of cognitive ability (like IQ tests) tend to measure cultural learning, and not pure innate intelligence, whatever that is". (Which does not keep him, quite rightly, from using the term "intelligence" without qualification elsewhere in his writing, since he and his readers know that there is indeed such a thing, even if it hard to pin down.)

(All the previous quotes and summaries are from page 20 of my version -- the Vintage paperback -- of Guns, Germs and Steel.)

Okay, so far this is just the Conventional Wisdom of American academia, deviated from at your peril if you are an academic and want to be in the club.

So, is he simply saying that the different social (or other) environment in New Guinea has caused New Guinean superiority in various cognitive functions, but that this has, of course, no genetic basis? (And anyway, "intelligence" is a problematic term?) This is what Lola asserts: their environment has given them this superiority.

That is, unlike, say, their skin color, the New Guineans' superior intelligence is not something that is biologically-rooted, and thus not passable to the next generations in ways other than culture, and thus something that non-New Guneans could potentially pick up if they were raised in the same environment -- "trained from childhood" as he puts it?

If so, what are we to make of the following quote, on the succeeding page, where we read (my emphasis):

"Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality in traditional New Guinea societies. However, the differential mortality from epidemic diseases in traditional European society had little to do with intelligence, and instead involved genetic resistance dependent on details of body chemistry. For example, people with blood group B or O have a greater resistance to smallpox than people with blood group A. That is, natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was instead more potent.

Besides this genetic reason, there is also a second reason why New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners." (Diamond goes on to blame the large amount of time European and American children spend in consuming passive entertainment, as contrasted with the active lives of New Guinea children, and then refers to child development studies which "stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation." I am skeptical about the validity of the latter assertion, which I believe is shallow pop psychology, but that's another issue.)

He concludes this paragraph by saying "This effect surely contribues a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans."

And he writes in the immediately following paragraph: "That is, in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners, and they surely are superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages under which most children in industrialized societies now grow up."

To summarize: Diamond believes that

(1) New Guineans are "superior to Westerners in mental ability" -- as are in fact other (non-white) groups: elsewhere (page 19) he says that "modern 'Stone Age' peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples... white immigrants to Australia do not deserve the credit usually accorded to them for building a literate industrialized society.."

(2) This "superior average mental function" has two causes:

(a) It is "probably" genetic, caused by different evolutionary selection pressures on Stone Age as opposed to European populations.

(b) It is also, more certainly, caused by the better childhood environment, from the viewpoint of cognitive development, enjoyed by the children of these Stone Age peoples.

Now is not (a) an argument for a possible genetic component superior cognitive functioning, the exact symmetric equivalent of, say, The Bell Curve/s arguments about African-descended people? Lola reads this and sees only (b)-- but (a) is there too.

Please note that I do not say it is wrong for that reason. Diamond may be right. Maybe intelligence, or some kinds of intelligence, is genetically-based, and maybe Europeans and their descendants are inferior in some aspects of cognition due to the different selection pressures they were under. That is a matter for further research, since there seems to me to be powerful arguments for both sides. I have no opinion on this issue (nor on the related issue of innate sexual differences in cognitive capacity) because it far beyond my expertise. The truth will gradually emerge, eventually, however unpleasant.

But just imagine if Diamond had concluded the opposite! Suppose he had written that his many years living with the New Guineans had convinced him that their mental functioning, in some aspects at least, was inferior to Westerners, certainly because of their inferior childhood experiences, and probably because of their genetic inferiority.

Can you imagine the reaction from American Academia, and its Thought Policemen at all levels? His person would have been threatened, his classes disrupted, his book would probably not have found a publisher, much less won a Pulitzer Prize. He might even have been standing in the unemployment queue along with Larry Summers.

So why is it that liberals just erase these words as they read Diamond, who is actually quite clear about his belief in the probable genetic roots of non-white mental superiority? What are the mental rationalizations through which they go?

I don't have an explanation, just some observations:

(1)Many Leftists (who tend to make the most noise on this issue) have a deep hatred, or at least disdain, for the white race -- Susan Sontag once called it "the cancer of humanity". So anti-white racism tends to get a pass. Racism can only be racism against non-whites, in their view.

(2) Perhaps they believe that Diamond was writing tongue-in-cheek, teasing us with a "reverse racist" argument in which he really does not believe? I have considered that possibility -- it's an approach to dialogue to which I am susceptible myself -- but if he is being ironic, he is concealing it very well.

(3) But I believe liberals and Leftists just blank out the plain meaning of these passages using the same mental process for suppressing cognitive dissonance that fundamentalist Christians use when confronted with, say, texts from the New Testament forbidding divorce except where one partner has committed "fornication".

They just don't want to accept what is plainly in front of their eyes, so ... they don't. Easy.

One other thought: maybe he is subtly trying to undermine the Thought Policemen's attempt to enforce the Standard Social Science Model of the "Blank Slate" -- if he can slip in the possibility that intelligence, or certain aspects of it, is genetically-rooted, then the principle is established, for further exploration.

That doesn't seem likely to me, but it's a possibility.

Psychologists love to regale us with stories of experiments designed to show how we refuse to process information that does not fit our preconceptions of what we should be seeing. (I think one such experiment has a man in a gorilla suit run through a basketball game which is being observed by subjects who are tasked to count the number of times the ball is passed. When questioned later, most of these observers cannot remember seeing anything unusual.)

Diamond's argument for the probable genetic basis for superior intelligence is the man in the gorilla suit, so far as his liberal readers are concerned.

Comic? Depends on your point of view. I can laugh at it, but I also remind myself that I am probably guilty of the same error somewhere else.

Apr 20, 2007, 12:01pm Top

A couple of things ... first, I don't know how anyone could logically say there ISN'T a genetic component to intelligence ... if intelligence has anything at all to do with the physical structures of the human brain/body, then doesn't it follow genetics are going to have some affect?

I think your "gorilla man" example is right on.

And I say this even though I consider myself to be a liberal social issues. To me, people who stress the idea that there are absolutely no innate differences between different populations (I won't say races here, because the concept is too vague for me) are just not credible ... on the other hand, it's also important to remember that 1) genetics aren't everything, 2)this concept means nothing when applied to any given individual, and 3) due to a lot of factors, I would think that many of these effects are kind of washed out except in very isolated populations ...

Apr 20, 2007, 12:15pm Top

Kromes: Yes, that's more or less my attitude. It shouldn't be a political issue at all, really.

We don't actually know enough about either genetics or intelligence yet to be too insistent on any particular factual proposition about either of them, in my opinion.

I just don't like to see political pressure close off any particular avenue of research.

Anyway, I suspect that sometime within this century, we, or rather our descendants, are going to start breaking free of the tyranny of our blindly-selected DNA, and begin applying our human reason to crafting it, in a much more radical way than we do now via the crude method of aborting those of our potential descendants who don't measure up genetically.

I speculate that the typical human of a couple of centuries from now may have a mix of all kinds of DNA from the various current tribes, assuming that desirable strains of it are differentially distributed among them.

Or we may even be inventing our own.

We'll probably all look like those beautiful Brazilians you see on the beach at Rio.

Edited: Apr 20, 2007, 7:08pm Top

Doug, I'm sorry but I don't have the time now to read your post in its entirety (I just replied to the one in Political Conservatives, btw), I only read up to here:

This is what Lola asserts: their environment has given them this superiority.

And I only want to remark quickly that you have to remember that (according to Diamond) they are superior in a certain regard and only in their environment.

Remember, Diamond says (paraphrasing) that they might appear stupid in a white-collar society, just as he felt HE appeared stupid in the jungle.

I'll try to get back over the weekend, if not, see you Monday.

ETA: (I just looked in the other thread):

Diamond's belief in the genetic superiority, with respect to mental ability, of one race over another is a tiny issue...

He believes no such thing. He demonstrated (to satisfaction or not) how different environments favour development of different abilities. New Guineans are the people best adapted to living like New Guineans, just like New Yorkers are best adapted to live like New Yorkers.

Apr 20, 2007, 9:38pm Top


I expect that we will start "crafting" our DNA soon, if it is not happening somewhere already. And I shake from fear at the prospect. Even if I do end up looking like a Brazilian Supermodel.

Apr 21, 2007, 2:12am Top

Mark: As an old sci-fi fan, I know the nightmare scenarios you are talking about. It could happen -- we seem to be able to turn every positive development into a force for evil as well as good. Just one more reason we need to do whatever we can to encourage the spread of liberal democracies, where the evil is at least somewhat contained.

Lola: Okay -- I appreciate that my screed is not to be quickly skimmed!

But notice the implication -- I think the implication can be made -- of what you are saying: if races are, genetically, adapted to their particular environments, including in terms of their cognitive abilities, then that would explain why a race taken out of the environment for which they have been adapted, mentally, and put into a different one, would do badly there. The wrong genes, you see.

This is, of course, precisely the racialists' case.

It may be true, I don't know. But it seems to me to be plainly what Diamond is saying.

Apr 21, 2007, 11:10am Top

I haven't yet read Diamond's books (still on the TBR stack), but it seems to me that this comes down to a difference in semantics, the operative terms might be capability and conditioning. Is there something inherently wrong with a race that makes them incapable of operating in a different society? I would say no, we all come from a common gene pool. Are they conditioned to struggle in a different culture? Absolutely. Children of immigrants often think their parents incapable when they are actually ill-conditioned.

Doug: I think that point is at the heart of our differences on another thread that I haven't gotten back to yet. Without an eternal set of values to make those choices, on what basis will we make them? By what we feel is best. In other words, from our base nature. So, in conquering nature, we shall become its slave. I really do believe my grandchildren will look like Brazilian supermodels (thanks to engineering and their hot grandmother). But that is not exactly appealing to the most important aspects of human nature, would you say?

Apr 21, 2007, 11:52am Top

#7: Our nature is not necessarily base. there have been studies showing altruism and kindness even in animals. We are apparently hard wired to have a morality and religious feelings - they exist in all cultures. When we conquer nature (which is really impossible since we are of nature ourselves) we only change what might have happened into something else (like vaccination or birth control). People thought the airplane would destroy civilization ("If God wanted us to fly, He would have given us wings"). The conflict in the minds of men and between religions and societies is in how we should live, and how much we should alter. Since we are not in the garden of eden, we have to make these choices based on whatever our belief system is. As far as the eternal set of values - they are always full of contradictions as "Thou shallt not Kill" with "Onward Christian Soldiers"

Apr 21, 2007, 12:03pm Top

Doug1943: I speculate that the typical human of a couple of centuries from now may have a mix of all kinds of DNA from the various current tribes.

We do already. We're all pretty closely related: no one on the planet is less than a 50th cousin of anyone else.

As markmobley says, this comes down to a difference in semantics.

The conservatives accuse Diamond of "racism" because he praised the mental abilities of people living in New Guinea.

Conservatives are projecting the way they understand the world: that the world is divided into "races", a taxonomy that they persist in thinking is both significant AND one that overarches everything else. As genetics advances, we understand that 'race' is more of a superficial shorthand, and not actually of not a lot of use in understanding human diversity.

'Race' is most likely not a useful concept here: as LolaWalser points out, Diamond is comparing "people growing up in the environment of New Guinea" with "people growing up in the various environments of Western cultures". There is no more a "race" of "New Guineans" than there is a "race" of "New Yorkers".

Unless, of course, one is predisposed to thinking that people's skin color is their most important difference.

Apr 21, 2007, 12:33pm Top

Mark: you raise really important issues, which I am not capable of answering in a logically satisfactory way.

Like probably every person reading this thread, I am basically a "good" person, in terms of conventional morality.

In fact, I doubt any of us differ greatly in personal morality, which for all of us is probably some variant of do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you, with the definition of those "others" becoming more and more elastic over the centuries to include greater swathes of humanity.

Since I don't take my morality from some supernatural source, what gives it validity?

Am I just responding to certain arbitrary cultural conditioning, and/or the behavior-guiding impulses of my species of co-operative primate?

I don't know for sure, but yes, probably that's all there is to it. And I am not bothered about my personal morality being undermined, due to my awareness that it has no transcendent roots.

But I don't assume that everyone is like me in this respect. So, when I drive through small American towns on Sunday and see full parking lots at the churches, I'm happy.

The attendees are probably better and happier people because of their belief, and I would not want to do anything to undermine that belief.

In fact, I wish we had a lot more believers among the largely secular English lower classes, because they would probably live better lives for it.

However, I also know that when I study the history of those times when all men did take their morality from supernatural sources (as they believed), I am not impressed.

I certainly would not like to behave, or have my neighbors behave, like the Christians of the 13th Century, and burn alive people with whom I disagreed on theology (or anything else).

It may be objected, "Oh, those weren't True Christians." But that seems to me to come perilously close to saying, "True Christians are those who have adopted the values of the (secular) Enlightenment."


As for Jared Diamond's book. Just read pages 19-21. His argument is quite clear.

He says: there are some aspects of intelligence in which New Guineans (among other "Stone Age" peoples) are superior to Europeans.

He argues that one cause of this is certainly their superior childhood experiences, but another is probably their superior genetic endowment, caused by ruthless natural selection of the more intelligent over the less. Absolutely straight-forward Darwinism: natural selection of the more intelligent.

So if a European were raised as a New Guinean, even experiencing their supposedly-superior childhood experiences, he would probably still lose out with respect to certain aspects of his intelligence because of his inferior genetic endowment.

Just as a Japanese baby brought up in the United States is still likely to be shorter, for genetic reasons, than a baby who is descended from, say, Americans of European or African ancestry, and thus less likely to become a basketball star. (Yes, anti-Japanese racism, or prejudicial suppositions about the unsuitability of Japanese for basketball might also play a role. But so would genes.)

Anyway, this is what Diamond says, and he says it quite clearly. Read those three pages and you will see there really isn't any room for even the tiniest misinterpretation or doubt.

So the interesting question is, why do his very clear views about the possibly genetic basis for some kinds of intelligence get the gorilla-suit-man treatment by his readers?

I think it must be because the whole general thrust of his book is to try to undermine the idea that whites are genetically superior, with respect to intelligence.

Most people automatically associate the idea of a genes-intelligence link with the assertion of white (and Oriental) racial superiority, one of the great Taboos of our time.

So his general thesis is that if the Europeans and Orientals and their descendants have come to make most of the running in terms of the intellectual progress of the human race, it is because latitudinal transmission of useful crops was possible and longitudinal transmission was not, and so forth.

Which may be true.

But I think he is playing a dangerous game here.

From the orthodox Leftist "anti-racist" viewpoint, it would have been far better for him to simply assert that, as every decent person knows, and as has been conclusively proved by mountains of unanimous peer-reviewed research, over many decades and in many countries, genes and intelligence and race cannot possibly, possibly, be linked. And in fact there is no such thing as race, etc etc. And to the stake with those who deny it. Which closes the circle of this post.

Apr 21, 2007, 12:39pm Top

Bob: Nope, it really won't do. Forget the semantic arguments over whether or not there "is" such a thing as race. Just read pages 19-21.

Diamond says that in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners.

Now that really could not be more clear. What part of "genetically superior" don't you understand?

What do you think would become of me if I were a Harvard university professor, and I wrote in mental ability Westerners are probably genetically superior to Africans?

"Look, look, there's a man in a gorilla-suit!!!"
"No there's not. You conservatives are just obsessed with gorillas."

Edited: Apr 21, 2007, 2:18pm Top

Doug, ok, you made me doubt my memory of Diamond's argument, and I went to look it up.

I'm afraid I have to to tell you that you're wrong: you are misreading the words on the page.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel p.19: The objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loathsome, but also that they are wrong. Sound evidence for the existence of human differences of intelligence that parallel human differences in technology is lacking. In fact, as I shall explain in a moment, modern "Stone Age" peoples are on average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized people.

He explicitly credits environment, and not "race" or "genetics" as a determinant of intelligence. You're insisting that he is saying "race", when his words on the page explicitly say "'Stone Age' peoples". Your reading is not what his words are saying.

" 'Stone Age' peoples" can cover any of several "races".
"Industrialized people" can cover any of several "races".

Yes, he goes on to use his anecdotal experience with particular New Guineans, but you're focusing on his anecdote, not on the overall argument his anecdote is cited to support.

Diamond is explicitly denying "race" as the variable. You're insisting that he IS making a racial argument. You've focused on the portion of the argument where he is speaking anecdotally, and elides from "industrialized peoples" to "Westerners". But, still: as Diamond is using the term, "Westerners" is not a racial category. You're eliding further, from Diamond's "Westerners", to your "Europeans" (in your first comment). The two terms aren't equivalent, and he's clearly using "Westerners" here as shorthand for "industrialized peoples": an environmental argument, and not a racial argument. "Westerners" are not a race, certainly not as Diamond is employing the term here.

Read those three pages and you will see there really isn't any room for even the tiniest misinterpretation or doubt.

Actually, there is. I read those same three pages and come to a quite different interpretation. This must be how theologians fall out with each other: which part of the text is most important?

Apr 21, 2007, 2:30pm Top

Bob: I know that Diamond explicitly denies, as all good American academics must, if they are not to be convicted of the supreme thoughtcrime, any belief in racial superiority of whites.

In fact, as I recall, he also repudiates the very idea of "race" as a meaningful concept. This too is academic orthodoxy, departed from at great cost.

He even says that his book's thesis could be summed up in the sentence "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves."

I am not disputing that thesis here. It may be true, it may not. That's another argument.

I am just pointing out that he asserts quite clearly that some human sub-groups are genetically superior to others in mental abilities.

You are quite right that he claims that this genetically-based mental superiority played no decisive role in their (or by implication other groups') histories; because the situation of each group of humans is all due to various accidents of geography.

He could hardly claim that the genetically-based superior intelligence of the New Guineans has allowed them to evolve an advanced society!

But he does assert that they possess at least some aspects of genetically-based superior intelligence. Right?

This is the core of the racialists' case, of course: they just apply the "superior" label to a different human group, or groups, and they also claim (much more plausibly, I would think, assuming it is true) that such superior intelligence did play a role in the different histories of various human groups. (And of course they base their claims not on impressionistic anecdotal data, as Diamond does, but on various formal tests of mental abilities -- the validity of these is another argument.)

So let me ask again: What do you think would become of me if I were a Harvard university professor, and I wrote in mental ability Westerners are probably genetically superior to Africans?

Apr 21, 2007, 3:25pm Top

Doug, we're approaching agreement here.

"Westerners" as Diamond uses the term is NOT a "race". IF you think that "people raised in industrialized societies might arguably be dumber than people raised in so-called "Stone Age" societies" is a racial argument, then you're misconstruing Diamond's point.

Heck, even your term "African" is scarcely more of a "racial" term than is the term "American" or "Western": several of the "Africans" I've met are what Diamond would call "Western".

(So here we are, two old lefties, arguing about the fine shades of meaning in the text of a materialist interpretation of history. Are you as amused as I am?)

Edited: Apr 21, 2007, 5:49pm Top

Bob: I don't think this is really a political issue of Left vs Right, even though I mischeviously pretended that it was.

On the main point, again: the problem is, the word "race" is used in multiple ways. I would prefer to avoid using the term, but it is sometimes impossible to avoid.

Let me put it this way: I believe it to be a fundamental dogma of modern American academia that no human sub-group (I cannot find a better word) can be "genetically inferior" to another with respect to intelligence. (And the same for the two sexes.)

Thus if I were to say that Scots were genetically superior to Nigerians, with respect to some aspect of intelligence, I would be in deep trouble.

Yet Diamond says just this.

He gets away with it because (1) this statement is buried inside his main thesis, which is in accord with the fundamental dogma (Western superiority is just an accident of geography), and (2) his superior racial (damn! can't get away from that term) group is non-white, and it's okay to call whites inferior.

I just thought it was interesting. No reviewer of his book that I have read has pointed it out, even hostile racialist reviewers.

And yes, it is amusing, and stimulating, to argue and debate with you, and others, in LibraryThing.

No one gets away with much -- one mis-step and your opponent has run you through and is wiping his blade off before you know what has happened.

So you have to know what you are talking about (A tip: don't argue with Lola about South Slavic, and probably any other, linguistic issues -- on another thread I was all ready to offer my two cents' worth on whether Serbian and Croatian were separate languages, based on the fact that a College of the University of London used to offer a course in Serbo-Croat, and that after Yugoslavia broke up, it began to offer two separate courses, one in Serbian and one in Croatian. Then I read further and saw that it was amateur hour where I was concerned, on this issue at least).

And now I shall go brood about my genetic inferiority, as Professor Diamond sees it.

Edited: Apr 21, 2007, 6:21pm Top

I would prefer to avoid using the term, but it is sometimes impossible to avoid.

Well, Diamond wasn't the one bringing it to the discussion, except to repudiate. And whatever you think of the 'academic orthodoxy', I don't think Diamond needed to have 'racism' hung round his neck: 'race' is not what he was talking about; rather, race is a discredited explanation for human variation that he was explicitly refuting. 'Race' is an antiquated and outmoded concept in science, if not yet in politics.

The study of human variation, even 'variation between groups' is certainly open to scientific enquiry - heck, 'variation between groups' is the entire subject of Diamond's book - and Diamond's anecdotal evidence was exactly what you're claiming Does Not Exist in the Orthodox Liberal Academy.

No reviewer of his book that I have read has pointed it out, even hostile racialist reviewers.

I was dimly aware that the criticism had been made -- but in response to the television show based on Diamond's book. I didn't pay enough attention to notice whether the critique came from the Left or the Right.

...even hostile racialist reviewers.

There ARE such things??

Apr 22, 2007, 8:12am Top

Bob: I usually try to avoid using the term 'race,' not because I don't think it is a useful and valid concept, but because it seems impossible to have a coherent discussion about it.

The denial of any meaning to this term has always seemed to me to be preposterous, and just an act of intellectual abdication of responsibility.

I actually have a difficult time understanding what people mean when they deny that the term has any validity.

But since arguing about it seems to generate more heat than light, and to summon up prodigous amounts of sophistry, I try to just sidestep the issue, although I don't always succeed.

Anyway, I believe that once you concede that one human group (race, tribe, nation, sex) may be "genetically inferior" to another, with respect to some aspect of intelligence, however defined, you have opened the floodgates.

I assume you are being ironic in respect of "hostile racialist reviewers". Please be aware that only I am allowed to be ironic.

Apr 22, 2007, 10:19am Top

I actually have a difficult time understanding what people mean when they deny that the term has any validity.

Well, there's the modern work in genetics that's informed us that there's more variation within any of the "races" than there is between them. From the standpoint of genetics, the concept isn't particularly useful.

Please be aware that only I am allowed to be ironic

Sorry - won't happen again.

Apr 22, 2007, 2:04pm Top

Bob: Does this mean that all our Affirmative Action quota programs go up in smoke, because modern genetics has shown that the object of their attention is actually an illusion? Or that Al Sharpton is the spokesman for an imaginary class?

Just kidding.

I think the question would have to be put this way: assume the existence of a group of individuals which can be distinguished into two sub-groups with respect to characteristics A, B, and C, although the sub-groups which result are not then distinct with respect to characteristics X, Y, and Z, which could in fact provide the basis for a redistribution of the population into two different sub-groups with each "XYZ" sub-group having members from the "ABC" sub-groups.

Are characteristics A, B, and C important enough to justify our inventing a word or phrase for the sub-groups thus formed?

It seems to me that in some cases the answer should be yes, and in others, no, and in others, sometimes-maybe.

Thus dividing the human population into those who can curl their tongue, and those who cannot, and giving each group a name, would seem to me to be purely whimsicle, because, so far as I know, tongue-curling ability doesn't correlate with anything else, and has no significance with respect to other human purposes.

Short people vs tall people might be a bit more useful, especially to people designing airplane seating arrangements.

Now it seems to me that "race" is like the latter example. Even if the genetically-determined differences that mark outward appearance have no other genetic correlations at all -- a proposition with which Diamond disagrees, of course -- then they have important social correlations. And this is precisely why the term "race" continues to be used by everyone in day to day discourse.

I also wouldn't be so sure about the discoveries of modern genetics regarding race, but it's an area where I know little so I will leave it at that, except to recommend reading Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn, which has reports of recent developments in genetic discoveries which may disturb those who believe that race is largely a groundless social construction.

Maybe I should motivate that last statement, so here is a quote from the publisher's review: "Scientists are using DNA analysis to understand our prehistory: the evolution of humans; their relation to the Neanderthals, who populated Europe and the Near East; and Homo erectus, who roamed the steppes of Asia. Most importantly, geneticists can trace the movements of a little band of human ancestors, numbering perhaps no more than 150, who crossed the Red Sea from east Africa about 50,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years, their descendents, Homo sapiens, became masters of all they surveyed, the other humanoid species having become extinct. According to New York Times science reporter Wade, this DNA analysis shows that evolution isn't restricted to the distant past: Iceland has been settled for only 1,000 years, but the inhabitants have already developed distinctive genetic traits. Wade expands his survey to cover the development of language and the domestication of man's best friend. And while "race" is often a dirty word in science, one of the book's best chapters shows how racial differences can be marked genetically and why this is important, not least for the treatment of diseases. This is highly recommended for readers interested in how DNA analysis is rewriting the history of mankind."

It's very speculative, but well worth reading.

Apr 22, 2007, 3:19pm Top

Bob, thanks for your replies! Sorry if I repeat some of what you said--it's difficult to keep going back to see who already said what...


I've just written one reply and then it hit me: we've each begun a different discussion. I thought you disagreed with Diamond's argument of biogeographical evolution conditioned by environment and historical chance, but no--you are simply ticked that he thinks New Guineans are smarter than Westerners! :) (Actually I have to thank Bob for providing the illuminating remark...)

What we have here is an extremely uncharitable reading of author's rhetoric, but god knows you are entitled to it.

Why did he bother to describe his impression of New Guineans more vivacious mental activity, alertness and intelligence? Precisely in order to counter the traditional racist assumptions and racist explanations of the differences in European and non-European societies.

Page 19: "Today, segments of Western society publicly repudiate racism. Yet many (perhaps most!) Westerners continue to accept racist explanations privately or subconsciously. In Japan and many other countries, such explanations are still advanced publicly and without apology. Even educated white Americans, Europeans, and Australians, when the subject of Australian Aborigines comes up, assume that there is something primitive about the Aborigines themselves."

It is in order to make clear right from the start that these attitudes are mistaken that he states New Guineans are intelligent in ways comparable to that of Westerners, although in their environment this intelligence is used in ways different from that of a college campus. Is it adaptable to a college campus? Who's doubting it? Diamond thinks HIS intelligence could have adpated to the challenges of New Guinea: "... I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I'm with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (...) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not." (Emphasis mine.)

Intelligent is as intelligent does. If I say (as I might in all truthfulness) that I work with people MUCH smarter than the average population, am I automatically racist in regard to the average population? So why would Diamond saying his New Guinean acquaintances seem smarter to him than the Western TV zombies be racist?

However, this is completely peripheral and the Euros are off the hook because, as he says in the third sentence of the preface (Norton paperback): "In case this question immediately makes you shudder at the thought that you are about to read a racist treatise, you aren't: as you will see, the answers to the question don't involve human racial differences at all." (Emphasis mine.)

And they really don't. Whether it's true or false that New Guineans are smarter and Europeans dumber, it doesn't matter one way or the other for the argument of Guns, germs and, steel.

Edited: Apr 22, 2007, 3:30pm Top

First, Wade is a journalist, not a scientist, and forgive my reserve when I say I am not getting too excited over any popular science.

distinctive genetic traits.

Distinctive is easy, there's tons of distinctiveness in the genes of a square inch of your skin. It's finding out what differences mean, if anything, in the sense people are most interested in: who's better, who's smarter...

And while "race" is often a dirty word in science, one of the book's best chapters shows how racial differences can be marked genetically and why this is important, not least for the treatment of diseases.

How recent is this? It's been 5-6 years since the wave of excitement at the upcoming "rehabilitation" of "race" in science. Except there was no rehabilitation since nothing useful came out of the overblown hopes--epidemiological and sociological data is still the most important in predicting and explaining why, say, blacks are more likely to develop diabetes.

Apr 22, 2007, 6:00pm Top

Lola: All I can do is to repeat my argument. So I will.

Yes, Diamond says: Western superiority is due to accidental environmental reasons, nothing to do with genes. If the Bantus had had domesticatable animals and a different distribution of cultivatable plants, they might have ended up invading and conquering Europe. (I summarize grossly here. But that's the main idea.)

He may well be right. I am not arguing about that.

He also says: the stimulating environment of New Guinea has certainly made the natives smarter than Westerners, at least in some respects. I think this is dubious, but I won't quarrel with it. He may be right after all. (Incidentally, during the Vietnam War I involuntarily spent a few months in military prison, in close proximity to a lot of mainly workingclass blacks and whites. I noticed that the whites tended to be fairly inarticulate, whereas many of the blacks were verbally very sharp -- verbal competition, often in the form of creative insults, was a frequent pastime with them. This parallels Diamond's observations. I wouldn't base anything on my anecdotal evidence, but it is conceivable to me that there are many forms of intelligence, and that one of them is verbal, something which written tests cannot capture. Just an idea.)

But he also says that in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners.

The words in bold are his, not mine. (And they are not ripped from a context which inverts their clear meaning. I have not left out some enclosing words like "Some may conclude falsely that ...".

Now, again, he may be right. It is a racialist argument (as I use the term), but that does not mean that it cannot be true.

And since the idea of one -- I know I cannot use the word "racial" here, so ... I will try "kin-related" -- one kin-related group being "genetically-superior" in "mental ability" is absolute anathema to the American Academy, I wonder how this devastating proposition slipped beneath the radar.

I repeat: if, teaching in a mainstream American university, I had ever written something like " in mental ability Danes are probably genetically superior to Nigerians, what do you think would have happened to my career?

Look, I know the feeling that you, and other liberals, must have when you read the sentences I quote. You just cannot believe it. So you go and read the relevant pages. And by God, there it is!

So you read more, and you find all the usual genuflections to loathesome racism, blah blah. How genes are irrelevant to white and Oriental achievement, etc. All the standard beliefs of liberal academics.

And you point to that to show that Jared Diamond is not a racist, that he does not believe genetic superiority in mental functioning had anything to do with the current position of Europeans and Orientals.

And you are right. I completely agree. All he said is that, let me repeat it, in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners.

In other words, he believes in the probability of genetic superiority in intelligence, even though he does not believe that it had anything to do with anything.

Let me ask another variant of my hypothetical: what if he had written " in mental ability Westerners are probably genetically superior to New Guineans ... but that had nothing to do with the dominance of the Westerners, which was all do to lateral transmission of edible plants and the availability of domesticatable draft animals".

I submit that he would have been in very hot water indeed.

Although in the Political Conservatives Group, a liberal contributor assured me that most liberals he knows are not in favor of "racial quotas (or) PC speech codes" -- I think that had Diamond just switched his ... kinship groups ... with respect to genetic inferiority, we would have had some disconfirming evidence.

On Nicholas Wade's book.

He is only a journalist, and, as several reviewers have pointed out, when he moves beyond just reporting recent discoveries and begins to speculate on his own account, he moves onto much shakier ground. (Which includes his quarrels with Diamond, by the way.)

Nonetheless, what he reports is very interesting. It may be, as you say, that more recent research has, or will, fail to confirm the tentative findings he talks about. (The same could be said for related research on sexual differences in cognitive functioning, some of which also challenges the Blank Slate model.)

In my opinion, it is too early to say anything for sure, and it is a derelection of our intellectual duty only to seek confirming evidence for our views, no matter how cherished they are.

Diamond may be right that genes can influence certain kinds of intelligence, and that certain groups are genetically superior in mental ability to others.

Or he may be wrong, and differences in intelligence may turn out to be entirely environmental. I'm easy either way.

Apr 22, 2007, 6:48pm Top

Aren't there more differences in intellectual ability within groups than between them? Think of a retarded child compared to Mozart! What is all this arguing about anyway? There is a great difference in innate ability, which can be stifled or enhanced by environment. But there is such a thing as a gifted child, and such a thing as a slow learner. And they come in all sizes, shapes and colors.

Apr 22, 2007, 8:07pm Top

Of course! My sole successful PhD student was from St Lucia, and the best programming student I ever had, by far, was half-Kenyan.

But when Diamond says "in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners", he doesn't deny, I would take it, that some Westerners have superior mental abilities to some New Guineans, just that on average, the New Guineans are superior, probably, in part, for reasons of genetics.

Consider height.

Some Japanese are taller than some Kenyans.

But on average, they are shorter. Thus if we find Kenyans being chosen for basketball teams more frequently than Japanese, it may not be racist discrimination at work, but simply the genetic superiority of Kenyans.

Of course, environment may play a role in the differences in height, too, just as Diamond says it does in the superior mental ability of New Guineans.

Apr 22, 2007, 9:01pm Top

We are so closely related, all of us. Since Christ's time there are what--100 generations--we cannot be much different from our contemporary stone age cousins in Papua New Guinea or anywhere else in the world. There may be a few populations with a few founders, interbreeding, and experiencing severe selection that may differ (Harvard professors?), but for the most part, populations don't differ significantly in intelligence.

Brain capacity is determined by many, many genes, not the few it takes to make a difference in melanin, or insulin/lactase production, or nose bridge height. (I like the latter example because all races, in the portion of them that live in highlands and mountains, have high-bridged noses--like my Scottish highlander ancestors.)

Anyway, our "blank slate" is honed by our environment, e.g., experiences with language (people exposed to tonal languages have better pitch), memory requirements (people exposed to written Chinese language or aborigine walkabouts no doubt have better memories), societal expectations for learning (immigrants, Chinese, Jewish families expect/reward more?), internalized expectations (ask a girl her gender and race (if black) and her math score declines 10%).

I have seen for myself the disadvantage that orphanage upbringing with too little exposure to human speech brings. For example. one of my (Asian-adoptee) sons took 490ms to process sounds such as "buh''--people reading this take no more than 10 ms! Checkout www scilearn.com (hope still current) for story of how brains can be honed through environment. It was an awesome process to witness. (My sons now process sound at the normal rate.)

A Rhodes-scholar colleague who once taught at U of BC (with both Euro- and Sino-Canadians in the student body) told me that he had very many good Chinese students, but the truly brilliant (genetically brilliant?) ones were no more common than they were in the Euro-Canadian population.

Why are we arguing liberal and conservative, when the issue is nature v. nurture? (And the answer is both.)

Apr 22, 2007, 9:51pm Top

It definitely shouldn't be a Left/Right, liberal/conservative dispute. Political disputes should be about values, and maybe secondarily about the best way to implement shared values.

However, fact and value get intertwined, and we do find that some political people are threatened by research into what is technically factual questions.

If I were to propose doing research into American military atrocities in Vietnam,with the assumption that there were some (and there were) there would be many conservatives who would want to exclude me from the fraternity.

If I were to propose doing research into the possible genetic superiority, with respect to mental ability, of Danes over Nigerians, I would be shunned within the largely-liberal academic community.

So what might appear to be pure historical research, or pure scientific research, takes on a political dimension.

For myself, based on what I have read, I think we don't know nearly enough about what affects mental functioning yet -- genes, social environment, whatever -- to close off any avenue of research.

Edited: Apr 28, 2007, 12:16pm Top

>It is a racialist argument (as I use the term), but that does not mean that it cannot be true.

As you use the terms... Well, there's the rub, you have to understand what Diamond is saying as HE uses the terms.

You are the one building this up as a racist argument. Diamond clearly excluded genetic factors from his discussion. You are the one who took his observation meant to frame the question of why mentally superior people ended up with "less cargo" as a basis for your Diamond-is-racist diatribe. Btw, could you make up your mind if he's a shill for political correctness for excluding genetics, or if he's so politically incorrect as to be an outright racist? It's giving me a koan-headache. :)

And yes, it is perfectly possible that New Guineans are mentally superior than Westerners, within the (acknowledged) limits of Diamond's example--their environment imposes challenges different form those of densely packed European cities, of such a kind that require heightened mental activity. Diamond explicitly said this was a speculation. He also explicitly recognised that he's talking about intelligence as function of environment. It seems you are simply not grasping the difference.

It seems to me you are so stuck on this SHOCKING idea that he dared call a bunch of black jungle people more intelligent than Westerners that you cannot comprehend what it means for the larger argument, why he used this example at all.

"How it sounds" with the subjects inverted is of no importance whatsoever because it's a false example. Who's being politically correct here? The fact is people take Western superiority as a given, just like they take male, or white male superiority as a given. Racism isn't wordplay, it's a fact of life, in which black is inferior to white. There is nothing more disgusting, more heinously hypocritical than the accusation of reverse racism (or reverse sexism) that the Right comes up with whenever its sacred cows are threatened. A digression: I realise this is likely to start more debate, but I'll just state my opinion, which is that you cannot oppress the oppressor, nor can you discriminate against the discriminator. Racism and sexism are the prerogatives of those in power, they are not mere intellectual attitudes. That's why accusations of black racism or female sexism ring hollow. The individual Valerie Solanas may think men are worms, but men as a class still rule the world and lean on women everywhere; the individual Louis Farrakhan may despise whites, whites as a class still exert unproportionally much power over non-whites. Solanas' sexism and Farrakhan's racism are abstract, extreme and limited; male sexism and racism against blacks are millenial, universal realities.

To get back to Diamond, he says clearly most people still believe New Guineans ended up with less "cargo" because they are inferior; his observation that they actually seem more intelligent (to him, in specific ways that he described--nowhere does he pretend this is a scientific fact), an observation on whose origin he offers to speculate, serves as a spur to the reader (as it did to him) to pose the question of environmental and historical influences.

Apr 28, 2007, 12:01pm Top

Nonetheless, what he reports is very interesting. It may be, as you say, that more recent research has, or will, fail to confirm the tentative findings he talks about.

I don't know what "tentative findings" you (or Wade) mean, but the idea of using "racial differences" as pointers in medical diagnosis went nowhere.

As >25 margd:, mdochoda wrote (and as Bob, I think, mentioned before), humans are far too much genetically alike for racial genetic ID cards. And we are mobile, constantly moving and mixing. We barely evolved our superficial differences, when we achieved a global society. It is unlikely any group of humans on Earth will evolve in complete isolation from any other ever again (barring Apocalypse, and straggling survivors...)

There is more diversity within any single "racial" category than there is between categories. The heredity of features that strike us as most remarkably distinct, skin colour, facial build, is in fact much simpler than the heredity of cognitive abilites--and changes faster.

Edited: Apr 30, 2007, 6:52pm Top

Lola: I see we most likely disagree greatly on things like "racism" and "sexism" etc.

I have not stated my beliefs on these issues in any detail, and attempts on your part to guess what I believe, and vice versa, are probably a waste of time.

For the record, I use the term "racialist" for someone who believes that one race, or other broad genetically-related sub-group of humanity, is inherently, in some essential, permanent way, which cannot be altered by a changing environment, different from another.

Such a belief, as I use the term, does not logically imply that the difference is one of superiority/inferiority, although in practice this is usually the claim (as with Diamond).

Nor, does it imply that the person who holds these beliefs, even beliefs in superiority/inferiority, necessarily wants to in some way to oppress the "inferior" group ( this is often the case -- but not with Diamond).

It would be interesting to debate about these questions sometime, and examine "racism" and its close cousins among the peoples of the world: what various African tribes think about, and, more to the point, do to each other; what the Arabs think about the Jews; what different castes and strata in India think about each other; what the Malays think about the Chinese; what the Chinese think about the rest of us, and so on.

Although it does make a gloomy picture, and in any case we should not debate these issues in this group, but somewhere else. (Again, for the record, I happen to agree that "white racism" and "Black racism" are not comparable phenomena. A big step towards clarifying the issue could be taken by a more careful use of words, distinguishing "racial oppression" from "racism," and "racism" from "racialism", as I have defined the terms above.)

But here, I simply pointed out that Diamond, despite all his politically-correct conclusions about why the Europeans ended up on top, affirmed his belief that racial differences are not just trival things like "skin colour, facial build" but rather involve precisely the following: "the heredity of cognitive abilites".

You (and other defenders of Diamond) evade this point: you say he claims that their environment has made the New Guineans more intelligent.

And you are half-right. He says this is "certainly" true. But it does not rule out genetic superiority as well, which he believes is "probably" true.

The first explanation (environment) is, of course, the orthodox "anti-racist" argument: why do Blacks score, on average, significantly below whites on tests of cognitive ability: a bad environment -- racism, past and present, not enough money for schools and day-care centers, low expectations of teachers, poverty, etc.

This may be true. Maybe differences in revealed cognitive abilities among different groups are always entirely due to the environments in which those groups exist, defining "environment" in broad terms.

And maybe it is true that superiority in this or that aspect of mental abilities, which Diamond attributes to New Guineans (to repeat: "certainly" to their stimulating childhood environment, "probably" due to their genetic superiority) had nothing to do with the course of history.

Or maybe it is simply not true that in any mental ability one group (race, nation, tribe, sex) can be "genetically superior" to another.

But Diamond does not believe this. He says:

"in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners".

I notice that everyone who is defending Diamond seems to be very squeamish about engaging with this sentence of his.

None of you want to respond to it. And the reason is obvious.

Claiming that one group is "in mental ability ... genetically superior to " another opens floodgates to all sorts of things.

If it is legitimate to observe that one race, or tribe, or any other kin-related group, is "probably genetically superior" to another in mental abilty, thoughtcrime cannot be far behind.

Anyway, let me ask you -- and other defenders of Diamond -- to please tell me your opinion of the circumstances, if any, that would affect the truth or falsity or otherwise of the following claim:

"in mental ability XXX are probably genetically superior to YYY", (where XXX and YYY are races, nations, tribes, sexes).

Do you believe:

( ) "No, this cannot be true, no matter what groups are substituted for the variables XXX and YYY. Mental ability is not determined by genetics, for large groups anyway. Diamond is wrong."


( ) "Yes, this may be true, depending on what groups are substituted for the variables XXX and YYY. Diamond could be right."

Note: if "determined by" is too telescopic, feel free to substitute a more statistically-sophisticated estimate of inherited intelligence.

Let me close with the gorilla-suit sentence once again.

"in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners".


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