Jared Diamond on the Root of Inequality and How the Mixed Blessings of “Civilization” Warped Our Relationship to Daily Risk
What the distribution of wealth and power in the world has to do with the most dangerous act in your day: taking a shower.
By Maria Popova
By bridging the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, geopolitics, and social science, trailblazing scientist Jared Diamond (b. September 10, 1937) has done more than anyone since Margaret Mead to decondition the Eurocentric approach to history and debunk the biological fallacies on which the monster of racism feeds. His Pulitzer-winning 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (public library) is a foundational text illuminating the conditions that led to inequality in the modern world and combating the broken logic that perpetuates these toxic beliefs.
At the heart of Diamond’s work is the notion that in order to understand any one society, we must contextualize it in the larger ecosystem of humanity and therefore must understand all societies. Only by grasping the richness and diversity of the entire ecosystem can we begin to dismantle our assumptions about the value of others and realize that people from different groups fared differently in history not due to their innate abilities but due to a complex cluster of environmental and geopolitical forces.
We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial.
Questions about inequality in the modern world can be reformulated as follows. Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren’t Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?
The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas today.
Diamond arrived at studying the interplay of these complex forces via an unlikely path. A self-described “fanatical bird-watcher” since the age of seven, he came to study biology, then nearly dropped out of his Ph.D. program in physiology to become a linguist. But he did complete his science degree and landed in Papua New Guinea as a passionate thirty-something biologist studying bird evolution. He spent the decades that followed doing fieldwork in evolutionary biology, which took him into a remarkably wide range of human societies. Out of that immersion sprang the centerpiece of Diamond’s work — an unflinching invitation to nuance in how we think about progress.
He confronts a common bias:
Don’t words such as “civilization,” and phrases such as “rise of civilization,” convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in human happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilization are mixed.
With an eye to the social environment and educational opportunities that shape the intellectual destiny of human beings, Diamond argues that our notions of intelligence are not only gravely skewed by the Western perspective but just about inverted. The IQ tests on which technologically advanced societies like our own do better than technologically primitive societies like aboriginal cultures — results on which many racist claims are predicated — actually measure cultural learning rather than innate cognitive ability. He writes:
My perspective on this controversy comes from 33 years of working with New Guineans in their own intact societies. 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. Of course, New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have not. Hence when unschooled New Guineans from remote villages visit towns, they look stupid to Westerners. Conversely, 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 (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not.
In this excerpt from a talk at British science powerhouse The Royal Institution, animated by artist Andrew Khosravani, Diamond illustrates New Guineans’ intellectual superiority with one particularly striking example of their sounder judgment in everyday matters:
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond points to two factors that explain New Guineans’ superior intelligence: First, European cultures have spent thousands of years in areas so densely populated that infectious disease spread and became the major cause of death, while centralized government and law enforcement kept murder at a relatively low rate. In New Guinea, on the other hand, societies were too sparse for epidemics to evolve, making murder, accidents, and tribal warfare the primary causes of death. Smart people were more likely to escape murder and avoid accident, passing their intelligent genes forward.
The second factor Diamond considers strikes much closer to the present and points to perilous forces we still have a chance to avert:
Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household, the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.
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.
Writing in 1997, Diamond could not yet point to other developmentally detrimental Western technologies that now hijack our cognitive faculties by reducing the world’s complexity to clickbait and listicles. But the cultural forces he examines make sense of how we ended up here. A revelatory read in its entirety, Guns, Germs, and Steel is thus no less timely today, packed with insight into the microscopic and monumental forces that shape our daily lives. Complement it with a very different and equally important perspective on the unconscious biases that permeate our world.
Published September 10, 2015