Genes versus Geography

Even though the individual members of every race may be much the same, human societies differ considerably in their levels of technology and organization. Some societies, like those of New Guinea, are just emerging from Stone Age cultures, while others, like those of Finland or Taiwan, are highly educated and lead in manufacturing sophisticated goods for the global economy. Is the difference solely because New Guineans were dealt a bad hand in terms of geography and resources, or could there be some genetic difference, maybe in the nature of sociality, that helped keep New Guineans and others in the Stone Age while propelling other peoples on a quite different trajectory? Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, has advocated a geographical answer to this question. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel he argues that because more domesticatable species of plant and animal existed in Eurasia, agriculture got started there first, giving Europeans a head start in economic development. Accustomed to living in crowded environments, Europeans built up immunity to many diseases, including those contracted from their domestic animals, such as influenza, measles and smallpox, and these diseases were devastating to nonurban peoples on other continents. In Diamond's view, it was the economic head start and the germs, not any inherent difference in abilities, that enabled Europeans to conquer other peoples. "History," he says, "followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves." As Diamond explains, having spent many years studying the birds of New Guinea, he came to know the inhabitants well and was impressed with their evident intelligence. This led him to doubt the findings of the IQ testers in America, where "numerous white American psychologists have been trying for decades to demonstrate that black Americans of African origins are innately less intelligent than white Americans of European origins."

In fact, New Guineans, in Diamond's view, are probably more intelligent than Westerners, and the reason, he says, is genetic. The chief selective pressure on Westerners was the need to acquire resistance to the disease rampant in their crowded communities, whereas in New Guinea, where the chief cause of death is war, murder or starvation, one needed one's wits to survive: "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 [that is, immunity to disease] was instead more potent," Diamond explains. And hence, "in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners."

But if the New Guineans had the smarts, why was it the dumber, disease-ridden Westerners who figured out how to escape from the deadening cycle of Stone Age tribalism and perpetual warfare, a problem the New Guineans never cracked? Because Westerners lucked out in their geography, Diamond argues. Eurasia had a greater absolute number of plant and animal species and more of them proved suitable for domestication. Because species are adapted to climatic zones, domesticated crop plants and animals could be shared along lines of latitude, enabling Europeans to assemble packages of agricultural species and get a head start on the farming revolution. This advantage, slight enough 10,000 years ago, steadily accumulated to the point that by AD 1500 great civilizations had arisen in both halves of the Eurasian land mass, while much of the rest of the world had yet to clamber out of tribalism and illiteracy. The Chinese then lost their technological edge, also for a geographical reason, in Diamond's view: the connectedness of the Chinese mainland allowed one ruler to dominate and make irreversible errors, like destroying the Chinese fleet, whereas in Europe, with its balkanization and competing statelets, diversity thrived and the best idea had a better chance of winning out. By colonial times, this left Europeans as the winners, thanks to their superior geography.

Single cause explanations generally make historians roll their eyes but the boldness and ingenuity of Diamond's thesis certainly puts geography more on the map than it was before. Yet does genetics have no role at all in shaping human history? Many readers who like the political implications of Diamond's thesis—that Western dominance is an accident of geography and therefore no race is better than any other—may skip over his premise of New Guinean genetic superiority. But if New Guineans adapted genetically by developing the intellectual skills to survive in their particular environment, as Diamond says is the case, why should not other populations have done exactly the same?

In attributing western advance solely to geography, while tacitly excluding the genetic explanation invoked for the New Guineans, Diamond focuses on the development of agriculture. But, as noted in chapter 7, archaeologists now believe that in the Near East sedentism came long before agriculture: first people settled down, abandoning the foraging way of life. Then they took to cultivating wild plants. Then, probably by accident, they developed domestic varieties of plant and animal species. The critical step was not domestication, but sedentism. This finding would seem to undercut an important part of Diamond's case because, unlike the case with agriculture, it's harder to see any geographical reason why sedentism should have risen in one society and not another. Given that the human form was undergoing another genetically driven change around this time, the gracilization of the skull and skeleton, a genetic explanation for sedentism would not be so implausible. People such as the Natufians perhaps responded to their environment with a different kind of sociality that enabled them to abandon the foraging way of life and settle down in fixed communities. If sedentism was indeed prompted by an evolutionary change, it was one that may have occurred independently in different populations, as has happened with properties like pygmy stature, lactose tolerance and doubtless many others. Such genetic adaptations, if they occurred, could not spread through the world's population like wildfire, since it can take many generations for gene frequencies in a population to change. Instead, they would take place at different rates in different populations. This wide spread in start times for the forager-settler transition could help explain why human societies throughout the world have attained such different levels of development.

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  • estelle moss
    What is geography metamorphosis and the new?
    9 years ago

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