Saturday, July 16, 2011

Big Other?

Julos Beaucarne, March 2007

Your Christ is Jewish
Your car is Japanese
Your couscous is Algerian
Your democracy is Greek
Your coffee is Brazilian
Your chianti is Italian

And you reproach your neighbor for being a foreigner


The above poem, by Belgian singer Julos Beaucarne, has been making the rounds of late-night radio and Facebook pages for the past few years. Its message? Without the contributions of other cultures, we’d be less advanced, less refined, and less well off. In short, we’d be nobodies. We have met the Others, and they are us.

This is Big Other at its finest. If poetry leaves you cold, a more intellectual version is available in the pages of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.

Diamond starts off by noting that people, and hence ideas, are more likely to circulate between regions that are ecologically and climatically similar. Hence, the circulation of ideas tends to be much more east-west than north-south.

If we look at a world map, we see that Eurasia is oriented east-west and Africa north-south. Eurasians have thus benefited from a greater number of cultural innovations because they can tap into a belt of human creativity stretching from Gibraltar to Tokyo. Africans, by contrast, have not had this advantage. This, argues Diamond, is one big reason why Africa fell behind Eurasia in the race for global dominance.

Absent from this argument is any mention of the Americas. Those continents likewise follow a north-south axis, even more so than Africa. Yet they became home to advanced civilizations in Mesoamerica and the Andes. There is some evidence that the Incas had cultural contacts with Polynesian seafarers. Other than that, both of these civilizations had to develop on their own.

Did they develop more slowly than Eurasian civilizations? Apparently not. Mesoamerican civilizations reached milestones in cultural development at a faster rate than did civilizations in the Middle East. The Zapotecs developed calendar and writing systems barely 1,000 years after their first permanent farming villages. In the Middle East, the time span was over 5,000 years.

Jared Diamond, like Julos Beaucarne, is begging the question. Yes, as Eurasian cultures came more into contact with each other, they each had fewer innovations of local origin and more of foreign origin. But would these cultures have been worse off if forced to innovate on their own?

Indeed, an argument can be made that exposure to the “Other” tends to stifle local creativity. During the thirty years after the Second World War, Americans lived under a regime of semi-autarky, producing most of their own goods, educating most of their own talent, and generating most of their own inventions. This was nonetheless a period of almost frenetic cultural and economic innovation. Is the United States more innovative today, now that it’s much more open to the rest of the world?

It is even doubtful whether the east-west flow of ideas explains the rise of the European world to global dominance between 1500 and 1900—the main theme of Diamond’s book. This rise to dominance was fueled by a technological revolution that occurred largely in northwestern Europe, with the exception of only two major innovations of non-European origin: gunpowder and the printing press.

Before 1500, Europeans did borrow considerably from the Middle East in such fields as chemistry, mathematics, and engineering, but this was a time of slow economic growth and geopolitical weakness. Europe took off economically and geopolitically only when it developed its own intellectual resources.

Reference

Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, New York: W.W. Norton.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Progressive innovation probably is localized because it requires a virtuous cycle whereby the innovators are rewarded ultimately with children. Of course to be ultimately rewarded with children, they need to be rewarded with wealth - absolute and relative wealth.

The problem of civilization is that it has powerful "ruling" and "ownership" niches that aren't attained by innovation but by political skill, and these niches tend to capture much of the wealth of innovation and the corresponding sexual reproduction advantages.

At rare times these niches can be non-harmful, just enough to allow this virtuous cycle of innovation, or it can even actively encourage and develop it. But those occupying these niches can't encourage it too much lest they put themselves at reproductive risk.

Also, if they encourage it too much they might place themselves at a disadvantage against outsiders competing for their niches. The outsiders, instead of fostering the virtuous cycle like the those occupying the niches, might instead try to capture most of the wealth of innovation and displace the current occupiers.

Beyond Anon said...

Any claim that Europeans did not invent gunpowder could only be made by someone who has no knowledge of what it takes to actually make the black powder that can be used in an early cannon or musket.

While there is no doubt that the Chinese did discover the uses of saltpetre and were messing with incendiary mixtures of saltpetre, sulphur, charcoal and various oils, any claim that they invented gunpowder is fanciful at best.

It is even more fanciful to credit Arabs or Moslems (king of like Arabic numbers, which they stole from the Indians and the Chinese had decimal numbers a long time ago, ie more than 2,000 years ago).

See, for example Jim Calvert's Gunpowder and Cannon page.

Beyond Anon said...


Before 1500, Europeans did borrow considerably from the Middle East in such fields as chemistry, mathematics, and engineering, but this was a time of slow economic growth and geopolitical weakness.


You mean from the Greeks of Constantinople?

There was a large flow of learned people from Constantinople to the West, and it accelerated after the Turks conquered Constantinople.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

"Did they develop more slowly than Eurasian civilizations? Apparently not. Mesoamerican civilizations reached milestones in cultural development at a faster rate than did civilizations in the Middle East. The Zapotecs developed calendar and writing systems barely 1,000 years after their first permanent farming villages. In the Middle East, the time span was over 5,000 years.
"

and despite all this "high civilization" around them, most people in the Americas lived as small plot farmers, hunter-gathers, and nomads until Europeans arrived.

Why didn't civilization defuse as in Europe and Asia?

M said...

"Your Christ is Jewish, Your car is Japanese, Your couscous is Algerian, Your democracy is Greek, Your coffee is Brazilian, Your chianti is Italian"

This kind of stuff does do the rounds, but... it's true everywhere. It's the implication that it's only true in the North and the West and only in the modern era (and for modernisation and industrialisation to be credited to it), that is the aggravating bit. It's more true in small countries than large countries, and in later civilization countries than earlier ones (although the rate of cultural evolutions increase obeviates much of this), and in colder countries that have less diverse sets of speciality luxury crops than in warmer ones, but it's true everywhere.

"Mesoamerican civilizations reached milestones in cultural development at a faster rate than did civilizations in the Middle East. The Zapotecs developed calendar and writing systems barely 1,000 years after their first permanent farming villages. In the Middle East, the time span was over 5,000 years."

Yes. Clearly Eurasia gained no advantage from the "East-West axis" until quite late in its history, if it did. It wouldn't gain any advantage from that until civilization developed in India, East and South East Asia and Europe and could share with one another.

And the development of that civilization in those areas was obviously far less dependent on merely some people existing on the same continent who have a crop package that can work in those areas than Diamond suggests. And far more on other historical factors.

Anonymous said...

The mummy was from circa 700 AD.
http://www.reuters.com/video/2008/08/27/ancient-mummy-unearthed?videoId=89699&videoChannel=1\
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1049754/Oh-mummy-Archaeologists-unearth-ancient-tribe-members-sacrificed-1-300-years-ago.html

Mayby this discovery explains who built the ancient pyramids, invented calendar and writing systems in South America.

theslittyeye said...

Printing press, gun powder and papermaking originate from China. Just saying.

BTW, "During the thirty years after the Second World War, Americans lived under a regime of semi-autarky, producing most of their own goods, educating most of their own talent, and generating most of their own inventions. This was nonetheless a period of almost frenetic cultural and economic innovation. Is the United States more innovative today, now that it’s much more open to the rest of the world?"

This is untrue, US benefits handsomely from the influx of European talented before and after the second world war, plus US is never in constant information and culture-wise isolation from the old continent.

However, I do think the exchange of different intelligent civilizations is definitely synergistic mutually, but that doesn't justify the massive lower-IQ undercivilized immigrants in modern civilization.

Ishtara said...

Quote: "This rise to dominance was fueled by a technological revolution that occurred largely in northwestern Europe, with the exception of only two major innovations of non-European origin: gunpowder and the printing press."

As far as I know, it was Gutenberg who invented the first printing press. While movable type printing was known long before him in China, Korea, and medieval Europe, the existing movable type systems had little in common with a printing press. It was more of a stamping method and not really suitable for mass printing.

Also, there is no evidence that movable type systems were brought from China or Korea to Western Europe. Whoever was the first to come up with the idea of movable type, Gutenberg was the first person who invented a printing press as well as the first person who ever printed a complete book.

Tod said...

I wonder if you are thinking of the development of the Québécois being stifled by the English 'other' incomers.


If you're right about innovation almost everybody else is wrong and the US is going to be eclipsed.

theslittyeye said...

"Also, there is no evidence that movable type systems were brought from China or Korea to Western Europe. Whoever was the first to come up with the idea of movable type, Gutenberg was the first person who invented a printing press as well as the first person who ever printed a complete book."

It's from China, not Korea (Eastern Asian civilization stem from China and China only). For printing press I don't know, but for Papermaking, I know that the Chinese papermaking spread to the Arab world after the battle of Talas through Chinese military captives by the Arabs, then Arabs spread papermaking to Europe.

Peter Frost said...

Anon,

This is one reason why Islamic civilization reached a plateau and stopped developing. Its creative classes (traders, scientists, and free thinkers) were politically weak and treated with condescension, if not contempt. In Europe, especially northwestern Europe, these people rose to prominence, particularly via the middle class. By the 1800s, England was virtually a middle-class dictatorship.

Beyond, Ishtara, and others,

Yes, gunpowder underwent considerable development after reaching Europe. The same was true for paper (which I should have mentioned). The origins of the printing press are controversial. I described it as a non-European invention to avoid argument.

I similarly used the term "Middle East" instead of "Muslim world" to avoid another argument, i.e., Were the intellectual roots of the Renaissance in the Byzantine Empire or in the Muslim world?

Uncle Tom,

In 1492, most of the Amerindian tribes east of the Mississippi were sedentary and agricultural. Many, notably the moundbuilders, were evolving towards advanced urban societies.

M,

Well, yeah, it's true but only in a banal sense. The more open a society is to external influences, the more it will be externally influenced.

But is that a good thing? Do societies develop faster when they can borrow stuff from others? Or does this borrowing ultimately stunt their native capacity?

"Clearly Eurasia gained no advantage from the "East-West axis" until quite late in its history"

After 1500, I don't see much benefit. Why was the motor of economic/intellectual/technological development in northwestern Europe - the part of Eurasia that was farthest removed from East Asia and the Middle East?

Anon,

The eyes are bluish, but I'm not sure that means anything. The optical properties of paints change over time. I would be more impressed by genetic evidence.

Slittyeye,

"US benefits handsomely from the influx of European talented before and after the second world war"

There was very little immigration to the US during the 1930s and 1940s. Large-scale immigration did not pick up until the 1970s and 1980s.

There were a few key immigrants during the 1930s and 1940s, like Fermi and Einstein, but their contributions to the postwar boom were marginal at best. Contrary to popular myth, Einstein contributed very little to the Manhatten project.

The big dirty secret is that the postwar boom was driven overwhelmingly by native-born Americans.

Tod,

Yes, I was thinking about the French Canadian example and a few others.

Economics has suffered from too much abstract theory and too little real-world analysis that draws on the findings of history, anthropology, and biology.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

Frost...most of SubSahara Africa was also sedentary by 1492, especially the area south of the Sahel. There were also complex societies in West Africa and the Swahili Eastern coast. They did not exist as long as the ones in Meso America, but they were not absent...you sound as if SubSahara Africa was pre-colonial Australia...hardly.

Anonymous said...


Frost...most of SubSahara Africa was also sedentary by 1492, especially the area south of the Sahel. There were also complex societies in West Africa and the Swahili Eastern coast. They did not exist as long as the ones in Meso America, but they were not absent...you sound as if SubSahara Africa was pre-colonial Australia...hardly.


Yeah, and they even invented the steam engine, the cannon and the atomic bomb. They was very inventive in sub-Saharan Africa.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and complex writing systems, too.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

Anonymous:

What I said was factually accurate, no reason to be a base ass.

Also do not take my words out of context, I was making a direct comparison to the Americas in 1492, no where else. Stop trolling.

theslittyeye said...

"The big dirty secret is that the postwar boom was driven overwhelmingly by native-born Americans."

That's no dirty secret to me. I would like to see China produces everything for China as well. Good for the American golden age. But unfortunately that is not the case right now, is it?

Btw, just to clarify, I wasn't pointing to Einstein, I was more thinking about Nikola Tesla :)

Anonymous said...

"most of SubSahara Africa was also sedentary by 1492, especially the area south of the Sahel. There were also complex societies in West Africa and the Swahili Eastern coast"


My original point was that material and social development do not seem to be seriously hindered on continents with a north-south orientation (and hence lack of east-west circulation of ideas). I pointed to the Americas, specifically Mesoamerica and the Andes, as examples.

Africa likewise has a north-south orientation. So you're arguing in favor of my argument. Perhaps you've lost track of who is arguing for what ...

The main question here is why sub-Saharan Africa fell behind Eurasia. In fact, with few exceptions, sub-Saharan Africa never rose above the level of simple agricultural societies. The exceptions were few in number, short-lasting, and often intrusive. How come?

Diamond says the reason is Africa's east-west orientation. I beg to differ. I suspect that one big reason is the high incidence of polygyny (20-40% of all marriages), which created a large pool of young single men for whom warfare provided access to women. Pacification was impossible within a sufficiently large territory to create true civilizations, i.e., large urban centers, roads, trade, state formation, etc.

Tod said...

" Mesoamerican civilizations reached milestones in cultural development at a faster rate than did civilizations in the Middle East. The Zapotecs developed calendar and writing systems barely 1,000 years after their first permanent farming villages. In the Middle East, the time span was over 5,000 years."

That is a very telling point

Chris Crawford said...

Totally off topic: I ran across a paper that argues against the basic precepts of evolutionary psychology:

http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001109


Perhaps you could write a story evaluating this paper?

Anonymous said...

UncleTom seems to think that sub-Saharan Africa in 1492 was comparable to Meso America at the same time (or is that all of the Americas).

However, Wikipedia would disagree.

Of course, you can't always rely on Wikipedia, but it seems to me like Meso American progress was orders of magnitude more than sub-Saharan African progress.

Anonymous said...

So, lets have an objective measure of each region's achievements ...

How should we structure it?

Certain number of points for each written language developed?

Certain number of points for each 100,000 persons in a city?

Certain number of points for the type of economic system?

Certain number of points for the size of the empires that developed?

Give us some more criteria.

theslittyeye said...

"Give us some more criteria."

Very good suggestion:

I will add:

level of agricultural technology

level of etiquette and social moral customs

level of population

level of literature created

amount of great architecture masterpiece