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