Monday, 21 January 2013

Guns, Germs, and Steel (again)

I've been reading a few of the articles anthropologists have written on Guns, Germs, and Steel recently, and I'm unimpressed by most of them.  Almost all of them repeat the common straw man errors and blatant misrepresentations that have caused the book to be seen as foreign to anthropology rather than important to it.  Jason Antrosio, for instance, repeats the tired trope about how being given technologies, like steel weapons or naval vessels, doesn't require turning them on other human beings.  This is obviously true, but entirely trivial, and Antrosio takes it to a ridiculous extreme.  Take a look at this statement:

What Diamond glosses over is that just because you have guns and steel does not mean you should use them for colonial and imperial purposes. Or handing out smallpox-infested blankets from sick wards. 
Which, in a post calling itself 'Real History vs. Guns, Germs, and Steel' is a bit much.

How do you think smallpox entered the Americas?

No idea?  It wasn't intentionally thrust upon the native population (although I'm sure if they'd known of its effects, the conquistadors would have done so).  In 1513, smallpox was introduced by a single Spaniard to the new colony at Buenos Aires.  It was this smallpox that led to the death of Wayna Qhapaq, Sapa Inka of Tawantinsuyu, by, from the Spanish perspective, fortuitous accident.  This smallpox precipitated a succession squabble and civil war between Waskar and Atawallpa that further weakened the empire.  In 1520, smallpox was introduced to Mexico, again accidentally, by a soldier sent by the governor of Cuba to hunt down Cortes, who had disobeyed his orders (none of the conquistadors were particularly well-organised, although Cortes had a knack for negotiation and politicking).  It was this epidemic that killed a bulk of the Mexican population, allowing its easy domination by the Europeans.  Both of these epidemics were accidental.

And again, the 'environmental/geographical determinism' trope rears its ugly head.  G,G,&S isn't a work of environmental determinism.  Not even close.  It doesn't say, 'Geography forced Cortes to kill Aztecs'.  It says, to paraphrase, 'Geography made it easy for Cortes to kill Aztecs'.  There's an enormous difference there, and anthropologists are keen to ignore it.  They accuse Diamond of lacking nuance and of ploughing on with his rigid and idiotic environmental determinism - and when he goes and writes another book, Collapse, that foregrounds the topic of human actions in the 'collapse' of societies, they accuse him of changing tack.  Are they really so lacking in imagination and insight that they don't see these books as two sides of the same coin? 

Agency isn't magic, and it really doesn't explain anything.  It's just a black box anthropologists use to avoid having to come up with causal explanations, and you are unlikely to find a naturalistic explanation of it.  It's just like free will - they say it isn't, but of course it is.  It's just a continuation of the Christian concept, and it's just as spooky.  If time were spent engaging with the philosophical literature on action - Donald Davidson, etc - then we might be getting somewhere, but agency is just a way to allow anthropologists to avoid causation (which they don't like, because studying causation would make  anthropology, well, scientific).   And all the agency in the world is worth nothing without means.  G,G,&S is fundamentally about the means.  The motives are, after all, much more obvious.

Despite Diamond releasing a book which foregrounds human agency, so-called, in explaining human phenomena, the anthropologists like to believe that he advocates for environmental determinism.  They see the latter book as a change of heart, instead of thinking that maybe their straw man wasn't quite accurate.  It's disappointing to see such bad thinking coming from professional thinkers.  It seems, yet again, to be motivated by the fact that Diamond isn't from within the confines of academic anthropology and hasn't drunk the continental Kool Aid.

One day, I hope, anthropologists will cease to be so tribal.  I don't see that happening soon, though.


  1. One of the areas I've noted Diamond seems to have dismissed or overlooked is gene-culture co-evolution. So the geographic and cultural changes discussed could have lead to selection for different behavioural tendencies (eg. see 'The 10,000 Year Explosion" by Henry Harpending, or Nichalas Wade's 'Before the Dawn').

  2. I think such a view would have been even more controversial than the thesis he actually presented! I can just imagine anthropologists complaining about Diamond's "genetic/geographic determinism". But of course, it's demonstrable in many areas, especially the Andean cordillera. I found the books you mentioned a little lacking, to be honest, and I'm not entirely satisfied with any of the current works on the gene-culture co-evolution position, including the Stone & Lurquin title (which was especially lacking on the linguistics).

  3. No doubt it would be! Another book which touches on that is Greg Clark's 'A Farewell to Alms' which discusses the middle class effectively out reproducing the poor in the lead up to the Industrial Revolution in England. Steve Hsu notes that there is probably a similar example with China.

  4. I'm not entirely certain that intelligence is as directly heritable as that model presupposes, and, moreover, if there is a connection between class and intelligence, it probably has more to do with environment than genetics. The case for, say, the development of adaptations for the anoxic environment of the high Andes is more arguable. I wouldn't fault Diamond for avoiding hypotheses that link heredity to economic success in the way Clark did, and I believe the causes of the industrial revolution are probably not to be found directly in genetics.

  5. Assuming even the *lowest* estimates of narrow-sense heritability of IQ documented in the literature, a couple hundred years of selection is enough to generate a statistically significant increase in intelligence. The key is downward social mobility among the upper classes and landed gentry, which is well documented in the genealogical literature -- not upward social mobility among the talented poor, which is implausible.

    And of course, IQ tests are culturally biased, and they mostly test batteries of cognitive abilities that are only germane to the Western social milieu -- but that's the whole point, really. Other cultures' definitions of intelligence need not apply here. All of the ones that matter in *our* civilization are positively correlated.

    As of 2012, IQ does a better job predicting your ability to learn calculus, chemical engineering, or legal theory than class, parenting, socioeconomic status, or anything else. (You know, the bread and butter of an advanced industrialized society?) You can bet your lucky stars that Gauss, Archimedes, or Newton would have scored high on Raven's Progressive Matrices.

  6. The idea that the industrial revolution was even remotely caused by genetics is an absurdity. Again, if there is a correlation between class and intelligence, it is clearly to do with the environment and not with genetics.

    Moreover, as we know from generations of students of intelligence, IQ scores have been rising over the past century globally, as a result of improved living standards. There is no reason to believe that an average person from Britain in 1710 through to 1850 would have scored at all well on any of these tests. If there was an increase in intelligence that correlates with the industrial revolution, the sensible thing to believe is that it was caused by the revolution, rather than causative of it.

    The causes of the industrial revolution are to be found in economics and various social pressures that were themselves the result of the vastly increased wealth of northern Europe, which in turn derived from northern European possession of much of the earth, itself a result of the geography of Afro-Eurasia and a number of sheer accidents of history. Even if the rise in intelligence were truly demonstrable - and frankly, it isn't - it still doesn't actually give us a cause. It's just a black box: people became more intelligent, and then created industries. Far from plausible, and much less plausible than the social and economic explanations we already have.

    And isn't it implausible that intelligence rose so much due to genetic causes? The human genome is pretty flexible, but there really hasn't been that much variation in the past 100,000 years. If the '*lowest* estimates of narrow-sense heritability of IQ' lead you to believe that IQ could change so much in the span of a few short decades as to be able to generate one of the world's most important social revolutions, then you are implicitly claiming that other groups around the world are comparatively stupid, and that their failure to make the genetic leap led to their lack of an industrial revolution. Again, this isn't tenable, and the causes are to be found primarily in economics and agronomy.

  7. 1) The entire corpus of twin and adoption studies says otherwise.

    All you need is some relation between natural ability and reproductive fitness among the landed gentry and upper classes. Not a whole lot, just some. And throughout most of modern Europe, there was a strong relation between household wealth and the amount of children in a family who survived to adulthood -- to the point where upon the eve of the industrial revolution, nearly the entire population of England was descended from the privileged classes of yesteryear. (Here I describe demographic change over hundreds and hundreds of years, not just a few decades.)

    Fact of the matter is, people who could feed their own children managed to continue their lineage across the generations. The peasantry, for the most part, did not. This was the case in Brittany, Scotland, Switzerland, and everywhere else in Western Europe you can think of until the industrial revolution.

    I'm not saying it's a foregone conclusion. Far be it the case. But only way for this unprecedented demographic change to have done *nothing* is if the entire autochtonous population of England today were descended from a random genetic sample from the fourteenth century. Such probably is not the case. We'll know pretty soon once genome sequencing becomes dirt cheap.

    2) Intelligence was a necessary but not sufficient cause for the scientific revolution.

    For one, you've got to have a significant fraction of people in your society who are bright enough to at least conceptually understand vector calculus or linear algebra, yet alone generate novel achievements in the field. I guarantee you there was almost nobody on Earth smart enough to do this during the Neolithic revolution. Hell, if you look the children of the wealthy, the vast majority of people in the industrialized West aren't capable of this, either -- and no amount of tutoring will get them there. There are entire countries on Earth today that produce less scientific output per decade than single *individuals* do per year in Japan or Finland. Environmental factors such as disease burden, iodine deprivation, and childhood malnutrition explain much of the story here. So does culture. But heredity is yet another possibility. And there's no good reason why we should ignore it entirely.

  8. 3) "but there really hasn't been that much variation in the past 100,000 years."

    Wrong. Roughly seven percent of the human genome has changed within the past 10,000 years alone since the development of agriculture. You would know this if you had read The 10,000 Year Explosion by Cochran and Harpending.

    For one, nobody was lactose tolerant during the Pleistocene. Nobody had blonde hair and blue eyes. Nobody had skin that was exceptionally pale or dark -- and we know genes reponsible for the former trait reached fixation among Europeans in a few thousand years. Nobody on Earth had a classical "Mongoloid" phenotype (by which I mean prominent zygomatic arches, epicanthic folds, black hair, and shovel-shaped incisors), and today roughly one out of seven people on Earth do. Absolutely nobody was well adapted to alcohol or carbohydrates.

    Nobody had genetic variants that allow you to thrive in the Himalayas -- researchers have discovered *dozens* of novel alleles that have reached high frequency among Tibetans that virtually absent among Han Chinese in Beijing, and the date of ethnogenesis between the two populations was roughly 3,000 years before the present. I don't think culture alone does a good job explaining why the children of Han Chinese born in Lhasa suffer disproportionately from respiratory ailments, despite their economic and social privilege.

    And on top of it all, we know today that not all populations on Earth today share all of the genetic variants responsible for higher cognition in common, and much of this diversity today is most like the product of recent selection over the past ten thousand years. Just look at the neurotransmitter family, if you will -- there is a polymorphism of the serotonin transporter gene SLC4A6 that has reached a high frequency in Europe but is relatively uncommon in east Asia, and we see similar patterns for the DR dopamine receptor and other genes. Wikipedia is your friend:

    If you ask me, the notion of gene-culture coevolution is a foregone conclusion. And I don't think the genes in question are limited to superficial traits like lactose tolerance or adaptation to high altitude.

    Hell we *know* they aren't.

    We have good evidence that the DAB1 gene has gone under selection among Han Chinese within the past few thousand years or so. What this gene does is regulate neurogenesis in the cerebral cortex. It's almost universal among Chinese people today, but relatively rare or absent most everywhere else.

    Coincidence, you say?

  9. A lot of people persist under the delusion that it takes millions of years for a species to evolve anything. Nonsense. For most quantitative traits, you only need a couple hundred years under strong selection. (For one, consider how much larger Samoans are than other Polynesian ethnic groups. I don't think diet explains all of the variance here.)

    In fact pace of evolution has skyrocketed in the human species since the invention of agriculture. Consider that an advantageous allele spreads faster throughout a population of one million than a population of ten thousand by several orders of magnitude.

    It's basic population genetics, but people don't think very carefully about its implications for human history.

  10. The ability to do complex mathematics was certainly present in the Neolithic - even in the Pleistocene. We know this because people in all human populations are capable of higher mathematics, and the most parsimonious explanation of this is that they all share roughly the same mental gear. Bring a Khoe child up in Esher and she'll be able to do anything a British child could - as has been shown time and time again. The ability to do higher mathematics - to understand calculus, for instance - isn't something that needs a genetic leap. It just needs a lot of prior build-up in the form of earlier mathematical innovations and, importantly, the spread of education and literacy such that these mathematical innovations could reach a wider audience.

    It is not coincidental that as Europe gained in wealth and literacy, it was also developing better scientific instruments and ideas. In fact, that development is all we need to say about the rise of science and mathematics in Europe; greater wealth and larger populations, combined with widespread literacy and numeracy, are sufficient causes without supposing that there was a significant genetic change. Which, in any case, is not a parsimonious explanation of anything, given that people around the world are now capable of mathematical feats that would have been incredible in the fifteenth century - despite the fact that most of them are descended from the same farmers and herders that made up the bulk of the human population until the nineteenth century (at the earliest).

    People have been living in the Himalayans a good deal longer than 3000 years, by the way, and while Chinese and Tibetan are clearly related languages, this doesn't mean that all of the people in the modern populations are descended from the speakers of proto-Sino-Tibetan (which was spoken earlier than 1000 BCE, as we know from the fact that by the time of the Shang oracle bones, Chinese and Qiang were clearly differentiated [amongst other things, of course!]). For someone claiming to know so much about genetics, this seems like an obvious point not to overlook.

    Of course there are differences in physical traits that have a clear impact on reproductive success - the ability to breathe in an anoxic environment is incredibly important if you live in the Himalayas and Andes, which is why we see it there (it probably took a few thousand years to develop, actually, which is why the descendants of Europeans in the Andes still have fertility problems and find it much harder to breathe).

    But intelligence isn't like that, and in fact I see no reason to connect the ability to do higher mathematics with the upper class of Britain in the build-up to the industrial revolution. Unless there is a proven connection between intellect (in the form of the ability to do higher mathematics) and reproductive success among upper class men in the fifteenth-through-nineteenth centuries, the thesis is in doubt.

    The ideas you are espousing are only supported by people with an axe to grind. That alone doesn't make them suspicious, of course. But they are suspicious enough on their own, frankly.

  11. "Bring a Khoe child up in Esher and she'll be able to do anything a British child could - as has been shown time and time again. “

    Not true. For one, you could look at the transracial adoption literature. Mind explaining to me why poor, malnourished Korean War orphans adopted by Belgians score _higher_ on the WISC than the European average? You could also look up the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study. The results are in, and they sure are damning.

    Also, it bears mentioning that the same people who repeat your claim about Khoe children (to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever conducted this experiment) are the same types who bemoan the _intractable_ gaps in academic performance between whites and racial minorities, everywhere from Auckland to Zurich. One thing's for sure -- they don't go away when you grant "children of color" access to higher performing schools. They don't go away when you equalize disparities in funding between inner city and suburban public schools. (See: the Kansas city schools experiment) They don't even go away when you have children of color adopted by wealthy professionals.

    As for your claim that we have found Pascals and Mendeleyeevs everywhere from Lusaka to Lagos, nonsense.

    If you were to write a thousand page encyclopedia summarizing important discoveries in science, mathematics, and engineering over the past five hundred years, people of European descent would compose roughly 90% of the entries. East Asians and Indians would win an additional nine percent.

    The collective achievements of Sub Saharan Africans and their progeny could be summarized in a fragment of a sentence. These aren't politically correct things to say, but facts are facts. Razib used to talk about them over at gnxp classic.

    As for the notion that poverty and discrimination are fully responsible for the entirety of these disparities, you really can't do worse than losing six million people in one of the worst genocides on record, being sent into exile and deprived of _all_ of your wealth and savings, chased to the ends of eastern Europe by a tyrannical fascist regime, etc.

    Seventy years and running, the Ashkenazi Jews still kick ass.

  12. I most certainly don't know anywhere as much about Sino-Tibetan languages as you do, so I defer to your superior knowledge. That 3,000 year estimate came from a paper I once read in gluttochronology. I am probably mistaken.

    And of course, I may be mistaken, but you must realize that intelligence is a quantitative trait, just like any other, and the GWAS studies suggest that bulk of the genetic variance responsible for it is additive. It should therefore be a very easy candidate for selection over the course of, say, mere hundreds of years under strong selection.

    People who admit that humans are a polytypic species, and that heredity is partially responsible for inter-population differences in height, body shape, intestinal length, metabolic properties, and _hundreds_ of other phenotypes but NOT HIGHER COGNITION BECAUSE SUCH A THING IS TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE are raving loons. There's absolutely nothing special about the human brain, it is an organ just like any other.

    Then again, I doubt I will convince you, and you are certainly right to have reservations. Even I wouldn't be surprised if some African polity somewhere managed to send manned spacecraft to the moons of Jupiter a thousand years from now.

    After all -- you only need one standard deviation.

  13. I'm sorry, but I don't like racists to comment on my blog.

    You are correct that sub-Saharan Africa has produced little in the way of technological innovation in the past 500 years (it was, however, home to several domestication events, as well as an independent invention of iron-smelting, so...). But this is due to extremely low population density, tsetse, and isolation from the rest of Eurasia, not to innate mental problems on the part of African people. Europeans have produced the bulk of scientific work in the past 500 years because they had a massive inflow of money from the Americans and Indian Ocean in the wake of Columbus and da Gama, and because of the rise of printing and literacy. Europe has always had a much higher population density than Africa, as well, not to mention important cultural and technological influences from the Near East, Central Asia, and even China (the entirety of Eurasia has been connected since at least the Bronze Age, while most of Africa has remained isolated, with the exception of the east coast). And you appear to be unaware that while African nations do not tend to produce advances in science and mathematics, children in African schools learn the same mathematics studied in British schools and don't seem to have much of a problem with it.

    Ashkenazi Jews are richer on average than other people. That's a simple fact. Losing six million people - a tragedy of enormous proportions, certainly - didn't destroy all the connections made by Ashkenazim, nor did it deprive them of literacy. Literacy was, as a recent book by Eckstein and Botticini shows ('The Chosen Few', Princeton University Press 2012), the key determinant of Ashkenazi success. Jews have been majority literate for over a thousand years, as compared to most African populations, which have been literate for, in some cases, a tenth of that time.

    You appear to be biased towards an interpretation of all social phenomena as resulting from genetic disparities. This is the least reasonable of all attempts at explanation. And again, you haven't answered the question of just how higher mathematical abilities would correlate with enhanced reproductive success among upper class British men, which is necessary to sustain the argument that this was the ultimate cause of the industrial revolution.

    But I'm sure that doesn't matter to you. You have already decided that Africans are innately more stupid than other groups, and that it is genetic evolution, rather than cultural and technological change, that causes human history.

  14. I would say that there is something different about human brains, by the way. They respond to a great many variables, including diet and environment. Even living in a geometric landscape, such a modern city, has an impact. It is also clear that having an intelligent and capable set of parents does not equal being intelligent and capable oneself.

    This is very different to the adaptations required for living in an anoxic environment. If you don't have adaptations to breathe thinner air, then you will not only have problems living in that environment, but you will also have difficulties in producing offspring. This has an obvious and profound impact on the genetic make-up of the community. And, on top of this, traits like the ratio of red blood cells in the body respond to only a few variables and require minimal genetic change.

    By contrast, brains respond to lots of variables and genetic changes affecting their capabilities do not have an immediate correlation with reproductive success. If you were incapable of doing algebra in the seventeenth century (few humans are innately incapable of this, but for the sake of argument...), your reproductive success would probably not be impacted very much, if at all. There is no pressure, and no reason to believe that such traits would become fixed in the population.

    I'd also note that neither Newton nor Leibniz ever married.

  15. I'd like to point something out to you: Agency is not free will.* Ultimately what agency comes down to is that each person has different life trajectories within cultural contexts. It is black box in that these life trajectories are often hard to tether out a long with the actual role they play, but that is nothing new to the field of anthropology (cultural anthropology having it the worst). As well, it isn't anything new to the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, or any other 'hard' science. There are points where all you have is a black box and you can only move slowly towards some understanding of the phenomena.

    You could think of agency as a differential that exists between people. A summation of life experiences and biology^ that can lead to differences in behaviour within described roles. IE, if I was a CEO of a company I would act (to some degree) differently than you would act as CEO of the same company. This difference in behaviour, despite similarity in role, can be explained via agency.

    As well, anthropologists have a problem with Mr. Diamond due to his willingness to plagiarize the work of others and to manipulate data to support his conclusions (as well as just being sloppy).
    (And there's a lot more)

    We're lividly outraged at Diamond for very good reasons, just as biologists are outraged at people who masquerade as scientists while talking about intelligent design as valid scientific theory. Trust me, there are plenty of structural-functionalist anthropologists around who go 'humbug' at agency, and we do not screech like banshees whenever they open their mouth (we do however, discuss the flaws of their work).

    *There is a case to be made for free will based upon agency, but that would be conjecture and EXTREMELY hard to prove (let alone support for hypothesis). Modern usage for agency within anthropology tends to follow closely to what I have described, but by all means I'm certain you can find a few anthropologists who wander off into olden times. Just as you can find biologists who make arguments for lesser intelligence in Africa.

    ^ A. Fuentes might phrase this as being part of our biocultural reality. A phrasing that I would agree with. As well, I would make the argument that intelligence is less of a biological reality and more of a cultural reality. I primarily base this upon the capability of most humans being able to successfully navigate complex socio-cultural realities, in which, academia is not all that different from. However, this leans more towards hypothesis and I am not prepared to deliver a significant amount of data to establish it as anything more than conjecture.

    If I could summon up mountains of evidence I would go one step further in suggesting that higher intelligence is always being selected for in all human populations because higher intelligence=greater capability to exploit the present socio-cultural realities for both personal and public benefit (cooperative benefit). Sadly, I'm lazy and am unwilling to summon that mountain at this time.

  16. Thank you for your comment. I am familiar with both the idea of agency in anthropology and the objections to Diamond, and I'm pretty sure I've written about both of these somewhere on this blog. But I suppose you weren't to know that.

    "You could think of agency as a differential that exists between people."

    I'd prefer to think of it as the ability to act based upon reasons - that is to say, the ability to do what you think is best, given the information available to you. That would amount to such a difference between people, I suppose, given that we all have different experiences and therefore different beliefs about what is best.

    But that means agency can't be used as an explanation on its own. If you're asked, 'why did she do that?', you can't just shrug and say 'agency'. A better way would be to look at practical reason: the beliefs and desires she might have had that would causally explain the action. Then agency isn't a black box, but a sensible, naturalistic way of understanding human actions.

    My tutor at Oxford was an old anthropologist who gave lectures on kinship and wrote about small communities in eastern Indonesia and native North America. He was considered old fashioned by pretty much everyone, including most of the academics in the department, because he made sure his students understood kinship diagrams and other such apparently old fashioned things. And I'm certain he was accused of neglecting agency, with the claim being that as a structuralist or structural-functionalist (or whatever it is you want to call someone these days who still finds use for the formal study of kinship), he clearly didn't believe in the ability of his informants to act. Of course, he actually believed in free will, and certainly didn't see prescriptive rules of marriage as wholly determining actions at all. But that didn't matter; he didn't foreground agency (and perhaps more importantly, didn't use the word 'agency' very much).

    That's what I mean by agency as a black box. Diamond is accused not of neglecting some crucial belief or desire that would causally explain some action somewhere, but of neglecting agency as a whole. His approach is seen as backward, just as my tutor's was, despite the fact that, like kinship diagrams and formal attempts at understanding human relationships, it has strong explanatory powers, just because the black box of agency isn't front and centre.


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I'd appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.