> Chronicle of Higher Education
>From the issue dated January 31, 2003
> The Mythical Threat of Genetic Determinism

 From Dennett's article:

The issue is not about determinism, either genetic or environmental or
both together; the issue is about what we can change whether or not our
world is deterministic. A fascinating perspective on the misguided issue
of genetic determinism is provided by Jared Diamond in his magnificent
book Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). The question Diamond poses, and
largely answers, is why it is that "Western" people (Europeans or
Eurasians) have conquered, colonized, and otherwise dominated "Third
World" people instead of vice versa. Why didn't the human populations of
the Americas or Africa, for instance, create worldwide empires by
invading, killing, and enslaving Europeans? Is the answer ... genetic?
Is science showing us that the ultimate source of Western dominance is
in our genes? On first encountering this question, many people -- even
highly sophisticated scientists -- jump to the conclusion that Diamond,
by merely addressing this question, must be entertaining some awful
racist hypothesis about European genetic superiority. So rattled are
they by this suspicion that they have a hard time taking in the fact
(which he must labor mightily to drive home) that he is saying just
about the opposite: The secret explanation lies not in our genes, not in
human genes, but it does lie to a very large extent in genes -- the
genes of the plants and animals that were the wild ancestors of all the
domesticated species of human agriculture.



Finally we come to Europe. Most of the argument of Guns, Germs, and
Steel is devoted to proving the primacy throughout history of
midlatitude Eurasia, and within this region of Europe (supposed heir to
the Fertile Crescent) and China. If the argument stopped there, we would
have a sort of Eurasia-centrism, not Eurocentrism. But Diamond's purpose
is to explain "the broadest patterns of history," and so he must answer
this final question: Why did Europe, not Eurasia as a whole, or Europe
and China in tandem, rise to become the dominant force in the world?
Diamond's answer is, predictably: the natural environment. The
"ultimate" causes of Europe's rise, relative to China, are a set of
qualities that Europe's environment possesses and China's environment
lacks, or China's possesses but in lesser degree. The "ultimate"
environmental causes then produce the "proximate" causes -- which are

"[The] proximate factors behind Europe's rise [are] its development of a
merchant class, capitalism, and patent protection for inventions, its
failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation, and its
Graeco-Judeo-Christian tradition of empirical inquiry (p. 410)."

This is, of course, utterly conventional Eurocentric history. There is
now a huge literature that systematically questions each of these
economic, political, and intellectual explanations for the rise of
Europe, much of this literature consisting of Eurocentric arguments of
one sort attacking Eurocentric arguments of some other sort -- yet
Diamond ignores all this scholarship and simply announces that these
(and a few other cultural things) are the true "proximate" causes of the
rise of Europe. Evidently he views the matter as settled. The problem,
for him, is to find the underlying environmental causes.

Topography is the key; or more precisely topographic relief and the
shape of the coastline.

"Europe has a highly indented coastline, with five large peninsulas that
approach islands in their isolation...China's coastline is much
smoother...Europe is carved high mountains (the Alps, Pyrenees,
Carpathians, and Norwegian border mountains), while China's mountains
east of the Tibetan Plateau are much less formidable barriers (p.414)."

These somewhat inaccurate observations about physical geography lead
into one of the truly classical arguments of Eurocentric world history:
the theory of Oriental despotism.[9] This is the belief that the
so-called "Oriental" civilizations -- essentially China, India, and the
Islamic Middle East -- have always been despotic; that Europeans alone
understand and enjoy true freedom; that Europe alone, therefore, has had
the historical basis for intellectual innovation and social progress.
Diamond invokes a pair of well-known environmentalistic theories, adding
nothing new to them, about how physical geography is the main reason why
Europe, not China, acquired the cultural attributes that gave it
ultimate hegemony: "a merchant class, capitalism...patent protection for
inventions...failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation,"
and the rest. Here is how it works: China is not broken up
topographically into isolated regions, because it does not have high
mountains like the Alps and does not have a coastline sufficiently
articulated to isolate nearby coastal regions from one another. This
explains the fact that China became unified culturally and politically
2,000 years ago. Europe, on the other hand, could not be unified
culturally and politically because of its indented coastline (its "capes
and bays," in the traditional theory) and because of its sharply
differentiated topographic relief (its "many separate geographical
cores" in the traditional theory). Europe therefore developed into a
mosaic of separate cultures and states. China's geographically
determined unity led it to become a single state, an empire; and an
empire must, by nature, be despotic. Why? Because a person cannot leave
one state and emigrate to another to avoid oppression, since there is
only the one state, the Chinese empire. Hence there is continued
oppression of the populace and centralized manipulation of the economy.
So: no freedom, little development of individualism, little incentive to
invent and innovate (taxation, political control, etc.), no development
of free markets, and no development of a polity resembling the modern
democratic nation-state. These "harmful effects of unity" (p. 413) led
China to, in essence, stagnate after the 14th or 15th century. Europe,
by comparison, continued to forge ahead. Hence Europe triumphed.

The geography is wrong and so is the history. Southern Europe has the
requisite "capes and bays" and separate "geographic cores." But the
historical processes that Diamond is discussing here pertain to the last
five or six hundred years of history, and most of the major developments
during this period, those that are relevant to his argument, occurred
mainly in northern and western Europe, which is flat: the North European
Plain from France to Russia; the extension of that plain across France
almost to the Spanish border; southern England. Even Central Europe is
not really isolated from northern and western Europe. There are no
serious coastline indentations between Bordeaux and Bremen. If we look
at the distribution of population throughout this region, there is no
isolation and not very much development of cores. The crystallization of
northern Europe's tiny feudal polities into modern states occurred for
reasons that had little to do with topographic differentiation; the
boundaries of most of these states do not reflect topographic barriers
and most of their cultural cores are not ecological cores. The idea that
the pattern of multiple states somehow favored democracy is (in my view)
a Eurocentric myth: each of these states was as despotic as -- indeed,
usually much more despotic than-- China, and emigration from one polity
to another was not substantial enough to have had any effect on the
development of democracy. Further: what Diamond calls Europe's
"competing" states often were warring states; probably China was more
peaceful during most centuries than Europe was, and an environment of
peace surely is more conducive to development than one of war. And
finally, Diamond's view of Chinese society is based on outdated European
beliefs. China did not stagnate in the late Middle Ages: Chinese
development continued without interruption, and Europe did not outdo
China in technology, in the development of market institutions, and
indeed in the ordinary person's standard of living, until the later 18th
century. In short, the idea that China's topography led to China's
achievement of a unified society and polity, and that this unity somehow
led to despotism and stagnation, is simply not supported by the facts.



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