Trying to explain the blinding disparity between the accomplishments of different societies - for that matter, of different individuals - has exercised the imagination of thinking people for some time.
Comes now professor Jared Diamond of the University of California at Los Angeles and speculates anew about the reasons. He concludes (not for the first time) that accidents of environment have propelled some humans toward inventing, creating, developing a vast array of activity and reaching ever-greater heights in those activities, while others simply continued to live in their natural state.
One of Professor Diamond's more novel ideas is the availability of animals - cows, horses, sheep - suitable for domestication. That, he proposes, led to ancient Greece and Rome; the great cities of Europe; book printing and the lens; the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence; Shakespeare's plays and Beethoven's symphonies...the list is literally endless because it continues to grow.
To be fair, Professor Diamond makes it clear in the first chapter of his book, "Guns, Germs and Steel," that he is speculating, having fun. Sure. For starters, he lays out a current version of "the history of the human species." Of course, someone like myself, having graduated from high school in 1954, has witnessed anthropology producing more "new, improved" versions than do dishwashing liquids.
Why, then, is speculation of the Diamond kind spurred by a MacArthur "genius" grant? Why is it rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize? Because it suggests plausible answers to difficult questions?
Or because it supports a favored political trend?
If it's the latter, is it still "science"?
From here on, the matter becomes somewhat complicated.
Professor Diamond speaks of "Eurasia," but that already amounts to a fudging of the issue. The achievements of Persia, India - both a distant past - or even of China are not the reasons for our burning questions. For one thing, the Persians, the Indians, the Chinese have never posed such questions, never expressed an interest in finding answers.
So it's all about Europe, isn't it?
Not even that is true.
A good two-thirds of Europe has participated in the creative activity. But thinking about man's past, present and future has been limited to a very few societies-even within Europe, let alone elsewhere. That we now pretend otherwise is a product of that very thinking.
Professor Diamond's ideas, the MacArthur grants, the Pulitzer Prizes are all about pretending. Applying our awesome powers of thinking, we have resolved to build an entire fictitious world to hide the real one.
By suppressing certain accomplishments, belittling the significance of others, and by creating entire branches of "scholarship" to elevate persons and events of no particular import to places of prominence. All this is occurring in the name of "fairness" to those who had been disadvantaged by... whom?
If the culprit has been Nature - by placing cows, horses and sheep at the disposal of some, but not others - why are we beating up on (mostly dead) people? And why favor a theory of disparate environments over disparate genes when both are flukes of Nature?
If, on the other hand, the culprit is said to be the English-speaking world, how do we square this with the fact that fairness as a concept - along with liberty and common-law justice - was born in England, then perfected in and propagated by America?
And if we believe our own nonsense, why not be consistent about it? Why not simply ship large quantities of cows, horses, sheep to the rest of the world and be done?
It is difficult to see how the starving children in Africa and India, the oppressed women of Islam, the corrupt societies of Asia and Latin America, or fellow-Americans currently referred to as "urban" or "inner-city" will be aided by pretending that something or somebody has been "at fault" - that some have had an "unfair advantage." It is difficult to see how the noble task of assisting others would be facilitated by concealing or demeaning the very accomplishments which gave rise to the desire to include everyone in their blessings.
The accomplishments in question are broadly known as "Western Civilization."
If we really cared, if we were not just pretending, we would admit that the task may be advanced only by guaranteeing opportunity and providing know-how. Opportunity comes from equal treatment before the law. Know-how comes from teaching, truthfully, what successful societies had to do in order to succeed.
Around the mid-1960's, we got ourselves on the right track. Equal treatment before the law was extended to all, and enrollments in schools exploded. Yet, in a few years, that course was abandoned. Equality before the law yielded to preference quotas, and teaching know-how was displaced by multiculturalism, "sensitivity," and "self-esteem." While one might understand the motivation - growing embarrassment about the chasms that separate humans - the strategy is beyond comprehension. People will be helped solely by learning what they might do for themselves. To shift continents around is not an option open to mortals; realistic thinking is.
Because they rely largely on speculation, theses like that of Professor Diamond do not amount to science. And, since their purpose is not to enrich knowledge, but to buttress a political agenda, they do not qualify as scholarship. The political agenda in question is to pretend that all people are the same (as opposed to being equal before the law).
Everything about that agenda is hypocrisy. Is there an academic, a trustee of foundations, an adjudicator of honors - for that matter, a feminist or a civil rights leader - who would actually live by the sermon of "multiculturalism," trading what they have here for that which they praise? Yet they conceal the facts of life from those about whom they profess to care.
As to genes versus environment, trust me, we shall never know. The most likely answer: some of both. A glance at siblings in any family will verify the observation.
Observation: there we are. It teaches that proper evaluation of cause and effect makes for wisdom; that industry brings better results than laziness; that reward for effort motivates, whereas reward without effort causes atrophy.
Above all, observation teaches that - however it might have begun - thinking as a habit produces advanced societies.
Why not pass on this vital piece of knowledge to those who need it most?