The Human Factor

We are used to thinking about the question of nature vs. nurture in relationship to individual human beings. Although clearly nurture plays an important role, more and more we are realizing that nature is predominant, it is our genes that really make us what we are, and not only in a physical way, but also in our mental attitudes and behavior.
Recently I read the book “Guns, germs and steel” by Jared Diamond, that seeks to explain the comparative development of human societies and does so in an excellent and interesting way, but concludes essentially that it was entirely physical factors that led to certain societies developing faster than others. In other words, what we call the more advanced or developed societies could just as well have been inhabited by Africans or Australian Aborigines instead of white Europeans, because the factors which led to the advancement of society were independent of the human groups or tribes that inhabited those regions where civilization developed.
In place of the previous hunter-gatherer culture the principal factors that led to the development of civilization as we know it were the cultivation of crops (wheat, barley, etc.), the domestication of animals (cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs) and the consequent production of excess food greater than the needs of the farmers themselves, that allowed settlement into villages and towns, the development of a centralized form of government, the growth of hereditary chiefs into monarchs, the
ability to feed specialized individuals such as soldiers and scribes, and the development of inventions such as writing and metal tools. This started ca. 10,000 years ago in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, where conditions were ripe for the initiation of this process. Then civilization spread because of the reasonably accessible terrain linking Asia and Europe via the Middle East.
Note that in this narrative of development of civilized societies, there is no factor that dependson the differences between different tribes. Everything develops autonomously based on the physical factors of climate, availability of crops and animals to domesticate, and specialization leading to inventions. In order to avoid criticism by attributing the development of advanced societies by shall we say “whites” as opposed to “blacks” the author is indulging in a case of “political
correctness.”
Stating a somewhat opposing view is a book called “Tribes” by Joel Kotkin, in which the author argues that certain tribes are intrinsically more industrious than others, as revealed by their actual accomplishments. Of course, his prime example are the Jews, but he also shows how Italians,Irish, Chinese, Indians, Blacks have fared in various locations around the world. From his evidence there is no doubt that which tribe occupied a region makes a fundamental difference in how the raw
materials of that region are exploited, and what degree of industriousness and innovation are developed. So I would argue that Jared Diamond simplifies matters based on what happened since there is no evidence that Australian aborigines or Black Africans, given the advantages of the fertile crescent, would in fact have developed writing and an advanced civilization to the degree that it actually was developed by the tribes living here then. Maybe to answer this criticism Diamond has written a follow-up book entitled “How civilizations choose to fail.”
Just to amplify on this theme, my colleague at Hebrew University just returned from a trip to Senegal. He described conditions there in the university and the main hospital. He found them appalling, everywhere there was junk and mess, nothing worked. He said the labs he visited looked like labs in Europe in the early 1800s. The Hospital administrator was from France, assisted by 10 Europeans. He told him that if they were not there the Hospital would grind to a halt. All my friend’s opinions were not negative, and he certainly is not a racist. He said that the young men and women looked very impressive, tall, healthy and well dressed. Quite in contrast to the surrounding conditions. Remember that Senegal has been independent for nearly as long as Israel, yet against incredible odds look at what has been accomplished here. One must face up to the facts.
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