Sunday, September 25, 2005

Jared Diamond in National Geographic

Jared Diamond has become the media’s new darling with his theory that humanity’s modern makeup is a product of certain groups being in the right place at the right time. The sentiment certainly seems plausible enough. But it is absurd to believe that 100,000 years of life in totally different environments has left human populations the same, and that the various evolutionary forces did not build upon one another as natural selection rewarded different traits for different circumstances.

In National Geographic’s September 2005 special issue on the continent of Africa, Diamond has a piece entitled The Shape of Africa. What follows is a short list of a few contentions with Diamond’s piece:

-Diamond mentions in passing that our ancestors, Homo sapiens, who emigrated from Africa some 100,000 years ago may have interbred with Neanderthals (Europe) and Homo erectus (Asia) but fails to consider that this may have had something to do with the subsequent developmental paths of various human groups, most notably the relative distinctiveness of “Caucasoids” (Europe), “Negroids” (Africa), and “Mongoloids” (Asia). The physical dominance of Africans today may conceivably shed light onto how Homo sapiens were able to overtake (and to some extent combine with) the other two species.

-The most trenchant rough spot in Diamond’s argument involves animal domestication. He writes "[Africa’s] own native animals—with the exception of guinea fowl and possibly donkeys and one breed of cattle—proved impossible to domesticate." Yet in the comparative blink of an eye the zebra, ostrich, and warthog have all been domesticated. Even hyenas have been essentially tamed in a single generation. Keep in mind that the equine species now geographically ubiquitous have been under domestication for around 50,000 years and yet within a single generation can become feral and as wild as gazelles. What a sight the first domestication must have been! The Mongolian horse, the Przewalski, now nearly extinct, appears to be the roughest equine out there (look at that beast). It is more than vacuous speculation to assume Africa potentially had the greatest animal resources in the world. Southern Africa is probably site of the world’s most fertile land today, although I am no agronomist and cannot say what advantages it may have had relative to other farming areas thousands of years ago. Diamond does concede Africa has abundant natural resources, especially in the temperate zones.

-Jocularly, Diamond continues: “History might have turned out differently if African armies, fed by barnyard-giraffe meat and backed by waves of cavalry mounted on huge rhinos, had swept into Europe to overrun its mutton-fed soldiers mounted on puny horses.” He is missing the elephant in the room, pardon the pun. Diamond leaves out Hannibal’s excursions against Rome, where elephants were used in battle and also crossed geographical nightmares like the Alps.

-He makes the observation that various ethnic groups in Africa coexist “far better than they do in many other parts of the globe.” Maybe, although the litany of conflicts, from Hutus against Tutsis to the prized meat of Pygmys (though not widely known, cannibalism is pervasive in Africa like nowhere else on earth), the continent is not immune to the ills that plaque us all.

Diamond's theory makes sense, and I'm only nitpicking potential problems that clearly do not sink the argument, but suggest that environment left a biological impression on the people it affected that is not instantly irreversible (assuming it would even be a wise thing to do). As far as that obdurate sujbect goes, cheap DNA sequencing will lead to an explosion of research and correlation analysis to determine what exactly does what. There are some three trillion base sequences in the human genome, and if my math is right that's around infinity billion possible combinations. Finding sequence similarities among the very upper echelon 175-IQers will allow for the understanding of what makes people smart (and in every other area of life--just pondering the possibilities is tiring). The idea of free-will may even be fatally challenged. Who knows?

Diamond ends optimistically about Africa’s future. I am more skeptical, given the continent’s low IQ scores. However, destitute situations are the ones with the most opportunity for improvement, and the industrialized world has made a substantial commitment—some $50 billion in fact. Diamond is spot on when he says development, not just aid, is needed. Insuring nutrition alone could significantly boost cognitive abilities, and would be relatively cheap to distribute. Rhodesia was brutal, but economically it worked. Removing the brutality and replacing it with humanitarianism might do wonders. Another obvious solution to help pull people up, at least in the oil rich west, would be for African countries to instigate an equal dividend based on petroleum revenues to all its residents once per year (or more frequently) like Alaska does here in the US.

(Previous post)

No comments: