Jared Diamond can’t find the key to superior civilization.
by Bruce S. Thornton
UCLA professor Jared Diamond’s journey into academic superstardom was jump-started when President Clinton held up Diamond’s 1999 Guns Germs and Steel before the news cameras, after which bestseller status and numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer, followed.Clinton’s and the academic establishment’s endorsement of Diamond’s book is not surprising, for it validates and justifies some cherished received wisdom of liberal intellectuals, ideas that, at a time when the West is under assault by an alternative vision, are woefully misguided.
Two of this cohort’s orthodox dogmas are multiculturalism and materialist determinism, and Diamond’s book confirms both. Multiculturalism is a species of cultural relativism: no culture, no matter how successful, is “better” than another, just different. But maintaining this belief is difficult in the face of the West’s remarkable dominance of the planet and its success at providing the highest living standards and greatest political freedom to the largest numbers of ordinary people. The reason for this success was obvious before the 20th century—Western civilization is superior in key respects and satisfies most efficiently universal human needs. But such an honest acknowledgment of reality these days is considered rude at best, racist and ethnocentric at worst. But whatever they say, Westerners denying Western superiority usually do so from the prosperity and freedom of the West, which is why their cultural relativism has an odor of bad faith. Also, the brute facts of immigration—millions of non-Westerners risking their lives to get to the West, with only a handful of rich folks or cranks going the other way—suggest that all those Third-World immigrants believe the West is superior, even if Western intellectuals pretend not to.
Diamond’s solution to this disconnect between empirical fact and intellectual prejudice is ingenious: he admits the West’s superiority, but attributes it not to a superior culture but to the accidents of climate, geography, and species availability. Western culture and ideas and values are not better than any other, but simply the accidental beneficiary of random material causes. This idea brings us to the second dogma dear to the hearts of the intellectual establishment, material determinism. To the determinist of this stripe, all causes are material; culture, religion, ideas, art, and the actions of people all have their origins in the material world and its forces. This superstition is one of the modern world’s most important dogmas, and can be seen in Darwinism, Marxism, the “selfish gene” cult, sociobiology, and most species of psychology, all of which discount spiritual reality, culture, free will, and everything else that does not fit into the materialist calculus. The only quarrel is over which material cause is more important.
Diamond’s book, then, validated the materialist bias and cultural relativism of the intellectual establishment. Its major weakness, apart from the unproven assumptions of materialism, is its ignorance of ancient culture and the origins of the West. Diamond’s environmental determinism can not explain why the ancient Greek city-states, possessing pretty much the same climate, geography, and species of plants and animals as did the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, nonetheless created what those older, more sophisticated civilizations did not: representative government, citizenship, philosophy, a rational approach to reality, political freedom, the beginnings of science, humanism—in short, most of the cultural components of Western civilization that have made it so dominant and that the rest of the world is desperately attempting to emulate.
But all that doesn’t matter, as long as right-thinking dogma is affirmed. Which brings us to Diamond’s latest assertion of orthodoxy, this one published New Year’s Day in the New York Times. Diamond’s subject now is societal collapse, and sure enough, material, more specifically environmental, causes take center stage. In Diamond’s view, societal collapse follows environmental degradation, and those peoples who respond to such degradation avoid collapse. After detailing several historical examples of such collapse and its avoidance, Diamond then draws the lessons.
The first and obvious lesson is to “take environmental problems seriously.” But this banal conclusion isn’t as interesting as Diamond’s next “lessons,” which all suggest connections to our current political scene. First, “a society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions.” Diamond then draws a parallel with modern America, criticizing the “gated communities,” “private security patrols,” “bottled water,” “private pensions,” and “private schools” of the elite that cause them to detach from their communities and the poor, whom Diamond darkly warns will not be kept out by gates.
Leave aside the hypocrisy of a well-heeled academic like Diamond criticizing affluence, as though he hangs with the homies in South-Central LA and teaches geography to disadvantaged ghetto youth. His analogy with the Maya and the Easter Island elites, whose insulation from the masses contributed to their societies’ collapse, is utterly false. Apart from ancient Athens, in no society in history have the elites been as close and answerable to the masses as in the United States. Prosperity and democratic politics have narrowed the stark divisions between rich and poor that characterized earlier societies. Movement up the socio-economic ladder is more frequent and easier than in any time in history. Behavior and styles that once characterized the scruffy poor are now the property of the affluent, and political success demands that a candidate assert his down-home bona fides, as George Bush just proved by beating John Kerry, who could never escape the taint of his five mansions and plutocrat wife. The ancient Mayan or Easter Island bigwigs never had to run for office or explain their policies to a 24/7 media.
Diamond’s next lesson is that avoiding collapse requires “a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense.” Like lesson number one, this one has a submerged political point relevant for us today. In the last election, we all knew which candidate (and party) the media and liberal pundits deemed the dogmatic “cowboy” unwilling to reassess his simplistic, outmoded ideas, and which they anointed as the flexible thinker who approached issues with sophisticated nuance. But more important is the big fat question Diamond begs: where does a culture get this willingness to look critically at itself and its values?
The fact is, this faculty of “critical consciousness,” the inclination and ability to step back from existence and view it analytically in order to examine one’s own values and assumptions, is not universal in human history. It surfaces first among the ancient Greeks, and ultimately comes to characterize Western civilization; indeed, it is one of the key elements that account for the dynamism of the West. From critical consciousness flow individualism, science, political freedom, the notion of human rights, and the rational rather than traditional or supernatural approach to nature. In other words, this faculty Diamond recommends is a culturally specific one that has little to do with climate or geography. That’s why despite its greater economic and technological development the West is improving its environment while much of the world continues to degrade theirs.
Diamond finishes with an application of his “lessons” to our circumstances in America today. And of course the moral is completely predictable to anyone familiar with the received wisdom of the liberal intellectual. Considering the numerous threats to our society in an increasingly interconnected world, Diamond dismisses the military solution and asserts that we need “to recognize that it will be far less expensive and far more effective to address the underlying problems of public health, population and environment that ultimately cause threats to us to emerge in poor countries.” In other words, foreign policy as social work—pour more money into the Third World. All causes are material, so improve material existence and problems will disappear.
The problem is, we’ve been down that road. The West has poured trillions of dollars into the underdeveloped world, and most of those funds have ended up in the hands of corrupt elites and their equally corrupt enablers in the West. The solution cannot be found solely in material causes, for the simple reason that people aren’t just material things determined by material forces. They have beliefs, ideas, spiritual needs that have nothing to do with material comfort. The Islamists who represent the greatest threat to the West are driven by spiritual demands and meaning that will not be satisfied with DVDs and Madonna and Big Macs, and we would be wise to take those beliefs seriously rather than arrogantly dismissing them as illusions masking what we think are the real causes.
The answer to the crises the world faces will not be found in the environment or material causes but in culture, the human reality of ideas and values that Diamond dismisses or reduces to a mere expression of underlying material forces. A culture that reins in superstition, while leaving people free to pursue their spiritual good; a culture that approaches reality rationally and respects the truth of the world; a culture that gives rights to individuals, governs by transparent law, and allows citizen participation in the state—this sort of culture has the best shot of providing freedom and prosperity and solving whatever crises may arrive.
But this sort of culture will be essentially Western, a consequence of ideas and values that historically have little to do with the material environment, and that are quite simply better than the alternatives, for these ideas and values create the best life for the greatest number of people, and have so far proven able to meet the challenges that have threatened it. That the West might fail in the future to meet such challenges is of course a real possibility, particularly given the corrosive self-doubt and self-loathing that lie behind the Western intellectual’s dismissal of the cultural goods he nonetheless enjoys, the fashionable “Hamlet disease” that has seeped out into the larger culture. But nowhere else in the world have we seen an alternative to the Western way that can do a better job of improving all human life and meeting future challenges.
Yet this solution, represented at present by economic globalization and the spread of democratic institutions, will not be advanced by those intellectuals like Diamond who dismiss spiritual and cultural causes and indulge old dogmas generated by the West’s intellectual corruption, such as the notion that all cultures are equal or that all causes are material, whether economic, environmental, or genetic. On the contrary, to paraphrase Diamond’s most famous fan, “It’s the culture, stupid.” And Western culture offers the best formula for creating not utopia but societies in which people are free and prosperous.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson