Daily Archives: June 15, 2009

Darwin vs. Jared Diamond

I’ve been rereading Darwin recently (for the first time since my creationist childhood) and came across the following passage in The Origin:

If it has taken centuries or thousands of years to improve or modify most of our plants up to their present standard of usefulness to man, we can understand how it is that neither Australia the Cape of Good Hope, nor any other region inhabited by quite uncivilised man, has afforded us a single plant worth culture. It is not that these countries, so rich in species, do not by a strange chance possess the aboriginal stocks of any useful plants, but that the native plants have not been improved by continued selection up to a standard of perfection comparable with that given to the plants in countries anciently civilised (The Origin of Species, pp. 95-96 in the Penguin Classics edition).

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues the native peoples of America, Australia, and Africa advanced less rapidly than those of Eurasia in part because of the relative lack of large domesticable animals on those continents. At first glance Africa would seem to have plenty of horse-like, ox-like, and goat-like animals that could be profitably domesticated, but Diamond assures us that none of them are really suitable — that, for example, the zebra is far more bad-tempered than the horse or the ass and will often bite people.

Though I’m reluctant to take someone as an expert on animals who doesn’t know the difference between an aardvark and a hyena, let’s assume Diamond is right about zebras and other non-Eurasian megafauna. Darwin’s comment on plants quoted above, which would apply just as well to animals, offers a different interpretation. Diamond’s argument is that African animals are inherently unsuitable for domestication, that they were therefore not domesticated by the Africans, and that as a result the Africans remained relatively “uncivilized” (not that Diamond would use that word). Darwin’s logic suggests that the arrow of causation may go in the opposite direction. It’s possible that the Africans were a relatively uncivilized people, that they therefore failed to domesticate many animals, and that African animals were therefore not subjected to thousands of years of artificial selection and as a result remain far below the “standard of perfection” set by livestock of Eurasian origin.

I’m not saying that explanation is any more likely to be right than Diamond’s — assuming that non-Eurasian animals just happen to have been less “domesticable” is no more or less reasonable than assuming that non-Eurasian peoples just happen to have been less “civilized” — but it’s another possibility. Though not in the race-is-skin-deep camp myself, I think Diamond’s project is still the right idea. In the long run, all differences among various peoples, even the genetic ones Diamond so scrupulously ignores, have to be explained in terms of environment, since environment is what drives natural selection.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Arrogance and humility

A recent post by Bruce Charlton argues that only the religious are capable of true humility.

For Christians the ideal is humility before God. But humility before God is compatible with – indeed often demands – resisting any amount of consensus or social pressure.

However, for atheists there are but two options – selfish arrogance or submissiveness. If an atheist resists social consensus (perhaps a consensus of peer groups, or managers, or society at large) then this can only be on the basis of selfish arrogance.

Well, of course this is not really true – because it may be that the atheist is making a principled stand on the basis of natural law – on the principle of their own convictions of what ought to be right behavior. But these convictions are subjective, and if everyone else’s convictions are different (or if everyone else claims that their convictions are different) then a stand on the basis of principle is indistinguishable from a stand on the basis of personal whim, motivated by selfish or malicious goals. For the atheist, there is no external ground for appeal.

I’m not so sure that the situation is any different for a Christian than for an atheist. I know in theory a Christian’s convictions are supposed to come directly from God, but God’s will isn’t a given any more than the scientific truth is. In practice, one’s idea of God’s will comes either from the doctrine and traditions of a church (a social consensus) or from one’s own conscience (subjective convictions). God is not in any practical sense an “external ground for appeal.” You can’t say, “Well, I think this, and the church says that; let’s see what God has to say about it.” The only way to bring God into the question is to simply assume that one’s conscience, or the church, reflects God’s will. This allows one to be either arrogant or submissive, according to taste, and still claim the moral high ground. (Atheists can of course do the same thing, since “the scientific truth” can mean either the consensus of the experts or one’s personal interpretation of the evidence.)

The atheist arrogantly stands by his personal convictions. The Christian, in contrast, humbly submits to God’s will — which he arrogantly assumes must coincide with his personal convictions. Is there really any difference in practice?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized