A modern racist’s wet-dream is fairly simple. It’s the dream that one day science, as opposed to unproven conjecture, will legitimize racist beliefs. The power that a scientific stamp of approval would lend to racists would be priceless, forever acting as the fuel for a rationalized conservative xenophobia.
Luckily, attempts to legitimize racism with even the least rigorous ‘science’ have met with relative failure. Save for some specious conclusions of pseudo-scientists like Phillip Rushton, there has yet to be any conclusive ‘scientific’ or even ‘socioscientific’ evidence that there are any significant cognitive or behavioral differences between people that can be linked causally to race.
But the idea that one race is superior to another survives nonetheless, in spite of the 99.9% similarity between human beings’ DNA, regardless of race. The deadend for racist legitimacy on the biological side of the debate just means that social factors are stressed as the real difference. “Maybe they’re not THAT different from us,” the argument goes, “but their culture sure is, and that’s why we’re better.”
This line of thinking, no matter how offensive or unreasonable it might seem at first glance (who defines “better?”), does have its supporters. The past few years have seen Islam as the target of choice, with authors like Irshad Manji penning treatises against a belief system that she believes treats women as inferiors, attacks Jews, and enslaves its believers. It’s not like any of those charges can’t also be leveled against any of a half-dozen other major religions, but the ‘success-stories’ that buoy the liberal-myth in the Western World make the argument that hard-line Islam is an inferior belief system even more compelling.
How can there not be some differences between the societies, considering some are so successful and others not? Assuming we can almost completely discount the biological racist reasoning, can we now conclude that the success of the West (Europe and North America) is due to their cultures better ideas? According to Jared Diamond, it looks like Westerners were more ‘lucky’ than ‘better’ when it came to the successes of their societies. In an amazingly brief 450 pages, Guns, Germs, and Steel outlines the entirety of human development on this planet and proves that geography and environment, rather than a race’s quality of ideas, are responsible for the successes and failures of the world’s peoples.
The central question behind Diamond’s work was brought to him through an encounter with a native of New Guinea who wondered why the Whites had so many belongings to bring to his homeland, but not the reverse. This is the starting point for Diamond’s investigation into other questions, such as: Why did European whites colonize the Americas, Africa and Australia, rather than the natives of those lands colonize Europe?
Fortunately for whites, the geography of Europe and Asia allowed for massive plant and animal domestication, which in turn allowed nomadic hunter-gatherer
tribes to become sedentary, then create a class of people who could be fed by others, and then eventually go on to develop writing and other technological and scientific advances that would allow them to expand around the globe.
This is of course massively simplified through my words, but Diamond formulates a fluid and compelling argument for the enormous impact geography had on
human development. Even given a head start of thousands of years, humans on some continents were never able to accomplish as much as European and Asian dwellers did in a shorter time-span. This wasn’t because the native people of Africa, America and Australia were lazier or less intelligent, but because they didn’t have the same benefits that European whites did.
Guns, Germs, and Steel doesn’t completely discount the influence of cultural factors, but it stresses the importance of geographical factors in getting to the level
of development where certain ideas can make a difference. It is a long road to get to the point where ideas actually make a difference in a society’s fate.
Throughout the entire book Diamond constantly makes reference to the importance of his research in dispelling racist myths. How can Blacks or Native Americans be inferior to whites because of historical accidents? Of course it is an unreasonable mind that believes that one race is better than another simply because one race developed quicker. The question they should be asking themselves is: What does speed of development mean when the contest is invented by the victors, on a the playing field which was uneven to begin with? The answer, which should be readily apparent after reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, is simple: nothing.