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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Racism versus Culturism

Note: A shorter version of this is posted on the Atlasphere web site http://www.theatlasphere.com/myaccount/login.php?path=/members/index.php

After I published “Obsevations on Arabs” on the Atlasphere and on my blog, I got a lot of interesting feedback. Many people with experience in the Gulf chimed in with their own observations, mostly in at least qualified agreement. One person objected and pointed out that he had far more experience than I did and had learned Arabic. (I did in fact try to learn Arabic, but after a year in the Kingdom I had learned less Arabic than I had Polish after a month in Poland, for reasons I’ll go into later.) This is a fair objection, since I often stress the importance of experience. For now I’ll just point out that these observations were not only mine, but also distilled from the experience of a great many people working in the Gulf, many of them Sudanese and non-Saudi Arabs, and confirmed by many respondents with a lot of combined experience in the oil states.

I also got called a racist, but I knew that was going to happen.

Gee, how did I know that?

Because anybody who comments on the relative merits of different cultures versus Western Civilization gets called a racist. And any comment even vaguely alluding to differences in human populations gets called a racist. (“People of sub-Saharan African descent on average have darker complexions than people of Northern European descent.” “You’re a RACIST!”)

So, though I plainly stated that I was talking about differences in worldview inculcated by cultural beliefs, education and upbringing (and who said Arabs were a “race” anyway?), it appears I’m a “racist”? Although I don’t recall the commenter asked what my ancestry was.

(Anglo-Celt, with known American Indian and rumored African elements. That is to say, pretty typical for families who have been in America since colonial times. At an academic conference in Europe once, this subject came up in conversation with a European participant. When I ran this down for him, he then happily started referring to me as “multi-racial”. I told him, no, I’m a white American with a very slight but statistically common admixture of American Indian and African. He then accused me of “self-hatred”. You just can’t win with these guys. And by the way, if it makes you happy, though not Jewish myself, I have Jewish relatives and my children are half-Slav.)


When Europeans started venturing to the Americas and Africa, they came in contact with a great many peoples whose cultures had different levels of technological development. Two, or perhaps three explanations were advanced for this. The racialist, culturalist and climate explanations. The racialists held that foreign peoples were not as advanced because they didn’t have it in them to advance. The culturalists held that cultural values, beliefs, worldview etc, (usually subsumed under the heading of religion) had prevented, delayed or hampered the development of technological civilization. The climate explanation posited an enervating effect of the climate of the tropics.

This of course, is a very simplistic way of putting it. But simplistic explanations appealed to ethnocentric Europeans who had never been outside of Europe (and even many who had) and wanted an explanation that confirmed the superiority of their own tribe, nation, religion and climate.

There were cracks in the racialist view from the beginning. In Mesoamerica and highland Peru, civilizations were found that were the equal of the classical Greeks who were considered the ancestors of our own civilization (though most of us are not Greek). Africa had city-building civilizations scattered along the west coast and the remains of ancient high civilizations along the Nile in Egypt and Meroe. In Asia Europeans encountered high civilizations, which seemed more advanced than Europe in some ways - but not others.

The climate explanation held on for a while, with philosophers like de Gobineau claiming that even European colonists degenerated when they took up residence in the tropics or North America, but the spectacular success of the new American nation made that a bit hard to hold onto.

A more sophisticated modern variation of this might be called the “geography is destiny” model, which actually has a lot of merit. Scholars such as Jared Diamond and Thomas Sowell have done a tremendous job of describing the constraints that environment puts on peoples.

Africa has no rivers on which unobstructed navigation is possible year-round for more than very limited distances, and no natural deep-water harbors on most of its coastline. Civilization historically spreads along rivers and by sea. Huge areas are infested with mosquito-bourn diseases, which makes animal husbandry impractical. No domestic animals means that peoples lack a vital natural resource for settled agriculture – manure.

Both Africa and the American continents are oriented north-south, the Eurasian landmass runs east-west. This means that the spread of new food crops will tend to remain restricted to the narrow latitude band they are developed in. Even though fully half of the world’s food crops are of American Indian origin, they had little opportunity to spread until Europeans adopted and dispersed them. (Potatos were developed in the Peruvian high desert. They also grow very well in the similar environments of Idaho and Tibet but historically never made the trip for reasons a glance at a map will reveal.) And the Americas happen to be poor in animal species that can be domesticated, etc.

Other scholars, such as Victor Davis Hanson stress the choices made by different cultures and civilizations that affect their future development. A culture that hangs on to slavery is unlikely to shine in the development and production of labor saving technology. Why invent machines to make life easy when you have plenty of slaves to do the work? A religion that clings to the notion that charging interest on loans is a major sin is going to have a lot of trouble developing a banking system, with all the accounting and record keeping skill that goes with it. One that teaches that everything is in the hands of capricious gods or inexorable fate is not likely to discover the scientific method. An overly complicated writing system means that scholarship and the power that goes with it is likely to remain the monopoly of a small class, etc.

Of course, as will all great truths, the answer to the question of which is most important is likely to be, “yes”. Both factors appear to interact in various and complex ways. Both Europe and China founded technological civilizations – and China had a big head start. But China early established a unitary state, which was capable of regulating and often suppressing new technology that threatened the social order. Europe remained politically divided and diverse. Read the biographies of the important scholars and scientists in European history and it’s interesting to note how many of them changed countries frequently, either seeking patronage or escaping persecution. The political unity of China and the diversity of Europe may be a function of their respective geographies.

These factors in combination lead to different civilizations achieving different levels of technology, science – and law. These in turn, lead to different standards of living and quality of life. When technology made mass immigration around the world possible, huge numbers of people began to express their opinion of what the good life was by voting with their feet.

In doing so, they destroyed the racialist explanation forever, though of course, some continue to cling to it because their pitiful excuse for self-esteem is bound up in it.

Cultures which chose to adopt those features of Western Civilization necessary for scientific and technological development have advanced, often with startling success (see Japan). Those which have not, tend to remain far less competitive in the world economy. Immigrants to Europe and the Americas who most successfully adopt those cultural traits of the host country prosper, often in spite of local racism. Those who do not, tend to remain in enclaves with standards of income lower than the national norm, regardless of whether they are of the same race as their new country or not. (Look at the relative success of Jamaicans versus Irish Catholics, for example.)

Now here’s the point I’m getting to; the “multiculturalists” deny that any race or any culture is superior in any way to any other. They also refuse to address the question of whether different cultures could have different strengths and weaknesses, better (or more adaptive) in some ways, worse in others.

I most emphatically agree with them about race - but if this is true then only the culturalist explanation is left. They cannot both be false.


  • At 7:30 PM, Blogger Doug_S said…

    Now here’s the point I’m getting to; the “multiculturalists” deny that any race or any culture is superior in any way to any other. They also refuse to address the question of whether different cultures could have different strengths and weaknesses, better (or more adaptive) in some ways, worse in others.

    I most emphatically agree with them about race -


    So you do not think that in general some tall lanky African races are better 100 yard dash runners than, say, Pacific Islanders or Alaskian natives?

  • At 7:05 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Heavy sigh. Asking the question of whether genetic endowments are spread differently among different populations is one of those career-wrecking moves. Frances Kendall (author of, The SeXY factor: gender differences at home and at work) once told me that anyone who touches that subject gets burned.

    Obviously some physical attributes are distributed differently. The US Army found in Korea that black soldiers suffered from frostbite seven times as often as white soldiers - who in turn suffered from heat stroke seven times as often as black soldiers.

    Resistance to specific diseases is different for different populations - to the detriment of American Indians and Polynesians, but also to Europeans when Cholera broke out of Bengal.

    I'll have more to say in part II but it seems to me that many are conflating issues of physical and mental attributes with morality. And if you look at the racist literature of previous centuries you see that they often seem to make the assumption that morality is hereditary.

  • At 11:32 AM, Blogger dissidenten said…

    Heavy sigh indeed, Steve.

    The question whether genetic endowments are spread differently among different populations is not going to go away. And the answer may well be problematic.

    You are probably familiar with the research of Terrie Moffitt's group that individuals with low activity of monoamine oxidase-A (who also have been maltreated as children) are more likely to have criminal convictions for violence.


    (the URL finishes: /displayStory.cfm?story_id=1259045)

    And maybe you also know that in 1985 Bridge TP, Soldo BJ, Phelps BH, Wise CD, Francak MJ, Wyatt RJ reported in a study:

    "In a large (n = 459) sample of adults free of psychiatric, neurologic, and endocrinologic disease, platelet monoamine oxidase activity was analyzed by multiple regression of the demographic variables age, race, and gender on enzyme activity.

    Reported here are variations for all three demographic variables such that significantly greater enzyme activity is seen in female, older, and white subjects relative to male, younger, and black subjects."


    (the URL finishes: cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=3965558&dopt=Abstract

    last bit: &dopt=Abstract)

    Another study published in Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 28, No. 2, 227-251 (1991):

    "Monoamine Oxidase and Criminality: Identifying an Apparent Biological Marker for Antisocial Behavior

    Lee Ellis

    After describing how monoamine oxidase (MAO) appears to affect brain functioning, and how the activity of this enzyme, in turn, seems to be influenced by hormonal and genetic factors, studies are reviewed which link low MAO activity with high probabilities of criminality, psychopathy, childhood conduct disorders, as well as with sensation seeking, impulsivity, and drug abuse (especially alcoholism).

    Overall, low MAO activity appears to be associated with restless and uninhibited behavior patterns, and may reflect some of the mediating effects of serotonin and sex hormones (especially androgens) on criminal behavior.

    Lower MAO activity is more characteristic of males than females, and appears to be lower in Blacks than Whites, and lowest during the second and third decades of life."


    So the evidence is quietly gathering, that (due to genetic factors) "probabilities of criminality, psychopathy, childhood conduct disorders, as well as sensation seeking, impulsivity, and drug abuse (especially alcoholism)" varies in different populations...

    It's easy to say, that "criminality, psychopathy, childhood conduct disorders, as well as sensation seeking, impulsivity, and drug abuse" must not be conflated with morality - but unfortunately I suspect, that some will find that an unconvincing line of argument.

  • At 2:17 PM, Blogger Canker said…

    You really should read the history essays at wayofthewest for a developing and detailed analysis of the attractions and advantages of the Western culture.
    That sounds imperious - sorry! What I mean is that I believe they will complement and enhance your extremely interesting essays on these issues.

  • At 2:19 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I've read some of the low MAO inhibitor stuff, translated into laymanese. Restless, risk-seeking, tencency to abuse alcohol and drugs, depression etc describes a lot of my family and friends.

    What I really wonder about is the effects of socialization on such personalities. I'd really like to know about the hormonal makeup of say: test pilots, researchers in cutting edge science, explorers, men in high-risk professions, soldiers (particularly in special ops units), statesmen etc.

    Philosophers have speculated for some time about how men with a certain bent might be twisted one way or another to become great sinners or saints.

  • At 4:36 PM, Blogger dchamil said…

    What some call racism, others call the ability to learn from experience.

  • At 4:46 PM, Blogger dchamil said…

    I think it was the entertaining writer on tropical parasitic diseases, Robert S. Desowitz, who quoted sub-Saharan Africans to the effect that "Thank God for malaria. It kept the Europeans out of our country."

  • At 6:24 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    That one's a hoot!

    John W. Campbell (editor of Analog and one of the father's of modern Science Fiction) once coined the term "The Elsa Effect".

    Say you are hiking in the African veldt. Suddenly you see a lioness charging you. You raise your trusty rifle and shoot her dead. Then you find out you've shot Elsa, the lovable lioness from Born Free, and committed a terrible injustice. So... could anybody blame you?

    We all know the term 'prejudice', meaning to pre-judge. Is there a comparable term "post-judice"?

    Brings to mind something I remember from when I was living in Warsaw. When Jessie Jackson had one of his flashes of honesty and told about how, when he's walking alone at night and hears someone walking behind him, turns around and sees it's somebody white, he feels relieved. And then he feels ashamed.

    What struck me at the time was that when I'm walking alone at night in Warsaw, and I hear someone walking behind me, when I turn and see he's Black - I feel relieved. Because then I know he's an African student, tourist or businessman and no threat to me. A Polish boy might be a hood looking for beer money.

  • At 7:54 PM, Blogger allen said…

    For a real thrill, try raising the issue of male IQ dominance at the 140 - 150 level.

  • At 10:10 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 10:11 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Well, I mentioned to a female friend once that male IQs had a higher range than female. That is, there are more male geniuses - but also more idiots. I.e. that female scores tend to cluster around the mean, or that female scores have a lower standard deviation.

    She kind of punctured all of these by remarking. "So give the test to a man, and tell him to mind the baby, keep an eye on the pot on the stove and answer the phone."

  • At 2:06 AM, Blogger Black Sea said…

    One often overlooked standard for evaluating a culture's success lies in its ability to craft original, effective, and sometimes elegant responses to new pressures and changing circumstances.

    Unfortunately, Arab cultures have found such adaptation and re-invention particularly difficult. They also - as you have pointed out - experience the pressure to change, even if driven by simple demographics, as an admission of inferiority, and therefore a humiliation.

    In consequence, they have become stuck in an oscillation between dreams of grandeur born of desperation, and the equally unlikely hope of bringing to a halt the waves of change eroding and undermining their cultures.

    Those intersted in this issue might want to read Thomas Sowell's "Conquests and Cultures" in which he writes:

    "Cultures are not museum-pieces. They are the working machinery of everyday life. Unlike objects of aesthetic contemplation, working machinery is judged by how well it works, compared to the alternatives. The judgment that matters . . . is the judgment implicit in millions of individual decisions to retain or abandon particular cultural practices . . . ."

    In other words, the only cultures not forced to adapt to challenging circumstances are the ones that are already dead.

  • At 9:35 AM, Blogger dissidenten said…

    Steve: "What I really wonder about is the effects of socialization on such personalities."

    Given that the combination of low activity MAOA and an abusive childhood is particularly negative, the prevention of abusive childhoods seems like an obvious objective - but sadly that cannot be achieved in real life for every child. Social policies are rarely that effective.


    What I really wonder about is why highly intelligent people (like yourself) display something that looks like a Pavlovian response, when this particular taboo subject is raised?

    1. Point out that "criminality, psychopathy, childhood conduct disorders, as well as sensation seeking, impulsivity, and drug abuse (especially alcoholism)" "describes a lot of my family and friends".

    2. Raise the possibility that "criminality, psychopathy, childhood conduct disorders, as well as sensation seeking, impulsivity, and drug abuse (especially alcoholism)" is a result of bad socialization and therefore something that could be obliterated with good socialization

    Pehaps you should reread your own post:


    The evidence seem quietly to be gathering that genetic endowments are spread differently among different populations. It may be uncomfortable to face up to this - but that is nevertheless how it seems to be.

    I doubt, whether you will be able to convincingly present differences in population averages concerning mental attributes as "conflating issues of mental attributes with morality".

    It will, however, be interesting to see your attempt to do so in part II. (Absolutely no irony intended, I'm sure your attempt will be among the best there can be.)

    You have a great blog!

  • At 9:49 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Not quite. What I said was, "Restless, risk-seeking, tencency to abuse alcohol and drugs, depression etc describes a lot of my family and friends."

    Not criminality (though there are those idiot cousins of mine that tried to stick up a casino in Vegas...)

    What I'm speculating about is the expression of those traits, either in criminality or something more acceptable to society at large. On the personal level, I wonder if I just missed a career as a criminal or political terrorist. Not because I was "deprived" - I wasn't. But because it seemed exciting and I was a young idiot with too damn much testosterone and (probably) too little MAO inhibitors.

    In my later years I've sublimated this by travel and getting involved with libertarian dissident comrades in places like Serbia and Belarus, and perhaps in the future, Iraq... (My wife has her own opinions on that issue.)

    I have no doubt that certain genetic traits are distributed differently among different populations and mentioned a couple in a comment. One can point out any number of interesting examples, such as the very high incidence of albinism among the San Blas Indians. Or the historically rapid split into two different phenotypes typical of the Ono and Yahgan Indians of Tierra del Fuego, from an original parent stock.

  • At 1:37 PM, Blogger allen said…

    "So give the test to a man, and tell him to mind the baby, keep an eye on the pot on the stove and answer the phone."

    Very few 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 11th grade students have those problems. The statement does tend to prove the point, however.

  • At 10:39 AM, Blogger tvoh said…

    "In Mesoamerica and highland Peru, civilizations were found that were the equal of the classical Greeks who were considered the ancestors of our own civilization (though most of us are not Greek)"

    I should be greatly interested in reading what the Peruvian Herodotus or Thucydides wrote.

  • At 1:06 PM, Blogger Doug said…

    All's Well in the PC War on the Homefront
    All's Well in the PC War on the Homefront

    The idea that a Muslim boycott against US Airways would hurt the airline proves that Arabs are utterly tone-deaf. This is roughly the equivalent of Cindy Sheehan taking a vow of silence. How can we hope to deal with people with no sense of irony? The next thing you know, New York City cab drivers will be threatening to bathe.

    Come to think of it, the whole affair may have been a madcap advertising scheme cooked up by US Airways.

    It worked with me. US Airways is my official airline now. Northwest, which eventually flew the Allah-spouting Muslims to their destinations, is off my list. You want to really hurt a U.S. air carrier's business? Have Muslims announce that it's their favorite airline.

    The clerics had been attending an imam conference in Minneapolis (imam conference slogan: "What Happens in Minneapolis – Actually, Nothing Happened in Minneapolis"). But instead of investigating the conference, the government is now investigating my favorite airline.

    What threat could Muslims flying from Minnesota to Arizona be?

    Three of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 received their flight training in Arizona. Long before the attacks, an FBI agent in Phoenix found it curious that so many Arabs were enrolled in flight school. But the FBI rebuffed his request for an investigation on the grounds that his suspicions were based on the same invidious racial profiling that has brought US Airways under investigation and into my good graces.

    Lynne Stewart's client, the Blind Sheik, Omar Abdel-Rahman, is serving life in prison in a maximum-security lock-up in Minnesota. One of the six imams removed from the US Airways plane was blind, so Lynne Stewart was the one missing clue that would have sent all the passengers screaming from the plane.

    Wholly apart from the issue of terrorism, don't we have a seller's market for new immigrants? How does a blind Muslim get to the top of the visa list? Is there a shortage of blind, fanatical clerics in this country that I haven't noticed? Couldn't we get some Burmese with leprosy instead? A 4-year-old could do a better job choosing visa applicants than the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

  • At 8:57 PM, Blogger stpeter said…

    (As posted at one small voice....) In only one sense is multiculturalism true: there are multiple cultures in the world. But not all cultures are created equal. Some cultures are better than others. And despite its faults, Western culture is the best. Sorry, that's not politically correct, but it has the benefit of being factually correct. Indeed, the success of so many different races and ethnic groups in Western civilization pretty much proves the point, I'd say. That's why I especially like the mongrel nation of America. Call me a multi-ethnic monoculturalist.

  • At 5:48 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…


    In terms of stone architecture, they built more and larger than the Greeks. They also managed to administer larger populations than any Greek city-state. The Mayans wrote quite a lot that was destroyed by the Spaniards, so who knows? The Inca (and perhaps their predecessors) managed to build an imperial bureaucracy without a writing system, which is a unique achievement in its way.

    They went a different way, but all in all I'd probably have preferred to live with the Greeks.

  • At 5:57 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…


    I'll cheerfully concede things about other cultures that I think we could learn from. But indeed that is the point. Eric Hoffer said that the health of a culture can be measured by how much it can absorb from others and not get indigestion.

    One thing I really object to about the "multiculturalists" is that they are generally so damned ignorant of other cultures and pretty much the history of their own too. Their cosmopolitanism is as phoney as a hooker's smile and amounts to a hostility towards their own.

  • At 7:38 PM, Blogger stpeter said…


    Sure, there are other cultures we can learn from (e.g., I've read more than my share of Chinese philosophy). The point is that Western civilization -- especially the Anglosphere branch of it -- is extraordinarily open to learning from every culture on the planet (and even those off-planet if we ever encounter them). Since I see that you post at the Atlasphere, you might be interested in two essays I've written on the topic: http://www.saint-andre.com/thoughts/ascent.html and http://www.saint-andre.com/thoughts/america.html (also published by the Libertarian Alliance in London). Drop me a line via stpeter@jabber.org if you'd like to discuss them sometime. :-)


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