Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tales from the Monocausal Universe, pt. 1

Japanese workers are shorter and have smaller fingers. Thus, they are better suited to working with electronics than Americans. That’s what Crazy People taught me. Throw in something about work ethic, filial responsibility, honor, the smart breeding with the smart, and a few other clichés, and presto: an attractive theory!

You hopefully know from my sarcasm that I won’t read the Clark book. The issues it addresses and the approach it takes not only seem dated, they seem exhausted. Why European countries dominated geopolitics and economics from as early as the seventeenth century to the last few decades is an important question, but cannot be reduced as Clark seems to have done.

Some writers have compared this approach to Jared Diamond, but at least he knew how to use an indefinite article, writing about the role of technology without losing sight of it being a cause of political-economic development, not the cause. Indeed, Diamonds attempt to draw together environment, culture and politics in Collapse, though flawed, raises important questions that historians can’t ignore.

Genetic or evolutionary explanations for industrialization tread on dangerous ground. Biologists and anthropologists from the last century spent great energy to discover reasons for the superiority of the west, sometimes emphasizing the backwardness of culture, other times the limits of biology. This knowledge was often applied in dangerous ways. Personally, I would need a truly good reason--a profound reason--to reconsider this subject.

However, I also think there are numerous reasons why the proposition of a genetic cause/basis for industrialization is problematic. I hope to discuss each of them in future posts.
  • Much of the groundwork for industry was laid as early in the sixteenth century, with the commercial activities of Portuguese and Dutch traders.
  • Why not the Netherlands? The Dutch were social more advanced than the English, and developed similar cultural characteristics before them.
  • Can the intellectual genius of industry be explained by cultural mentality?
  • Much of the success of industry depended on the adaptability and education of workers.
  • After the invention of the factory and steam engine, much of the history of industrialization is a variation on a theme.
  • Industry--technology and skills--was easily imported to other areas.
  • The costs of industrialization from the mid-1850s on rose, depending less on the freedom of the entrepreneurial class and more on state planning. (Should we see a comparable evolution of the sociability?)
  • Freed from their dependence on European nations, non-western nations (like India) could more effectively develop their native industries.


[Part 2 here.]

17 Comments:

At 3:43 PM, Blogger J. Carter Wood said...

Nathanael, there are many excellent points here.

And thanks very much for the link (under 'Diamond').

But I hope you didn't get the impression I was comparing Clark's book to Diamond's approach. (I happened to insert a comment linking to a discussion of Diamond in a place that might give that impression, but it wasn't meant that way.)

Clark himself says something about being inspired by Diamond, but I'm not sure how he can be, as Diamond's approach emphasises a common human nature interacting with different environments producing different results.

Clark's emphasis on rapid genetic change and regional genetic differences also goes against one of the key assumptions of evolutionary psychology, which is the 'psychic unity of humankind', i.e., that complex human psychological adaptations must be universal.

I admire Diamond's work, and -- as I argued -- I find evolutionary psychology to be a worthwhile theory. I think Clark is doing something very different than either of them.

I'm glad to have found your blog.

Greetings, incidentally, from the Rhine.

 
At 5:13 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Carter,

Greetings from the Connecticut River. How I wish I were on the Rhine.

I think I understand why you brought up Diamond. In some way, both scholars are approaching history from science. Most historians were uncomfortable with Guns, Germs and Steel. Nonetheless, Diamond challenged historians triangulate tech and science in historical development, while he tries to restore cultural factors to technological progress.

As for Clark, there is much left unanswered. As an historian, he should have expected skepticism. His argument should have been as much about why historians should consider genetic factors--and the notion of rapid genetic evolution. We'll see if he did. For the moment, I am discomforted by not just the argument, but the possible ways the argument could be put to use.

 
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