Progress?

We tend to be a bit smug here in America. We are convinced that we have made huge strides over the rest of the world that has been left behind in our tracks. Our technical wizardry is at or near the top of the pile, we have licked most communicable diseases and have the most powerful pickup trucks. In a word, we are more intelligent and just plain superior to the rest of the world — especially the so-called “third world” which we disdain, confident that they will assuredly never catch up with us. Exaggeration? Hyperbole? Perhaps. But I doubt that there are many out there that doubt that those with the highest IQs in the world are the product of the industrial revolution that arose in Europe and soon was capped off by American “know-how.” Is it possible that this is all bollocks?

In a recent book written by the biologist Jared Diamond titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, these pretensions are called into serious question. Diamond will have none of it. In fact, he suggests that our technical wizardry, for example, has placed us behind undeveloped countries we like to think of as “primitive” or “backward” precisely because it is leaving us passive and without a thought in our heads.  Speaking of the folks in New Guinea whom he has come to know well, he rejects the notion of genetic superiority in the West on the grounds that our medical advances have resulted in a shallower gene pool than those “backward” countries that have developed natural immunities, noting that

“Today, most live-born Western infants survive fatal infections. . . and reproduce themselves, regardless of their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems procuring food.”

In a word, intelligence is likely to be greater in those societies where the struggle to survive weeds out those who cannot “think on their feet,”  than it is in those medically advanced societies where those with low intelligence survive and  reproduce. He goes on to argue that

“. . .there is a second reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

Now, bear in mind that this was written in 1997 before iPhones and iPads became attached to virtually every child in this culture. The development of these electronic toys, many of which are now required in the schools — even, in some cases, provided by the taxpayers — has surely added grist to Diamond’s mill. These toys increase the inactivity and passiveness which he rightly associates with reduced mental development — of the left-hemisphere of the human brain, at least. I say “rightly” because all the data we have, including brain scans and MRIs of the human brain, reveal a lower level of activity while watching essentially passive media such as television than they do when being told stories, for example.

We like to think we are somehow an “advanced” civilization and it will not readily be accepted in this culture that we are not — and that those in a “backward” culture such as New Guinea could actually be smarter than we are. But, then, most of us don’t like to accept the evidence about the role humans are playing in climate change, either.  Indeed, we tend to turn away from unpleasant truths, especially since we have become convinced that progress is an inherently good thing, that if something can be done quickly and easily it is ipso facto better or more advanced than another way of doing things that is slower and takes more effort. This is a conviction that goes deep into our collective psyches and all the research in the world will almost certainly not convince the majority of us that what we call progress is in fact taking us backwards.

 

It’s Not All Relative

During my time as a professor of philosophy I taught a great many ethics courses, including business ethics — which was actually one of my favorite courses: there are so many real-live  incidents in business to discuss from an ethical perspective. But during all those years I continued to run up against a stone wall that appeared in the form of a mindless relativism. “It’s all a matter of opinion.” Or, “It’s all relative.” Or, “we really shouldn’t be judgmental.” I came to understand that these sorts of responses were just a dodge to allow the students to avoid thinking about problems that are complex, do not allow of quantification, and which require a modicum of objectivity. But I hit my head against that stone wall for years and it gave me many a headache.

Thus, while I have blogged about this before, an article in the news jumped out at me today that simply demands comment. It was a Yahoo News story about a terrible incident in a far-off New Guinea:

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — On a tropical island in Papua New Guinea where most people live in huts, a mob armed with guns, machetes and axes stormed a wooden house by night. They seized Helen Rumbali and three female relatives, set the building on fire and took the women away to be tortured. Their alleged crime: Witchcraft.

After being repeatedly slashed with knives, Rumbali’s older sister and two teenage nieces were released following negotiations with police. Rumbali, a 40-something former schoolteacher, was beheaded.

The standard response to such a story in one of my classes, should I have brought it up, would be something like this: who are we to judge whether that is wrong? It’s not our country and we don’t know enough of the details of what really went on. In its shortened form it is the cliché “who’s to say? We haven’t walked a mile in their shoes.” It’s called “cultural relativism.”

The objections ring true, of course, but they are irrelevant. We haven’t walked a mile in their shoes — or even two yards. But we know enough from the article to make an informed judgment — subject to further correction if later information alters the ethical perspective. But at this point we can say with some assurance that even in a country on the other side of the earth, men coming into a home at night and taking four women suspected of witchcraft to be tortured and/or killed is simply wrong. That is to say, even though we have not walked in those shoes, the people who do walk in them are engaged in actions that cannot possibly be justified in a neutral court of rational appeal. And that is the test for all ethical claims: the neutral court of rational appeal. It is something like a jury, except that it has no formal status. But thinking persons anywhere read and assimilate the information provided and attempt to see both sides of complex issues and then render a judgment. Failure to do so would be morally irresponsible: indifference disguised as tolerance.

As I have said before moral condemnation does not necessarily result in an invasion of another country — as though they were hiding weapons of mass destruction, for example. But it simply means that when we read such a story we are appalled, thank our lucky starts we don’t live in such a country and that we have become enlightened enough to recognize that “witchcraft” is hardly grounds for decapitation and torture — or anything much other than bemused indifference. But when concern over witchcraft leads to acts of violence and murder then it is simply wrong, wherever it may occur. When something is wrong, it is wrong whether it happens next door or on the other side of the world. All that is required is careful judgment, imagination, and a lively sensibility. This does not imply our cultural superiority, it simply implies that we have thought about the actions of those men and condemned them — just as we would if they had happened next door.