A Real Diamond: Michael Hart's Understanding Human History

The ambitious History of Everything book has been an important genre at least since Sir Walter Raleigh's The Historie of the World.

The most popular example of recent years: Jared Diamond's 1997 bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond attempted to explain the always-interesting question of who conquered whom over the last 13,000 years without mentioning differences in average intelligence among human groups—a factor that he ruled out, a priori, as too "racist" and "loathsome" even to think about.

Now, there's another entry in this genre: Michael H. Hart's Understanding Human History: An analysis including the effects of geography and differential evolution (Washington Summit Publishers, pp. 484, $24.95).

Hart's book serves as a comprehensive refutation of Guns, Germs, and Steel. It's an impressive and insightful attempt to provide a more careful and powerful answer to Diamond's question about why some peoples came to rule other peoples.

Unlike Diamond, Hart is also interested in a second, less bloodthirsty question: who gave what to the entire human race in terms of science, technology, and the arts.

This is a fascinating topic—but one that the Diamonds of the world shy away from, since measuring contributions rather than conquests don't present an opportunity for the competitive moralism, the public white-guilt breast-beating afforded by the European expansion of 1400-1900.

Over the same period, as everyone knows deep down, virtually every advance that is now the shared patrimony of humanity was made by Europeans or their offshoots. These days, that's a rather inconvenient truth.

Hart sums up:

"The central hypothesis of this book is that genetic differences between human groups (in particular, differences in average native intelligence) have been an important factor in human history."

Hart is a polymath: a rocket scientist with a Ph.D. in astronomy who worked at NASA and was a physics professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Along the way, he picked up a law degree.

Every decade or two, Hart publishes a book for a general audience. His best-known: 1978's The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History.  

(Hart's top six, by the way, were Muhammad, Newton, Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and St. Paul. I'm sure your ranking would differ, but that was the fun of Hart's book: it was a great argument-starter. His complete list is here.)

Now, in Understanding Human History, Hart changes his focus from individuals to racial groups. He begins with a quick (130 pages) but close to state-of-the-art overview of the human sciences relevant to history—physical anthropology, linguistics, population genetics and psychometrics. This section alone would be worth the price of the book. Hart has mastered the scientific literature through at least 2005. For instance, Hart, who is Jewish, devotes three pages to the fascinating theory published two years ago by genetic anthropologist Henry Harpending and physicist turned evolutionary theorist Gregory Cochran that European Jews evolved their higher IQs just over the last millennium.

After reviewing the human sciences, Hart moves on to perhaps the most concise history of the world from the Stone Age to the late 20th Century imaginable.

Many of the famous "big histories," such as Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Thomas Babington Macaulay's History of England, Kenneth Clark's Civilization, and Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence  are suffused with their authors' personalities. But Hart almost never stops for a self-indulgent aside, which allows him to race through in fewer than 500 pages. The one personal touch I noticed: 

"Individuals differ widely in their behavior. Some writers have conjectured that all such differences are due entirely to differences in training, upbringing, and conditioning. Those of us who have reared more than one child usually think otherwise."

Hart's judgment, while laconic, is generally quite sound.

In Guns, Germs, & Steel, Diamond purported to explain why Europeans were able to conquer the New World so easily by emphasizing differences between the New and Old Worlds. Thus, Diamond pointed out that Europeans benefited from more exposure (and thus more immunity) to disease; from metal-working technology; from having more species of domesticable animals; and from the broad East-West orientation of Eurasia, allowing Old World crops like Turkey's wheat to spread faster than New World crops like Mexico's corn, which had only been finally adapted to the much shorter growing season of Massachusetts shortly before the Pilgrims arrived.

Unfortunately, Diamond's reasoning, while clever, was ad hoc. It was clearly whipped up to explain away a politically incorrect reality. A real contribution to our comprehension of history could only come from a set of insights that would apply more globally than Diamond's. And that's exactly what Hart attempts.

Diamond's celebrated factors are reasonably plausible for explaining the spectacular Spanish conquests of the Aztecs and Incas in the 16th century. But they fail to shed much light on famous subjugations within the Old World, such as the various invasions of India and China or the 19th century European imperialization of Africa. Refuting Diamond, Hart points out that sub-Saharan Africans, being part of the Old World, were more privileged than New World Indians in terms of the factors that Diamond emphasizes.

In contrast to Mesoamerican Indians, Sub-Saharan Africans had more disease-resistance than Europeans (for example, they had genetic adaptations for surviving malaria). Plus they could make iron; possessed domestic cattle, sheep, and goats; had been exposed to literacy on their northern edge in places like Timbuktu; and possessed a continent that is 4,500 miles wide from Senegal to Somalia—not that much narrower than Eurasia's 6,200 miles.

And yet, Africans didn't build anything close to comparable to the hidden city of Machu Picchu (Incan) or the pyramids of Chichen Itza (Mayan) and Teotihuacán (Central Mexican).

The fundamental problem with Guns, Germs, and Steel is one I pointed out in my 1997 review:

"Diamond sets out to reaffirm the equality of humanity by showing the inequality of the continents. … Diamond makes environmental differences seem so compelling that it's hard to believe that humans would not become somewhat adapted to their homelands through natural selection."

Diamond's millions of fans no doubt assume that evolution couldn't work fast enough to diversify human behavioral tendencies, since modern humans (presumably) emerged from Africa only about 60,000 years ago. But the disingenuous Diamond knows that's not true—evolution can work rather quickly.

In 2002, Diamond and I were pleasantly chatting after his keynote address at junk bond legend Michael Milken's annual confab when I brought this up.

Diamond immediately grabbed his things and half-jogged out of the room.

Diamond has made a lot of money pandering to current intellectual fashions. Hart has followed a lonelier road. For example, he has long been a regular at Jared Taylor's controversial IQ and race-oriented American Renaissance conferences. As he rightly says:

"This book does not contain any suggestions as to what policies should be adopted—with the sole exception that we should attempt to ascertain the facts before deciding on questions of policy."

One important fact that Hart has ascertained:

"Throughout history, most of the instances of people from one region attacking and conquering substantial portions of another region have involved 'northerners' invading more southerly lands."

(The biggest exception: the Arabs of the 7th Century A.D. And the Romans conquered in all directions.)

This overall pattern of north conquering south has long been apparent from the historical record—even though northern lands are generally less populous, due to shorter growing seasons.

For example, mighty China, a vast empire with a competent bureaucracy chosen by meritocratic tests, was never much threatened by southerners, but it built the vast Great Wall to keep out its much less numerous northern neighbors. Nonetheless, China was twice fully conquered by northerners—the Mongols in the 13th century and the Manchus in the 17th century. And its northern half was conquered by the Manchurian Jurchens in the 12th century.

Likewise, the vastly populous Indian subcontinent was seldom a threat to its northern neighbors, but was frequently overrun from the northwest.

This pattern has been validated by recent DNA studies. (Hart fails to mention this, which is surprising considering how otherwise up to date he is on the human sciences.) In populations of mixed background, the male line of descent (as seen in the Y-chromosome) tends to derive from north of the homeland of the female line of descent (as seen in the mitochondrial DNA). Implication: men from the north more frequently overcame the men from the south and took their women.

Examples: Latin Americans (white fathers and Indian or black mothers), African-Americans (whites and blacks), Asian Indians (Aryans and Dravidians), and Icelanders (Vikings and Celts). Similarly, the Han Chinese, the world's largest ethnic group, are more likely to be descended from northern Chinese men and southern Chinese women than vice-versa.

Likewise, the man who left the largest footprint yet found on the Y-chromosomes of humanity was Genghis Khan from cold Mongolia. He left roughly 800,000 times more descendants in the direct male line than the average man alive at the time.

The Manchu founder of the Qing dynasty that ruled China from 1644-1911 shows up as another of history's most fecund forefathers.

The pattern is even true in England. The main outside infusion of male Y-chromosomes in historic times apparently came from the Vikings.

Hart offers a simple, deliberately reductionist model for explaining this (and much else): Foresight is needed to survive cold winters. So harsher, more northerly climates select for higher average intelligence. And intelligence is useful in war.

Indeed, there is a positive correlation between latitude and the average intelligence of modern countries, as summarized in Richard Lynn's and Tatu Vanhanen's IQ and the Wealth of Nations. (Here's my table listing their data.) In 2006, Lynn found a substantial r = 0.67 correlation between national average IQ and the absolute value of latitude. Similarly, the correlation between IQ and average temperature is r = -0.63.

On the other hand, within continents there often aren't obvious latitude-related IQ disparities. For instance, the IQ differences among most European countries are too small to worry about.

Northerners have tended to be better at organizing on a large scale. This could be related to intelligence, but doesn't have to be. During WWII, for example, according to military historian John Keegan the Italians were probably the worst soldiers in Europe and the Finns the best. But Finland's average IQ isn't higher than Italy's.

No doubt other factors contribute to the long history of Northern military successes. For example, the ease of raising horses on the Eurasian steppe, varying family structures—and of course the ancient moral explanation, going back to the Roman historian Tacitus, that contrasts northern hardiness, self-sacrifice, and motivation with southern decadence, backstabbing, and enervation.

Nor is climate the only factor determining intelligence—or the Eskimos would be the smartest people on Earth. (They are, however, probably the smartest hunter-gatherers.)

Enough about conquest. What about contributions?

The most productive centers of cultural innovation have tended to move north over the millennia, for example, from the Fertile Crescent to Ancient Greece to Renaissance Northern Italy to Enlightenment Northern Europe. Hart attributes this to agriculture tending to arise first in low-to-medium latitude locations with long growing seasons then spreading northward. In hunter-gatherer economies, every man must hunt. But in farming economies, enough food can be produced to support urban sophisticates.

Hart's position is likely to accumulate still more scientific support. There are several forthcoming papers that will offer even newer insights into evolution's impact on recent human history.

For example, Hart assumes, not unreasonably, that higher intelligence has been evolving steadily upward since modern humans first spread out from Africa about 60,000 years ago, under the Darwinian selective pressure of surviving cold winters. But Greg Cochran is now proposing that evolution for intelligence and other behavioral traits useful in the modern world is actually accelerating.

Cochran reasons that a large population is more conducive to increases in intelligence than a small population—the more people in a breeding pool, the higher the chance of favorable mutations. Thus, the combination of temperate climates and large populations in Northeast Asia and Europe would explain the high average IQs, and consequent economic dominance, of those two regions. Conversely, while the Arctic climate likely selects strongly for cleverness, the inevitably limited number of Eskimos means they have fewer gene variations to select from.

Reflecting this notion that evolution speeding up, Nicholas Wade of the New York Times reported last week on the new book A Farewell To Alms by economist Greg Clark on the historic changes in behavior and attitude that enabled the English to start the Industrial Revolution:

"Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. 'Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,' he writes. And, 'The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.'"[ In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence, August 7, 2007]

Understanding Human History brings new clarity to the vast sweep of human history.

I predict, therefore, that it will make only a tiny fraction as much money as Guns, Germs, and Steel.

But in the long run, it will likely matter more.

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]