John Derbyshire: Ron Unz’s Social Darwinian Take On China May Help Demolish Egalitarian Taboos

I don’t have sufficient experience or knowledge to call myself an Old China Hand, but I can claim to be something of an authority on China punditry—an Old “Old China Hand” Hand, as it were. I think I’ve read ’em all at some time or other in the past forty years, from Matteo Ricci and the Abbé Huc  to Bill Gertz and Richard McGregor.

The spectrum of opinion on China and her prospects is, and always has been, very wide. At one end of the spectrum is the “sleeping giant” school arguing that if China can get her sociopolitical ducks in a row and keep them there, she will bestride the world like a Colossus, at least commercially.

This view has deep roots in the Sinophilia that swept 18th-century Europe (and was derided by the unfoxable Sam Johnson). Its present-day proponents include Thomas Friedman and practically all educated young Chinese people..

At the other end of the spectrum are the China skeptics. Asia columnist Gordon Chang holds the current franchise, but he has had many predecessors.

A personal favorite of mine among those predecessors is Rodney Yonkers Gilbert, a Harvard-educated American businessman and journalist who went to China shortly after the 1911 revolution and stayed through the ensuing two decades of chaos. Gilbert’s 1926 book What`s wrong with China is a bracing antidote to Sinophilia; or perhaps, depending on your point of view, a sad record of “China fatigue”—a psychological ailment known to afflict many Westerners who stay too long in that country.

Gilbert leaves no positive stereotype unexploded. The hard-working Chinese?

The Chinese day labourer, working for another at a daily wage without adequate supervision, would furnish a striking cinema picture of slow motion. He will move no faster than he is driven, and it is no exaggeration to say that a dozen Chinese pick-and-shovel men, left to their own devices, will do less work in a week than two white labourers will do in a day.

(On the same theme, here is a scrap from the notes I took while living in China thirty years ago. It is extracted from an article titled “Studying in the United States,” which appeared in The World of English, a bilingual magazine published in Peking for advanced students, January 1983 issue: “Work in general is something that is highly valued in American society. Since hard work is believed to help people get ahead, Americans often work long hours and do not take afternoon naps as we do . . .” My italics.)

Gilbert was experiencing China at the lowest point of a dynastic cycle, though. For a cooler view, somewhere around the middle of the spectrum, I recommend Robert Fortune, an English botanist who traveled around China in the 1840s, in the lull between the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion.

Fortune adopted Chinese dress and spoke the language well enough to pass himself off as a traveler from a distant province. His observations overlap somewhat with Gilbert’s of eighty years later. Both authors, for example, note how extremely rare it was to see a Chinese person reading a book for pleasure—another stereotype exploded.

Fortune is less bombastic and more just than Gilbert, though. Occasionally he is rhapsodic:

I fully believe that in no country in the world is there less real misery and want than in China. The very beggars seem a kind of jolly crew, and are kindly treated by the inhabitants.

One lesson I have taken from all that reading is that it is a mighty difficult thing to make accurate predictions about China. The Chinese themselves are not much good at it, as I noticed in the case of Liu Binyan five years ago. For foreigners it’s a mug’s game.

That game, though—let’s call it the Great China Guessing Game—is irresistibly fascinating to many of us, and new rounds of it are constantly being played.

Especially popular recently are debates about whether China’s managerial authoritarianism is competitive with, perhaps even superior to, the increasingly dysfunctional—and increasingly questioned, both in print and in pixels—welfare democracies of the West.

(To see two knowledgeable Chinese writers sparring on this topic, check out the exchange between Yasheng Huang and Eric X. Li in the January/February 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs.)

Now Ron Unz has put his oar into these murky waters with a piece titled “How Social Darwinism Made Modern China.” American Conservative, March 11, 2013 The great interest of Unz’s article is that it introduces human biodiversity [HBD] a.k.a. race into the argument.

Unz’s inspiration here is Gregory Clark’s 2008 book A Farewell to Alms . Clark, an economic historian, argued that British society for centuries favored certain characteristics of personality and intelligence—loosely, the “bourgeois virtues”: that persons possessed of these characteristics had prospered and borne more children than those not so possessed: that since personality and intelligence are considerably heritable, and a good quantity of downward mobility inevitable given the birthrate differential, the result was a trickle-down bourgeoisification of British society: and that this was the underlying cause of Britain’s sensational economic success in the 19th century.

Unz then asks: Can some similar analysis be applied to China? If it can, what are the implications for China’s future?

With supporting documentation from published historical research, Unz argues that such an analysis can indeed be made.

He lays great stress on the long history of meritocratic promotion into the Chinese upper classes:

Across the six centuries of these two dynasties [the Ming and the Ch’ing, 1368-1911] less than 6 percent of China’s ruling elites came from the ruling elites of the previous generation . . .

Those elites, like Clark’s Britons (but unlike those of early 21st-century America) produced far more offspring than did the poor and feckless:

Each generation, the poorest disappeared, the less affluent failed to replenish their numbers, and all those lower rungs on the economic ladder were filled by the downwardly mobile children of the fecund wealthy.

It is, as Unz boldly admits right there in his title, an argument from—indeed, a partial rehabilitation of—Social Darwinism, applying basic biological principles of heritability and selection to the development of societies.

If, like me, you have always thought that the Social Darwinists were on to something, Ron’s your man.

He even gives favorable mentions to a couple of actual early 20th-century Social Darwinists: E.A. Ross and Lothrop Stoddard, both of whom predicted, on racial grounds, a successful, modernized China challenging the white nations for supremacy.

Given that neither Ross nor Stoddard was particularly knowledgeable about China, and given the poor track record of China prediction among people who were, I’d say there’s a big element of luck there. Unz does not mention Rodney Gilbert.

Still, it is encouraging to see HBD being brought back into the argument by a writer of Unz’s talent and resources. (He is the publisher of The American Conservative.) As he says:

The impact of such strong selective forces obviously manifests at multiple levels, with cultural software being far more flexible and responsive than any gradual shifts in innate tendencies, and distinguishing between evidence of these two mechanisms is hardly a trivial task. But it seems quite unlikely that the second, deeper sort of biological human change would not have occurred during a thousand years or more of these relentlessly shaping pressures, and simply to ignore or dismiss such an important possibility is unreasonable. Yet that seems to have been the dominant strain of Western intellectual belief for the last two or three generations.

Of course biology doesn’t explain everything about social development across history. Probably it does not explain very much. It must surely explain something, though; it must be a factor.

One of the commenters on Unz’s piece raises the obvious comparison of North and South Korea, the geopolitical equivalent of a Twin Study. As a friend of mine likes to say when this comes up, a more revealing comparison would be between North Korea and some place equally badly governed—Zimbabwe, say: “Sure, the Norks are crazy, but it’s high-IQ craziness!

It can’t possibly be the case that the fortunes of millions of souls across hundreds of years have been perfectly unaffected by basic forces of biological change: inheritance of characteristics and natural selection. Yet that is what current Western ideology demands we believe; and that is the premise of popular books about socio-historical development by authors like Jared Diamond or Acemoglu and Robinson (concerning which latter duo, Unz offers some pointed remarks).

Unz’s piece is a very welcome corrective to this distortion. As he says, we of the West are working from a model of reality that is false; or at the very least, is ideologically blind to an important factor. That puts us at a disadvantage with a proud and competitive people like the Chinese, who do not share our peculiar phobias. And this is especially so in an age when the biological sciences will underpin major new technologies.

There are a few nits to pick in “How Social Darwinism Made Modern China.” Unz himself picks one of them: the fact that the Japanese and Koreans show the same elevated mean IQ as the Chinese and have modernized very successfully in spite of having socioeconomic histories quite different from China’s.

It is, too, a stretch to describe Imperial China, or for that matter modern China, as an “orderly and law-based society.” Robert van Gulik told good stories, but the common reality of Chinese justice was bribery and the beating of suspects until they confessed, or died. (In civil cases it was not unusual for both defendant and plaintiff to be beaten.) Foreign observers—including, in the run-up to the Opium Wars, common sailors from Charles Dickens’ Britain—were shocked at the arbitrariness and cruelty of Chinese justice.

Respectable scholars have also questioned the degree to which traditional Chinese society was meritocratic. I don’t know the facts of this matter, but I do know there’s a difference of informed opinion. I imagine Unz would respond, fairly enough, that since the society was considerably meritocratic, at worst the developments he described might have proceeded more slowly under different quantitative assumptions.

Here’s another nit:

During the Cold War, the enormous governmental investments of the Soviet regime in many fields produced nothing, since they were based on a model of reality that was both unquestionable and also false.

Surely they didn’t produce nothing. Late-Soviet society certainly had dire shortcomings, but it sustained two hundred million people in a condition much better than Third World misery, with nuclear weapons and a space program to boot.

A person who is not a blank-slate universalist—a person like, say, Ron Unz—might even argue that the Soviets made as much as can be made of the Russian people, given their historico-biologically developed statistical profile of behavioral and personality types. (I hope my Russian friends won’t think I am arguing this. I am only saying it might be argued.)

Those are sidebar points for discussion, though, not refutations of anything central to Unz’s argument. Some of them are chewed over in the comment thread on the article. (Which also contains some idiocies. Particularly hilarious was the Chinese guy writing that: “We avoid overly risky situations.” Plainly this commenter has never ridden the Chinatown bus to Atlantic City, or observed play at the tables in Macau.)

Once again, Ron Unz has written a spirited and well-informed piece of commentary that will make a lot of people mad—including a lot of the kind of people I like to see made mad—and stir up some interesting debate.

He may even have advanced the prospects for making HBD a respectable component of discussions about social, historical, and political topics, including—bless the thought!—immigration.

The fortress of utopian egalitarianism has been looking more and more impregnable these past few years, so perhaps it is foolish to hope: but this latest cannonball from Ron Unz may perhaps have knocked a few stones from its parapet.

If it has, then all of us who revere truth, however discomfiting, and despise lies, however pretty, should give hearty thanks to Ron Unz.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His writings are archived at

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