January 10, 2002



Sheesh... two good essays from provocatively opposite points of view in the space of hours. First Hanson (see below), says Western superiority over the Arab world is entirely a result of culture. Now Steven den Beste, in a musing about the interrelation of science and history, comes out with his own theory, that it was just blind luck:

But it's entirely possible that Arab culture could have predominated over European Christian culture; it just didn't happen to work out that way.

Den Beste's larger point, that historians "try to derive lessons from history. They're looking for some reason why the current state of affairs was actually inevitable, due to some critical seeds of difference" is a typical scientist's misconception of historiography, and eminently challengeable, but we'll leave that for another time. I'd rather insert a third voice into the "Why did the Arab world fail?" debate, and one better qualified to have an opinion than either of the two entries thus far (or myself, for that matter): I'm talking, of course, of the previously mentioned Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel:

One can, of course, point to proximate factors behind Europe's rise: its development of a merchant class, capitalism, and patent protection for inventions, its failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation, and its Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition of critical empirical inquiry. Still, for all such proximate causes, one must raise the question of ultimate cause: why did these proximate factors themselves arise in Europe, rather than... the Fertile Crescent?
The major factor behind these shifts becomes obvious as soon as one compares the modern Fertile Crescent with ancient descriptions of it. Today, the expressions "Fertile Crescent" and "world leader in food production" are absurd. Large areas of the former Fertile Crescent are now desert, semidesert, steppe, or heavily eroded or salinized terrain unsuited for agriculture. Today's ephemeral wealth of some of the region's nations, based on the single nonrenewable resource of oil, conceals the region's long-standing fundamental poverty and difficulty in feeding itself."

Diamond goes on to explain how that transformation from a forested paradise to a desert has been documented as having been almost solely due to its human occupants, beginning only in the Neolithic period.

Thus, Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean societies had the misfortune to arise in an ecologically fragile environment. They committed ecological suicide by destroying their own resource base... northern and western Europe has been spared this fate, not because its inhabitants have been wiser, but because they have had the good luck to live in a much more robust environment whith higher rainfall, in which vegetation regrows quickly. Much of northern and western Europe is still able to support productive intensive agriculture today, 7,000 years after the arrival of food production. In effect, Europe received its crops, livestock, technology, and writing systems from the Fertile Crescent, which then gradually eliminated itself as a major center of power and innovation.

Diamond's thesis is surpassingly compelling, and almost inarguable. Whereas Hanson blames the Arabs for a lack of ideas, and den Beste faults them for simple bad luck, Diamond says that it doesn't matter what culture inherited the Tigris and Euphrates valleys... whoever it was, it was inevitable that region was going to fall under the sway of a richer, more robust Western Europe, and the vibrant ideas emerging there, sooner or later. As individuals, we are lucky in the West to have received that birthright, but in the larger arc of the history of the human race, luck ain't got nothin' to do with it.

That doesn't mean Hanson's entirely wrong, of course. There is a failure of vision in the Arab world today: but it's not intrinsic to the religion (witness Turkey's success under Ataturk), or the people. I believe he understates the infantilizing influence of those unlimited oil revenues, that have allowed the Middle East to avoid making tough decisions about their future, and will likely do so for decades to come. But to claim that the West is triumphing now solely because of its values is, as Diamond says, at best a proximate cause, in the long view at least.

Posted by BruceR at 03:17 AM



Sullivan, who's been having the same Blogger problems as the rest of us, points tonight to a provocative piece by Victor Davis Hanson in City Journal. I agree it's a must-read: two nitpicks, however, in the spirit of that freedom of Western inquiry Hanson trumpets:

1) Hanson makes a snide and unnecessary reference to Jared Diamond, taking the title of his best-selling book essentially in vain:

Values and traditions—not guns, germs, and steel—explain why a tiny Greece of 50,000 square miles crushed a Persia 20 times larger; why Rome, not Carthage, created world government; why Cortés was in Tenochtitl`an, and Montezuma not in Barcelona; why gunpowder in its home in China was a pastime for the elite while, when stolen and brought to Europe, it became a deadly and ever evolving weapon of the masses.

Actually, the book Guns, Germs and Steel explains quite effectively and brilliantly why Cortes was in Tenochtitlan (Hanson either didn't read that chapter or didn't understand it, for it's not at all contrary to his thesis of Western cultural superiority, but complementary to it, in fact, so his attempt to set up Diamond as some kind of culturally relativist straw man fails on its face). The composite bow explains why gunpowder never took off in China much better than anyone's "values and traditions" do, and do I really need to remind anyone the high points of Greek and Roman history Hanson's so proud of only occurred AFTER their democratic and republican governments had been subverted and stamped out by their own home-grown tyrants? It was Alexander the Great, not Alexander the Egalitarian Democrat...

2) Hanson overstates the power of the WTC explosions.

A two-kiloton explosion [sic] that incinerated thousands of our citizens—planned by Middle Easterners with the indirect financial support of purportedly allied governments, the applause of millions, and the snickering and smiles of millions more—has had an effect that grows not wanes.

Scientific estimates of the power of the two 767 explosions have ranged upwards of 100 tonnes of TNT, with USA Today going with what could be called the reasonable high-end estimate of 240 tonnes (A Sept. 11 back-of-the-envelope calculation by someone of 660 tonnes each has been long since discredited). That's 0.24 kT for each plane. We can't even begin to imagine what the carnage of a two-kiloton explosion would have been... don't even try.

It's a good essay, for the most part, of course. But this site was created for factual nitpicking. A guy's got to do what he knows...

Posted by BruceR at 02:28 AM



Tom R. writes (see letters) that Canadians were frequently OPCONned to American units during NATO exercises in the Cold War (given his email addy, I'm guessing he's speaking from experience on the American side). Of course, he's right. Canadian ground troops have been OPCON to all kinds of other commanders (even the Australians, god help us, in INTERFET). They have been OPCON to American commanders, too, although it was previously always within the political framework of the NATO alliance. (Our naval and air forces have been OPCON directly to the Americans, and in wartime, too, in the Gulf, and in the last couple months in Afghanistan, and can be forgiven for wondering what the big deal is.) But, the possible exception of Canadians in the Pacific War noted, it is true this is the first wartime OPCON of Canadian ground troops to an American commander outside of the NATO rubric. Is that a milestone for our army? Yes. Is it somehow unfamiliar territory for the soldiers themselves? No, not at all. Working with Americans is easy, once you get past their whole no-drinking thing...

Posted by BruceR at 01:14 AM



Found this on the recently sadly-neglected humour site Old Man Murray, quoting a game preview on IGN:

"There's a tendency among the press to attribute the creation of a game to a single person," says Warren Spector, creator of Thief and Deus Ex.

Posted by BruceR at 12:50 AM