Nature versus Nurture: Which Allowed for European Colonization

In his discussion with Jared Diamond, Yali commented on the differing “lifestyles” between white colonists and native New Guineans.  For Yali, the obvious difference was that Eurasians had more material goods than the locals and he wondered why that disparity existed.  Yali’s question was based on his local observations but it can also be seen as a much larger critique on the unequal distribution of wealth and power between different peoples and cultures across the world.  These inequalities have allowed some countries to conquer or control other nations and the ramifications of these differences are still seen today.  Diamond argues that a prehistoric examination of why and how different civilizations developed is the best way to understand how Eurasians were able to “dominate the modern world in wealth and power.” (Diamond, 15)

Many academics have tried to answer Yali’s question and explain the rise of a powerful Eurasia in the 16thcentury and its ability to control or exterminate peoples in other parts of the world through European colonization.  I think that it’s less important to determine who wants to address this question but rather look at how they might determine their answers and the consequences of their assumptions.  Scientists, for example, have asserted that differences between Europeans and others may be based in biology.  The problem with this approach is that it says some groups are genetically superior to others; i.e., white Europeans are biologically more intelligent than those of African descent.  The genetic approach that societies advanced differently because of inherent biological differences found between the populations is not only racist, but it also ignores evidence showing that social environment and education play an overwhelming role in determining an individual’s intelligence.  A historical, geographical approach will challenge this biological argument and reveal that environmental factors have given advantage to some societies over others.

One thought on “Nature versus Nurture: Which Allowed for European Colonization”

  1. It is a fact in a modern and historical context that humans developed at vastly different rates, what is not a universal fact is why and how certain civilizations grew at a much faster rate than others. This question is widely discussed and theorized. In Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel the theory that certain groups like the Eurasians have a biological predecessor for higher intelligence is linked to the reason why certain groups were known to dominate and others were dominated. At first glance this explanation might be satisfactory to some, but as we delve deeper into measures of intelligence it is easy to gain perspective as to why eurasians and northern Americans typically do better on cognitive thinking exams over say Africans or southern Americans. If you judge a goldfish based on its ability to climb a tree, it will inevitably fail and not uphold the same standards as a monkey. The same goes for the abilities of the Papau New guineans on IQ tests or cognitive exams. Europeans and Northern American people have been trained for the entirety of their academic careers to critically analyze things and are much more prepared for exams. However if you chose to flip the standards and ask a typical Vermont student to go to Papa New Guinea and identify certain types of medicinal plants or follow a path deep in the jungle, you might see that their abilities to survive in that environment are much lower than that of a native New Guinean. So, in turn it is not fair to judge intelligence of a European vs New Guinean based on a system that the Europeans likely invented and have been assimilated to their entire lives.
    I think both Nature and nurture are critically important in analyzing why societies and groups advanced at different paces. The availability of certain resources like water, neighboring civilizations, growing seasons etc, gives a basis of why certain societies were able to (needed to) create centralized governments and grow more rapidly. The ability to produce surplus amounts of food allows a society to go from nomadic to sedentary, or to move from survival tactics to specialization of tasks. If not everyone in a society is focused on survival and finding food it grants them with free time for education, and time to produce other goods/ novelty items. In theory the societies that had the longest growing seasons and ability to farm locally and get water reasonably quickly allowed for their societies to adapt to their surroundings more quickly and advance.

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