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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, why does Diamond hypothesize New Guineans might be "smarter" than Westerners?

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Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond seeks to answer a question posed to him by a politician from New Guinea named Yali: "Why is that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" In Jared's explanation, he makes it clear that Eurasian civilizations did not develop more rapidly due to any inherent intellectual or genetic superiority, but rather due to environmental differences brought about by diverse geographies. Of his discussion with Yali, Diamond writes: "He and I both knew perfectly well that New Guineans are on the average at least as smart as Europeans."

Diamond goes on to explain that social environment and educational opportunities have a lot to do with a person's perceived IQ and intelligence. He writes that New Guineans do poorly at tasks with which they are not familiar but that Westerners have practiced since childhood. On the other hand, he says that he constantly felt stupid in the jungle with New Guineans when he could not perform the simplest tasks for survival. He writes:

From the very beginning of my work with New Guineans, they impressed me as being on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is.

He gives two reasons why he believes that New Guineans are smarter than Westerners. First of all, the differences may be genetic. Westerners have lived in the midst of densely populated societies where epidemic diseases have been one of the main causes of death. These diseases strike at random regardless of the intelligence or lack of intelligence of the victims. On the other hand, New Guineans have been largely free of epidemic diseases, and their main causes of death such as warfare, accidents, and problems in procuring food require intelligence to escape. In this way, genes favoring intelligence would likely evolve over time.

The other reason has to do with the overabundance of passive media entertainment in western cultures. European and American children spend a lot of time absorbed in TV, radio, and movies. New Guinean children do not have access to these, and so spend their time on stimulating activities such as talking, playing, or otherwise interacting with other children and adults.

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The answer to this can be found in the Prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel.  It is found on pages 20 through 22 of the paperback edition of the book.  Diamond gives two reasons for saying that he thinks that people in New Guinea are smarter than Westerners.  He does so to refute the idea that Western domination has come about because Europeans are smarter than New Guineans and other non-white people.

The first thing that Diamond says is that natural selection does not help make Europeans smarter but does do so for New Guineans.  Life in Europe has been relatively easy for so long that most people died from epidemic diseases.  There is no intelligence needed to survive an epidemic disease, just luck.  Therefore, the people who lived to breed in Europe were not smarter than those who died.  By contrast, intelligence helps a person stay alive in New Guinea long enough to pass on their genes.  As Diamond says

Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality in traditional New Guinea societies.

In short, natural selection works to make New Guineans smarter but does not do so for Westerners, Diamond says.

The second argument Diamond makes is that New Guineans’ daily activities make them think more than Westerners do.  Westerners do a lot of passive things like watching TV, Diamond says.  By contrast, New Guineans are always doing things like interacting with other people that make them use their brains more. 

These two factors, Diamond argues, make New Guineans smarter than Westerners.

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In Guns, Germs and Steel, why does Diamond hypothesize that New Guineans might be, on average, "smarter" than Westerners?

The answer to this question can be found in the Prologue of this excellent historical study of the reasons for inequalities between different groups of humans. Considering Yali's question as to why Westerners have gained dominance in the world and not any other group of humans, Diamond considers the intelligence of Papa New Guineans, and argues that they show, on average, greater intelligence than Westerners, especially given their ability to survive in an environment in which most Westerners would perish very quickly. In addition, note how Diamond supports his hypothesis:

Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household, the television set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtual 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 emphasise the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress teh irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation.

Thus we can see that the actual technological lilmitations of the Papua New Guineans may result in their greater intellectual development compared to their Western counterparts.

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In Guns, Germs and Steel, how does Diamond respond to the idea that Europeans may be more intelligent than New Guineans?

In the Prologue, Diamond makes three major arguments on this topic.

First, he says that New Guineans may seem dumb when they come to towns because they are not used to the things that are in "civilized" towns.  This does not mean they really are dumb, just that they are not accustomed to the setting.

The next two arguments center around the idea that New Guineans are actually smarter.

Second, he says that more intelligence is (and has been for a long time) needed to survive in the New Guinean wilderness than in European countries.  Therefore, New Guineans are likely to have evolved to be more intelligent than Europeans.

Finally, Diamond argues that New Guinean lifestyles mean they are more likely to be intelligent.  Europeans and Americans spend all their time being passively entertained by TVs and such while New Guineans actually have to use their brains.

So, Diamond counters the idea that Europeans are more intelligent by A) saying New Guineans only appear dumb in modern settings and B) that there are reasons to believe that New Guineans would actually be smarter than Europeans.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, why does Diamond hypothesize that New Guineans might be, on the average, "smarter" then Westerners?

You can answer this by reading in the Prologue.  There, Diamond tells us there are two reasons for this hypothesis.

First, he says that New Guineans have actually needed intelligence to survive.  Westerners, he says, have not really needed this for a long time.  Therefore, New Guineans have been selected for intelligence and might be smarter than Westerners by this time.

Second, we can look at daily life.  Westerners engage in a lot of passive entertainment like watching TV.  New Guineans are always doing things as they grow up.  This means that they are more mentally engaged and are therefore likely to be smarter.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what is Diamond's response to the idea that Europeans may perhaps be more innately intelligent that New Guineans?  

You can find the answer to this in the Prologue.  The answer begins on p. 19 in the paperback edition of the book.  There, Diamond says that this idea is simply wrong and that New Guineans are in fact more likely to be more intelligent than Europeans.  Diamond gives two reasons for this.  First, he says, intelligence has not helped Europeans survive and reproduce for thousands of years.  Therefore, natural selection has not been "picking" the smartest Europeans and allowing them to live.  By contrast, intelligence has helped New Guineans survive.  Second, New Guineans are much more active than Europeans.  They do not sit around watching TV.  Instead, they are always doing things that require at least some thought.  For these reasons, Diamond says, they are likely to be more intelligent than Europeans, not less.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, why does Diamond hypothesize that New Guineans might be, on the average, "smarter" than Westerners?

I do not know if Diamond is really serious about this, but he gives a few reasons why New Guinean kids might be smarter than Westerners.  About the kids:

  • He says that intelligence is more important to survival in New Guinea.  Dumb people in civilized countries don't die.  Dumb people in New Guinea might.
  • He says that Westerners have gotten too lazy.  In the West, kids spend all their time being, as he says, "passively entertained."  They just watch TV or movies.  By contrast, kids in New Guinea have no passive entertainments like that -- everything they do is active and therefore makes them think.
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Why does Diamond hypothesize that New Guineans might be, on the average, "smarter" than Westerners?

This hypothesis, found in the Prologue to Guns, Germs and Steel, occurs in the context of Diamond's observation that psychologists have not been able to establish any substantive difference in IQ between white and nonwhite peoples. To this, Diamond adds his observation, based on decades of working with New Guineans, that they actually might be more intelligent than people in Western societies. He cites two potential causes for this.

First, in societies where people live in concentrated population areas, massive epidemics tended to be a major cause of death. These diseases affected intelligent and less intelligent people at the same rate. In New Guinea, however, the major causes of death were "murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems in procuring food." Diamond concludes that "intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape these causes of high mortality," thus selecting people of higher intelligence for survival in New Guinea.

The second cause is non-genetic, and relates to the amount of stimulation New Guinean children have in relation to Western children, who spend much of their childhood, known to be crucial to intellectual development, being "passively entertained" by television and other technologies:

In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults.

New Guineans are thus both more genetically inclined to be more intelligent and "superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages under which most children in industrialized societies now grow up." Thus the central question in Diamond's book, namely how some societies came to become more powerful and capable of conquest and spreading their influence than others, is not related to some intrinsic, genetic Western superiority in intellect. Indeed, it may be the opposite in many cases.

Source: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 20-21.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel what is Diamond’s response to the idea that Europeans may perhaps be more innately intelligent than New Guineans?

The answer to this can be found in the Prologue.  There, Diamond tells us that he rejects this idea.  In fact, he says, it would be more sensible to suppose that New Guineans would be more intelligent.  There are two reasons for this.  First, we in the West don't have to be smart to pass our genes on because our society is so settled and safe.  In New Guinea, Diamond says, intelligence does help you survive.  This would imply that New Guineans should have evolved more intelligence.  Second, we spend more of our time being passively entertained by things like television whereas people in New Guinea have to do more active things that stimulate their brains.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, does Professor Diamond believe the idea that Europeans are more intelligent than native New Guineans?

The answer to this question can be found in the Prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Specifically, it can be found on page 20 of the paperback edition of the book.  On that page, Diamond says that the average New Guinean (he worked among them for over 30 years), struck him as being

…more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is.

Diamond is saying this for two reasons.

First, he says that natural selection has worked to make New Guineans more intelligent but has not done the same for Europeans.   He says that Europeans who die young have, historically, tended to die from things like infectious diseases.  That means that Europeans who died young did so randomly.  It was not as if being smart helped you to escape an infectious disease.  By contrast, New Guineans who died young died from things like war or accidents.  He says intelligence can allow people to avoid that.  Thus, natural selection would have helped make New Guineans more intelligent.

Second, Diamond says that Europeans do not think that much from day to day.  He says that they do passive things like sitting around and watching TV.  New Guineans, by contrast, are always doing things and interacting with people.  This helps their brains develop more than those of Europeans.

For these reasons, Diamond feels that New Guineans are definitely not any less intelligent than Europeans and are probably more intelligent.

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