May 30, 2008

Jared Diamond: Life is full of interest in the New Guinea highlands

Winston Churchill learned in 1897 while fighting the feuding Pathan tribesmen of what's now the Pakistan-Afghanistan border:

"Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud. The numerous tribes and combination of tribes all have their accounts to settle with one another. Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts are left unpaid… The life of the Pathan is thus full of interest…"

Now Jared Diamond has published in The New Yorker an account of a tribal feud among New Guinea highlanders based on his native chauffeur's old war stories. It's an interesting description of the logic of violence when there's no state with a monopoly on force to put an end to squabbling.

The uncle of Diamond's pal was killed in battle by another tribe in 1992, so honor demanded that his nephew avenge it. The young tribesmen spent three years organizing his revenge, which involved expensive diplomacy with many other tribes to borrow their warriors, six battles, and thirty deaths before vengeance was finally his.

Granted, that just meant the ball was now in the other tribe's court to get revenge on him, but at least it gives the men something to do with their days while their women are out working in the fields.

These are the people that Diamond theorized in his bestselling Guns, Germs, and Steel must have higher intelligence than Westerners because they are under more intense selection pressure by their environment. As Diamond wrote in the Prologue of his Pulitzer Prize-winner:

"My perspective on this controversy comes from 33 years of working with New Guineans in their own intact societies. 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. At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of brain function, such as the ability to form a mental map of unfamiliar surroundings, they appear considerably more adept than Westerners. Of course, New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have not. Hence when unschooled New Guineans from remote villages visit towns, they look stupid to Westerners. Conversely, I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I'm with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not.

It's easy to recognize two reasons why my impression that New Guineans are smarter than Westerners may be correct. First, Europeans have for thousands of years been living in densely populated societies with central governments, police, and judiciaries. In those societies, infectious epidemic diseases of dense populations (such as smallpox) were historically the major cause of death, while murders were relatively uncommon and a state of war was the exception rather than the rule. Most Europeans who escaped fatal infections also escaped other potential causes of death and proceeded to pass on their genes. Today, most live-born Western infants survive fatal infections as well and reproduce themselves, regardless of their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems in procuring food.

Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality in traditional New Guinea societies. However, the differential mortality from epidemic diseases in traditional European societies had little to do with intelligence, and instead involved genetic resistance dependent on details of body chemistry. For example, people with blood group B or O have a greater resistance to smallpox than do people with blood group A. That is, natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was instead more potent.

... in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners ...

Hmmmh, so a low murder rate and a high level of social and political organization correlates with low IQ? Interesting ... but stupid.

After this introduction about how New Guineans have evolved to be genetically superior in IQ, Jared spends hundreds of pages explaining how it's totally racist to think that there could possibly be genetic differences in IQ (or at least genetic differences that favor the groups that actually have higher IQs). The distribution of power and accomplishment in the modern world is all due to geographical differences between the continents! But, as I gently chided in my review of his book in National Review in 1997, this popular argument of his only makes genetic differences more likely:

"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."

And exactly what kind of Darwinian selection pressure does constant feuding impose? Diamond's buddy, as the victor in the feud, is presumably good at feuding and thus probably has good genes for feuding, but he's not exactly James Clerk Maxwell. Everybody in Diamond's story seems content to play the game by the old rules, over and over again, with nobody trying to change the rules by technological or political innovations. Even the European tradition of dueling, which strikes us as pretty moronic today, but which served to isolate feuds among two individuals, allowing honor to be satisfied without the extended families being dragged in, seems to have proved beyond the New Guineans.

The one time I talked to Jared, we we're chatting pleasantly until I asked him if tropical female farming economies wouldn't select for different behavioral genes than in economies in which men brought home the bacon. He got a very worried look on his face, said he didn't know anything about female farming economies (despite all those years in New Guinea!), grabbed up his papers, and half jogged out of the building at about 5 miles per hour.

I suspect that female farming cultures like New Guinea and Africa, where the men spend their ample leisure hours competing to be Big Men, selects for Big Men traits, Machiavellian skills at manipulating others into fighting your battles. (Of course, Machiavelli was hardly the first Machiavellian. He's famous because he brought the power of abstraction to coherently explain the rules of the game of power that so many Big Men had intuitively grasped before him.)

What these kind of female farming economies where the women do most of the work select for is not the nerd traits that are crucial to technological advancement. Perhaps the need to survive winter selects for nerdish genes that are good at technology, which can then be used for creating better weapons.

It's not exactly clear from Diamond's account what kind of battles took place. There seem to be "public" battles where young men show off in front of their fans just barely in range of the other side's arrows, and more serious "stealth" battles, which sound more like Mafioso rub-outs -- ambushes and massacres -- than the Battle of Gettysburg. The idea of the Waterloo-like "decisive battle," where armies line up and march shoulder to shoulder toward each other strikes most peoples down through history as nuts. Indeed, the whole idea of a "fair fight" strikes most peoples as nuts.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Tino said...

I am not sure what Sailor means with the comment “The idea of … "decisive battle," … strikes most peoples down through history as nuts. “

I guess individually they found it hard to carry out?

The decisive battle is much more demanding, but when faced with the indirect way of war it wins in most situations, with fewer casualties on your side, so collectively its quite logical and intuitive.

I don’t think most people in history found the warfare of Alexander or the Romans or the British or any other well organized Clausewitzian society “nuts”. They admired it and were afraid of it, but found it hard to replicate.

Anonymous said...

Can we get Jared Diamond to name the dumbest ethnic group he's ever met for comparison?

Anonymous said...

Can we get Jared Diamond to rationalize the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea? How can there be any doubt of the white man's superiority when the natives envy and worship the airplanes that the white man built? Yet the natives are angry at the white man for stealing the airplanes from them.

Anomaly UK said...

This sounds like such a "public" battle.

neil craig said...

It is certain that colour blindness, a considerable handicap in hunter gatherer societies is much less prevalent than in societies which have long been civilised.

However, the main instance we appear to have of natural slection for human intelligence is among Jews over not much more than 1,000 years but in largely urban environments &/or non-agricultural trades. This suggests that high inteligence (at least as we define it since we define being able to sneak up on your enemy & beat his head in as cunning) is likely to be a survival trait in complex urban societies.

On the other handt he south sea islanders, who are descended from Jared's New Guineans display both high intelligence & the battle skills mentioned. It may be that such intelligence was what differentiated those whose maritime skills senabled them to sail out to sea & find islands from those who found only sea & thus failed to pass on their genes.

Anonymous said...

Boy, Diamond sure hates Europeans. Wonder why that could be?

Anonymous said...

"Machiavellian skills at manipulating others into fighting your battles."

Things that make you go, hmmmmmmmm. We don't have anything like that here. Nah.

Good thing the Hollywood writer's strike is over.

Anonymous said...

What Diamond's analysis conveniently leaves out is that Europeans once went through the same sorts of selection that New Guineans are now: using their brainpower to forage for food, hunt game, create shelter in the wild, and kill on another through means stealthy or not. The difference is, Europeans were so successful at it that their numbers grew to the point where they had more concentrated populations. (Either that or their instincts for cooperation overrode their bloodlust.) They also started agriculture and the breeding of livestock, which had a lot to do with the formation of towns ad cities. It was only at that point where they also started being selected for resistance to disease etc.

Anonymous said...

Jared Diamond's New Guinea natives, Tyler Cowen's Mexican villagers... heck, why not T.E. Lawrence's Bedouin?

Each writer found some group of primitives fascinating and decided that they must be intelligent. This may be projection, not observation. "I find you interesting. I admire, perhaps even envy, your adaptations. Since I accomplish everything by being smart, I will assume that you do too, which means your adaptations are proof of high IQ. It will not occur to me that many animals display quite complex behaviour and wonderful adaptability without having high (by human standards) IQ. Even if I do happen to think of this, I will dismiss it instantly, because I don't wish to insult you. Why, as the one who discovered and publicized you (and built my career on stories about you), I must groom you like I would my own children. Also, I must not demean myself in the eyes of people back home by suggesting that I would ever associate with, much less admire, less-intelligent people. So you, my primitive bairns, must be smart!"

Anonymous said...

Has anyone else noticed the odd glitch in the Western brain? You know the one that dictates we choose from one of two extremes in relating to the developing world. Either we treat them as animals, enslaving them and/ eradicating them and their culture or we make ourselves doormats, allowing them to steal from us, malign us and displace us without resisting.


Also, aren't the New Guineans selecting for paranoid schizophrenia rather than intelligence?

Matt Parrott said...


I appreciate your exploration of this topic and would like to use it as an opportunity to discuss a couple issues. First and foremost is that New Guinea has a low population density. Would you agree that a more fertile and temperate region like Anatolia, the Aegean, or the Fertile Crescent have historically been more populous? Would you agree that there could potentially be more opportunity for more technologically competitive warfare in those regions?

I contend that the population density is too low and the environmental pressures are too high for endemic warfare to reach the scale at which the archetypal "warlord" emerges, with the concomitant gender disparities (from endemic warfare) and resource surpluses necessary to support a harem.

I beg you to consider reading Lawrence Keeley's excellent "War Before Civilization", a book which pierces the toxic combination of contemporary factors that cloud our perception of primitive warfare. It provides a very data-driven analysis which dispells the contemporary perception of primitive warfare as quaint, ritualized, and generally unimportant.

Jared Diamond begins "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by establishing a taboo against human evolution being a possible factor since the time of our common ancestry. He does, however, demonstrate how geography drove human history (with an obvious blindspot for evolutionary effects). If you remove that blindspot, and consider the profound impact of endemic warfare (which is historically, archaeologically, and genetically corroborated), I believe you'll find that the Rushtonian hypothesis of arctic adaptation is both dubious and unnecessary.

East Asians and Caucasians are the descendents of populations which were immersed in and affected by the endemic warfare and warlording that occurs in pre-civilized and densely populated temperate regions. In fact, "Nordic" people only recently migrated to Scandinavia, but never managed to settle above the regions where farming and fighting were appropriate. To this day, despite the most advanced technology and innovative minds in the world, we still suck relative to Saami reindeer herders in their habitat and Melanesians in their habitat. Temperate endemic warfare IS our habitat.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Diamond is so wrong on so many issues that I despair to try to set the record straight. Just one small point...

When Augustus assumed power there had only been fours years in the previous century when Rome had not been at war. He ushered in a miraculous period of peace - that is unless you were a Jew. In this period of blessed tranquility we also had Livia, Caligula and Nero who knew something about revenge and vendetta too.

Diamond thinks life in the West is marked by decadence inducing peace. He says; murders were relatively uncommon and a state of war was the exception rather than the rule. This is just naked ahistorical nonsense. In the West peace has been so unusual that we call attention to it and give it a special name - e.g. Pax Romana.

Anonymous said...

Diamond is channeling Chief Canasatego:,+with+a+fund,+for+educating+Indian+youth%22&source=gbs_search_s&cad=4

Anonymous said...

The account of the Franklin Expedition of 1819, for one, makes mention of how Indians rarely faced off army vs. army, so to speak, but rather only attacked under the cover of darkness or when greatly outnumbering their foe.

"The Stone Indians keep in amity with their neighbours the Crees from
motives of interest; and the two tribes unite in determined hostility
against the nations dwelling to the westward, which are generally called
Slave Indians--a term of reproach applied by the Crees to those tribes
against whom they have waged successful wars. The Slave Indians are said
greatly to resemble the Stone Indians, being equally desperate and
daring in their acts of aggression and dishonesty towards the traders.

These parties go to war almost every summer, and sometimes muster three
or four hundred horsemen on each side. Their leaders, in approaching the
foe, exercise all the caution of the most skilful generals; and whenever
either party considers that it has gained the best ground, or finds it
can surprise the other, the attack is made.
They advance at once to
close quarters, and the slaughter is consequently great, though the
battle may be short. The prisoners of either sex are seldom spared, but
slain on the spot with wanton cruelty. The dead are scalped, and he is
considered the bravest person who bears the greatest number of scalps
from the field. These are afterwards attached to his war dress, and worn
as proofs of his prowess. The victorious party, during a certain time,
blacken their faces and every part of their dress in token of joy, and
in that state they often come to the establishment, if near, to testify
their delight by dancing and singing, bearing all the horrid insignia of
war, to display their individual feats. When in mourning, they
completely cover their dress and hair with white mud."

He elaborates further in other passages.

See also the massacre of Bloody Falls as recounted by Samuel Hearne, for a good example of Indian style fighting:

"The Massacre at Bloody Falls was an incident that took place during Samuel Hearne's exploration of the Coppermine River in 1771. Chipewyan Dene warriors led by Hearne's guide and companion Matonabbee discovered a group of local Inuit camped by rapids approximately 15 kilometres upstream from the mouth of the Coppermine. Just after midnight on July 17, the Chipewyan set upon the Inuit camp and killed approximately 20 men, women and children. Witnessing the massacre traumatized Hearne, and he was haunted by the memories until his death in 1792."

Anonymous said...

Shut the fuck up about "Big Men" already and find a new mental toy.

Anonymous said...

Jared Diamond begins "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by establishing a taboo against human evolution being a possible factor since the time of our common ancestry.

Except that he doesn't, really. He argues that evolutionary forces should make the New Guineans smarter than the Europeans, and further suggests that his experience with them supports this idea. The only taboo seems to be suggesting that evolutionary forces might have made Europeans superior in any way whatosever. When I set out to read his book, I read the aforementioned passage and set it down. Knowing the general thrust of the book (civilizational outcomes contingent on geography) and then confronted with a blatant evo psych argument for the superiority of the noble savage, I had to assume the author was dishonest.

Matt Parrott said...


I think Steve's onto something with his fixation on the "Big Man", from a sociological perspective. He seems to have a very disparaging attitude about them, one which I suspect is an expression of his generalized disapproval of ruthless tribal politicking.

But Idi Amin and Barack Obama's father, both archetypical "Big Men", were significantly more intelligent than their peers. Both of them also acquired multiple desirable women with whom they had a disproportionate number of children. One of their offspring even appears to be on his way to becoming the most powerful man in the world.

The most recent Big Man in contemporary Western history would be perhaps Brigham Young. Niall of the Nine Hostages was also probably a despicable "Big Man", but he was liable to have been more intelligent than the average Irishman, no?

Anonymous said...

So I'm having breakfast one morning during my Peace Corps stint with the 17 year old son of the hotel cook in a country that is 99% black. He informs me he will be playing in a basketball tourney the next day. I ask what position the strapping lad plays, he responds, proudly, "Beeg mon!" Interesting. Never before or since have I heard a white or Chinese guy proclaim himself "Big Man" so enthusiastically.

Anecdotal Sailer nut-huggery, I know, but reading Steve's Big Man theory many years later genuinely gives me a fuller understanding of the conversation that I'd never get otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Steve is correct to focus on the Big Man theory. It provides a lot of explanation. Also, women unless constrained prefer Big Men. Look at modern post-War Western societies, and how women without constraints choose Big Men. Britain has a 50% illegitamacy rate, which indicates two things.

One, women choose the Big Man unless social constraints exist.

Two, Steve is looking at the WRONG selective factor. Environment is far less an influence in natural selection in humans than Culture. Think about it, and examples in European history.

Roman men cooperated, heavily, and were able to convince other Italian men to become Romans (overcoming family-bias as Lee Harris suggests) and avoiding for the most part horrific feuds based on family in the Republic. Even the big power-struggles were about political factions as more than family.

But now, the same genetically related men, in the same environment, have changed into blood feuds and Camorra/Mafia type organizations. The physical environment did not change. The genetic material of the men did not change. What changed?

Culture. Moving from beyond-family cooperation to a family based feud system.

Or consider the Scandis. Who in the same physical environment conducted horrific blood feuds and revenge massacres. But suddenly, changed and started on the path to legendary cooperation.

What changed?

Culture. Specifically Christianity which enforced cooperation, and allowed thoughtful Big Men to realize they could be much, much bigger Big Men if they embraced cooperation, at least theoretical and some practical limits to personal power, by leveraging cooperative men and the full force of cooperative power.

Thus you have Ivar the Boneless, sacking East Anglia, eventually succeeded by Gustavus Adolphus, whose innovations in light, mobile artillery briefly had most of Germany in his grasp.

Boneless was a thug, who could never be more than a thug, limited by his personal power of intimidation and ability to pay lower-level thugs in plunder. Adolphus? A dangerous man leading a professional army.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmh, so a low murder rate and a high level of social and political organization correlates with low IQ? Interesting ... but stupid.

Stupid? He sold millions of books, won a Pulitzer Prize and did a certainly lucrative mini-series for PBS (paid for, in part, by you and me).

Stupid? Says who?

Anonymous said...

"I don’t think most people in history found the warfare of Alexander or the Romans or the British or any other well organized Clausewitzian society “nuts”. They admired it and were afraid of it, but found it hard to replicate."

You've conflated some very different methods of warfare and different situations here. Alexander was a true military genius, who excelled at siege warfare, decisive battles against conventional army opponents, and also against irregulars. In the last case, he often thought outside of the box and used trickery. Look up, for example, how he subdued the Uxians on his way to Persopolis.

The Romans excelled at conventional warfare and siege warfare, although unlike Alexander, the Roman approach to siege warfare was mainly to starve a city out. The Romans often had a hard time when irregulars fought them on the irregulars' own terms (e.g, ambushing them in the German forests).

The Brits shared some of Alexander's pragmatism when dealing with locals, and were able to maintain a large empire for a long time with a relatively small number of (their own) troops and civilians.

- Fred

Anonymous said...

Also, aren't the New Guineans selecting for paranoid schizophrenia rather than intelligence?

I was thinking Antisocial Personality "Disorder," but yeah. :)

Anonymous said...

Jared Diamond might have thought that he looked stupid to New Guinean's because he couldn't construct a lean-to hut quickly, but I bet they thought he was an idiot due to the fact that he sports the world's largest comb-over hairstyle Ive ever seen. I looked him up, and the visage of that ridiculous ear-to-ear combover literally made me laugh out load. What a doofus. Sorry

Anonymous said...

If westerners are so smart then why is the west dying?

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time the world, including the West, was ruled by Big Men and their armies of thugs. The few nerds who managed to survive lived in fear of the thugs. Some joined monasteries, others bowed their heads and said "Yes, sir" when confronted by a Big Man.

Then the Really Big Men managed to conquer the lesser Big Men and built empires. This created a stable environment in which nerds could flourish. Monogamy became the norm, so that even the nerdiest males could marry and have children. The nerds multiplied until they were so numerous they began to run society and discarded the old traditions and customs of the Big Men. The nerds invented the idea of equality, and enacted female empowerment.

But female empowerment brought new changes. Women think nerds are boring and thugs exciting. Since women can now choose their own mates (rather than having them chosen by their parents), nerds have a harder time getting women, and as a result have fewer children, while thugs have more.

Soon there will be more thugs than nerds. The political structures built by nerds will crumble, and the Big Men and their armies of thugs will once again rule the world. And we will have come full circle.

Anonymous said...

Testing, we are seeing the same thing right here right now. The Whites beat the pants off the Red Indians when the Indians were composed of small feuding tribes and clans within tribes.

Now the Indians are back, except they are completely united as a new "Hispanic" culture. They are still Indians, with the same corn and beans based diet at the core of their homegrown civilizations, but they now have a common Spanish language and universalistic "Latino" culture.

Unlike the very insular Indian cultures, newly minted Latinos can travel almost anywhere and be among amigos. They are a formidable force.

Anonymous said...

"If westerners are so smart then why is the west dying"

Because fertility has almost always ben a more sucessful breeding strategy than specialisation.

Anonymous said...

... in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners ...

Perhaps in mental ability New Guineans are just genetically superior to Jared Diamond. ;-)

Anonymous said...

testing99 said, "Steve is correct to focus on the Big Man theory. It provides a lot of explanation. Also, women unless constrained prefer Big Men. Look at modern post-War Western societies, and how women without constraints choose Big Men. Britain has a 50% illegitamacy rate, which indicates two things."

iSteve readers should check out Michel Houellebecq. I would appreciate if Mr. Sailer himself commented on the French theorist of contemporary sexual selection.

Matt Parrott said...


I'm unfamiliar with the sexual selection research of Michel Houellebecq, but I will certainly investigate him further. As for sexual selection as the driver of human evolution in general, I think credit ultimately goes to Darwin.

I agree with Darwin that natural selection in itself is insufficient to explain the diversity of human races. I also share his hunch that males had a degree of advantage in sexual selection which drove much of these adaptations.

I'm probably preaching to the choir when I say this, but I'm incessantly amazed by how comprehensive and insightful Darwin was in his research. There are scientists in history who were methodical researchers, and there are scientists in history who were visionaries, but I doubt there is any scientist who can rival Darwin in his fusion of these two traits.

Anonymous said...

The settlement of Mohammad Rahim is celebrating the end of a war that many believe, though few actually remember, began for age-old reasons – “Zan, Zar, Zemin”, or Women, Gold, Land.

For three decades it ran unchecked and confined the male population to their homes, which were quickly turned into fortresses with bricked-up windows and gun loopholes in the walls. The locals say that even the Taliban took one look at the chaos and went elsewhere.

“It started over Sambola’s widow,” said Malik Abdul Wahab, the leader of one of the sides. “Ashmir Khan was supposed to marry her. But Haji Nasruddin Khan married her instead. Ashmir shot Nasruddin, and that is how it began.”

Afghan blood feud ends after 30 years