Why have Asians not dominated?
Why have Asians not dominated human cultural evolution? How can it be that the racial group which has the highest average IQ is not that which has reached, to date, the greatest cultural achievement, wealth and power?
Before I answer that question, let me debunk some of the Western myths about China so that we start from the proper historical and cultural place when assessing Asian achievement and development. (The Asian population is of course more than China, but China by population represents most Asians and Asians at their most culturally advanced throughout history until perhaps the last century, since when Japan has arguably taken the lead).
Insofar as people in the West think about China’s place in history – and most do not think about it at all – they normally believe that China has long been a unified state sharing a single culture and a single language with a continuous history stretching back thousands of years (thus making it unique) and that it was always culturally and technologically in advance of the West until relatively recently, the “relatively recently” being anything from 1500 to as late as 1800 AD depending on which authority you choose to follow. Joseph Needham in his monumental Science and Civilisation in China is the prime example of someone propagating this myth.
The reality is that the history of China has been as politically messy and fractured as that of Europe, arguably more so because their territory is larger and their population throughout history has been substantially greater than that of Europe. The country was not even nominally unified until the third century BC – under the short lived Chhin dynasty (221-207 BC) and has spent more than half of the time since being split between competing dynasties, for example, the Northern and Southern Sung 960-1126, times of general warlordism (5/6th centuries AD) or subject to foreign invaders such as the Mongols (1279-1368) and the Manchu (1644-1912). Moreover, even at times of supposed unification the actual amount of control exercised by Emperors was necessarily small compared with that achieved by the modern industrialised state because the means to govern vast territories and large populations was minute in the past compared with our own day. China is also so far from being a single racial/ethnic entity that today it contains within its borders approximately 100 million people who are in modern Western terms ethnic minorities.
As for the supposed cultural unity, the spoken language is very far from being a single tongue understood throughout China. The division between Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese is reasonably well known in the West, but the fracturing of Chinese goes far beyond that. For example, the erstwhile Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping spoke with such a heavy accent and dialect that his daughter had to translate for him when he spoke in public. Nor is the written language a single language similarly understood by all literate Chinese – different characters are used in different parts of the country and the same character may have different nuances depending on the origins of the reader.
In short, it makes no more sense to speak of China as a continuous state or single civilisation than it does to speak of Europe as a continuous state or single civilisation.
Nor is it true that there is a special antiquity to Chinese civilisation. In matters such as writing and the use of metals, the Chinese were at best no earlier than the civilisations of the Middle East and Mediterranean, and arguably behind them, especially in writing.
The claim that the Chinese were throughout history more culturally advanced than Europe until fairly recently is especially weak. It is only necessary to reflect on the archaeological and historical evidence of the cultural achievements of the Egyptians, those in the Fertile Crescent (Assyria, Babylon), the Cretans, Mycenaeans and the immense achievements of ancient Greece and Rome to realise that the China of antiquity was not superior in terms of their physical control of the world. To take one striking example, few Chinese buildings pre-dating the Ming era (1368-1644) are extant; most buildings, including those of the great, before that date being of timber. Compare that with the great stone buildings of the European and Mediterranean ancient world, the magnificent castles, abbeys, cathedrals and churches of the European mediaeval world and the amazing architectural diversity of the European modern period.
Of course, it is very easy to cherry pick particular material accomplishments at particular times and places, but fail to place them in their general historical context by posing questions such was an invention followed through and did it become generally used? Such a failure gives a wholly unbalanced picture of the relative merits of cultures. It is true that before the modern period (say 1500 AD)the Chinese can be shown to have had certain inventions before Europe but the opposite also applies, for example, the Chinese had the compass before Europe, but Europe boast priority with the Archimedean screw.
Even where China produced an invention before Europe and then Europe introduced it at a later date, it does not follow that Europe copied that invention from China or the experience of using the invention was the same in Europe as in China. The classic example of this is printing with moveable type. China and Korea had moveable type many centuries before Gutenberg printed his great Bible in the 15th century, but there is no evidence that Gutenberg was influenced in any way by the far Eastern example. Discrete invention of the same thing or process in different cultures is common. Not only that, whereas moveable type printing never gained widespread use in China it very rapidly became the norm in Europe, most probably because written European languages are based on an alphabetical system with a few characters while written Chinese is an ideographic language with thousands of ideograms, each of which requires a single block of type. Since 1700 at the latest, European technology has utterly dwarfed the achievements of the Chinese.
There is of course far more to civilisation than its material consequences. The intellectual and social science, philosophy, art, political structure and so on. Here China also falls well short of Europe.
China never managed to develop anything worthy of the name of science. Throughout their history the Chinese have been very inventive when it comes to producing artefacts and practical solutions to particular problems but have displayed a remarkable lack of interest in developing theory from those practical solutions to provide general explanations of the world.
It is also noteworthy that although the Chinese produced many important inventions such as gunpowder, they commonly failed to exploit them either at all or to develop them substantially. When Europeans began to make regular contact with China in the seventeenth century the guns of the Europeans were much superior to those of the Chinese despite the latter having invented gunpowder. Looking at the frequent failures to develop inventions, the suspicion arises that often an invention was produced to amuse or serve the interests of a powerful person rather than with the idea of making it a commercial proposition or from a simple interest in the challenge of making it and subsequently understanding how it could be improved. Lord McCartney, who headed the first official British diplomatic mission to China in 1793/4 noted “Most of the things the Chinese know they seem to have invented themselves, to have applied them solely to the purpose wanted, and to never have thought of improving or extending them further” (A Journal of the embassy to China (Folio Society), while Adam Smith commented in the latter half of the 18th century that “China has been long one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious and most populous countries in the world. It seems, however, to have long been stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than five hundred years ago, describes its cultivation, industry and populousness , almost in the same terms in which they are described by travellers in the present times”. (The Wealth of Nations Penguin edition p 174.)
Philosophy as we would understand it in the West, that is, analytical thought examining the nature of reality with, in theory at least, an absence of ideological baggage clouding the issue, is virtually missing from Chinese history. Traditional Chinese philosophy never divorced itself entirely from religion and was predominantly concerned with how society should be ordered. Its primary purpose was social control. It is more a series of maxims than an exercise in philosophical enquiry. The let-everything-be-challenged method found intermittently in Western philosophy from at least the sixth century BC onwards appears foreign to the Chinese mind. Interestingly, they were great compilers of what we would call encyclopaedias. They delighted in recording what was already known or thought, rather than investigating what was not known or might be thought.
A similar resistance to change can be seen in Chinese art and fashion. Look at contemporary depictions of Chinese and the dress of a Chinese in 1000 AD is much the same as the dress of a Chinese in 1800. Chinese art shows a similar stability over the same period, being for the most part heavily constrained by artistic conventions. Where there is a deviation from such academic artistic discipline it is mainly found in periods where foreign invaders gained power, most noticeably under the Mongol emperors who imported craftsmen and artists from here, there and everywhere. Looking at Chinese fashions and art over time is similar to viewing Egyptian artefacts which show a remarkable stability over several thousand years. This is the direct antithesis of the general European cultural experience which consistently shows change in fashion and art.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Chinese is their political and social development. Politically, the Chinese never really moved beyond the rather primitive state of believing in an absolute ruler who was a god or a man directly in touch with gods and warlordism. There were attempts to introduce more rational and less absolute forms of government, but these were invariably short lived. Ideologies such as Confucianism attempted to lay down moral rules for rulers, but that was about the limit of any sustained attempt to restrain emperors with anything short of violence. Ideas of constitutions restricting what government may do, representative government or direct democracy were simply alien to Chinese society.
State administration is often lauded as an area of great Chinese superiority, with the Mandarin system put forward as evidence of this, appointment by examination having begun as early as the 7th century AD. But was it really superior to that of the Roman Empire, which pre-dated it by centuries, or more impressive than that of the Catholic Church at the height of its power? Arguably, the Mandarin system was primarily an expression of the general trait of Chinese society to control and categorise rather than a system designed to meet a particular need, as opposed to the administrations of Europe which developed to serve needs such as the management of money.
Below formal government it is difficult to discern in Chinese history anything which could be described as civil society, those organisations and relationships which perform a civic social function but which are not part of the formal political structure, for example, charities, clubs, the co-operative movement and trade unions. Chinese life has traditionally revolved around the family – including a strong dose of ancestor worship – with any social organisation beyond that being the province of those in authority. There is nothing which resembles the corporate charitable concern for the poor found within the Catholic Church let alone a formal legal obligation such as the English Poor Law of 1601.
A society which leaves the vast majority of a society in abject penury and small elite with immense wealth is a primitive form of social organisation. It is a form known since the beginning of history unlike the settled societies which have spread wealth more evenly, which are all of more recent growth. Left to its own devices Chinese society never went beyond the great disparity of wealth state. When Europeans began to gain first hand experience of China from the seventeenth century onwards a common observation was the tremendous disparity of wealth. Here is Adam Smith again: “The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe” (The Wealth of Nations p174), but “the rich, having a superabundance of food to dispose of beyond what they can themselves consume, have the means of purchasing the labour of other people. The retinue of a grandee in China or Indostan accordingly is, by all accounts, much more numerous and splendid than the richest subjects in Europe” (The Wealth of Nations p310).
This brief de-bunking of the myth of Chinese cultural superiority carries within it suggestions of why Asians have not achieved cultural supremacy, despite their superior IQ distribution. IQ is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for cultural advance. What is missing from the Asian mentality to have hindered their advance? Could it simply be that a combination of sufficiently propitious circumstances have never arisen to drive them beyond a certain point, that Europe surged ahead simply by luck rather than any innate difference? This would seem to be most unlikely because of the length of time during which China has been a sophisticated society with substantial technological and organisational achievements.
Why did China never make the jump from by-guess-and-by-God technology to true science? Why did China show so little interest in analytical philosophy? Why did China never develop a political system more sophisticated than that of the god-Emperor when Europeans ran through just about every form of political organisations there is in the past 2,500 years, most of them before the birth of Christ? Why was the idea of political participation, so widespread in Europe in both the ancient and the late mediaeval world, absent in China? Why was there an absence of civil society in China? These differences would seem to be more than culturally determined, to be the cultural expressions of innate tendencies in behaviour.
IQ is far from being the only measurable innate difference between races (insofar as IQ is innate). J Philippe Ruston in Race, Evolution and Behaviour lists several dozen race-dependent variables under the headings of Brain size, Intelligence, Maturation rate, Personality, Social organisation and Reproductive effort. Under Personality are listed the following: activity level, aggressiveness, cautiousness, dominance, impulsivity, self-concept, sociability. On all of these except cautiousness blacks score higher than whites who in turn score higher than Asians. With cautiousness the position is reversed with blacks scoring lower than whites who score lower than Asians. It is not unreasonable to interpret these differences as the Asian personality being less enquiring or adventurous than that of whites, less sociable and more submissive.
The ascending ranking of black-white-Asian is steady throughout almost all the variables described by Ruston – the odd men out are administrative efficiency and cultural achievement which Rushton ranks as simply “higher” for both whites and Asians than for blacks. Arguably, those are the two variables most open to subjectivity and, judged by the entire sweep of human history; it would seem to be stretching a point to put whites and Asians on the same level in these two areas. As previously mentioned whites managed an industrial revolution from scratch, created modern science, developed analytical philosophy and very early on evolved many varied forms of political life, including direct democracy. Before European examples were put before those, Asians never advanced much beyond by-guess-and-by-God technology, had nothing moderns would describe as science, possessed no analytical philosophy and did not develop a political system more sophisticated than that of the absolute monarch.
When they are a minority in high IQ societies Asians tend to fill technical posts – which favour higher IQs – or engage in business, much of which is conducted within their own racial group. They make surprisingly little headway in areas which require the highest level “people skills”, such as formal politics or interest groups. Whether they as a minority live in high or low IQ societies Asians display an extremely strong tendency to keep within their own communities, but unlike many other minority groups they generally do not engage in much overt antisocial behaviour – their crime tends to be directed at other members of the racial group – and display little overt ethnic aggression such as portraying themselves as victims of racism or by demanding racially based privileges for their group. This behaviour also fits the Asian personality template described above.
There is a further consideration. IQ is not of a piece. Although Asian IQ is higher than white IQ overall, it is not higher in all respects. Asians score substantially higher than whites on non-verbal tests but are significantly inferior to whites on verbal tests. They score particularly strongly on spatial tests. These differences in the quality of racial IQs fit neatly into the differences listed by Ruston and to work such as Freedman’s. The inferior verbal ability of Asians fits with the idea of reduced sociability. The greater aptitude on non-verbal tests could be plausibly be interpreted as meaning that the Asian mind is adapted to solving what I would call bounded problems, that is, problems which have objective boundaries such as how do we build this canal? rather than problems without such boundaries such as what is the good? and what is art?
The limitations of the Chinese intellect can be seen in their adherence to an ideographic form of writing. If one set a genius and a dullard the task of developing a system of writing, the genius would come up with an alphabetical system and the dullard some form of pictorial representation. The genius would produce the alphabetical system because he would see beyond the obvious and immediate and eschew the literal representation of a thing or idea, while the dullard would see only the obvious and immediate way of representing a thing or idea. The genius would go for the less obvious for he would see that it was both more economical and powerful a means of representation because it required only a small number of signs to express infinity of things and ideas. The dullard would merely see a need to keep on adding to the number of signs.
Of course the Chinese went far beyond crude pictograms which each literally depicted something, but by retaining a pictorial system in which each thing or idea had to be represented by a particular sign or group of signs they retained the problems associated with a non-alphabetical system, namely its lack of economy and flexibility, there being several thousand characters associated with written Chinese. The sheer number of characters makes the learning of written Chinese a monumental task, especially for those learning the written language as an adult. Many, probably the large majority, of foreigners who speak Chinese cannot read and/or write it. Nor is this purely a non-Asian trait. When the Chinese communists attempted to create a literate China in the 1950s they found that many pupils simply were not up to the task – there was a spate of suicides at the time amongst those being forced to learn to read and write Chinese. The Chinese met this difficulty by introducing a system of 1,000 simplified characters and a 25 letter Roman alphabet was introduced into Chinese primary schools in 1957 to help with pronunciation.
Why did the major representatives of the group with the highest IQ not only start down the dullard’s path with a written language but continues on that path today despite its very obvious disadvantages? Perhaps the answer lies in their IQ and other psychometrically measurable traits. If Asians have minds which are orientated toward the visual, perhaps it is natural to prefer a pictorial system of writing. Nonetheless it is strange that such an obviously cumbersome system should have been retained for so long by the Chinese – the racially similar Koreans adopted an alphabetical system of writing in the 15th Century. Of course, literacy in China was very restricted and it may have been retained simply because it was the system known to the elite (who were its prime users) and cultural inertia became the controlling force. It also had the advantage for the elite of naturally restricting literacy, because of the considerable mental demands the written language makes on the individual when they are learning it. However, such an advantage in the past is a positive disadvantage today and has been since the Chinese first had to compete with modern advanced societies.
We have the experience of more than a century of industrialisation and Westernisation in Japan and several generations of such behaviour in South Korea and Taiwan. China has gone down the industrialising road intermittently for over a century and full-bloodedly for the past quarter century. These societies have had the example of the white experience of industrialisation, science and general cultural heritage before them. Despite this and whatever their economic success, and that is patchy vide Japan‘s post-1980s stagnation and the oceanic gulf between coastal city China and the vast Chinese interior, compared with white societies there has been in Asian societies since their opening up to the West remarkably little evidence of fundamental scientific discovery or technological innovation which goes beyond the adaptation of what has been invented or discovered elsewhere. Nor, despite the very large numbers of Asians living in advanced white majority societies, can one find front-rank scientists or technologists in proportion to their proportion to the population, a surprising fact when Asian academic achievement and business involvement is on average higher than that of whites (anyone who doubts Asian under-representation in this area should try identifying Asians living in white majority societies who fit the description of front-rank scientists and technologists).
The willingness to imitate white societies extends to culture. The Japanese in particular are famous for aping both high and low white culture, from Beethoven to the Beatles. Asian Harry Potter fans are amongst the most frenzied in the world. The architecture of whites is copied enthusiastically and extensively and is accompanied by a widespread willingness to destroy indigenous architecture, the white concern for giving a special value to the old and preserving being weak in Asian majority societies. An equivalent mass response to Asian culture simply does not exist in white societies – the most that can be found are periodic outbreaks of the use of oriental art and motifs by white designers. This willingness to imitate might seem odd in view of the traditionally static cultural nature of Asian societies. It might be ascribed to the feelings of inferiority which Asian societies felt when faced with the power of industrialised societies and at least in China’s case, a sense of humiliation because of past white quasi-colonial involvement in China. If this explanation is believed Asians copy white behaviour because they are proving to themselves that they are not inferior to white society by emulating what white societies have achieved. However, that shows a strange lack of ambition. Why not aspire to do something beyond what whites have done? (Many Chinese would say they are industrialising and modernising generally now simply because they were held back in the past by white control and manipulation of their societies, but difficult that is to fit with the facts that foreign influence over China effectively ended in 1949 and their general failure to advance before Western meddling began in the 19th century).
An alternative explanation is that Asians imitate so readily because it is natural for them to do so because their general personality traits lead them to do it. Or rather, it is natural for them to imitate in certain aspects of life but not others. Where Asians do not show such an appetite for imitation is in social structures. The Japanese and South Koreans may have formally adopted systems of elective government from white examples, but within these the traditional social relations remain – practices are accepted which in the West would be considered straight forward bribery of voters or undue influence over them, for example “clan” loyalties. Or take the rule of law. In Japan, supposedly the most Westernised of Asian societies, hardly anyone who is brought to trial for a criminal offence is acquitted, a nonsense for any meaningful system of justice As for China, uniquely amongst Communist countries, the Communist elite have managed to retain control whilst allowing capitalism but eschewing democratisation or the idea of the law being above manipulation by the state.
Why do Asians imitate in some ways but not others? I suspect that the answer rests on what is the elite view of society. Traditionally, the Chinese elite were always contemptuous of other peoples, routinely treating them as subordinate peoples who owed tribute to the Emperor (Lord Macartney‘s. gifts to the Emperor in 1794 were described as tribute). Macartney, who visited China before white interference in the country, constantly referred to the fact that the Chinese had what we would now describe as a monstrous superiority complex and that when presented with products of the early Industrial Revolution, the equivalent of which were unknown in China, they frequently refused to show any overt interest in them. Macartney left China having failed to gain what he had been charged with obtaining, namely, the right of British merchants to trade in China.
A similar refusal to engage with white societies can be found in Japan, which after some experience of white merchants and priests took the dramatic step of sealing off Japan from all but the most limited European contact for three centuries until the American Commodore Perry forced trade with the white world upon them in 1853.
Once Japan had engagement with the West forced upon them a new elite ideology emerged which saw imitation of certain aspects of white society as the way to compete with those societies. This new elite ideology was accepted by the mass of their population with astonishing readiness bearing in mind the previous refusal to engage with outsiders (there was even a proposal in the 1870s for English to replace Japanese as the language of Japan.) Why did this happen? Most probably because the general personality profile of Asians makes them unusually susceptible to authority. Imitation of white social relationships did not occur so readily because such relationships are themselves the product of innate personality traits. (It is worth bearing in mind that Japan decided to modernise without being quasi-colonised in the fashion of China.)
In summary, despite their higher average IQ, Asians have probably failed to become the culturally dominant race because their innate personality traits work against them. They are too passive, too unquestioning, too lacking in initiative. The shape of their IQ with higher non-verbal scores and lower verbal scores may be wholly or partially the cause of these personality traits or, conversely, the shape of the IQ is simply an expression of the personality traits. Other biological traits such as low testosterone levels may also promote such behaviour.