Making Sense of the Past

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, December 2007

Michael Hart, Understanding Human History, Washington Summit Publishers, 2007, 483 pp., $34.95 (softcover, $24.95)

“The differences in average intelligence that evolved between the human races have been a major factor in the course of human history and prehistory. Any theory that ignores these differences, or denies their existence, will therefore be unable to explain various major aspects of history.” So begins Michael Hart’s ambitious and remarkably successful account of who did what—and more importantly why—over the last 30,000 years.

This is first and foremost a history book, which attempts to cover in a single volume everything of real importance that happened up until modern times. This would be a challenge even for a professional historian, but Dr. Hart, whose PhD is in astronomy, carries it off gracefully and engagingly. No doubt his experience as a teacher of history of science and his research for an earlier book on the 100 men he considers the most important in human history were useful preparation. This is a good, concise study of the main events of our past.

What sets Dr. Hart apart is his analysis of history in the light of racial differences in intelligence. Just as Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen can solve problems that baffle development economists because they understand race and IQ (see “Survival of the Fittest,” AR, June 2007), Dr. Hart finds patterns and offers explanations for what would otherwise seem random.

Understanding Human History therefore begins with an introduction to race, intelligence, and genetics. After an excellent summary, Dr. Hart writes that “the overall evidence in favor of this conclusion [that there is a substantial genetic contribution to racial differences in average IQ] is so great that no one would dispute the point if it were not an issue that aroused strong emotions on ideological grounds.” Both the past and present make much more sense once it is understood that human populations that evolved in the demandingly cold environments of Europe and North Asia are more intelligent than those that were not winnowed by the challenges of surviving cold winters. (See “Northwest Passage,” AR, June 2006, for a review of this theory.)

Out of Africa

All authorities agree that Homo sapiens first appeared in Africa approximately 100,000 years ago and then migrated to the other continents. Dr. Hart gives a good description of what is known about evolution from Homo erectus on, and traces early human migration routes in some detail. The indigenous populations of Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Australia, for example, were never out of warm climates on their way out of Africa, and therefore did not evolve high intelligence. Dr. Hart notes that these populations are all more closely related to each other than to North Asians, and that the latter are actually more closely related to Caucasians than to Southeast Asians.

The effects on intelligence of having left sub-Saharan Africa for more demanding environments began to appear at the end of the Paleolithic period. Dr. Hart notes that such stone-age inventions as cave painting, sewing needles, bows and arrows, harpoons, fishhooks, and pottery, which appeared from 13,000 to 32,000 years ago, all arose well north of the Sahara.

Perhaps the greatest change in human life, however, occurred during what is called the Neolithic revolution, or the transition to agriculture. Until then, humans lived at the subsistence level in hunter-gatherer bands of 20 to 80. The switch to farming meant that people could grow more food than their families could eat, and this surplus led to the rise of specialized trades and crafts, and the establishment of cities. Human life changed dramatically.

Farming first began 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, with the domestication of wild wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates. The first farm animals were goats, followed by sheep and pigs. Cattle and horses, which are larger and harder to tame came later. Dogs were probably domesticated about the time farming began, but cats were probably not domesticated for another 6,000 years.

Dr. Hart writes that farming spread from the Middle East to Europe and Africa, but that it arose independently in China and in Central America. Dr. Hart notes that it also began independently in the isolated highlands of New Guinea, but many thousands of years later than in the Middle East.

The cities and specialized trades that agriculture could support eventually led to another critically important development: writing. Invented around 3,400 BC in Sumeria (now in Southern Iraq), writing first appeared as cumbersome pictograms—the Egyptians developed their version around 3,100 BC. The first proper alphabet was for a north Semitic language, and did not appear until around 1,600 BC. This was the source of the famous Phoenician alphabet, from which both Greek and Latin script are probably derived. The Chinese invented writing independently of the Middle East—probably around 1,500 BC—as did the Central American Indians around 700 BC.

The Middle East was therefore the source for some of the most vitally important human breakthroughs: farming, writing, irrigation, metalworking, weaving, the alphabet, the arch, iron-making, and glass-making. For some 4,000 years, until the Greeks caught up around 300 BC, the Middle East was the most advanced place on earth. If the Hart thesis is correct, and intelligence is higher in cold climates, why did these advances not take place first in Europe or North Asia?

Dr. Hart argues that the critical first step—agriculture—required three things: a population of sufficiently high intelligence, a long growing season, and the presence of promising food crops. Europe had only the first of these, and therefore both the concept of agriculture and the crops themselves had to be introduced from the Middle East. It was not until some 5,000 years after agriculture began in the Fertile Crescent that it finally reached the northernmost parts of Europe. In China, there were good food crops—millet and rice—but the growing season was short. The inhabitants were nevertheless smart enough to adopt agriculture independently not long after it appeared in the Middle East.

Farming arose in Central America several thousand years later but not, writes Dr. Hart, because of low intelligence of the inhabitants. The MesoAmericans had come across the Alaska land bridge, and spent a good part of their evolutionary history in cold climates. What delayed agriculture was the absence of promising grains. The wild ancestor of today’s corn, teosinte, took thousands of years of domestication to become a satisfactory food crop.

The Middle East’s head start in agriculture led to many advances over other parts of the world. This, says Dr. Hart, is why it pulled so far ahead of more northerly areas where the inhabitants were more intelligent.

The Indo-Europeans

The most influential group of humans who ever lived may have been the Indo-Europeans. A combination of linguistic research and archeology traces their origins to perhaps 6,000 years ago, in the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Some people believe the first speakers of a proto-Indo-European language may have been the Kurgan people. Whoever they were, by about the time of Christ, the Indo-Europeans were “the tribe that conquered a continent.” Dr. Hart points out that they conquered far more than that. Not only did they populate Europe, they were most of the population of Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, established the Roman and Parthian empires, and controlled most of the Middle East and North Africa. By 200 AD, however, their expansion came to an end, and the Indo-Europeans later lost control of North Africa and the Middle East, and Europe itself was threatened by Huns, Arabs, and Mongols. It was only by about 1500 that Indo-Europeans—in this case, the European branch of that group—regained the initiative. Dr. Hart is unequivocal: it was the intelligence Indo-Europeans had evolved to survive cold climates that permitted their extraordinary expansion.

Greece and Rome are, of course, the iconic Indo-European achievements of antiquity. The real flowering of Greek genius, and the contributions of almost all of the names we associate with the golden age, were during what amounted to a very short period: from the first war against Persia in 546 BC until the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. It was during this century and a half that Greeks laid the foundations of Western Civilization, and their achievements in science, astronomy, and mathematics were not surpassed for another 1,600 years. Some would say their philosophy and drama are still unsurpassed. Dr. Hart argues that the Greeks were probably no more intelligent than other Europeans, but merely benefited from geography: They were close enough to Egypt and the Middle East to build on the best knowledge then available.

It is not easy to credit this explanation. Most of the great figures of ancient Greece lived in Athens, a city-state that probably never had an adult male citizen population of more than 20,000 (the total population, including slaves, may have been 150,000 or more), and the contributions to world knowledge of this tiny group is surely more disproportionate than any other. We may never fully understand what gave rise to Greek genius.

In the case of Rome, it is the decline that baffles historians. Most empires have been overwhelmed by superior power, but the Romans were defeated by peoples far less advanced than themselves, who fielded armies much smaller than ones Rome had beaten in the past. Dr. Hart catalogues some of the causes of the collapse—replacement of the national religion by Christianity, increasing multi-nationalism that undercut patriotism, widespread corruption—but we are still left with a mystery. Whatever the explanation, the abdication of the last Roman emperor in 476 AD marked the beginning of the Dark Ages, during which Europe lost its position as the most advanced part of the world, and fell behind both the Arabs and the Chinese.

What was Rome’s greatest contribution to the West? Unlike those who cite law and engineering, Dr. Hart argues that Emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 313 AD and its subsequent spread throughout the empire was Rome’s most significant legacy.

The destruction of Rome was not the first time a civilization was laid waste by barbarians who took centuries to reach the level of the people they had conquered. The 12th century BC Dorian invaders who later created Greek civilization destroyed the earlier Mycenaean culture and plunged Greece into a “dark age” that lasted 300 years. In both cases, the conquerers could not read the writing of the conquered, and this slowed their absorption of higher civilization.

The Modern Era

By about 1100, Europe had recovered its strength and was pushing back the Muslims. The Crusades, begun in 1099, brought Europe into close contact with Arabs, and led to the reintroduction of classical Greek science and mathematics. These rediscoveries were an important impetus to the Renaissance, and by the 12th century, Europe had begun great cathedrals such as Notre Dame. The Balkans, under Muslim rule, did not benefit from the Renaissance, nor did Russia, which was isolated and controlled by Mongols, but by 1450 Europe had regained its position as world leader.

Understanding Human History concludes with an account of the modern era. After Gutenberg invented movable type in the 15th century (type was already in use in China but unknown in the West), virtually every significant advance in industry, science, and navigation was made by Europeans.

In this context, Dr. Hart asks why Europe and not China? The Chinese were as intelligent as whites, and had been well ahead of Europe for centuries. In Kubilai Kahn’s time, China must have seemed the most promising candidate for progress. Dr. Hart notes, however, that the Chinese language, with its thousands of ideograms, is not suited to printing (which is why movable type was not widely used in China), whereas all European languages benefited enormously from the printing press. He adds that the Chinese had never shown much interest in astronomy or mathematics, which became the basis for the Scientific Revolution. China also had a relatively small coastline and extensive internal trade, so did not have the same need as Europe for navigation and exploration. Finally, China was unified and at peace, whereas the warring kingdoms of Europe were always looking for better weapons.

The Scientific Revolution in Europe nevertheless raises other questions. During the Renaissance, the continent’s best minds were devoted to the arts and humanities. Why, beginning in the 1600s, did they turn to science? Dr. Hart suggests that the heliocentrism controversy caught the European imagination because it was far more than a scientific problem. By redefining man’s place in the universe, it challenged the Catholic church. Dr. Hart suggests that it was this 50-year controversy that directed European thinking towards astronomy, mathematics, and the laws of physics.

Dr. Hart raises a similar question about the Industrial Revolution. Why in England? He writes that only England met all of the following criteria: It had a high average IQ. It did not practice slavery, and therefore had a built-in need for labor-saving advances. It had gone through the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance and Reformation, which stimulated free thinking. It was united—unlike Germany or Italy—and had, in effect, an internal free-trade zone. It had plenty of coal and iron ore. Finally, it had a tradition of property rights, which meant that the profits of industrialization would stay in the pockets of entrepreneurs and risk-takers. It was, of course, the Industrial Revolution that led to the dominance of Europe over the rest of the world.

Other Contributions

Dr. Hart evaluates the achievements of other peoples of the past. The Arabs, for example, he finds notable for their conquests. In just the hundred years from Mohammed’s death in 632 to the battle of Tours in 732, Muslims had conquered Turkey, Afghanistan, parts of Central Asia, all of North Africa, a large part of Persia, the Iberian peninsula, and were stopped only in central France. This is a remarkable record, but Dr. Hart argues that because most of these conquests did not last, they must have been achieved only because their targets were temporarily weak, not because the Arabs were strong. He adds that although Arabs produced remarkable architecture, lyric poetry, and decorative arts, they added very little to science, mechanics, or astronomy. Although they were more advanced than Europeans from about 600 to 1300, they did not progress beyond the science of the Greeks, nor did they invent anything significant.

Dr. Hart considers China the West’s only real civilizational rival. It produced many important innovations: paper, movable type, gunpowder, cast iron, the compass, and the use of coal as a fuel. Dr. Hart writes that the invention of paper in 105 AD gave the Chinese a head start that lasted for centuries because they had a monopoly on the best medium for storing knowledge. Under the Tang dynasty (618-907), he writes, China was clearly more advanced than any other place on earth. Marco Polo’s 13th century accounts of the court of Kubilai Khan frankly acknowledged its superiority over anything in the West.

Kubilai, grandson of Genghis, ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen. It broke up shortly after his death, but by the 17th century, Mongol-derived people controlled even more territory than Kubilai had, including the Ottoman empire, Manchu China, and Mughal India (Mughal is the Persian word for Mongol). The Mughals and Ottomans were largely absorbed by the peoples they ruled, but their dominance was undisputed. Dr. Hart argues that the Mongol conquests required a high average intelligence bred in the harsh plains of north Asia. Like the Indo-Europeans of more than 5,000 years earlier, they were a hugely dynamic people that left its mark on vast regions to the south.

Another group Dr. Hart recognizes for remarkable but narrow accomplishment is the Polynesians who settled the Pacific islands, sometimes after voyages of thousands of miles. Not even the Phoenicians or Vikings rivaled their exploits. Dr. Hart points out that Pacific islands were without domesticable plants or animals, which means pioneers brought them. These were therefore deliberate voyages of colonization; distant islands were not accidentally populated by sailors blown off course.

There are also human populations distinguished by how little they have contributed. Reports of pre-contact sub-Saharan Africans are consistent: No tribe in that vast area had the wheel, writing, a calendar, or a mechanical device of any kind. Metal working had been introduced from the north, but in all of black Africa there were no two-story buildings and no monuments to compare even with the stone statues of Easter Island. Dr. Hart notes that Madagascar is 250 miles off the African coast, but Africans never settled it. Instead, it was populated from 3,000 miles away by Southeast Asians who arrived around 500 AD. Africans continue to be largely incapable of absorbing the science and technology of others, and have not added to it.

Australian aborigines were even more primitive than Africans when whites first found them. They were living in the old stone age, which is to say they did not work metal and had no domesticated crops. They had invented one thing: the boomerang, which they used as a weapon. The Tasmanians were more primitive still. About 10,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower, Tasmania was connected to Australia. When the ocean rose, the Tasmanians were unable to cross the Bass Strait. During their 10,000 years of separation, they became even more primitive than before: They forgot how to make sewing needles and fishhooks.

Understanding Human History concludes with an unremarkable prediction: Races that have contributed the most will continue to do so, and vice versa. One could argue further, however, that unless whites give up certain illusions they will fall to permanent second-tier status behind the North Asians. For the last 50 years, whites have persisted in believing—or at least pretended to believe—that genes have nothing to do with a group’s contributions to civilization. They have made dangerously dysgenic assumptions: that all immigrants are equally desirable, that dimwits should have as many children as geniuses, and that eugenics is immoral. North Asians, especially the Chinese, have no such illusions. As Dr. Hart points out, Western Man has had some very good innings. If he does not wake up from a foolish sentimentality, he will find that his days as a maker of history are over.

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