Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rice, Roti and Sleep.

In his book, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, published in 1997, the author Jared Diamond tries to answer a question posed to him by Yali, a native of New Guinea : “ Why is it 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 other words, why did wealth and power flow from the west, instead of the other way round?

Jared Diamond, in attempting to answer the question digs deep into history and explains why the Fertile Crescent ( what is now Jordan, Syria and Iraq) or China lost their enormous lead of thousands of years to late-starting Europe.

The Fertile Crescent, he explains, arose in a fragile environment, and simply committed ecological suicide by destroying its resource base (woodlands, trees, etc) indiscriminately.

China, despite being blessed with ecological diversity, and undoubted technological prowess, suddenly became insular in the fifteenth century, due to an aberration of local politics, with one faction forbidding oceangoing shipping. China had always been a monolithic country (from 221 AD) and so one bad decision taken by a central command became irreversible and stifled the entire nation.

What about India? Jared Diamond doesn’t discuss this possibility at all, perhaps because India was never a single, homogenous entity..

But, I found an explanation in a theory propounded by Lee Kuan Hew, Singapore’s Minister Mentor and discussed in this paper presented by Michael D. Barr (Department of History, University of Queensland).

Brar explains that quite early in his life, Lee had been strongly influenced by the views of Arnold Toynee, the historian.

Central to the thesis propounded by Toynbee in “A Study of History”, was the notion that societies and civilisations develop in response to certain challenges. Toynbee argued that "civilizations come to birth in environments that are unusually difficult and not unusually easy."

Toynbee dwelt on the challenge of climate and more generally, of the environment, whereby those people whose civilisations grew in the "soft" life of the tropics were left behind by their hardier cousins in harsher climates. With a harsh climate go many challenges which develop a plethora of cultural and racial characteristics in a people.

For instance, the Sinic Civilisation, wrote Toynbee, was nurtured in the north of China, where the climate was severe, and swamps and regular floods made agriculture difficult, and so it became a "hard" society.

The connection was made by Lee himself in his 1971 commemorative lecture at his old college at Cambridge University, in which he argued: "It is the difference between the more intense and exacting Sinic cultures of East Asia and the less demanding values of Hindu culture of South and South-east Asia, that accounts for the difference in industrial progress between Eastern and Southern Asia. The softer and more benign Hindu civilisation spread through Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, meeting the Sinic civilisation on the borders of Vietnam....The reason for the lower achievement amongst the people of South ( read, India) and South-East Asia ( read, the Malays) is because these were ‘soft societies, in which expectations and desire for achievement were lower.

"There is only one other civilization near the Equator that ever produced anything worthy of its name. That was the Yucatan peninsular of South America - the Mayan Civilization. There is no other place where human beings were able to surmount the problems of a soporific equatorial climate. You can go along the Equator or 2 degrees north of it, and they all sleep after half past two if they have had a good meal.”

You may agree or disagree strongly with the theory, but Barr explains that, in fairness to Lee, his views while undoubtedly racist, did not stem from the belief that any race was ‘created superior’ , but that some were sturdier and hardier than the rest ,shaped by the hostile environment they had to endure.

So, the reason Indians did not conquer the world was because we were ‘benign softies’, spoilt by a soporific climate and benevolent terrain. We need our afternoon siesta after a heavy lunch.


Bit Hawk said...

Interesting topic! I think environment (nature and/or other factors) plays a major role in the behavior of people. Even in India, you can take a look at people from different states or sections inside states and you can know why people are aggressive, submissive etc.

lekhni said...

I think we preferred to grow our wealth by trade rather than war. You can see the effects - our spices are still spread around the world, while kingdoms rise and fall.

Raj said...

bit hawk, right. Maybe we should shake up some of the softer states..

lekhni, trade and war went quite closely together.

The Self-Proclaimed Wordsmith said...

If this is indeed true, then why is Tamil Nadu (closest to the soporific region) more advanced than Bihar, which is probably 'harsher'?