Jared Diamond notices that early development of complex civilizations had ongoing consequences: peoples that developed such things way later or not at all continue to do poorly today, even if they encountered Western technology and technologists several hundred years ago. “We see in our daily lives that some of the conquered peoples continue to form an underclass, centuries after the conquests or slave imports took place.” p 25 ” Yes, the transistor, invented at Bell Labs in the eastern United States in 1947, leapt 8,000 miles to launch an electronics industry in Japan – but it did not make the shorter leap to found new industries in Zaire or Paraguay. The nations rising to new power are still ones that were incorporated thousands of years ago into the old centers of dominance based on food production, or that have been repopulated by peoples from those centers. Unlike Zaire or Paraguay, Japan and the other new powers were able to exploit the transistor quickly because their populations already had a long history of literacy, metal machinery, and centralized government. The world’s two earliest centers of food production, the Fertile Crescent and China, still dominate the modern world, either through their immediate successor states (modern China) or through states situated in neighboring regions influenced early by those two centers (Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Europe), or through states repopulated or ruled by their overseas emigrants (the United States, Australia, Brazil). Prospects for world dominance of sub-Saharan Africans, Aboriginal Australians, and Native Americans remain dim. The hand of history’s course at 8000 B.C. lies heavily on us.” p 417.
Some economists have noticed this same pattern: Was the Wealth of Nations determined in 1000 BC?
This is not what his overall theory would lead us to expect. If people in New Guinea or the Mato Grosso are smarter than Europeans or east Asians, or even just the same, why can’t they adopt (and then go on to advance) new technologies? Yet they haven’t. Why aren’t people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo building particle accelerators? Even if they’re too broke right now, they could be sending theorists, mathematicians and physicists, off to CERN. All they need is chalk. Yet they don’t. Neither does the African diaspora.
Diamond says ” peoples who until recently were technologically primitive – such as Australian Aborigines and New Guineans – routinely master industrial technologies when given opportunities to do so. ” p 19. That’s just false. There’s a world of difference between using a smartphone and designing & manufacturing one. Toddlers can use smartphones, but it’s the rare two-year old that know enough about computers and electrical engineering to build one. sub-Saharan Africans, Aboriginal Australians, and Native Americans play almost no part in modern technological development.
Why should a certain level of development in the Bronze Age predict modern economic success? To be exact, most (but not all) populations that had high civilization levels back then are capable of playing the game ( on average) today. Populations that reached that level of development much later, or not at all, are not very good at it.
Could it be an effect of institutions? Well, it’s a bit hard to see how. There are very few institutions that have existed continuously for the past three thousand years. And if it’s a question of gradual accumulation of organizational knowledge – why hasn’t anyone written it down? Couldn’t people trying to catch up read a book? Japan did, although I think they forgot to read Chapter 9.
Even if institutions were an important factor, in some mysterious way, couldn’t individuals from those peoples with late development of agriculture and states simply immigrate to better-organized countries and swiftly catch up? They do immigrate: but they don’t swiftly catch up. That’s the long-lived underclass thing Diamond mentions.