books book reviews

A Troublesome Inheritance and
Fukuyama on political decay


A Troublesome Inheritance
Genes, Race, and Human History
by Nicholas Wade

T he most forbidden topic of discussion in America today is not race, but human evolution—specifically, the question of whether it is still happening. Some in the soft sciences claim that all ethnic groups are genetically indistinguishable, and evolution therefore stopped when man's biggest danger changed from saber-tooth tigers to other humans with rocks and pointy sticks. But this is false: human evolution, says Nicholas Wade, has been recent, copious, and regional, and it has played an important role in our history.

Contrary to the way it's portrayed in popular sci-fi, evolution has neither a direction nor a goal. Humans could just as easily evolve into slime molds as into Gene Roddenberry's beings of pure energy. It all depends on how we structure our environment. We must understand it if we are to control our destiny.

The shift to agriculture and urbanization did not stop human evolution. In some populations, it accelerated it. The sequencing of the human genome has finally made it possible to understand how this happens. We now know that genetic changes spread rapidly in times of rapid population growth, as occurred just before the Industrial Revolution. Between 1200 and 1800, European society was organized such that wealthy and successful people had more children than poor people. As a result, violence decreased, and literacy, tolerance of delayed gratification, and willingness to work increased. European culture influenced Europeans' genetic makeup, leading to an explosion in productivity and innovation.

Meanwhile, other societies remained stagnant. When Europeans tried to share their invention of the telescope with Arabs, who were renowned for studying the heavens, they rejected it. The Arabs already knew all they wanted to know. One Jesuit was nearly executed in China for trying to introduce it there. These societies were uninterested in innovation or exploration, and rapidly fell far behind the West.

A major theme in this book is the degree to which political correctness has stunted scientific progress. Wade blames Franz Boas for establishing the doctrine that behavior is determined entirely by culture and no culture is superior to another. Another anthropologist, Ashley Montagu, was a prominent denier of the existence of race. As a result, the idea that race is a social construct has become dogma among sociologists; anyone today who deviates from it is labeled a racist or a facilitator thereof, and is no longer invited to faculty cocktail parties. Even Steven Pinker is afraid to acknowledge the critical role of ethnicity and race; though he believes they exist, he openly acknowledges fear as his reason for preferring a different, inferior theory. Knowledge of the existence of race is as dangerous to the new religion of P.C. as Galileo's ideas were to the 17th century Church.

The scientific results demonstrating that race is real would indeed be “troublesome” to those who have the same fear of new ideas as those who rejected the telescope. Nicholas Wade is a journalist, not a molecular biologist or an anthropologist, but he presents the science with intellectual honesty and courage. So there is something that even some academics can learn from this book.

may 17 2014


Political Order and Political Decay
From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy
by Francis Fukuyama

F ew would ever dispute that democracy has some wonderful characteristics. But is democracy really inevitable? In this ambitious book Francis Fukuyama completes his sweeping overview of world history, trying to show it as an relentless progression toward democracy, which he calls the “modern state.” A balance among state, law, and accountability, he writes, is a practical and moral necessity for all societies.

Fukuyama has produced a scholarly, intelligent work here, and he is a skillful political writer. But his philosophy has changed little since The End of History. The idea that liberal democracy will inevitably triumph could have been excused in 1989 after the fall of communism. But deep down Fukuyama still believes it. The middle class is constantly growing, he says. Country after country has turned democratic. While admitting that the U.S. government is inefficient and suffers from an acute case of “political decay,” he writes [p.443]: “Prospects for democracy globally remain good, despite the setbacks that occurred during the early twenty-first century.”

Although his topics range from feudal China to the Arab Spring, Fukuyama's main focus is on America. Developing democracy before creating a professional bureaucracy, as America did, he says, puts a country at a disadvantage in creating effective change. Early democracies become rife with clientelism and patronage, but countries such as Prussia and the UK, which had pre-existing bureaucracies, were able to reform much faster than the United States. Government agencies that are the least responsive to popular will—the most autonomous—are the least likely to be corrupt.

Fukuyama uses the U.S. Forest Service as an example of a well run, autonomous bureaucracy. He contrasts it with the Interstate Commerce Commission, which he says could never become autonomous because of its contradictory mandate, which kept it captive to political forces.

He's also optimistic about radical Islam: “its current expansion,” he writes, “is due more to the social conditions of contemporary Middle Eastern societies than to the intrinsic nature of the religion.” Fukuyama believes that the Arab Spring, like the European revolutions of 1848, was caused by the rise of a middle class demanding protection for its newly obtained wealth. The current crisis, he suggests, doesn't require a hundred-year reformation of Islam, but is a mere bump in the road.

Maybe he's right. But he also overlooks just how superficial the world's commitment to liberal democracy really is. Wealth and power, not capitalism and democracy, are what draw people to America. Both are under severe attack from within, and are starting to crumble.

When you talk to a Russian immigrant, they sound at first very pro-democratic. But upon further conversation it becomes clear that most are still authoritarians at heart. They still pine for the good old days when housing and food were free and the USSR was powerful. The vast majority of people in the world care more about power, wealth, and security than freedom. They want government to take care of them. Only if democracy is the only way to achieve that will democracy triumph.

Even among Americans, hardly a day goes by when we don't hear praise for Thomas Piketty's quasi-Marxist book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. They natter about the “failures of capitalism” and how wonderful it would be to implement a nondemocratic cradle-to-grave European-style redistributionist state. These ideas need strong discussion and refutation. If we just pat ourselves on the back for being on the right side of history, we are likely to be shocked one day to find that history has started up again and left us in the dustbin.

There is a directionality of history, says Fukuyama. Marx was mistaken in that assumption, and so, I think, is Fukuyama. An ever-expanding government has only two possible fates: bankruptcy or civil war. If America implodes economically or politically, the the concept of democracy will be irreversibly tarnished. The appeal of democracy will quickly fade.

That said, critics who say Fukuyama has no solutions are also mistaken. He advises that America would be well served to switch to a parliamentary system (as I argued here). Throughout the book he argues that America should struggle against “repatrimonialization,” which is a form of corruption. He echoes many conservatives in saying our welfare state is unsustainable.

The left still thinks of Fukuyama as a neocon, a member of the hated pro-capitalist right. But in most respects Fukuyama is not a conservative at all: he admires big government and believes in its ability to solve social problems. He believes in bureaucracies and says they should be more autonomous, which is to say, less democratic. In his praise of the Progressive era reforms, his conception of the state is closer to Woodrow Wilson than to mainstream conservatives. You might call Fukuyama's vision the “visible hand” model for democracy.

It would be wonderful if the sense of inevitability we all felt when the Berlin Wall collapsed was real. In this 360,000-word two-volume work, Fukuyama still feels it, and conveys his optimism well. I wish I shared it. As far as bureaucracies are concerned: as my relatives used to say, we need them like we need a hole in the head.

oct 13 2014; updated oct 23, 2014