17 October 2017: Walking statues, colonialism and free speech

I am a white male living in a society largely designed by white males for the benefit of white males. As such, I am a member of history’s most privileged group, a group that numbers no more than a few hundred million in a world inhabited by over seven billion human beings.

What got me here, together with every other member of that group, was a toxic mixture of imperialism and colonialism. Not toxic for me, I hasten to point out, but toxic for billions of other human beings.

It’s not necessary to point out how many first peoples suffered because of European expansion from the 15th through to the 20th centuries. Nor should we defend that expansion by referring to the benefits brought by the introduction of ‘Western’ inventions such as double-entry bookkeeping and modern farming methods, as if they were handed out by the Conquistadors and Australia’s first settlers at the same time as the distribution of smallpox and musket balls.Imperialism

Imperialism and colonialism also transformed slavery into a global business. The fact that Europeans didn’t invent slavery shouldn’t stop us acknowledging that developments such as double-entry bookkeeping helped Europeans perfect it, in the same way the musket ball helped perfect total war.

In a very roundabout way that brings me to the topic of walking statues. Specifically, Rapa Nui’s moai – the monumental statues of Easter Island.

Rapa Nui has been used as the example par excellence of ‘ecocide’, what happens to a society that selfishly exploits its own environment beyond recovery and thereby destroys itself. I swallowed without questioning this explanation for the island’s depopulation and deforestation, promoted in books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.

But it may not be true.

University of Bristol researcher Catrine Jarman explains in her article in The Conversation, that many decades of archaeological research on Rapa Nui ‘paints a very different picture’.

As Jarman writes:

‘The ecocide hypothesis centres on two major claims. First, that the island’s population was reduced from several tens of thousands in its heyday, to a diminutive 1,500-3,000 when Europeans first arrived in the early 18th century.

‘Second, that the palm trees that once covered the island were callously cut down by the Rapa Nui population to move statues. With no trees to anchor the soil, fertile land eroded away resulting in poor crop yields, while a lack of wood meant islanders couldn’t build canoes to access fish or move statues. This led to internecine warfare and, ultimately, cannibalism.’

Essentially, there is no convincing evidence that Rapa Nui’s population declined before first European contact in 1722. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that the island’s population successfully sustained itself for centuries despite deforestation occurring soon after the island’s initial settlement by humans, deforestation caused by the accidental introduction of the Polynesian rat which ate palm nuts and saplings.

So what did happen to the people of Rapa Nui?

Again, in Jarman’s own words:

‘Throughout the 19th century, South American slave raids took away as much as half of the native population. By 1877, the Rapanui numbered just 111. Introduced disease, destruction of property and enforced migration by European traders further decimated the natives and lead to increased conflict among those remaining.’

The disaster that befell the people of Rapa Nui came about because of the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, itself a result of European imperialism and colonialism. Effectively, the victims of that depopulation subsequently were found guilty of the crime.

If the forests weren’t cut down to move the moai, how did the islanders transport the statues from where they were made to where they were eventually sited?


Rapa Nui moai

It turns out they probably moved them in the same way you or I would move a heavy washing machine or refrigerator … they walked them. Admittedly, this involved a great deal more human muscle power and coordination than two people clumsily angling white goods through a narrow corridor. Recent experiments show that this was perfectly possible.

(For a full explanation of how this was done, and the true story of how Rapa Nui became depopulated, check out The Statues that Walked, by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo.)

I can’t argue that imperialism and colonialism had no benefits. It benefitted me, for example. Without them I wouldn’t be here now, a middle-aged male living in middle-class splendour in Australia, a collection of ex-colonies. Nor can I argue against the proposal that the modern world is a direct result of those movements. Nor can I argue against the proposal that industrialisation and modernisation, two direct products of those movements, hasn’t improved the lot of billions of human beings over the last two centuries.

What I can’t argue, however, is what Portland State University’s Bruce Gilley suggests in an article recently published in Third World Quarterly. An associate professor of political science, Gilley proposes that ex-colonies that develop their Western colonial legacy do better that those that reject that legacy. One of the examples he uses is the modern nation of Singapore.

I suspect Gilley is wrong, especially in the case of Singapore where its success is almost entirely due to the self-created ‘Singapore model’, a mixture of democracy, authoritarianism and meritocracy that has delivered remarkable growth and one of the world’s highest standards of living. But I strongly believe Gilley has every right to express his academic opinion in an academic journal.


Singapore skyline

As reported by Andy Ngo in Quillette, both Gilley and the journal’s editor-in-chief Shahid Qadir received threats of violence after the appearance of the article on 8 September, and the publishers of Third World Quarterly have withdrawn it. I recommend reading Ngo’s piece to get the full story.

I do not think hate speech or speech inciting violence should ever be published, whether it is an article written for a journal, an opinion piece in a newspaper, or an enraged Tweet by an American president. But I do not think it is right to censure someone’s research because you disagree with its conclusion. In fact, that kind of thinking encourages hate speech and incites violence. Worse, ultimately, it shuts off debate, dialogue and intellectual curiosity.

The problem for those who think that the evils of colonialism are so great that any defence of it is anathema and should be closed down is simply this: it allows history to be written by those who shout the loudest. It establishes a precedent, a precedent that may one day lead to the censorship of articles that explain why colonialism was wrong, and how the moai of Rapa Nui came to walk.

(NB Jared Diamond has responded to some of the claims made in Hunt and Lipo’s book, The Statues that Walked. You can check that out here. Thanks to friend, physicist and fellow-writer Rob Porteous for the heads-up.)

30 November 2014: Call for moral “bioenhancement” a moral mash

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A call to use technology to improve human morality falls short on morality, not to mention logic.

“Are we fit for the future? Making the case for moral bioenhancement” by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson makes several outsized claims and suggests an equally outsized solution for them.

Their first argument is that “evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates”.

This begs the question of what examples they have to support the argument. It is true we have the technological capacity to willfully destroy ourselves, and yet last time I looked civilisation still flourished. World War II created a dramatic interruption to civilisation and led to the creation of what is to date perhaps our most terrible invention – nuclear weapons – but it was followed not by Armageddon but by the United Nations, the elimination of small pox, the first landings on the moon, novels by Chinua Achebe, Harper Lee and Zadie Smith, films by Alfred Hitchcock, Gillian Armstrong and Stanley Kubrick, music by Philip Glass, Patti Smith and the Beatles, works of art by Ai Weiwei, Henry Moore and Zaha Hadid, revolutionary texts by Rachel Carson, Germaine Greer and Peter Singer. All this was brought into being by human ingenuity and applied and appreciated with the always evolving tool of human psychology.

I think the only way the authors can pretend that our psychological capacity lags behind our intellectual capacity (in all its forms), is if they ignore the ever-widening sphere of human knowledge and experience and, thanks to the Internet, its increasing relevance in our day-to-day lives.

Savulescu and Persson also argue that a “basic fact about the human condition it that it is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other”.

Truly? Do Savulescu and Persson, for example, practice hurting people instead of helping them? I don’t. I know almost no one who finds it easier to harm another person rather than benefitting them. This doesn’t just apply to my own family, my own community, my own town. Most people I know have at some point in their life donated time or money, experience or knowledge, to the benefit of people living in another continent, and never willingly committed any act to harm them.

I’m not denying our species is capable of gross inhumanity. The bouts of war and terrorism that flood our television screens on the evening news are testament to our capacity for violence. But those same television reports almost never cover the activities of the Red Cross or Médecins Sans Frontières, and almost never cover the work of the United Nations and its agencies in aiding developing countries all over the world.

It almost seems the authors willingly ignore the evidence indicating humans individually and collectively find it easier – physically and psychologically – to benefit and not harm one another.

The article provides one “case study” to illustrate their point that our “moral psychology” lags behind our intellectual capacity: the lack of international action over climate change. And yet this issue is the very one that has engaged and energized not only individuals and communities, but entire nations (not to mention endless news cycles). While real action has been agonizingly slow, one of the main reasons for this is the nature of the very institutions – such as the United Nations – employed to tackle the problem, institutions that were created to enable peaceful and cooperative behaviour between nation-states.

The great irony of this article, however, is that Savulescu and Persson, then claim that “our knowledge of human biology … is beginning to enable us … to affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation”, and that this should be be done through drugs, genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. What better example could there be of we humans using our technological capacity to harm ourselves despite our moral psychology screaming at us to cease and desist?

Who would administer these procedures? Who would receive them? Who would apologise to future generations for the loss of the full capacity of their genetic inheritance in the name of some nebulous greater good? Who would explain to future generations that as with the great 20th century evils of eugenics and forced sterilisation everything was done with the very best of intentions, coloured by our limited knowledge of human psychology, not to mention our limited knowledge of human evolution and biology?

The underlying concern of Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Perrson that our morality needs to keep pace with our technology is an example of how our morality is indeed keeping pace with our technology. Perhaps they should pause in their crusade and take an opportunity to lie down, have a nice cup of tea, and reflect instead on the possibilities of our better natures.